Welcome to the Trainer Academy 2021 NCSF CPT review.
The National Council on Strength and Fitness certified personal trainer fitness certification is a top NCCA accredited personal trainer certification, even though it is less well known than some other certifications.
Based on our combined experience with over a dozen fitness certifications, we will break down the following:
Let’s get into it!
Content covered in the NCSF PT
The NCSF personal training certification covers most of the topics needed for basic fitness training. The study overview from the NCSF Hub has 8 full content units, a practice test, and an exercise library.
As shown on the NCSF website, the content units are as follows:
- Health and Physical Fitness
- Functional Anatomy and Training Instruction
- Exercise Physiology
- Screening, Evaluation, and Professional Practice
- Weight Management
- Programming Considerations
- Considerations for Special Populations
The following discusses the strength and weaknesses of the topics covered in each section.
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Health and Physical Fitness
The first unit of NCSF covers the general overview of the overall state of wellness, health, and the overall benefits of exercise.
The “Understanding Wellness” section in this unit does a good job of explaining the ‘evolved concept of wellness,’ which goes beyond the traditional framing of health as simply “healthy” or “unhealthy” based on generic risk factor criteria such as high blood pressure or diagnosed chronic disease.
Instead, the NCSF describes wellness as a combination of health in the following domains:
The evolved concept of wellness is a groundbreaking approach to health and fitness.
This approach is groundbreaking relative to traditional medical approaches to health and is in line with most modern understandings of wellness.
This nuanced discussion of overall health places the NCSF at the forefront of most updated models for comprehensive approaches to fitness that look at the whole person as opposed to numbers on a chart.
By the end of this unit, you will be prepared to frame discussions of health and fitness in terms of comprehensive wellness as well as discussing chronic disease in medical terms.
This is a key skill for personal trainers because your clients will often come to you with preconceived notions of what it means to be ‘healthy’ that lack the nuanced understanding discussed in the NCSF.
Based on our experience with the different certifications, the NCSF discussions on these topics exceed the health and wellness overviews found in some of the other top health and fitness certifications.
Addressing the underlying framework for health and fitness sets the tone and purpose of the certification as a comprehensive system for improving the health and wellness of your clients.
From our perspective, this establishes the NCSF as a cutting-edge certification in terms of the comprehensive approach to fitness.
Functional Anatomy and Training Instruction
The NCSF does an excellent job of covering the functional anatomy training topics in an accessible and practical manner. This section includes basic skeletal and muscular anatomy and covers postural distortions and basic corrective solutions.
As a fitness trainer, most of your new clients will have one or several postural distortions that can compromise movement. These issues include the common kinetic chain issues that occur with flat feet, caving knees, arched or rounded lower back, and a forward head position and rounded upper back.
The NCSF gives a good overview of these basic distortions. The detail is sufficient to put into practice, but not so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to study or exceeds your scope of practice as a fitness trainer.
The breakdown of the muscle names, locations, and functions is well structured for effective studying.
The muscles are divided into different groups based on the location in the body. Diagrams are included with arrows to the locations of the muscles, followed by a full list of the muscles contained in this area.
This approach is more practical for learning than reading long lists of muscles without additional grouping, which are often found in the anatomy section of other mainstream fitness certifications.
The NCSF contains only a small number of corrective exercise options.
One downside to this section is the somewhat low number of corrective exercises discussed in the curriculum.
The textbook contains about six total corrective exercises in the chapter itself, which is generally less-than-sufficient to properly address the movement distortions.
On plus side, the main non-corrective resistance training exercises covered are broad in scope, and on their own provide you with enough variety to develop comprehensive programs for a range of goals.
Additionally, the exercise library at the end gives an excellent alphabetized list of the main exercises used in resistance training.
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The exercise physiology section covers the three metabolic energy systems, cardiovascular physiology, and endocrine system.
Of these three topics, the energy systems section is the most relevant when it comes to personal training skills, and this topic is covered in the most depth compared to the cardiovascular and endocrine systems.
This is a good thing in many ways, as often the cardiovascular and endocrine system chapters in fitness certifications far exceed the practical knowledge needed for actual training. This simply results in more memorization demand to pass the test without adding anything practical.
Nevertheless, you will still come out of this section with sufficient working knowledge of these topics should you need to explain the basics of the cardiovascular or endocrine systems to a curious client.
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Screening, Evaluation, and Professional Practice
The screening, evaluation, and professional practice section covers the assessments you will use when initially meeting with a new or prospective client.
Looking at the unit 4 curriculum, these assessments include:
- signing waivers and PAR-Q
- resting assessments such as blood pressure and circumference measurements
- goal setting
- movement and performance assessments
The material covers enough assessments to create a profile for each client. However, the individual assessments are covered in less detail than you might find in corrective exercise or athletic performance-oriented certifications.
The posture and movement assessments include regular static posture observations and a few tests for flexibility such as the Thomas test and the active leg raise.
The main mobility assessment is the overhead squat test.
While these tests are certainly useful, in our experience, they are not completely sufficient for all possible mobility issues you might find.
In practice, you will often require additional tests to completely dial in the muscles responsible and the relevant corrective approaches.
In general, the corrective exercise component of the NCSF is the least complete in terms of client assessments and exercises to address these issues.
If you expect to work with clients that have significant postural issues, you will need additional knowledge.
For clients who have minimal or no corrective issues, the NCSF assessments will be generally sufficient to develop effective programs.
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Nutrition and Supplementation
The nutrition and supplementation section of the NCSF certification matches or exceeds most comparable fitness certifications.
Nutrition and supplementation are split into two respective chapters and cover both topics in great depth.
The “Nutrition” chapter covers the breakdown of each macronutrient in great detail.
The macronutrient breakdown discusses the differences between different types of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and their relevant implications for nutritional planning.
Similar breakdowns are included for micronutrients, which are an often glazed-over topic in the nutrition sections of fitness certifications.
Following each scientific nutrition topic breakdown, NCSF has a “practical insight” box that discusses how you can put the knowledge to use with your clients.
This is incredibly helpful when compared to certifications that cover nutrition in-depth but give fewer practical insights or certifications that skim the surface of nutrition topics but do not go into any depth. In our experience, the scientific knowledge in training certifications is not always directly tied to practical training insights.
The specific practical insights in NCSF make the scientific information readily applicable from day one of your personal training career.
With over 50 information-packed pages in the nutrition section, you will have more than enough knowledge to help your clients make proper food choices for their goals within the personal trainer scope of practice.
The ‘Exploring Dietary Supplements’ chapter is similarly detailed and covers the general overview of the supplement industry and its lack of regulation, which is key for discussing claims on supplement labels with your clients.
The chapter includes discussions of commonly used legal performance-enhancing supplements such as caffeine, creatine, and l-arginine.
Given the wide availability and consumption of over-the-counter supplements marketed for performance enhancement, this section is incredibly valuable for answering your clients’ supplement-related questions.
The NCSF provides the citation to the actual studies performed on supplements so you can tell your clients which supplements have evidence supporting their use, and which supplements make unsupported or disproven claims.
With the massive growth and marketing coming from the supplement industry, the modern fitness professional must have this baseline knowledge to be adequately prepared for the questions your clients will inevitably ask.
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The chapter also includes an entire section dedicated to anabolic steroids and their potential to increase aspects of performance and discussion of the negative health consequences many steroid users experience.
The coverage of this topic is crucial to your ability to discuss steroid use with your clients.
This section is not designed for you to advise clients on how to use anabolic steroids, which are often illegal for over-the-counter use and require oversight by a medical doctor when used to treat specific health issues.
Depending on what type of clientele you train, you will at some point have a client ask you about your thoughts on steroid use.
If you train bodybuilders, strength athletes, or other athletic populations, you may acquire a client who has a history of using anabolic steroids or other similar performance-enhancing drugs.
Regardless of your personal views on these substances, you need to be able to explain to your clients the scientific reasons to avoid these substances, particularly when a client is considering their use or experiencing the harmful effects of steroid use.
Under no circumstances should you advise clients on how to administer or select performance-enhancing agents.
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As a general population fitness trainer, a high percentage of your clients will come to you for weight loss and body composition goals.
In other fitness certifications, this topic is generally tied into the nutrition section and often paints a simplified or inadequate picture of the different causes of obesity beyond the simple fact of excess caloric intake.
NCSF dedicates an entire chapter towards weight management separate from the nutrition chapter.
A standout component is the discussion of the social and environmental factors that influence a client’s ability to maintain healthy body weight.
This aspect is key for addressing the deeper causes of obesity. While weight gain at its core is caused by excess calorie consumption, many factors affect the eating patterns that cause individual calorie consumption to exceed expenditure.
If you want any hope of helping clients at a deeper level with their food choices and weight loss, you need to develop empathy and understanding of their individual circumstances, such as lack of access to nutrient-dense food, using food as a coping mechanism, and lack of knowledge regarding healthy food choices.
Exercise prescription is discussed towards the end of the material.
The programming section of the NCSF is detailed and covers the topics of overall program prescription for the following modalities:
- aerobic training
Overall, the NCSF does an excellent job of covering the fundamentals of designing training programs.
Once you work through the material, you will have complete knowledge to develop long-term programming progressions for your clients. The programming structure proposed is on par with the NASM OPT™ model and covers the topic in similar depth as other leading fitness certifications.
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Training Considerations for Special Populations
Most current fitness certifications cover the basic considerations for training special populations. This is key if you plan to train youth, older adults, pregnant women, or individuals with chronic disease.
Healthy special population training includes brief sections on working with children, older adults, and pregnant women.
All of these topics are packed into a single 15-page chapter and are not covered with much depth beyond a brief overview of the disease and a small box detailing the general guidelines for the respective diseases.
Overall, the NCSF special populations training section is not sufficient if you plan to focus on training clients from these populations.
Should you choose to train these populations, you will need to supplement your knowledge with additional information beyond what is covered in the NCSF personal trainer curriculum.
Content Not Covered
While the NCSF has good coverage of most topics in the curriculum, there are two notably absent topics that are typically covered in personal training certifications.
The first is that there is no discussion of sports or exercise psychology beyond what is briefly touched upon in the goal setting and weight loss sections.
The psychology of behavioral change is a key skill for personal trainers who want to deliver actual results, and these topics often have at least an entire chapter devoted to them in other mainstream certifications.
The second missing topic is a discussion of business skills needed to be a successful trainer. This includes a breakdown of fitness jobs and careers in the industry, determining income goals, as well as discussions of basic sales, marketing, and proper business practices.
Starting a personal training business requires some separate knowledge from just being a strength coach or weight management expert.
The absence of these topics is the NCSF’s greatest weakness compared to other personal training certifications.
Without a good grasp of basic psychology, coaching behavioral change can be difficult.
Additionally, business and sales skills are a huge component of achieving success as a trainer.
You could be the most educated and qualified trainer, but if you cannot convince a prospective client to purchase training with you, you will never have the chance to implement your actual training skills.
Ultimately, every trainer aiming for success must devote continuing education towards mastering business and sales to ensure success for both themselves and their clients.
With this need in mind, the lack of coverage in NCSF does not necessarily discredit the value of the certification.
However, you need to be aware of the need to study psychology and business if you want a successful career in personal training.
Assuming you purchase a study package from the NCSF, you will get a login to their curriculum portal which contains all the information grouped into eight units along with a final practice exam and exercise library.
The NCSF is well suited for home study.
The NCSF portal is conveniently organized into study units.
You will also get access to the NCSF textbook PDF, which contains the same information in a traditional textbook format, including the citations for the various claims and topics discussed.
Each unit on the portal contains multiple lessons on the subtopics, which include a breakdown of the learning goals, a video lesson, notes, a practice quiz, and a link to the relevant chapter in the textbook.
Overall, the portal is fairly easy to navigate, and the modular lessons work well for self-paced studying.
Compared with only studying the textbook, the portal makes working through the material far more manageable.
One annoying aspect of the structure of the portal curriculum is that it does not correspond to the textbook.
Each lesson contains a link to the relevant chapter for that lesson, however, the eight units contain lessons that link to completely separate chapters for the relevant information compared to other lessons from the same unit.
This means that reading through the textbook chapters in order will not correspond with going through the study portal units in order.
You will either have to read the textbook on its own entirely before starting the study portal or stick with the study portal order and read the recommended textbook reviews in each lesson, which will not be in order in terms of the textbook chapters.
This is a bit counterintuitive, and it would make more sense for the textbook to be in line with the portal modules in terms of utilizing both resources together.
The textbook information itself provides good depth on the topics and is available in both hardcopy and kindle.
However, the overall page layout does have a less professional feel than the polished textbooks in other certifications.
For example, many images in the NCSF textbook are primarily stock images that add visual appeal but little informational use to the textbook.
Nevertheless, there are many useful highlighted tables and definitions that add visual appeal and useful information.
In terms of the overall material, the study portal stands out as well organized and structured into reasonable lessons.
The notes are helpful for a written reference to follow along with the video lessons.
The practice quizzes allow you to hammer in the knowledge covered in each lesson.
Finally, the link to the relevant textbook chapter lets you go into a little more depth on the material than what is covered in the notes.
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Our NCSF exam review finds that the exam is on par with other fitness certifications such as NASM, ACE, and NSCA CPT. If you struggle with test-taking, you may be well suited for remote test-taking.
You need a 70 percent score to pass the NCSF CPT exam.
In our experience, if you can get through the practice quizzes with a passing score, you are more than prepared for the exam.
Nevertheless, do not expect to pass the exam without studying. The questions require you to have a good grasp of all the topics covered in the curriculum.
Overall, our NCSF certified trainers report the exam being easy and straightforward with adequate preparation. Taking practice test questions is a good way to prepare for the real NCSF test questions.
There are no NCSF exam secrets test prep to shortcut your studying, but third-party materials such as our Trainer Academy study materials included in the NCSF study guide can increase your pass rate and make studying more efficient.
The Trainer Academy MVP NCSF study package contains a full wish list of all materials you could want for NCSF reviews before taking the exam.
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Pros and Cons of NCSF
The following is a summary of the pros and cons of NCSF.
Pros and Cons
The following are the overall pros and cons of the NCSF CPT certification.
What we liked:
- good coverage of holistic understandings of health and wellness
- adequate coverage of practical anatomy for personal training
- large library of exercises with videos and technique descriptions
- extremely in-depth nutrition and supplementation chapters
- comprehensive weight management chapter
- programming coverage sufficient for long term goal progression
- online study portal easy to navigate and well organized into individual lessons
- relatively straightforward test
What we didn’t like:
- a limited number of posture and movement assessments
- limited corrective exercise programming
- lack of depth for training special populations
- little-to-no sport or behavioral psychology
- no discussion of business practices, industry jobs, or sales (biggest weakness)
- the textbook contains irrelevant stock images
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The methodology we used to review the NCSF certification is as follows:
- certified trainer’s review of topics covered and the depth of coverage
- assessment of whether the topics covered prepare trainers for the job
- observation of key topics or skills missing or under-examined in the curriculum
- review of the provided study materials independent of content covered
- discussion of exam difficulty
- all topic review framed based on entry-level knowledge demand relative to other fitness certifications
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Conclusion: NCSF Certification Review
The NCSF provides new trainers with enough hands-on skills to instruct exercise techniques to general fitness clients and plan long-term progressions for different health and fitness goals.
The topics contained in NCSF are covered in sufficient depth to rival similar certifications and the study materials provided are useful and easy to navigate.
A few key topics found in other certifications are missing, and NCSF certified trainers will need to do outside learning of business skills and behavioral psychology. However, long-term success in the industry requires continued education regardless of which initial certification you choose.
Overall, an NCSF certified trainer will be prepared for their first day on the job and will be on track for long-term success in the fitness industry provided they commit to continued education.
Before moving on, I’ll advise you take a moment to check out some of our most comprehensive reviews, like:
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