NASM vs ACSM

When it comes to health and fitness certifying agencies, ACSM and NASM rank as top gold standard institutions.

Both have a firm standing in the industry, and both have their unique value to the fitness community.

That makes deciding between NASM or ACSM a tough call.

NASM is super popular with fledgling trainers dipping their toes in the game while ACSM is more towards enriching the skill set of established and experienced trainers.

Both these aspects are important, that’s why in this article, we’re going to break down each certifying institute with respect to their CPT certs or equivalent.

Our aim is to help you weigh out the pros and cons so you can discern which option suits your circumstances and career objectives.

And with that said, let’s jump in.

About NASM and ACSM

Before we begin to unravel all the important facts and tidbits between ACSM vs NASM, let’s take a deep dive into what they represent.

As we mentioned, each has its value and place in the fitness industry, and understanding that will help you make a decision when taking your career objective into consideration.

About NASM

NASM stands for the National Academy of Sports Science.

They have been around for more than 30 years at the time of writing, having been established all the way back in 1987.

Since then they have risen as a global leader in sports science and professional certification in that realm.

NASM has mainly been present in the North American region, despite this global reputation.

Recently, however, they extended their reach internationally, making them a globally accessible certifying agency.

The crux of NASM’s curriculum is based on the proprietary OPT model or Optimum Performance Training.

This system was developed to enhance the fundamental abilities of the human body towards functional independence and longevity.

NASM is considered the most popular certification of all those deemed as gold standard certifying agencies.

This stellar reputation and value that matches see NASM continue to grow as a go-to option for new trainers.

About ACSM

ACSM stands for the American College of Sports Medicine.

This is one of the oldest certifying agencies having been established all the way back in 1954 by a small group of physical educators.

This was a time well before the mass-market adoption of health and fitness as a consumer industry, which is why ACSM’s origins and many of its present tenets are based on community and the spearheading of research.

The research focus of ACSM is so developed in fact that they are the leading institution when it comes to research amongst all other North American certifying agencies.

This is the case so much so that ACSM research actually forms a large component of the curricula of many other certifying institutions.

ACSM is also an NPO, which is why their cert packages are so competitively priced as you will later find out in this article.

Accreditation

Right off the bat, the first thing we need to do is look at the legitimacy of the certs in question.

And when it comes to the validity of a cert, there’s one main consideration we observe, accreditation.

Accreditation is basically a certification for certification.

It proves the authenticity of the organization, it’s course curriculum, and the delivery method of the education system.

Accreditation is provided by a standing association or board that serves as a group of authority figures that decide based on a set of criteria, whether an organization is eligible for the seal of approval.

In the case of health and fitness certifications in North America, the main accreditation agency is the NCCA.

Accreditation proves

NCCA stands for the National Commission of Certifying Agencies.

Both NASM and ACSM are NCCA accredited, meaning you can rely on them to provide quality, trusted education, and support resources.

Another huge reason accreditation is essential is because it helps separate the legit certs from outright scams.

Many questionable certifications exist today, and with the year on year exponential growth of digital economies, the choices of certifications are tremendous.

The average online cert, however, might not be a cert at all, just an online course, unfortunately, you do also get fake certs in the mix.

Checking for NCCA accreditation will help you avoid having your money taken by unscrupulous internet chancers.

Cost of Study Packages

Price is important of course. You need to know if the juice is worth the squeeze in terms of cost vs value.

You also need to know if you can afford it to begin with of course.

When it comes to the issue of price, we find that the NASM vs ACSM comparison skews more in favor of ACSM when it comes to having a cheaper option. 

But as we said, that’s just one consideration. Let’s take a look at the data.

NASM Cost

NASM is traditionally one of the priciest certifications out there.

The most expensive option available from them will set you back more than $1,500.00!

With 4 different package tiers, they do offer quite a range of options.

Cost (NASM)
Self Study ($799)
Self Study Premium ($1099)
Guided Study ($1124)
All-Inclusive ($1539)

ACSM Cost

ACSM is considerably cheaper than NASM in terms of up-front costs. However, you will have to purchase study materials separately from your exam.

There’s also the caveat of membership costs, which can affect what you end up paying as well as what you end up having access to as an ACSM student.

Cost (ACSM)
ACSM Member Candidates ($279)
ACSM Non-Member Candidates  ($349)

As you can see, the membership benefits bring the price down considerably, so it might be worth looking into the membership fees.

Membership packageCost
Student$10
Alliance$99
Professional$240

These are annual costs, so you can actually score big in terms of lowering your exam price without making much of a budget dent if you get the student option.

Quality of Study Materials

Knowing the upfront costs is one thing. Understanding their value is a totally different thing. 

You’ll often find that the dollar value of a product may not match the value of what you get in the box.

The same principle applies to personal trainer certs. You want to know that what you get in the package you’ve paid for matches what you

NASM Study Materials

NASM CPT offers a diverse and robust selection of exam prep material. These are available in four different packages, each varying in price based on the variation in what they contain.

On the lower end of the packages tier, you have the Self, study package.

This one is the bare-bones option when compared to the rest.

Here, you’ll get exam registration, access to the digital textbook, some video lectures, and practice tests. This is the most basic you could ask for and might be enough to get you through the exam, although we suggest you bolster your efforts.

That brings us to the next three packages which each increase the amount and variety of what they bring to the table.

An All-inclusive tier is a great option and worth the hefty price tag in our opinion.

That’s because it not only presents a large suite of useful study materials, it also comes with some amazing business and networking resources.

We can’t stress enough how important it is to have a strong focus on entrepreneurship when it comes to personal training. Simply knowing the technicalities and skills of a purveyor of health and fitness won’t get you far.

True success in this game all boils down to business acumen, and NASM seems to have you covered with their All-inclusive package.

Another thing we found appealing with the top two packages (Guided Study and All-inclusive), was the inclusion of a hard copy textbook.

While you will have access to a digital copy with any package, we feel having a hardcopy on hand elevates your study options and effectiveness.

You can highlight and bookmark important sections and segments, something you wouldn’t be able to do with the eBook.

Having a physical copy also means you’re not limited by how operational your technology is. Maybe your computer is in for repairs, or there’s an internet outage. Not a bother if you have a textbook on hand.

NASM textbook

Let’s take a look at NASM’s study material options in more detail, shall we?

NASM
Self-studySelf-study PremiumGuided StudyAll-Inclusive
100% Online Course100% Online Course100% Online Course100% Online Course
NCCA Accredited Exam NCCA Accredited Exam NCCA Accredited Exam NCCA Accredited Exam 
NASM-CPT Digital TextbookNASM-CPT Digital TextbookNASM-CPT Digital TextbookNASM-CPT Digital Textbook
Content Learning VideosContent Learning VideosContent Learning VideosContent Learning Videos
Exercise Video LibraryExercise Video LibraryExercise Video LibraryExercise Video Library
Practice Exams & QuizzesPractice Exams & QuizzesPractice Exams & QuizzesPractice Exams & Quizzes
Exercise Coaching DemonstrationsExercise Coaching DemonstrationsExercise Coaching Demonstrations
Job Guarantee Job Guarantee Job Guarantee 
One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus 
10-Week, Instructor-Led Course (Optional/Flexible) 10-Week, Instructor-Led Course (Optional/Flexible) 
Certification Exam RetestCertification Exam Retest
NASM-CPT Hardcopy TextbookNASM-CPT Hardcopy Textbook
Access to Fitness Experts Access to Fitness Experts 
Business Accelerator Business Accelerator 
NASM EDGE CPT Exam Prep 
Recertify for Life 

As you can see, NASM goes pretty deep with the study material options, and as we said, the top tier, All-inclusive option is well worth it if you take it upon yourself to fully utilize all the resources.

And that brings us to another argument some would make, and that’s that NASM may be a bit too resource-heavy, making it confusing to understand what to use and therefore hard to truly take advantage of your investment.

We suggest you do a bit of research into each resource in each package. That way you can actually figure out what would work for you.

ACSM Study Materials

When it comes to ACSM, the study material options are a bit tricky to conclude on.

That’s because when you sign up and purchase your ACSM CPT course, you are only paying for the exam. All study and prep materials come separately.

That means you have to know what you need and then pay for it separately.

This sounds a bit tedious, so let’s do a little breakdown and make things easier.

Let’s look at what you should aim for in a complete, basic study package. In our professional estimation, a decent study package should include the following:

  • Latest edition textbook
  • Corresponding workbook or study guide
  • Practice exam, quizzes, or assessments
  • Lecture or workshop based resources

Latest Edition Textbook

ACSM’s latest edition for their CPT course is ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer, 5th Edition.

The book is divided into 6 exam relevant domains, so is therefore necessary in order to have any sort of a shot at passing.

You can choose to either purchase a hard copy or a digital version. The costs are $79.99 and $72.93 respectively.

Corresponding workbook or study guide

As much as the textbook supplies the relevant information you will need to retain as a trainer, it offers no direction on how to study and apply those concepts in an exam setting.

That’s where having a workbook or study guide comes in, a secondary resource that offers effective navigation of the course curriculum.

In the case of ACSM, this resource comes in the form of the ACSM Exam Content Outline.

Not quite as extensive as your traditional study guide, this content outline simply allows you to correctly hone in on how the exam is structured and which parts of the 6 in the text you should focus on.

Study Guide

Practice Exam, Quizzes, or Assessments

ACSM provides access to practice tests in the form of PrepU quizzes.

PrepU is an adaptive learning and teaching platform that uses analytical data to provide further support for students based on learning and assessment outcomes.

That means the ACSM practice test resources provide an adaptive experience that enhances your ability to successfully engage with the exam.

Many practice tests simply provide a set of relevant questions and test you on your ability to remember the answers. It would seem that ACSM’s take on practice tests provides a little bit more of an engaging experience.

Lecture or Workshop Based Resources

ACSM has a relatively busy workshop and webinar schedule available for students and members.

These webinars are great learning experiences, especially for the more practical concepts you’ll encounter.

You can purchase a 6 session package for $240, or purchase individual sessions for $45.

The other great thing about ACSM’s workshops and webinars is that they count towards your CEU credits with each session providing 1.5 ACSM CECs.

What ACSM offers is pretty simple when compared to the NASM approach. The thing is, an institution like ACSM is aimed at experts and research-centric individuals with an academic passion for health and fitness. 

NASM is geared more towards the entrepreneur with a passion for fitness, as well as a hunger for commercial success.

That can be shown by the various study package offerings and many other aspects as you will soon learn.

Exam Layout and Passing Grade

So you’ve gathered all your required prep material and are neck-deep in your study plan, but what are you actually planning for?

How is the exam laid out and where do you need to focus?

That’s where understanding the exam layout comes in.

It’s great to be familiar with the course content and curriculum, but exams hardly ever represent an even distribution of all concepts and learning outcomes.

So let’s take a look at each exam, break down how it is structured and administered, and provide insight as to how you will pass it.

NASM Exam Layout

The NASM exam is laid out across all 6 domains of study you’ll become familiar with through the textbook.

These domains are spread across 120 multiple choice questions, which you will have 120 minutes (2 hours) to answer.

The way each of these domains counts towards the final mark is not even. 

They are weighted differently according to what NASM deems to be the hierarchy of importance when it comes to health and fitness principles.

The exam breaks down as follows:

Weight in ExamDomain
10%Professional Development and Responsibility
12% Client Relations and Behavioral Coaching
17%   Basic and Applied Sciences and Nutritional Concepts
18% Assessment
21%Program Design
22% Exercise Technique and Training Instruction

If you consider the most essential activities a health coach would need to undertake as a professional, the weighting of the domains does make sense.

Having program design and technique and instruction as the most prioritized aspects plays well into the necessary day-to-day skills a PT would need to engage.

In our opinion, the business aspect of personal training is often overlooked, as is the case with the NASM exam.

From a professional standpoint, we would hope to see this area more represented.

NASM exams are administered either on-site at an approved PSI testing center, or via remote virtual proctor as an online exam.

ACSM Exam Layout

The ACSM CPT exam is laid out across 4 domains of study known as Performance Domains.

These domains are distributed over 150 questions. Of these questions, 30 of them are unscored.

Unscored questions are such that they don’t count towards the final grade you will achieve.

So why are they even included, you may be wondering?

They use unscored questions to measure the viability and feasibility of future test questions.

The tricky thing about these unscored questions is you’ll never be able to identify which ones they are, so your best bet is to answer all questions to the best of your ability.

You’ll be given 165 minutes to complete the exam.

Back to the domains, or rather “Performance Domains” in this case. Just like NASM, the ACSM domains are not evenly represented.

You’ll find some to have a heavier weighting than others. The weighting of each domain according to ACSM is as follows:

Weight in ExamPerformance Domain
10%Legal & Professional Responsibilities
20% Exercise Leadership Client Education
25%   Initial Client Consultation and Assessment
45%Exercise Programming and Implementation

As with most reputable CPT certification exams, the main areas of focus are in the assessment, programming, and implementation categories.

This, as we’ve stated, forms the bulk of activity concerning a career as a fitness instructor.

Exam difficulty and Pass Rate

Knowing what the exam looks like is one thing, understanding how much it will challenge you is also important.

When comparing NASM vs ACSM with regards to exam level of challenge, both seem to be on par with each other.

ACSM and NASM both have a 65% pass rate. This makes either exam neither easy nor difficult. They are however both relatively difficult if you look at some of the other certs out there such as ISSA with its notorious 89% pass rate.

So your odds of passing are fairly high, but your odds of failing either one are not to be ignored.

So what happens if you do find yourself as one of the unfortunate 35%?

Let’s find out, shall we?

Retake Fee

When you fail a certification exam, you’ll typically be provided with the opportunity to re-sit the exam.

This usually comes at an added cost as well as a cool-down period between your initial attempt and the retake.

When it comes to NASM, the retake policy will have you pay $199 for the opportunity. You will then have 365 days to retake the exam.

ACSM provides failing candidates with a retest voucher that can be redeemed for a resitting 15 days after the initial attempt. 

The ACSM exam FAQ page does not express the need for s retest fee, so we’ll assume it’s free.

Certification Popularity

Knowing how popular a certification is may not seem like a crucial metric, but it kind of is.

The popularity of a certification isn’t merely a vanity metric, it also indicates what sort of career prospects you can look forward to once you’ve obtained a certain certification.

For this, we’re going to base popularity on enrollment figures as well as google search data.

CertificationEnrollment Number
ACSM5,226
NASM22,304
CertificationSearch Data
ACSM390
NASM1600

From this data, it’s plain to see that NASM is the clear favorite as far as popularity is concerned.

This can also be owed to the fact that NASM is a for-profit organization with a massive marketing machine behind it, while ACSM is a non-profit organization with its roots in academia.

It’s still a big influence when opening up the discussion of whether ACSM or NASM is the best option as it will play into your job prospects in many cases.

Expected Study Time

Expected study time can help you decide which is the best option for you based on how much time you can commit.

One important thing to consider when looking at study time for both ACSM and NASM is the difference between how much time you need and how much time you’ll get.

As far as how much time you’ll get, you’re looking at the enrollment period. The period of time between the moment you sign-up and purchase your CPT course, to the date and time you will need to have written your exam by.

For ACSM, you will have up to 24 months to complete the course and final exam.

NASM on the other hand allows for a maximum of 6 months.

How much time you will need will depend on your circumstances as well as your time management skills.

That’s why at Trainer Academy, or study packages may include a Study Blueprint. A template for study time management you can implement to suit your requirements.

Average Income

The average income statistic is one I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to. Being a trainer is a business and business is about making money.

In this category, NASM shines, but we can’t say ACSM is terrible either.

CertificationAverage Annual Income
ACSM$38.739
NASM$41.598

Primary Focus of Certification

Each certifying agency has its niche. A direction towards which it points it’s health and fitness principles of a field of focus it aims to equip its trainers to handle.

Knowing the primary focus of cert will also allow you to determine if it’s the right career move for you.

NASM’s focus is primarily on corrective exercise through the enhancement of functional performance.

This is encapsulated in the NASM OPT model, short for Optimal Performance Training.

This model engages the principle pillars of strength, stability, and power and directs them towards optimizing functional capability.

ACSM’s primary focus is entrenched in its organizational mandate and mission, to provide resources as a leader in the field of sports medicine and exercise science.

As an ACSM certified trainer, you will be equipped with a second to none knowledge of deeper training concepts making you more versatile than most trainers.

This is provided you have a firm grasp of the technical aspects of fitness instruction of course.

CEU Requirements

All good things must come to an end, and the same goes for your newly obtained PT cert.

That’s because each certification will expire after a given period (2 years in most cases).

After that, you will need to recertify, and to be eligible for this, you will need to pay a nominal recertification fee as well as submit the required amount of continuing education credits or units (CEUs).

Let’s take a look:

CertificationRecertification Period (years)CEU Requirements (hours)Recertification fee
ACSM345$35-$55
NASM220$99

As you can see, ACSM is the most demanding in terms of CEU requirements, but also the most relaxed when it comes to the certification period.

The recertification fee is also considerably cheaper with ACSM than it is with NASM.

Certification Take Away

Both ACSM CPT and NASM CPT are the gold standard, NCCA accredited certifications. 

Each has its merits and shortcomings.

As a fledgling trainer dipping your toes in the industry, we suggest going with NASM, it’s more recognized and will get your foot in more doors at the beginning of your career.

For seasoned and experienced trainers or those with a deep academic leaning, ACSM is a great choice. 

Not only does it equip you with the relevant skills you’ll need as a trainer, but it’s also a portal into some great resources if you take on the membership option.

We hope this has helped you form a well-rounded opinion of these two powerhouse certs as you decide which one is best for you.

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