Hey everybody, and welcome to yet another Trainer Academy PT certification Shootout.

This time we’re gonna be looking at NASM vs ISSA… (try saying that really fast 10 times!).

NASM vs ISSA new

These two certs sit at the pinnacle of the fitness industry in terms of popularity and industry recommendation.

We’ll be taking a look under the hood to see what makes them tick and how they compare to each other.

A mix of descriptive and statistics based insight will help us understand more.

For the sake of brevity, we want to make it clear that we’ll be discussing each respective institution’s CPT course when we mention the certifying agency. That means the general personal trainer certification.


So without further ado, let’s jump right into it.


When comparing certifications, there’s one primary attribute you should always consider and that’s accreditation.

Think of it this way, a certification grants you the authenticity to pose and work as a trainer, while accreditation grants your certification the authenticity to be…well… a certification.

You should only go for accredited certifications when considering jumping into the industry.

That’s because accreditation is a seal of approval from the highest authorities, letting you and anyone you deal with know that they’re getting the best from the best.

In the case of North American PT certification, you’ll be looking out for an NCCA accreditation.

NCCA stands for the National Commission of Certifying Agencies.

NASM and quite recently ISSA, are accredited by this accrediting body.

We say recently with ISSA because they were once exclusively accredited by DEAC. or Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

That’s because ISSA is the leader in distance learning when it comes to personal training certifications.

ISSA has since acquired the NCCPT to allow them to include NCCA accredited programs as part of what they offer.

This doesn’t mean they are now fully NCCA accredited, but rather that they have a strong affiliation through their subprograms.

Whatever the case may be, you want to make sure your cert is accredited.

Not only to make sure you get with the good but also to weed out the bad.

You see, the fitness certification business is rather lucrative, and where the opportunity lies you will find opportunists. Many of them are willing to cut corners and make false promises to turn a buck.

These scams are even more rampant with the progressive adoption of digital economies and online training.

So the best way to not only ensure quality education, but also to maintain safety from online scams is to go with an accredited cert, and these two sure are.

Cost of Study Packages

A lot of the decisions we make in life hinge on how much things cost.

In the case of personal trainer certs. Cost is a major consideration. 

Your financial circumstances or set budget will affect what you can ultimately choose, which has the potential to set the tone of your career.

When it comes to price, you’ll find that NASM and ISSA have two vastly different approaches.

ISSA offers just one study package, often bundled with a second certification such as Nutrition. This package includes all relevant and available study material and costs a standard $799.

NASM, on the other hand, comes in 4 study packages, all with varying amounts of study material and priced accordingly.

Cost Considerations

NASM is options heavy and material dense, while ISSA takes a very streamlined approach.

This may be due to the fact that ISSA, being an international cert, is aiming to capture as much of the global market in a way that isn’t too complex.

Countries across the world all have different educational practices and market economies, so keeping things simple and cheap might be more of a strategy than it seems on the face of it.

NASM’s approach allows it to be more robust and come with more bells and whistles simply because it is aimed at the North American market.

A market where the educational standards and market buying power are fairly strong.

Let’s take a look at the data for each cert and see how the cost breaks down:

Package TierCost (ISSA)Cost (NASM)
1$799Self Study ($799)
2Self Study Premium ($1099)
3Guided Study ($1124)
4All-Inclusive ($1539)

So there you have it, ISSA is by far the cheapest, allowing it to win out when it comes to the competitiveness of the pricing.

The price however is only relevant to the value.

So let’s take a deeper look at what is on offer in terms of study materials and see if that justifies the price.

Quality of Study Materials (1-10)

NASM’s study materials are numerous, especially compared to most other certs out there.

The top tier package from NASM, the All-inclusive, sports 17 different study and trainer support materials.

The density of resources can be both a blessing and a curse. It can get confusing to understand what to use and how to use it with such an overload.

But with correct use, NASM study materials are an excellent option, although we might urge you to get your hands on something a bit more streamlined, which you can find here at Trainer Academy.

Let’s have a look at NASM’s study suites for a clearer idea:

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 
Recertify for Life 

Pretty dense with features, resources and materials as you can see, but is it worth the price?

ISSA and NASM Study Materials

The only way to tell is by comparing it to what ISSA has to offer.

Current Edition Textbook
Online Practice Exams and Quizzes
Audio and Video Lecture Options
Online Study Guide and Workbook
Online Student Forum
Online Exam

As you can see, what ISSA offers is significantly less than what NASM generally offers. In fact. ISSA costs as much as NASM’s most basic tier.

This makes sense since the quantity and nature of the materials included are pretty much the same.

So what does this mean in terms of quality?

Well, one thing we can say is that as little as is on offer from ISSA, the stuff you do get is amazing.

With an 89.9% pass rate ( something we’ll get into soon) it makes loads of sense that ISSA has some great quality options.

Not to be outdone, NASM trumps variety.

Their lowest tier has pretty much the same format as ISSA’s entire program and going up things get bigger and better.

Overall the quality metric for both comes pretty close, so close in fact that we’ve had to score them the same.

ISSA comes through with highly effective simplicity while NASM comes in with the value of variety.

Because of this, both certs get a 7 out of 10 Trainer Academy rating.

Or so you would think.

ISSA is actually better for business. With the $799 price, you will get all the listed study materials along with a whole nutrition certification as well as tons of business resources.

While NASM does boast some career advancement resources, ISSA has a more focused approach, even including a business-specific textbook called Fiscal Fitness.

For all that, we give ISSA the edge with an 8/10 rating.

Fitness is a business after all, and business is taken into consideration by ISSA.

Of course, if you want to go all the way to the top band guarantee success, just check out one of our structured study packages for both ISSA and NASM.

Exam Layout and Passing Grade

The layout of both exams is fundamentally the same, although that wasn’t always the case.

ISSA used to have quite an interesting exam layout that included long easy style case-study questions.

This is no longer the case, and ISSA has since adopted a more traditional multiple-choice only format.

But that ladies and gentlemen, is where the similarities end.

NASM and ISSA have 120 and 160 exam questions respectively, but 40 questions aren’t really what separates the two.

NASM requires a 70% minimum in order to pass, while ISSA needs you to score at least 75%.

The way the exams are administered is way different.

NASM is a proctored exam. It is conducted through select PSI testing facilities dotted across the North American region. 

In recent times, however, NASM has taken up the mantle for remote live testing by using your computer’s webcam as a monitoring device.

This has also opened NASM up to international candidature, whereas before, the cert’s reach and relevance was confined to the US and Canada.

ISSA on the other hand has always maintained a distance-based, online-only approach with no physical testing locations.

This is what has allowed them to grow into the international force they are recognized as.

Now let’s look at the structure of the individual tests.

NASM is broken down into 6 sections.

These are:

  • Professional Development and Responsibility
  • Client Relations and Behavioral Coaching
  • Basic and Applied Sciences and Nutritional Concepts
  • Assessment
  • Program Design
  • Exercise Technique and Training Instruction

These sections are all weighted differently meaning the total value of the score they contribute towards the final grade differs.

Exam Administration

Looking at this, you get a pretty good impression on where to focus when it comes to exam prep.

NASM Exam Breakdown
Weight in ExamSection
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

As you can tell, the focus is set towards the more practical applications of personal training, whereas the actual course material introduces candidates to a lot of the scientific and theoretical principles of health and fitness.

These are essential of course, but the exam is geared towards solidifying the hands-on work you will be conducting as a certified trainer.

ISSA has a similar approach in that it guides you towards the more practical side of things.

The only difference is that ISSA does include more scientific theory than NASM CPT. It also includes the business and nutrition aspects of personal training which are super important.

Nutrition and business application are too often overlooked when it comes to concepts essential for success as a PT, so it’s great that ISSA actually has a focus on these.

ISSA Exam Breakdown
Weight in ExamSection
9%Special Populations
10% Professional Practice, Drawing-in Phase, Fiscal Fitness
17%   Assessment
19% Nutrition
22%Basic and Applied Science
23% Program Design

Now besides a few differences in structure, layout, and areas of focus, the real kicker is in the way the exams are administered.

NASM is traditional. As we mentioned, the exam is conducted with a live proctor. Either in a real-word setting at a PSI testing facility or remotely via webcam monitoring.

ISSA however, blows this method out the water with a self-paced, open-book exam.

You can take as long as you want from the moment you start the exam to the time you finish, even allowing you to save, log out, and log back in to resume the test.

Next, we’ll take a look at difficulty and pass rates which will give you an idea of what this actually means.

So when looking at the two exams, we can see a few distinct differences.

Both have their pros and cons.

While ISSA has in the past done well with having a self-paced, open-book style exam, their current multiple-choice setup makes it a bit unnecessary.

That’s because with the long easy type case studies, having an open book meant nothing if you didn’t have a firm understanding of the concepts being assessed. 

In the same regard, having the test as self-paced was necessary since the questions would have you conduct real-world research in some cases.

It would be better with a multiple-choice only structure to have some control barriers to exam success.

For that reason, NASM takes the crown on this one.

Exam difficulty and Pass Rate

The exam difficulty is another metric that varies wildly between these two certifications.

NASM’s CPT has been known to present a notable degree of challenge.

This level of challenge however isn’t too crazy, like say, the NSCA CSCS which is pretty high on the difficulty scale.

NASM has a 64.3% pass rate. That means most candidates are successful, but a significant amount fails the first time.

With adequate prep, this shouldn’t pose any major headaches, but don’t be fooled into believing you’ll just magically fall into the 64.3% winners circle.

As for ISSA, the pass rate is a whopping 89.9%!

That makes it the easiest exam to pass out of all the major certs we will be recommending.

The stat totally makes sense considering the relaxed attitude towards exam administration.

There is still that 10.1% chance you might fail, and although relatively small, it’s still crucial that you prepare to the best of your ability. There’s no such thing as doing too well.

Retake Fee

Now we get to that dreaded scenario… what happens if you fail.

Well, like most certifications, failing your exam the first time affords you the option of retaking the exam.

In most cases, you will need to pay a retest fee and perhaps even wait a predetermined cool down period meant to give you the opportunity to prepare again.

NASM allows you to retake upon a failed attempt at the added cost of $199.

ISSA on the other hand allows you one free second chance. What’s more, you get to focus on just the questions you failed, allowing you to maintain previously correct answers.

If you happen to fail a second time, then you will need to pay, but even then, it’s just $50 you’ll be forking out.

This is comparatively low compared to other major certs.

For that reason, ISSA takes the win.

Certification Popularity

Both of these certifying agencies are pretty popular and highly regarded within the industry.

That being said, NASM is leagues ahead when it comes to this statistic.

For this, we will be looking at two stats, enrollment figures and search data.

Enrollment simply shows how many people purchase or register for each respective cert.

Search data shows us how many daily searches are run by people querying each respective certification.

Lets see how it all boils down.

CertificationEnrollment Number
CertificationSearch Data

From this, we can tell that NASM is the clear winner. It has more than double ISSA’s enrollment stats and almost 3 times the search data.

NASM does indeed have the lion’s share of attention and reputability in the industry. It is the most widely preferred certification.

ISSA is certainly up there but has nowhere near the same level of reach, despite being more globally widespread.

Expected Study Time

The amount of time you will need to study and take each respective exam is dependent on the enrollment period.

This is the amount of time from purchasing/registering for the cert to the deadline for final exam sitting.

In this regard both NASM and ISSA have a 6 month window in which enrollment runs and allows you to complete the course.

If you fail to meet your objectives within that time, you will need to re-enroll.

ISSA gives you the opportunity to do this free of charge by extending your enrollment period by a further two months.

NASM will allow an enrollment extension of 90 days which you will have to purchase.

You will need to check out their website to find out what the current re-enrollment fees is since this often changes.

Now, the enrollment period is one thing, but how much time do you actually need to prep and pass the final exam?

We say 3 months should be adequate. That means halfway into your enrollment period for either certification, you should be test ready.

This will of course depend on your personal time management and circumstances regarding all other life commitments.

ISSA makes this easier by including a 1o-week guided study plan that will have you writing your final by week 10.

This is a great way to structure your studying in a way that requires less input and stress from you.

However, if you really, really want to get an edge on your study time management, why not grab one of Trainer Academy’s MVP packages for either NASM or ISSA.

These packages include a study blueprint that will help you divvy up your time management through various different time scales depending on how much you can realistically commit.

Since both have the same enrollment window, we can chalk it up to a tie in this category.

Average Income

As a certified PT, you are a walking, talking business. And businesses are there to make money.

It’s an important consideration when choosing any career path.

That’s why we’ve gathered up some stats to show you what the average income looks like for trainers who certify with both.

CertificationAverage Income

As you can see, there’s not much that separates the two, but of course, NASM has the edge.

Statistically speaking, NASM coaches are the top-grossing if using certification as the only variable.

Primary Focus Of Certification

Each certification has somewhat of a niche. Ultimately they all teach you to be a good personal trainer, able to handle general health and fitness prescription, but at the core of each lies a primary focus.

For ISSA, that focus is on programming principles.

The art of designing well thought out and comprehensive programs are the hallmarks of ISSA training.

This is evident in the focal concepts of the exam, especially when looking back at the old format.

NASM is more geared towards corrective exercise, that is to say, methods of training aimed at enhancing biomechanics through prevention and alleviation of imbalances and deviations in the musculoskeletal system.

NASM carries this approach through their OPT model or Optimum Performance Training.

This model inherently requires an astute understanding of programming principles so for that reason we’d say NASM is a more complete option.

CEU Requirements

Both NASM and ISSA require you to renew your certification every two years.

This is in order to keep your skills sharp and with the current scientific and industry trends.

In order to qualify for recertification, you will have to submit CEUs as well as pay the required recertification fee.

Both NASM and ISSA require 2.0 CEUs for recertification, which amounts to 20 hours of continued education.

Certification Take Away

Bothe NASM and ISSA are great options. Each has its strengths as well as its weak points.

In an overall sense, we rate NASM just a bit higher than ISSA. it may have certain aspects that lag behind, but at the end of the day, it’s the cert that will get you through most doors and earn you the most money.

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