The Quick Summary...
Both NASM and ACE are excellent CPT programs with NCCA-accreditation. In fact, they are my top two recommendations, so you can't go far wrong with either.
If I had to pick one, NASM has the slight edge - mainly because it focuses on teaching PTs how to correct muscular imbalances before ramping up a training program. It's also the most popular CPT program and has a cheaper recertification fee.
Becoming a personal trainer is an exciting career path - but choosing the right certification isn't always easy.
There are a huge range of certs available from organizations such as NASM, ACE, NCSA, ACSM, ISSA and many more. The price, industry recognition and difficulty vary a lot, so it's important to choose the best option for your goals and career prospects.
Two of the most popular certifications are ACE and NASM. These certifications are both NCCA-accredited, widely accepted by gyms and have trained thousands of personal trainers.
How can you tell which is the best choice for you though? And what are the major differences? Keep reading to find out.
Before We Start...
It's important to understand that there isn't a "best" personal training certification for everyone. The right choice depends on the type of clients you aim to train, your budget, employment prospects, and where you live.
You should also keep in mind that the goal of a certification is to get your career started. Your future success depends on your approach, business skills, and a variety of other factors - a certification is just a starting point.
With that in mind, the first step is to understand what you want from a CPT course. I talk about this in my article on the best personal training certifications, so that's a good place to start.
If you've already narrowed down your choices to either ACE or NASM, however, then keep reading to learn about the differences between the two. I've also written in-depth reviews of both programs: click here for NASM and here for ACE.
When it comes to industry recognition, ACE and NASM are two of the best certifications you can take.
Both are well-recognized by gyms across the United States, so you shouldn't have trouble finding potential jobs. Many gyms also consider them "top-tier" certifications.
ACE and NASM are also both NCCA-accredited. This is vital, as many gyms only accept accredited programs.
That doesn't mean all gyms accept both certifications though. If you want to work at a specific gym, make sure you check which CPT program they prefer. Some gyms may prefer NASM, while others look for ACE.
In terms of popularity, NASM is the winner as it has trained more PTs than any other organization in the US. Both provide similar earning potential - although your career success depends on many factors, not just the certification.
In summary, the wide industry recognition and excellent job prospects provided by both programs mean this category is a tie.
Training and Client Focus
Both NASM and ACE train you to handle a wide range of potential clients, but there are some slight differences in focus.
NASM teaches the organization's "Optimum Performance Training" system to all its trainers. This initially focuses on creating a solid foundation by correcting muscular imbalances. Endurance, hypertrophy and strength goals are only tackled once the client has corrected these imbalances.
This doesn't necessarily make NASM less applicable to the general population - many people have imbalances from sedentary lifestyles - but it demands a deeper knowledge of corrective exercise. This can be useful if you want to move into a clinical setting.
ACE has a more general focus that teaches how to create effective routines for people with a wide range of goals. The program emphasises exercise science fundamentals that you can apply to the general population, but without a specific focus on athletic clients or those with injuries.
Again, there is no "winner" in this category. Both NASM and ACE are broad certifications that teach how to train the average American who wants to lose weight or build muscle, although NASM has a slight focus on muscular imbalances.
Course Materials and Program Design
The quality of course materials provided by a certification is an important factor when choosing a program. How do ACE and NASM compare in this regard?
All NASM cert packages (more on these in a moment) include access to the excellent digital textbook and online study library. These do a great job of teaching the basics of program creation, including designing programs for people with common health conditions.
ACE also has comprehensive training materials, including an online interactive platform, the ACE Personal Trainer Manual, and resource center for 1-to-1 feedback. The core text is the excellent "Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals." Like the NASM training materials, this provides foundational knowledge on topics such as anatomy and physiology.
This category is another tie. Both NASM and ACE provide high-quality study materials to help you prepare for their exams. The core texts, in particular, will serve as reference material for the rest of your career.
Packages and Price
There are currently four NASM-CPT packages available. While NASM isn't cheap, the range of packages allows you to only pay for what you need.
The cheapest is a self-study option, which includes the basic materials and exercise library but doesn't provide access to a coach or mentor. You're expected to learn the material at home and without help from a tutor.
There are more expensive packages ("Guided Study" and "All-Inclusive") that have more learning materials and access to a NASM coach. The "All-Inclusive" also comes with a job guarantee and access to NASM's "CPT Development Program."
Even so, some people will be put off by the lack of a coach with the lower priced packages (which start at $699).
In contrast, all ACE packages include at least some 1-to-1 support. If you're not confident in your ability to learn through online materials alone, it could be the better choice.
The cheapest ACE package is the "Standard" program which costs $699, and includes "Standard Access" to ACE's resource center. You don't get full support in this package, but you receive personalized reviews of your test results, live Q&A sessions and email responses from coaches.
If you want full access to the resource center, along with additional training materials and career support, there are "Premium" and "Premium Plus" packages available. These cost $799 and $899 respectively - although this is still cheaper than most NASM packages.
There isn't a clear winner in this category - it depends on your learning style and what you want from a certification program.
NASM has a wider range of packages available, from the basic "Self-Study" option up to "All-Inclusive" which comes with a job guarantee, CPT Development Program, live workshop and Business Accelerator Program. The cheaper packages don't include one-to-one help from coaches though - but all ACE packages have at least some personalized support.
ACE is also ahead when it comes to pricing. While the basic packages are both priced at $699 (at the time of writing), you'll need the "Guided-Study" NASM program if you want personalized support. This costs a hefty $1299, compared to ACE's $799 for full access to the support center - although the NASM option includes extras such as webinars and a live workshop.
Exam Format, Location and Difficulty
Both ACE and NASM have a reputation for tough exams. You'll need to fully understand the course materials, including topics such as biomechanics and human anatomy.
Is one exam easier than the other though?
NASM's exam contains 120 multiple-choice questions. 100 of these count towards your final mark, while the other 20 are used for NASM's research. The exam last for two hours and there's a 70% minimum score to pass.
ACE's exam is longer. There are 150 multiple-choice questions and the exam lasts for three hours, although like NASM there are no essay questions.
Neither exam is easy - so it's important to spend time learning the course materials. You'll need a solid understanding of the foundational topics to pass, including basic anatomy and how injuries can affect program development.
With that said, ACE and NASM's exams aren't too difficult as long as you've studied properly. The key is to focus on understanding the fundamentals, rather than just memorizing facts. Both exams also have similar pass rates on the first try.
The NASM-CPT exams are run by a company called PSIEXams, which provide exam centers across the US and internationally. ACE also provides over 500 exam locations in the USA and Canada, so you shouldn't have trouble finding somewhere to take either exam.
NASM has the slight edge in this category, as the exam is shorter and has fewer questions. While I don't think this should be a major factor when choosing your certification, it's something to keep in mind - especially if you struggle during long exams.
Recertification and CEUs
All personal training certifications require their trainers to recertify, but the time period and requirements vary.
NASM requires recertification every two years. This costs $99 and you'll need to have studied 20 hours of continuing-education units (CEUs) during this time - although one hour can be your CPR/AED certification.
Like NASM, ACE has a two-year recertification period which costs $129. It also requires 20-hours of continuing education units.
Both organizations offer a wide range of ways to earn your CEUs, so you won't be short of options or interesting learning areas.
NASM, for example, holds many conferences, live workshops, classroom courses and specializations. These include MMA fitness, performance enhancement, fitness nutrition and women's fitness. It also approves third-party courses - and there's the option of training to become a NASM Master Trainer.
ACE also provides many options for continuing education. There are online webinars, specialist programs, courses and live workshops. ACE also holds their yearly symposium which is only accessible to ACE trainers.
Both NASM and ACE require 2-year recertification and 20 hours of CEUs. NASM is slightly cheaper to renew ($99 compared to $129) and has a wider range of continuing education specializations, so it's the winner in this category.
NASM Vs ACE Quick Summary
If you're struggling to choose between ACE and NASM, my top pick is NASM - but only by a slight margin.
It's the most popular training certification and widely accepted by gyms. It's also a bit cheaper to recertify and I'm a fan of the focus on correcting muscular imbalances before attempting other goals.
With that said, ACE is also an excellent certification - and there really isn't much difference between the two in most areas. Both are NCCA-accredited, widely accepted by gyms, provide excellent course materials and have similar recertification requirements. ACE and NASM also both require extensive study, as the exams are tough and require solid fundamental knowledge.
For this reason, the right choice largely comes down to your personal preference and future career path. If you know where you want to work, check which certification they prefer, as this could make the decision for you.
There's also the option of getting both certifications. While this isn't necessary, it's a great way to open up job opportunities in more gyms.
I hope this article has helped you decide between NASM and ACE. If you have any questions, fire away in the comments!