ACSM Certification Review [The Complete Guide]

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  • ACSM is known as the gold standard in the fitness industry.
  • There are three health and fitness certification offerings through ACSM.
  • ACSM has many different options for continuing education credits to maintain your certification.

Successful professionals in the health and fitness industry normally have two things in common: they are passionate about what they do and they have a reputable certification. While the desire to help others exists or is developed within yourself, a certification can be obtained through learning and passing an exam. The American College of Sports Medicine might just be the organization to help you get there.

If you are certified, or looking to become certified, and want to grow your business, check out our business management software and see how we can help.

About ACSM

Since it’s establishment in 1954, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has amassed more than 50,000 members and become a global leader in the health and fitness industry.

As the oldest organization amongst its competitors, ACSM has become an industry leader in regards to personal training and other certifications. The organization touts itself as the “gold standard” for certification, believing that they are setting the bar higher for customers who choose to purchase.

Despite using the word in its name, ACSM is not a college in the sense of degree offerings. Rather than a campus with a student body, this college is a membership association comprised of sports medicine and exercise science professionals. The common goal among members is to advance health through science, education, and medicine.

Although ACSM does not offer a diploma following completed coursework, there are plenty of ways you can join the team of professionals wanting to help others live a healthier life. Let’s take a look.

Certification Options and Requirements

In order to educate future fitness leaders, ACSM offers three different health and fitness certifications. These include group exercise instructor, personal trainer, and exercise physiologist.

As part of its desire to be the gold standard in the industry, ACSM holds aspiring professionals to a higher level. The organization is well-known for the challenge its exams possess, but the highly regarded credentials that go alongside make the extra studying effort worthwhile.

Most organizations utilize and teach the importance of science in their certifications, but ACSM takes this to the next level. Its website is filled with references to science-backed education, research, and the highest quality professionals in the industry. It is safe to say that, by pursuing one of the below certifications, you are challenging yourself to become a part of the gold standard.

Certified Personal Trainer (CPT)

Personal training can be a very rewarding profession whether you are doing it part-time or making it your full-time career. As one of the most well-respected organizations in the industry, ACSM can give you the tools you need to become successful.

Studying through ACSM offers you a certification which is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), giving additional verification to the quality of your credentials. The exam is also less expensive than many competitors at a price of $349, as is the cost to re-take the exam for $175.

Eligibility requirements for the ACSM personal trainer certification are fairly straightforward. Candidates must be at least 18 years old, hold a high school diploma or equivalent degree, and possess a CPR/AED certification with a practical hands-on skills component. There is no college degree, experience, or application needed in order to study for and take the certification exam (see video with tips above).

Certified Group Exercise Instructor (GEI)

If you have ever attended a group fitness class, you know that the instructor can make or break the quality of the class. Instructors are important not only in regards to safety and exercise choice but also the fun and energy provided to all participants. The group exercise instructor certification through ACSM will teach you how to intentionally design a class, motivate your participants, and provide a positive experience for everyone.

ACSM remains competitive with its price point for the GEI certification in comparison to other organizations. For the $299 exam fee, you can gain the quality credentials that potential employers want to see when hiring instructors. If you are unsuccessful in your first attempt, you are able to re-take the exam for $155.

Much like the personal training certification, requirements for the group exercise instructor certification are simple. You must be 18 years old, have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree, and have a CPR/AED certification with a practical hands-on skills component. You will not need to apply, possess a college degree, or have any prior experience.

Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP)

For those who already have an established academic background in exercise, ACSM offers an exercise physiologist certification. This would be an ideal study for someone who wants to work in a more clinical or corporate setting as opposed to a fitness center. Exercise physiologists prescribe exercise programs based on physical assessments, much like personal trainers, but they do so at a more advanced level.

The differentiating factor with this certification is the requirement for a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. All other components mirror those in the GEI and CPT programs. Cost of the EP certification is $349 with a re-take fee of $175.

Exercise physiologists often work with individuals who have a health problem greater than a sore knee or the desire for weight loss. These individuals may have chronic health conditions that require the EP to work in partnership with a medical doctor to develop a health program.

While personal trainers have the potential to help clients suffering from disease, the conditions often require a greater more in-depth knowledge of the human body and its functions. This need is reflected in the requirement of a bachelor’s degree for the EP certification.

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Exam Prep

Once you have decided to become certified through ACSM and have met the minimum qualifications, it is time to start studying. This is not a task to take lightly. Exams through ACSM are regarded as some of the most challenging in the industry. Again, however, the reputation of the organization adds a great deal of value to your certification.

The ACSM offers a wide range of study materials to help you prepare, but most of these materials come at a separate cost from the exam. Whether you are a hands-on learner or prefer to be completely digital, you will be able to find something which works for you. It is up to you to decide how much value, or how much you want to spend, on your certification. Here is a breakdown of your options.

Books

There are four different books available to candidates. Two of these are geared specifically toward a certain certification while the final two are applicable to all certifications. While a price is listed for each book, it may be helpful to note that customers can save 25% when bundling study materials.

ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer

For $79.99, customers can purchase this textbook to learn the science behind anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, and other topics. In addition to more scientific subjects, you will also learn a practical application of skills and knowledge to share with your clients. Essentially, the foundational knowledge used in day-to-day personal training is covered in this text.

Buy now: ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer

ACSM’s Resources for the Exercise Physiologist

With a strong emphasis on assessment and programming, this textbook helps prepare you to work with a variety of clients. This text also offers coverage of both healthy and special populations, as well as discussions on potential ethical and legal issues you may run into in your given field. This book is available for purchase at a price of $84.99.

Buy Now: ACSM’s Resources for the Exercise Physiologist 

ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription

At $49.99, this is the least expensive of the textbook options provided. The material ensures candidates know the importance of proper exercise testing methods and how to implement them consistently. It also discusses exercise prescription based on the results of testing and/or goals of the client or athlete. This book is applicable to all three certification offerings through ACSM.

Buy Now: ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription

ACSM’s Certification Review

Finally, at $52.99, “ACSM’s Certification Review” gives candidates the chance to review everything they will need to know for their exam. The text highlights case-studies and multiple-choice questions as pillars of the review and also helps students identify their areas of weakness among different topics. As with “ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription,” this text can be utilized for any of ACSM’s three certification offerings.

Buy Now: ACSM’s Certification Review

Online Resources

Students who are crunched for time or simply prefer to study from the comforts of home may benefit from utilizing the digital resources available through ACSM. There are currently two main options.

Practice Questions

If you are looking for a similar experience to an exam, the online practice questions offered by ACSM may be right for you. Offered through PrepU, these questions provide personalized quizzes and reports. Answer keys are included with the quizzes and also contain and explanation for each answer. Customers can purchase access to study questions for 90, 180, or 365 days for fees of $64.99, $74.99, and $84.99, respectively.

Currently, practice questions are only offered through PrepU for the CPT and EP certifications. ACSM’s website, however, does assure potential instructors that questions for the GEI certification will soon be added.

Webinar

For those who still want to study from home, but would like more personalized instruction than what a textbook gives, ACSM offers Webinars. You can take advantage of a single session in this virtual classroom for $45 or participate in an entire six-week series for $240.

Either way, this is a great solution if you learn best through someone else’s instruction but are unable to attend a live workshop. Webinars are offered for all three health and fitness certifications (CTP, GEI, EP) through ACSM.

Social Media

For those who want to save money but are still looking for additional support, there is an ACSM study group on Facebook for CPT and EP certification candidates. This community of future fitness influences give support to one another, discuss topics and study methods, and celebrate with each other when someone passes his or her exam. Although there is no group specifically for GEI candidates, members of these groups may still prove helpful for more general questions you have.

Live Workshops

Many people prefer live learning or hands-on instruction to a self-study approach. For those students, ACSM has an offering of live workshops. A one day workshop will cost you $129.99 while a three day will cost $375.00.

While the benefit of in-person learning may outweigh the cost, for you, one final consideration is the accessibility of the workshop. Dates and locations vary, so finding a class that works for you may prove to be a challenge.

Exam Content

Each of the three certification exams is divided into four categories known as performance domains. The domains are individualized to each exam, as is the proportion of total questions they receive. In addition, all of the exams test on three different cognitive levels, each of which are tested in all performance domains. They are:

  • Recall: remembering basic facts, steps, or information involved in a process
  • Application: understanding and implementing processes, interpreting results, and summarizing information
  • Synthesis: differentiating or relating parts of a system, making judgments on new information, critiquing a process or product, or making recommendations

Each exam has a different seat time and number of exam questions. It is interesting to note that, on all of the exams, there are a certain amount of questions that are not scored. The purpose of this is to find out if these questions are effective and suitable for future tests. Students should treat all questions as if they will be scored. Here is a more in-depth breakdown of each exam.

CPT

Comprised of 150 questions, the CPT exam allows a seat time of 165 minutes. Of the 150 questions, 120 are score while 30 will be used more for research purposes. Performance domain breakdowns are as follows:

GEI

Also having a seat time of 165 minutes, the GEI exam is made up of 115 questions, 100 of which are scored and 15 are unscored. The performance domain proportions are:

  • 30%: Class design
  • 25%: Leadership
  • 30%: Instruction
  • 15%: Professional responsibilities

EP

The longest of the three exams at 225 minutes, the EP exam includes 150 questions, 125 of which are scored and 25 are unscored. The performance domains are proportioned as follows:

  • 35%: Health and fitness assessment
  • 35%: Exercise prescription and implementation
  • 25%: Exercise counseling and behavior modification
  • 5%: Risk management and professional responsibilities

Maintaining Your Certification

In order to stay up to date on science and new information in the industry, it is common for organizations to require health and fitness professionals to obtain a certain number of continuing education credits (CEC’s) to maintain their certification.

The specific number of credits, as well as the amount of time to complete the credits, varies by organization. For CPT and GEI, ACSM requires 45 continuing education credits to be completed every three years. For EP, that number climbs to 60 credits every three years.

You can certainly earn CEC’s by completing more certifications from ACSM, but there are other acceptable forms of credit. Any certifications from nationally recognized organizations or certifying bodies are normally accepted by ACSM, and the number of CEC’s are matched or given an acceptable conversion. If you are unsure on whether or not a certain course will count toward your credits, contact ACSM and they will explain whether or not the course will be accepted and for how many credits.

In the event that you miss the three-year window to earn your CEC’s, you do have a six-month grace period in which you can still complete your recertification. Unfortunately, this is associated with a $75 late fee, on top of the normal fee to recertify ($45 for CPT and GEI, $55 for EP). If the grace period has expired and you have not renewed, you will need to take your original certification exam, having maintained the original minimum requirements.

Most successful professionals would tell you that, even though simply re-taking the certification exam may be less expensive, the effort and lack of professional development are not worth it. If a trainer or instructor is only using the same philosophies and exercises he or she learned 10 years ago, that person is out-dated.

If professionals do not stay current in the industry, it is harder to facilitate results. As we all know, clients and class participants keep coming back when they see results. Therefore, your business will suffer if you do not continue to grow and provide your customers with the best service possible.

ACSM Membership and Benefits

Once you have passed your certification exam, or maybe even prior to doing so, you might consider a membership to ACSM. There are three different membership categories: student, alliance, and professional.

While the categories have some similarities, there are also differences in cost and benefits. It is worth pointing out that all three certification exams mentioned above can be purchased at a discounted rate with an ACSM membership.

Student Membership

The student membership is open to those studying in exercise science or sports medicine fields. Undergraduate students must be carrying a 12 or more credit hour while graduate students must carry at least 6. This membership category is also open to any student who has been accepted to a medical school and is carrying at least a half-time course load as defined by that institution.

Given that college students are normally on a tighter budget, ACSM offers the first year of membership to students at a $10 fee. This includes access to six different publications offered through ACSM, discounts on continuing education through ACSM, and a listing in the membership directory.

Alliance of Health and Fitness Membership

The most general of the membership offerings, the alliance of health and fitness membership is for health and fitness professionals wanting a practical application of exercise science and sports medicine. Cost of this membership is $99 per year, includes access to two publications offered through ACSM, continuing education discounts, and listing in the membership directory.

Given that there is no requirement for a bachelor’s degree, professionals with a CPT or GEI certification might find this option most applicable. Having a bachelor’s degree, however, does not disqualify anyone from this membership category, and therefore EP certified professionals would also be able to apply.

Professional Membership

The minimum requirement for individuals to apply for professional membership is ACSM is to have completed at least a bachelor’s degree at an accredited institution. A bachelor’s degree in any field is acceptable, but the applicant must be currently working in a field related to sports medicine or exercise science.

If an individual has achieved a master’s or doctoral degree in a field related to sports medicine or exercise science, current employment in that field is not a requirement for application.

The professional membership is the most inclusive of the options and carries a $240 annual price tag. In addition to the ability to access five ACSM publications, receiving continuing education discounts, and receiving a listing in the membership directory, professional members also enjoy voting privileges within the college.

Wrap-Up

Choosing a job in the health and fitness industry gives professionals a chance to transform their passion for helping others into a career. In order to be as successful as possible, you need to be seen as credible and knowledgable in your field. A certification is a perfect way to do this and ACSM is a well-respected certifying body in the industry.

With options to become a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, or exercise physiologist, ACSM has something for whatever you want to accomplish in your fitness career.  In addition, it offers a wide variety of avenues to maintain your certification and continue in your chosen profession.

There is no doubt that ACSM exams represent some of the more difficult options in the industry. When your studies become difficult, just remember that the end result will pay off in the long run. After all, you are becoming part of the gold standard.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How long does my certification last?

Health and fitness certifications through ACSM have a three-year span, plus a six-month grace period, before the certification lapses.

Do I have to be an ACSM member to get certified?

No, however, membership in ACSM does allow you to receive a discount on your certification.

Do all of my CEC’s need to come from ACSM?

No. ACSM normally deems certifications or classes from nationally recognized organizations as acceptable for credit.

Once you’ve made your decision and passed your certification, request a demo of our fitness business management software to see the ways you can grow your business.

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