NCCA Certification Review
How do you know which program is right for you?
We’ll get you on the right path to choosing the right program for you in this in-depth overview of a major accrediting agency, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).
Learning the Lingo
If you’re new to personal training, you might be overwhelmed with dozens of new words and organizations. Let’s cover each thoroughly to aid in understanding as you choose the best personal training program for you.
Defining the Terms
It doesn’t take long before the terms credentialing, accreditation, and certification become confusing during your research. While they sound similar, they have different meanings. Watch this video to learn more about credentialing:
Credentialing is a broad term for validating the excellence of professional certification, certificate programs, accreditation, licensure, and regulation:
- Certification programs test the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for a particular occupation.
- Licensure is a mandatory process that tests an individual’s competence. The government permits licensure for a specific time period before requiring renewal.
- Assessment-based certificate programs are programs that teach learning objectives and assess whether those objectives were attained by the student.
- Accreditation is a professional external review that determines whether an educational program meets defined quality standards. It measures the excellence of an organization, proves dedication to continual improvement, and creates distinction among competitors.
Successfully completing the study material and passing the exam from an accredited personal training agency results in certification. Certification proves you have achieved the esteemed standards of the program and are capable of accurately using your knowledge.
Importance of Accreditation
Accreditation is an external audit that evaluates all aspects of a certification program or organization. This allows programs and organizations the opportunity to identify strengths and weaknesses for appropriate improvement in order to meet the qualifying standard. This video explains why accreditation is so important!
In regard to personal training, there are hundreds of programs that administer personal training certifications. Some of them are accredited by a credentialing body, and some are not.
However, employers and clients are more likely to hire or work with a personal trainer who is certified by a credentialed agency. This means that regardless of which certifying agency you choose, your top priority is to ensure that it’s accredited.
Most personal trainers seek to be certified through an accredited program because it almost guarantees employment. Due to the popularity of accredited programs, more and more certifying bodies are seeking credentialed in order to be competitive. This progression of the standard of education, employment, and ethics benefits the safety of the public.
We can see a positive trajectory for personal training education, but did it always used to be this way?
History of Personal Training
Not too long ago, personal trainers didn’t need to be certified or even have a degree in exercise science to work as a personal trainer. They could simply be a fitness enthusiast who was employed by a fitness center and charged for private sessions and services.
Understandably, this system was very disorganized. Some personal trainers with education in exercise science were qualified and valuable, while other uneducated personal trainers created distrust of personal trainers in the community. Additionally, the safety of the public was at risk because uneducated trainers could mislead, misinform, or injure clients.
In fact, in 2002, a random sample of 115 personal trainers was evaluated using the Fitness Instructors Knowledge Assessment (FIKA), which assesses knowledge in nutrition, health screening, testing protocols, exercise prescription, and special populations.
The study concluded that 70% of those surveyed did not have a degree in any field related to exercise science. Those without a bachelor’s degree in an exercise science-related field scored an average of 31% less than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the field.
Further, trainers certified under the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA) correctly answered 83% of the questions. But trainers with a certification other than ACSM or NSCA answered only 38% of the questions correctly.
These results shocked the personal training world and resulted in much-needed change. The International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association (IHRSA) led the charge for the industry by raising their standards and strongly recommending its 9,000+ facilities only employ personal trainers with certifications approved by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or an equivalent organization.
This initiative gained momentum, and today, many employers do not hire personal trainers certified by a non-accredited agency. While it may seem harsh, this progression is in the best interest and safety of clients.
With all of this emphasis on accreditation, what associations give accreditation?
What Is ICE?
In 1977, the National Commission for Health Certifying Agencies (NCHCA) was formed to develop and define standards of excellence for voluntary healthcare certification programs (for a look at the value of accreditation, see the video above).
The standards were so successful in improving healthcare that in 1989, the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA) was created to serve as a membership association for all occupational credentialing bodies. To accommodate this broadened scope, NCHCA was renamed the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and became the accrediting body of NOCA.
By 2009, NOCA had become known worldwide for its distribution of knowledge and information to certifying professionals to develop and manage superior certification programs. As NOCA pursued recommending international standards, it was renamed the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, or ICE.
Today, ICE is a membership association for all professional occupations. Its mission is to advance credentialing and ensure competence in every profession and occupation through education, standards, research, and advocacy.
ICE is a renowned international developer of standards for certifications and certificate programs. ICE provides relevant information for the credentialing community, such as trends in certification, development, and assessment-based certificate programs.
What Is the NCCA?
Established in 1989, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is an agency that sets the standard for professional certification programs and grants the prestigious NCCA accreditation for qualifying programs and organizations.
The NCCA is recognized as one of the top accreditations in the country and around the world. In the fitness industry, many personal trainers strive to be certified under an NCCA-accredited program because so many employers prefer it.
To better understand the reputation, consider the NCCA accreditation like receiving a postsecondary education from an Ivy League school versus a community college. Both may be accredited by national education standards, but a big name school catches an employer’s eye on a resume and almost guarantees employment.
Similarly, since the NCCA standards are so distinguished, having an NCCA-accredited certification means your employment prospects are much broader. But beyond employment, NCCA-accredited programs offer the best education so you can make substantial changes in the lives of your clients.
A Simple Summary
To recap all that’s been said: ICE develops the gold standard for all industries regarding certificate and certification programs. The NCCA reviews and evaluates programs and organizations that apply for accreditation.
Accreditation validates the credentialing standard provided by the ICE. The NCCA gives its seal of approval to qualifying programs and organizations.
It’s crucial to receive education and certification under a credentialed organization. While there are other credentialing agencies other than NCCA, NCCA is one of the most esteemed names in the accreditation business. Personal trainers who receive their certification from an NCCA-accredited body are successful in finding employment and with their clients.
Don’t Stop at the Best Accreditation
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NCCA-Accredited CPT Programs
Now that we know the importance of accreditation–specifically the value of the NCCA accreditation–what CPT programs are available with this credential?
- American Council on Exercise (ACE)
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
- ACTION Certification (ACTION)
- National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
- National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT)
- National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF)
- National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA)
- National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
- PTA Global, Inc. (PTA Global, Inc.)
- World Instructor Training Schools (W.I.T.S.)
Additionally, these Personal Fitness Trainer programs are accredited by NCCA:
- Certified Personal Fitness Trainer – Academy of Applied Personal Training Education (AAPTE)
- International Fitness Professionals Association Personal Fitness Training Certification (IFPA – PFT) – International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA)
- Personal Fitness Trainer (PFT) – National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)
Every program has its pros, cons, and different emphases. There are also slight differences between CPT and PFT certifications, like CPTs generally work one-on-one with clients, whereas PFTs generally lead group classes. It’s important to thoroughly research all your options before choosing a program.
Many times it’s best to choose a more popular program because clients will be most familiar with common certifications. However, if you’re wanting to focus on an alternative aspect of personal training, like business management, you may want to pick a program that provides an emphasis on your subject of interest.
The three most popular personal training programs are NASM, ACE, and ACSM. Let’s take a look at each in more detail.
National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
Since its beginning in 1987, NASM has always been a premier certifying agency. Their material is also taught in many colleges and universities. Many professionals consider it to be the best certification program of all.
NASM is known for its Optimum Performance Training (OPT) training model, which lets personal trainers advance their clients using safe, effective methods that don’t depend on the fitness level of the client. Its primary focus is exercise technique and training instruction. Learn more about NASM and OPT in this video:
NASM-CPT gives special training to identify and restore clients’ muscular imbalances through corrective exercise. NASM equips trainers to work with various populations and needs including injury prevention, post-injury clients, the elderly, and more. NASM certification is frequently recommended for athletic trainers due to its emphasis on injury prevention and recovery.
Study and Exam
NASM has four study options for becoming certified and is known for including the most study material in their packages. Students can purchase standard or premium self-study materials, attend a hands-on instructional workshop in addition to study materials, or choose an all-inclusive package with business training, hands-on gym training, and a job guarantee.
The exam must be attempted within six months after purchasing study materials. The exam includes 120 questions and must be completed within two hours. You need a scaled score of 70 to pass the exam; the pass rate is 64%.
Fees and Recertification
The exam fee is $599 (not including study materials). If a student doesn’t pass the exam the first time, a re-test is available for $199. It is one of the most expensive exams and re-tests on the market.
Recertification with NASM occurs every two years with a fee of $99. Along with the recertification fee, applicants must complete 20 hours of CEUs.
NASM certificate holders make the highest average income of personal trainers at $41,598 annually. Income fluctuates based upon other certifications, credentials, work environment, and experience.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
ACE was founded just two years before NASM in 1985 and is the largest non-profit certifying agency in the world. ACE is certified by both NCCA and European Health & Fitness Association (EHFA), which means ACE-CPTs can also work anywhere in Europe. Its also considered by fitness employers as a top personal trainer certification. Learn more about ACE in this video:
Similar to NASM’s OPT method, ACE emphasizes its Integrated Fitness Training (IFT) method. This encourages rapport between trainer and client to achieve the best fitness results through cardiorespiratory training, functional movement, and resistance training.
ACE’s study materials are also taught in colleges and universities. Their material does an excellent job of covering the basics and building a program for general populations. ACE is a top program if you’d like to work in a gym, but if you’re looking to work with athletes or special populations, another certification will provide more extensive education.
Study and Exam
ACE only offers self-study materials; the Basic package includes digital copies of the materials and the Plus package includes digital and hard-copy materials plus a workbook. No live workshops offered, nor is there access to instructors for help.
Students must schedule their exams no later than six months after purchasing study materials. The exam can be taken on a computer or paper. Unlike most programs, ACE doesn’t require a high school diploma in order to register for the exam. The exam is allotted three hours and covers 150 questions. The pass rate for the exam is 65%.
Fees and Recertification
The exam fee is $399 (not included in the study material package) and the re-test fee is $199.
ACE-certified trainers are required to recertify every two years in order to maintain their certification. The fee for recertification is $129 and applicants must show proof of 20 CEUs completed in the two year period.
ACE-CPTs is nearly tied with NASM-CPTs in regard to income. ACE-CPTs make an average of $41,546 annually. Income can fluctuate based upon other certifications, credentials, work settings, and experience.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
Founded in 1954, ACSM is the oldest and largest sports medicine and exercise science certifying agency. ACSM focuses on the science behind exercise and correcting muscle imbalances. It prepares trainers for healthy and specialized populations, like the elderly, children, and pregnant women. Learn more about ACSM in this video:
ACSM is known for its in-depth research. In fact, other certifying agencies (including NASM) cite ACSM’s research and science in their textbooks! Certification under ACSM means you get first access to the best research in the business.
Study and Exam
ACSM’s study material options are less straightforward than other programs. Students must pick and choose the materials they deem would be most helpful instead of purchasing a study bundle. While this can potentially save money and capitalize on learning preferences, students should carefully research all materials to determine what would be most beneficial.
ACSM offers resources such as textbooks (and textbook bundles), online practice questions, an exclusive Facebook study group, workshops, webinars, and exam outlines. These are offered in 3, 6, and 12-month study options.
The exam is 120 questions and lasts two hours. The pass rate for the exam is 54%.
Fees and Recertification
The exam fee for non-ACSM members is $349 ($279 for ACSM members). The re-test fee is $175 regardless of ACSM membership.
Recertification for ACSM is every three years, but the CEU requirement is one of the highest in the field at 45 hours (second only to NSCA at 60 hours). Recertification fees depend on which certification is being renewed; fees range from $35-$55.
ACSM-CPTs make an average annual salary of $38,739. Income depends on other certifications and credentials, work setting, and former experience. Take a look at the table below for a side-by-side comparison of the top CPT programs:
|Pre-Requisite||18+ years old, CPR/AED||18+ years old, CPR/AED||18+ years old, CPR/AED|
|Study Package Cost||Starts at $489||Starts at $598||Pay Per Textbook Choice|
|Exam Pass Rate||64%||65%||54%|
|CEU Requirement||20 hours every 2 years||20 hours every 2 years||45 hours every 3 years|
So Who Is Best?
This is a bit of a trick question. Every trainer has a different motivation for pursuing personal training and each prefers unique career choices based upon their passions, backgrounds, former training, and interests. So there’s no right answer to which is the best certifying agency.
But this realization should lift the burden of finding the “right” certification or making a “wrong” choice! While it can intimidating to wade through hundreds of certifying agencies, the good news is there’s a perfect certification for you!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How does the NCCA accreditation help me as a personal trainer?
NCCA accreditation is highly esteemed in the personal training community. It means the certification program meets the quality standards for ethics, safety, and education deemed by ICE. Personal trainers with NCCA-accredited personal trainer certifications have better employment opportunities and better education to make a difference in their clients’ lives.
How does the NCCA accreditation compare to other accreditations?
NCCA accreditation is internationally considered the gold standard. While other accreditations also have government-approved standards, NCCA has such a strong and positive reputation, it’s hard to surpass.
What is the best NCCA-accredited CPT program?
Any CPT program accredited by the NCCA will be an exceptional educational program. It’s up to the individual to determine what program best fits their passions and pursuits.
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