Congratulations on your decision to be a personal trainer! You’ve picked a career that will change lives and is personally fulfilling.
Although the choice to pursue personal training may have been easy, you’ll soon find that a lot of decisions are involved in becoming a personal trainer.
What organization should you be certified with? How should you prepare to take the certifying exam? Should you get a combo certification?
The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) is one of the more popular certifying organizations and is worth considering when narrowing down your choices. Below, we will dive into this organization and highlight its pros and cons so that you can make an informed decision regarding where you would like to obtain your personal training certification.
Regardless of where you get your certification, utilize Exercise.com’s all-in-one gym management software to grow and manage your business! Keep track of your schedule, clients, workouts, and easily bill and manage finances. Book a demo today!
The Personal Training Profession
A personal trainer is a nationally certified individual with advanced knowledge of human anatomy, kinesiology, exercise science, and nutrition. They provide fitness instruction and education to clients in a variety of settings. They also prescribe custom-tailored programs for each client.
Personal trainers motivate clients by setting goals, providing accountability and encouragement, and giving feedback on exercise forms and modifications. They can work one-on-one, lead group exercises, and teach classes or boot camps.
Between aging baby boomers and businesses recognizing the benefits of employee fitness programs, there is a growing demand for personal trainers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the personal training market will grow 15% between 2018-2028. This means there’s a job waiting for you!
The average annual wage for personal trainers is $40,510. Wage can fluctuate depending on the work setting, experience, hours and holidays, and other certifications or specializations.
What Is the NCSF?
NCSF seeks to promote safe and effective physical activity for all by establishing and assessing quality standards, competency skills, and ethical practices for exercise professionals.
Three primary goals support this mission: to identify exercise professionals as health providers, encourage all exercise professionals to be certified through NCCA, and increase awareness and access to safe physical activity.
The NCSF operates under the NCSF Board for Certification, which meets throughout the year to oversee all aspects of the certification process, from exam development and administration to recertification requirements and disciplinary action.
Personal trainers didn’t always need to be formally educated. Prior to 2005, trainers could simply be exercise enthusiasts who worked at a gym and charged for instructional services. But trainer education was varied and unregulated and the safety of the public was at risk.
In 2005, the International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Association began recommending gyms and health clubs require trainer certification so clients would receive safe, standard instruction.
The recommendation gained momentum and over fifteen accrediting bodies were formed, each moderating the multiple agencies that currently certify fitness instructors.
But what exactly is accreditation, and why is it important?
Accreditation means the education provided by institutes and programs meets a satisfactory quality and standard. For fitness certifications, this means the quality educational requirements protect the health, welfare, and safety of the public. Learn more about why accreditation is important by watching the video below:
There are a number of accrediting bodies, but one of the most prestigious is the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).
NCSF has been reviewed and accredited by the NCCA and is highly respected among exercise professionals, which is a huge plus to receiving certification with NCSF! Your resume automatically stands out.
Most gyms and health centers prefer personal trainers certified under the rigorous standards of the NCSF because the exam is difficult to pass. Earning an NCSF certification means you thoroughly understand how to be an excellent trainer and will be a great addition to their team!
If you choose to go with a different program than NCSF, beware of scams and make sure that whatever program you choose is certified by an accrediting body. Gyms and fitness clubs won’t hire you if your certification is not from an accredited program.
NCSF: Certified Personal Trainer and Beyond
The NCSF offers several programs that meet the needs of almost any aspiring personal trainer. Even better, they make it easy and affordable to grab a few other certifications that increase your knowledge, value, skills, and paycheck as a personal trainer!
Like many other certification programs, NCSF only requires that the candidate be 18 years of age or older and possess a high school diploma or equivalent.
However, NCSF does provide educational recommendations in order to pass their exam and be a successful personal trainer, such as:
- Practical experience working in the health and fitness field.
- Utilize their courses or preparational materials for the exam, or choose education programs by other colleges or universities.
The NCSF exam covers universally accepted exercise theory, principles, and guidelines. This allows candidates to choose study materials not offered by the NCSF.
NCSF offers three certifications: Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Certified Strength Coach (CSC), and Sports Nutrition Specialist (SNS) certifications.
Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.
Certified Personal Trainer (CPT)
CPT is the baseline personal training certification. CPTs work in a variety of settings, including fitness clubs, businesses, apartments or retirement communities, and more. They can be employed by a corporation or work independently as self-employed trainers. CPTs can even travel around the world, working at resorts or on cruise ships.
According to the NCSF website, CPTs work with:
- Individuals with client-specific goals
- Individuals preparing for specific events
- Older adults on a variety of health and function-based needs
- Children to enhance physical activity, motor development, and healthy habits
- Small group classes
- Health-compromised individuals to reduce the effects of their disease
- Corporations to improve the health-related performance of workers and reduce stress and absenteeism
The opportunities and options are endless for CPTs! It’s an exciting and rewarding career that helps people lead more fulfilling lives.
Certified Strength Coach (CSC)
CSCs are primarily seen in athletic facilities, schools, and universities. However, many coaches enhance sports performance in non-traditional settings, like physical therapy and wellness clinics.
Roles and responsibilities are similar regardless of the setting, but there are some variations, such as the number of athletes being trained at a time and the resources available to the CSC.
CSCs work with individuals, groups, or teams and often focus on injury prevention, physical development, and skill acquisition, as well as training and conditioning to improve sports performance. Other work options include:
- Youth programs to improve the performance-related fitness
- Small groups to provide specific training regimens aimed at the performance components of fitness
- Military and municipalities to ensure physical readiness
NCSF’s sports coach certification does not include certification for personal training. NCSF requires a CPT certification from NCSF or another NCCA-accredited body or a minimum of an associate’s degree in an exercise-related field in order to sit for the CSC exam.
Sometimes a secondary degree from a college or university is required for a specific work setting. This is to guarantee adequate competency to safely work with athletes and special populations.
In other settings, professional development through continuing education is enough to be a CSC. Continuing education allows for ongoing competency, career growth, and expanded services.
Sports Nutrition Specialist (SNS)
Although the title seems exclusive to sports, an SNS actually works with a variety of populations and needs. An SNS can help clients lose weight, improve athletic performance, or enhance health through nutritional strategies.
Clients and athletes know nutrition is essential to accomplishing their goals. An SNS helps clients and athletes tailor their diets and supplements for individual needs and goals.
In addition, the demand for Sports Nutrition Specialists is growing and is becoming an increasingly trending topic in universities and professional settings.
NCSF’s SNS certification does not include a personal trainer certification. The candidate must possess a CPT certification from NCSF or an NCCA-accredited body in order to sit for the SNS exam.
NCSF offers both separate certifications (as seen above) and two combo certifications: personal training and strength coach, and personal training and sports nutrition specialist. These complementary certifications significantly increase your marketability as an exercise professional!
Employers prefer to employ exercise professionals who have expertise in multiple fields so they can increase their profit by only employing a few highly skilled trainers. This means in order to be competitive in the job market, it’s wise to have at least one other credential to your name.
NCSF’s combo programs increase your knowledge and skillset, setting you up for future success as a personal trainer. And at only $649 for each combo package, their programs are a great deal!
Preparation for Certification Exams
There are many options that allow study flexibility and personalization for everyone. If you are currently a CPT and choose to utilize non-NCSF study materials, there’s also an Exam Only option for all three certifications!
Each certification has different educational package options and expected lengths of study time. Let’s get into the specifics of each one.
Certified Personal Trainer
NCSF offers a basic Home Study Course & Exam and a “Plus” package which includes a hard copy of the digital textbook. Currently, NCSF has suspended its workshop courses due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The Home Study Course & Exam allows the convenience of self-paced learning. Each student is sent the Course Textbook, access to an e-learning platform, and complete instructor support. The video below is an example of an e-Learning video:
Most candidates take several months to complete the home study to feel confident in their knowledge and skills before taking the exam.
The following table shows the package options and prices available for Certified Personal Training certification through NCSF:
|Practice Exam Questions||x||x||x||x|
|NCSF Personal Trainer Certification Exam||x||x||x||x||x|
|2-days of workshop instruction (16 hours)||x||x|
|Membership (One Year)||x||x||x||x|
|Questions and Answers||x||x||x||x|
|Workshop Reference Guide||x||x|
|Personal Training Textbook 2nd Edition||x||x|
|Personal Training Textbook 2nd Edition(Digital)||x||x||x||x|
|Course Breakdowns:||Exam Only||Home Study Course & Exam||Home Study Plus Package||Workshop Course & Exam||Workshop Plus Package|
Certified Strength Coach
The educational packages to obtain a strength coach certification are very similar to a CPT.
The Home Study Course & Exam includes a course textbook, the NCSF e-Learning platform with 300+ instructional and how-to videos, and practice exams. You can progress through the subject areas at your own pace and use the quizzes and activities to assess your knowledge.
While the CSC program sounds almost identical to CPT, there are some differences are worth noting:
- In order to enroll in the NCSF-CSC program, you must first have a CPT from the NCSF or another NCCA-accredited organization.
- If you purchase the home study course and want to enroll in a workshop, you must contact NCSF about enrolling in a workshop.
The following table shows the package options and prices available for Certified Strength Coach certification through NCSF:
|NCSF Certified Strength Coach Exam||x|
|Membership (One Year)||x||x|
|2-days of workshop instruction (16 hours)||x||x|
|8 NCSF CEUs(Meets Ethics Requirement)||x||x||x||x|
|Certified Strength Coach Reference Guide||x||x|
|Online Certified Strength Coach Practice Exam||x||x||x||x|
|Questions and Answers||x||x||x||x|
|Advanced Concepts of Strength & Conditioning (Digital Edition)||x||x||x||x|
|Advanced Concepts of Strength & Conditioning Textbook||x||x|
|Course Breakdowns:||Exam Only||Home Study Course & Exam||Home Study Plus Package||Workshop Course & Exam||Workshop Plus Package|
Sports Nutrition Specialist
The SNS study materials are only available online, but the e-Learning platform has plenty of study materials to thoroughly prepare the candidate for the exam: 200+ practice exam questions, digital flashcards, instructional videos, notes, question and answers activities, and review quizzes!
The “Plus” package includes an SNS textbook that is not provided in the standard package.
The preparation material covers five units:
- Recommended Nutrients and Intakes
- Physiological Concepts for Nutrition
- Micronutrients and Supplementation
- Nutrition and Physiological Adaptations to Exercise
Candidates review the material and then apply their knowledge in practical lab activities provided in the course package. Most candidates find they need two to four months to feel prepared for the exam.
The SNS program has also been approved for Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for personal trainers and strength coaches. This is a great way to add more credentials to your name while keeping up with your certification renewal requirements! (We’ll discuss CEUs thoroughly in a later section)
The following table shows the package options and prices available for Sports Nutrition Specialist certification through NCSF:
|Sports Nutrition Specialist:||Choose||Your||Package|
|Sport Nutrition Specialist Exam||x||x||x|
|Sport Nutrition Specialist Textbook||x|
|8 NCSF CEUs(Meets Ethics Requirement)||x||x|
|Online Sport Nutrition Specialist Flashcards||x||x|
|Online Sport Nutrition Specialist Practice Exam||x||x|
|Course Breakdowns:||Exam Only||Course & Exam||Plus Package|
NCSF strongly encourages their combo certifications, and with a compelling reason. Even though the demand for personal trainers is on the rise, it’s best to have extra certifications from the very beginning of your career to be a better trainer and more competitive in the job market.
If you’re intrigued by or want a career in conditioning or nutrition, the combo certifications are for you! Not to mention, the combos are offered at a great price!
Preparation for the exams is accomplished through home study materials. There’s plenty of variety, including the textbook, lesson notes, interactive videos, self-tests, hundreds of practice exam questions, and more.
Instructor support is also available via chat or phone to answer specific questions.
The Certification Exam: An Overview
It’s time to put all of your dedicated studying to the test… literally! Once you’ve completed the course and feel competent in the material, it’s time to take your certification exam! Watch the following study tips for right before your exam:
Regardless of your course choice, you can take the exam once you feel ready. But remember to take the exam within six months after purchasing your course package! If six months pass without testing, you must re-register with NCSF in order to take the exam.
You can also take any exam without purchasing a study package. This is for candidates who choose to use study materials other than what’s provided through NCSF.
Register for your exam at a Prometric testing center in your area. If you bought study material through NCSF, the exam fee is conveniently covered under your package purchase.
If you can’t make your scheduled appointment time, call the Prometric testing center 72 business hours beforehand. Failure to do so will require re-registration in order to take the exam.
If after registering you decide to not take the exam, you may request a refund in lieu of rescheduling. Contact the NCSF in writing within 30 days of your original exam registration and a 50% refund can be awarded. Refunds are not granted after the 30 days have expired.
Exam Day: What To Expect
Arrive at Prometric at least fifteen minutes early to sign in and validate your identity with a government-issued, signature-bearing i.d.s such as a driver’s license or passport. At your exam time, the Test Center Administrator will lead you to a computerized test workstation.
All certifications allow three hours to complete a 150-question, multiple-choice exam. A minimum score of 70 is required in order to pass the exam.
At the completion of the exam, a Pass/Fail score will appear on the screen. Your score report will be emailed to you and results will be submitted to NCSF.
After finishing, the proctor will escort you from the testing room for check out.
If you didn’t meet the minimum passing score, you must contact NCSF to schedule a re-take exam. If you passed, a certification package containing a frameable certificate and a wallet-size membership card will be sent within two weeks of passing the exam.
CPT, CSC, and SNS Exam Expectations
Now that we’ve discussed an overview of the exam, let’s take a look at some specifics for each certification.
Certified Personal Trainer
The exam for CPT covers basic anatomy, exercise physiology, health screening and evaluation, nutrition and weight management, exercise prescription, and special populations. The following chart is a breakdown of questions:
|CPT Exam Section||Percentage of Exam|
|Professionalism and Risk Management||3%|
|Considerations for Special Populations||3%|
|Physical Activity and Health Promotion||11%|
|Screening and Evaluation||13%|
|Exercise Prescription and Programming Considerations||19%|
In 2018, the pass rate for the NCSF-CPT exam was 77%. While this is a relatively high pass rate, many reviews on the NCSF-CPT exam warn candidates to be thoroughly prepared for the exam because of its difficulty.
Certified Strength Coach
NCSF requires one of the following certifications as a prerequisite to sitting for the CSC exam:
- A current NCSF-CPT certification
- A current NCCA-accredited fitness professional certification
- A minimum of an associate’s degree from an accredited college or university in an exercise-related profession
Although preparation for the exam is offered through NCSF, the candidate may prepare through other educational means such as college and university programs. The exam is comprised of 150 multiple-choice questions divided into the following eight sections:
|CSC Exam Section||Percentage of Exam|
|Professionalism and Risk Management||5%|
|Nutrition and Ergogenic Aids||8%|
|Injury Prevention and Return to Competition||9%|
|Performance Assessment and Evaluation||13%|
|Functional Anatomy and Biomechanics||15%|
|Advanced Programming for Sport||20%|
|Training Techniques for Athletic Performance||20%|
The pass rate for the NCSF-CSC exam in 2018 was 54.8%. This low pass rate speaks to the difficulty of this exam and candidates should be well-prepared in order to pass.
Sports Nutrition Specialist
NCSF requires one of the following certifications as a prerequisite to sitting for the SNS exam:
- Hold a current NCSF certification
- A current NCCA-accredited fitness certification
- Hold a license and/or certification in an Allied Health Profession
- Hold a Teacher specific State-issued Certification or License
Preparation for the exam is offered through NCSF, but candidates may choose other forms of preparation, such as college and university programs. The exam is comprised of 150 multiple choice questions divided into the following five sections:
|SNS Exam Section||Percentage of Exam|
|Nutrients and Intakes||11%|
|Micronutrients and Supplementation||17%|
|Physiological Aspects of Nutrition||18%|
|Nutrition and Physiological Adaptations to Exercise||20%|
There is no data on the pass/fail rate for the SNS exam. A free sample test is available here. The SNS Policy and Procedures page is easily accessible for more information and clarification regarding the SNS certification process.
Maintaining Your Certification
Congratulations on the huge success of passing the exam and earning the distinguished NCSF certification! Once you’ve passed the exam and received your certification in the mail, you can begin your fitness career as a CPT, CSC, or SNS.
Establishing your career can be overwhelming, but Exercise.com’s comprehensive gym management software takes the brunt of paperwork, billing, and scheduling so you can stay engaged with your clients.
It’s an easy and fun way to stay connected with your clients! Not to mention, it increases your profit.
See for yourself - Meet with the Exercise.com Team today
Grow and manage your fitness business with Exercise.com
Like many health professions, you must recertify and successfully complete a certain amount of continuing education hours to continue practicing as an exercise professional.
All NCSF professionals are required to recertify every two years. This ensures that practicing professionals are in compliance with current NCSF practice standards, ethics, and code of conduct, are growing in their field, and are keeping up with trends and new data.
NCSF offers two options for recertification:
- Retake the certification exam: Simply retake and pass the NCSF certification exam. Eligibility requirements, registration, and fees still apply.
- Recertification by CEUS: Earn new knowledge and skills by enrolling and successfully completing NCSF-approved continuing education units (CEUs). 10 CEUs are required every two years.
The recertification fee for one credential (CPT, CSC, or SNS) is $75 and $100 for multiple credentials. Fees are subject to change at any time.
A Recertification Application, documents proving CEU completion, and appropriate fees must be mailed to the NCSF Board for Certification (postmarked prior to your current certification expiration date). Recertification requests are usually processed within three to five days.
The NCSF will deny recertification to applicants who weren’t compliant with the stated requirements. Approval is given to applicants who meet the requirements.
Your credential status is updated on the day of approval and lasts for another two-year period. You receive a recertification package containing a new ID card, updated certificate, and information about future CEUs within 14 days of approval.
While retaking the certification exam is an excellent review, many professionals choose to add to their skill set by enrolling in continuing education courses. These new skills increase professional value, give refreshing ideas, and help clients achieve better results.
What’s involved with earning your recertification through CEUs?
10 CEUs are the minimum requirement every two years. All CEUs must be earned in the two-year certification period in order to qualify for that recertification. Professionals can earn more than the 10 CEU minimum, but the credits won’t apply to the next recertification period.
While 10 CEUs may seem like a lot, it’s actually the lowest CEU requirement for recertification in the field! To compare, NSCA requires 60 CEUs every three years!
Three of the credit hours are designated for CPR training and Ethics & Professional Practice (two CEUs for CPR and one CEU for EPP). The other seven credit hours can be earned in one or several of the following categories:
- NCSF CEU Library: Enroll in continuing education home study programs, workshops, or quizzes that have a pre-defined CEU value.
- College and University Courses: CEU credit can be earned if the subject matter qualifies and the college or university is accredited. A transcript showing a passing grade must be submitted. One CEU is awarded per college credit.
- Professional Development: Professional presentations, research participation, authoring or contributing to published written work, and industry committee work all count towards your CEU total. One CEU is given for every four hours of documented work. A maximum of 5 CEUs can be earned from this category.
- Non-Pre-Approved Coursework: These are seminars and home study courses that are not in the NCSF CEU Library but are developed and taught by an approved credentialed instructor. These earn 0.5 CEU per contact hour. (For example, a seven-hour seminar earns 3.5 CEUs.)
The NCSF Board for Certifications performs random audits to check for compliance and to verify that documentation is accurate. If you are audited, promptly respond to any concerns or questions and return requested information quickly to avoid a change in credential status.
Have more questions? Learn everything you need to know about recertification in the NCSF Recertification Handbook.
What’s the Verdict?
We’ve explored just about every aspect of the NCSF, covering the process from beginning to end, from credential options to recertification. Let’s recap the pros and cons before coming to our final conclusion.
#1 – Excellent Educational Foundation
All of the NCSF exams are tough, and that’s a good thing! Clients must fully trust their trainers in order to meet their fitness goals. That means you better know what you’re doing and not mislead your client!
NCSF gives lots of thorough information that must be absorbed slowly and completely in order to pass the difficult exams. But this will only pay off in the end and benefit your clients.
#2 – Respected Certification
Because the NCSF exam is so difficult, passing it catches the eye of any fitness employer. NCSF is a highly-respected organization in the fitness field, which gives you great job security and opportunities.
#3 – Quick Certification
Compared to some certifying bodies (like ACSM) that take 24 months to finish, all of NCSF’s certifications must be completed in a six-month time period. While this requires dedication to studying, it also keeps you focused and on track to become a personal trainer.
#4 – A Cheaper Option
Some CPT programs can be very costly (like NASM at $799). NCSF sits in the middle range of certification program costs at $499. Especially if you are interested in doing a combo certification, NCSF has an excellent price at only $599.
Additionally, qualifying military and ex-military personnel can complete the program by using funds from the G.I. bill.
#5 – A Variety of Certification Options
NCSF offers CPT, CSC, and SNS certifications, as well as CPT & CSC and CPT & SNS combo certifications. The variety available can fit the needs and aspirations of anyone interested in personal training.
#6 – A Variety of Package Options
NCSF takes into account that everyone has different budgetary needs. Their packages are fairly priced and can fit into almost any budget. There’s also a payment plan for greater flexibility. No matter what package you pick, you will be well-prepared to take the exam.
#7 – Excellent Positive Reviews
NCSF has dozens of positive reviews (an average of 4.9/5 stars!) and is highly recommended among the personal training community. Reviews boast of thorough and clear textbooks, videos, and workshops that help pass the exam, as well as excellent career preparation.
#8 – Least Amount of CEU Requirements
NCSF allows you to keep more of your paycheck by not requiring as many CEUs. In fact, NCSF requires the least amount of CEUs in the personal training field!
#1 – NCSF Trainers Earn the Least Income
Despite the distinction and solid foundational education, NCSF trainers average the lowest income in the field at $35,061 annually. Income can be dependent upon skills, other certifications, and personal marketing, but this is still a noteworthy statistic that should be considered.
#2 – Recertification Is Every Two Years
Compared to other certifying bodies (like NESTA or ACSM) who require recertification every three or four years, NCSF requires recertification every two years. CEUs, fees, and deadlines must be met more frequently.
#3 – Less Popular
While prospective employers acknowledge and appreciate your hard-earned NCSF certification, your clients might not. The NCSF-CPT exam is attempted only 2,455 times a year, compared to NASM at over 22,000 attempts per year.
This means that when a client is selecting their personal trainer, they may pass over you simply because they didn’t recognize the acronym. It’s like buying the most popular phone because everyone has it, not necessarily because it’s the best.
#4 – The Exam Is Tough
While this is a good thing because it forces comprehension, you must also reflect on your test-taking skills. If you have exam anxiety or difficulty taking tests, NCSF’s challenging exam may not be right for you.
The Bottom Line
Choosing a personal training certification must include many factors. You must evaluate what you can afford, your test-taking skills, learning style, CEU requirements, recertification fees and frequency, and more.
While NCSF has twice as many pros to cons, you must weigh for yourself what’s important. The facts stand that NCSF-CPT is a less popular certification that tends to make the least income. It’s also a difficult exam that may not suit certain testing styles.
However, NCSF offers a solid education in a positive and enthusiastic environment. The certification is well-respected and almost guarantees employment. It’s highly recommended among the personal training community, which says a lot considering the options for obtaining CPT certification!
Our final word: NCSF is a superb credential that should be placed high on the list of certifying agencies! There’s a program for anyone seeking a CPT certification. We highly recommend it!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How long does the NCSF certification last?
Recertification is required every two years.
Do you have to renew your personal training certification?
Yes. There is a minimum of 10 CEUs and a fee of $75 for one certification renewal and $100 for two or more certification renewals.
What personal trainer certificate is most respected?
NASM, ACSM, and NSCA are three of the most popular and respected training certifications. NCSF is also a prestigious certification because the exam is so difficult.
How much does a personal trainer make?
There are many factors to a personal trainer’s salary, such as additional certifications, work setting, experience, and more. On average, a personal trainer makes $39,820.
Do you need a degree to be a personal trainer?
A degree is not required, but exercise-related education or work experience in a fitness environment is highly recommended.
We hope this review has been helpful in deciding where to receive your CPT certification!
Wherever you get your CPT certification, remember that Exercise.com’s gym management software sets you up for success and frees you up to fully engage with your clients. Book a demo today to learn more!