The Three C’s of Choosing a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. Some are life-changing professionals and some are best avoided. So how do you know what to look for and who to choose? Here are my three C’s of choosing a personal trainer:



The first thing you should do is check out the potential trainer’s bio and certification(s). There are four personal trainer certification organizations accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) that are most sought-after by employers and recognized within the industry as the créme de la crémé:


National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

The NSCA has offered its Certified Personal Trainer certification since 1993. It’s 3-hour long, 150 multiple-choice question exam is known as one of the most difficult and requires months of preparation. Trainers must partake in a variety of continuing education programs in order to recertify every three years.

Exam content:

  • Client consultation/assessment
  • Program planning
  • Techniques of exercise
  • Safety, emergency procedures, and legal issues


  • 18-years old or older
  • High school degree
  • AED and CPR certified


The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist offered by the NSCA is probably the most recognized personal trainer certification in the industry due to its prerequisites and the exam’s difficulty level. It is the only certification that requires a bachelor’s degree to sit for the exam. It is a two-part exam. The first exam is 1.5 hours long and covers the scientific foundations of training. The second exam is 2.5 hours long and covers the practical/applied side of training. Just like the NSCA-CPT, recertification is required every three years. This is the hardest exam I have taken thus far. I actually stood up and sat on the floor and moved around trying to reenact a question.

Exam content:

Scientific Foundations

  • Exercise science
  • Nutrition


  • Exercise techniques
  • Program design
  • Organization and administration
  • Testing and evaluation


  • Bachelor’s degree from a 4-year accredited college
  • AED and CPR certified


American Council on Exercise (ACE)

The ACE Personal Trainer certification is considered one of the best. Founded in 1985, ACE is one of the most active organizations in its attempts to keep the exam content and certification focus relevant to the ever-changing market and day-to-day requirements of trainers. Like the NSCA-CPT, the exam is 3 hours long and includes 150 multiple-choice questions. Recertification is required every two years.

Exam content:

  • Client interviews and assessments
  • Program design and implementation
  • Program progression and modifications
  • Professional conduct, safety, and risk management


  • 18-years old or older
  • AED and CPR certified


ACE Health Coach
The ACE Health Coach is the only Health Coach certification accredited by the NCCA. This certification is an advanced certification that focuses beyond just the training itself, but also on how to work with people to implement behavior-change programs that focus on lifestyle and weight management. Like the CSCS, it is one of the most difficult certification tests. It is a 3-hour test with 150 multiple-choice questions. Recertification is required every two years. This was the second hardest exam I have taken so far. The questions were very tough and took a lot of time and concentration. Three hours has never flown by so quickly.

Exam content:

  • Building rapport and facilitating behavior change
  • Program design and implementation
  • Program progression and adjustments
  • Professional conduct and competency


  • 18-years old or older
  • AED and CPR certified
  • Either a current NCCA-accredited certification in fitness, nutrition, healthcare, wellness, human resources, or a related field OR a minimum 2-year (Associate’s) degree or comparable work experience in fitness, exercise science, nutrition, healthcare, wellness, human resources, or a related field


American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

Founded in 1954, ACSM is one of the oldest organizations to certify health professionals. Some refer to ACSM as the “gold standard” of personal training certifications because many of the standards and guidelines in the field originated from ACSM. Many medical facilities require their personal trainers to be an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer due to the organizations’ foundation in medical science. The exam is 3 hours long and has 150 multiple-choice questions. Trainers must recertify every three years.

Exam content:

  • Client consultation and assessment
  • Exercise programming and implementation
  • Exercise leadership and client education
  • Legal, professional, business and marketing


  • 18-years old or older
  • High school degree
  • AED and CPR certified


National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

NASM is one of the leaders in the sports and fitness industry with one of the top Certified Personal Trainer certifications. The exam for this certification is 2 hours long and consists of 100 multiple-choice questions. Recertification is required every two years.

Exam content:

  • Basic and applied science
  • Assessment
  • Exercise technique and training instruction
  • Program design
  • Nutrition
  • Client relations behavioral coaching
  • Professional development, practice and responsibility


  • 18-years old or older
  • AED and CPR certified

What I like best about NASM is the extra credentials they offer beyond just the CPT. All of the certifying organizations I’ve mentioned above offer other certifications beyond just their CPT. I already pointed out NSCA’s CSCS and ACE’s Health Coach. I have both. They are my two favorite credentials to date! But beyond those two, I think NASM offers the most interesting and thoughtfully specialized certifications. Here are the ten NASM certifications:

  • Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)
  • Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES)
  • Fitness Nutrition Specialist (FNS)
  • Weight Loss Specialist (WLS)
  • Group Personal Training Specialist (GPTS)
  • MMA Conditioning Specialist (MMACS)
  • Women’s Fitness Specialist (WFS)
  • Youth Exercise Specialist (YES)
  • Senior Fitness Specialist (SFS)
  • Golf Fitness Specialist (GFS)

The only prerequisite for these additional certifications is a CPT from any NCCA-accredited organization.



After reviewing the trainer’s certification credentials, look for various key words in his or her bio that reflects your interests and goals. If you are a woman and want to work with a woman, that will narrow down your choices. If you are older with arthritis and read that one trainer prefers HIT-training or most enjoys inspiring young athletes to push themselves to their limits, you may want to continue your search. It’s the same as if you were online dating. If you don’t think you would have anything in common and might feel uncomfortable with that person, move on. There are plenty more fish in the sea. Building a rapport with your trainer is crucial to your success, so you need to make sure you have something in common or feel some type of personality compatibility before you start.



Please give a trainer 4-5 sessions to get used to you and for you to get used to him or her before you decide if you are a good fit. Like most professionals you visit, you need a little time to get to know his or her work-methods and decide if it’s the right situation for you. You won’t be able to learn much about each other or start to work well with each other until both of you feel like you’ve moved beyond that “total stranger” stage.

However, and this is critical, if you do not like your trainer, whether it be for personality reasons, lack of competency, or even repeated scheduling conflicts, do not be afraid to ask to switch to another trainer. You do not need to go to a completely different gym or studio just because you didn’t like the first trainer you ever tried to work with. It is your absolute right to be able to change trainers and try working with different trainers until you find the one who works best for you. It may feel awkward when you see the let-go trainer around, but if he or she is a professional, then he or she is probably happy you switched. One, if you weren’t feeling it and felt any tension, the trainer probably did as well. And two, if the trainer is a professional, he or she will want you to succeed in your goals. That should be his or her number one goal. So, if that means switching to another trainer for you to feel and be your best, then that’s what that original trainer should want. The trainer is a type of comrade when he or she is training you, but you are still the client — you are allowed to move on if you decide that is best for you. There are some amazing professionals in the fitness field who have worked very hard for many years to learn all about how to help you regain control of your body in a safe, knowledgeable, and inspiring way. They are worth finding.


Credentials. Compatibility. Commitment.

These three C’s should help you find the right personal trainer for you. Hope this helps and happy training!


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