NASM Certification: Everything You Need to Know

NASM Certification: Everything You Need to Know

You’ve seen some nice improvements in the gym, and your friends are hitting you up for training advice. You dig working out; you don’t mind eating right. So now you’re curious about becoming a personal trainer, and you’re thinking about certifying with the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

What does certification involve? How hard is it? And once you pass, what does it take to be a successful trainer?


What is NASM-CPT?

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Active for three decades, NASM is one of a handful of leading organizations offering widely recognized training certifications. (The American Council on Exercise, or ACE, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or NSCA, are the other major players.)

NASM offers several courses for training different populations, its most popular being the CPT course — CPT stands for “certified personal trainer.” (You’ll need a CPT if you want to train in a gym.)

The academy’s current curriculum, designed in 2000 by Dr. Mike Clark, outlines a functional, progressive, modular approach. Students learn to design and implement programs that address each client’s muscular and postural imbalances before moving to dynamic, functional exercises designed to build strength, muscle, power, and athleticism.

Along the way, you learn how to periodize a client’s program, taking them through several mesocycles (four- to six-week blocks of workouts) over the course of a single macrocycle (one year of training). Each block of cycles generally consists of:

• A stability cycle, emphasizing basic movement patterns and balance.

• A more challenging strength cycle, broken down into endurance, mass, and maximal strength.

• The most challenging power cycle, focusing on explosive, athletic movement.

At the end, you’ll repeat the cycles again — this time at a more challenging level.

“NASM’s CPT course trains you to help the long-term general fitness client achieve a basic fitness goal like improved strength, power, and body composition,” says Billy Anderson, NASM, who teaches the curriculum to new trainers at Life Time Academy in Chanhassen, Minnesota.


How Hard Is the NASM Test?

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The NASM curriculum is based on the company’s textbook, NASM Essentials of Personal Training, a hefty tome (or lengthy PDF) covering the basics of exercise science, anatomy, programming, nutrition, and tips on the training business. To pass the two-hour, 120-question exam offered at testing centers nationwide, you must be very familiar with the contents of the book’s 20 chapters.

You can study for the NASM exam in any way the suits your budget and learning style. The simplest option is the self-study course, which includes a PDF of the textbook, admittance to the exam, and online support materials, while allowing you the flexibility to study on your schedule. Need more help? Other options are available.

Self-Study Program

• Cost: $699

• Includes: Cost of taking the exam, textbook PDF (20 chapters), lecture videos, exercise library, videos on correcting form, practice exams, quizzes, study guide

Premium Self Study Program

• Cost: $999

• Includes: all benefits listed above, with additional anatomy memorization activities, learning activities, and flashcard bundle

Guided Study Program

• Cost: $1,299

• Includes: all benefits listed above, with additional reading material, exam readiness webinars, access to coach and mentor, discussion questions, live workshop, exam prep guarantee

All-Inclusive Program

• Cost: $1,999

• Includes: all benefits listed above, with retest voucher, job guarantee, and CPT development program

Put in the hours with a self-study, live courses, or both, says Anderson, and you’re likely to pass the exam: “For people who are serious and put in the work, the pass rate is about 90%,” he says.

The toughest part? “If you’re not familiar with the names of the muscles, and all the other terminology, you’re going to have to do some memorizing,” says Anderson. “Some students have a hard time with that.”


How Does NASM Prepare You?

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Most NASM-certified trainers find the approach highly practical. Once you’ve mastered some basic physiology, the majority of the curriculum focuses on program design: how to assess a client and advance them from one level to the next, one step at a time.

That granular approach has its strengths: You’re never at a loss for what to do with a client from one session to the next.

One potential weakness is that, because the program is so methodical, trainers who graduate from NASM may not be inclined to experiment based on a client’s particular needs, or to explore other approaches.

What Do You Do After You Certify?

After you pass the NASM exam, your next step is to decide how you want to use it. Do you like working with kids? Athletes? Older adults? Would you rather teach a class, work in small groups, or with individual clients? Do you like the gym setting or would you rather work in people’s homes, or a private studio?

The best approach is probably to dive in somewhere and move from there. Along the way, says Anderson, “You’ll discover who your ideal client is because those are the people who will stay with you. They’ll be the ones you enjoy training the most, and who get the most out of training with you.” Over time, as you attract more and more ‘ideal clients,’ your roster will fill up.

Certifying is an important step, and shows your potential employers that you’re serious about what you do. But most of your education will happen on the job, working with clients — with all their quirks, charms, and odd habits — in the real world. You’ll learn to help clients get started, peak for an event, weather setbacks, and start again.

One last bit of advice: “You need to learn to be a long-term project planner,” says Anderson. “Help keep a client focused on the goal. Keep them invested and emotionally engaged. If you can do that, you’ll never want for clients.”