How I Chose A Personal Training Certification

by Kilo on July 15, 2010

Personal Trainer

Dave Sandel

Guest Post by Dave Sandel

Hi there, boys ‘n girls. My name is Dave Sandel, and I’m the owner, operator, CEO, president, and head dude in charge of (if you’ve somehow never heard of me). I recently passed the NSCA-CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) exam and thought I would be a swell guy and let you know how and why I chose that specific certification.

First we need a little background information. My full-time gig, sadly, is electrical engineering (sadly). I didn’t go to school for kinesiology or any other type of exercise science related degree. What I have done though, is been an absolute strength and performance junky since 2001. I started lifting weights (kind of) in 8th grade (I’m now 27). I was also able to somehow make the football team for a DIII college in WI. So, a LOT of my knowledge has been acquired under the bar and on the field.

The Decision to become a personal trainer

The decision I’m talking about isn’t which cert to get; we’ll get to that shortly. The decision I’m talking about is the MONSTEROUS decision to someday leave my safe, secure, pretty good paying, full benefits, 401k, easy, desk jockey career for that of a risky fitness entrepreneur.

At the start of Fall Semester 2005, 4 years into my engineering degree, I had an epiphany. That epiphany was that I didn’t really enjoy engineering. The paycheck was about the only thing that attracted me to it. But deep down inside, I knew I was an entrepreneur. I wasn’t quite sure which kind yet, but I knew I HAD to work for myself someday. Then it hit me: Athletic Performance!! Before I had ever even heard of Joe DeFranco or Jason Ferruggia, I had the idea of an athletic performance specific type of training facility and philosophy. It was GOLD!!

However, the reality of the situation was that I was 4 years into a degree that was completely opposite of exercise phys. Not only that, but I had quite a bit of debt like most college grads and the paycheck of an engineer right out of college is probably more than double what your local Gold’s Gym trainer is bringing home.

Well, fast forward 5 years and I literally CANNOT stand my job. It’s time for a change, and it’s time to do what I love/what I was meant to do.

Which PT Certification should I get?

Before I get to the specifics (sorry to keep this dragging on), there are some other things to consider: what do you want to do within the fitness industry, who do you want to work for, how much money do you want to make?

If you want to work for some kind of formal athletic team, chances are you’re going to need an undergrad degree, a certification, and most likely a Masters degree if you want to get in with a DI college or pro team. Your earning potential is also restricted to however much your boss thinks you’re worth. However, if you’re like me and want to work for yourself, make a better than decent living, and work with athletes of all skill levels, you really only need a certification (and not be a sh*tty trainer). In all reality, you don’t even need a cert to work for yourself, but it’s nice to show parents and clients that, “yes, I do have some form of formal education.”

So anyways, I asked my buddy, who did the exercise phys thing in college and is now a trainer at Best Buy Corp. offices, what the major certifications are. He listed ACSM, NASM, ACE, ISSA, and NSCA. During my investigation, I also stumbled on NPTI (National Personal Training Institute).

Here’s what I found:

NPTI – It’s like a condensed 2-year degree that can be completed in 6 months. Some states even recognize it as a license to practice (much like a teaching license or licensed dietician….though much much less prestigeous).

ACSM, NASM, ACE, ISSA, NSCA-CPT – I lumped all of these together because they are all the most basic types of PT certs. If your goal is to train the general population, be a cheerleader, and hold your clients’ hands, these are for you. They’re relatively cheap; if you pass the test, you will be able to demonstrate some knowledge of training; and they are all recognizeable and acceptable. The difference between all of these are minor. Some focus more on anatomy & physiology, some focus on applied practices, and others corrective exercises. You should choose whichever cert is most closely related to your interests.

NSCA-CSCS – This is the one I chose. It was blatantly obvious to me. Straight from their website:

“Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCSs) are professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance. They conduct sport-specific testing sessions, design and implement safe and effective strength training and conditioning programs and provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention. Recognizing that their area of expertise is separate and distinct, CSCSs consult with and refer athletes to other professionals when appropriate.”

As I stated in the beginning, I want an athletic performance facility. I want to train athletes. I don’t like holding hands, and I like getting people to perform better, not just lose weight. The last thing I checked out, and the icing on the cake, was what type of certifications the noteable trainers held. Damn near every single one of them have the CSCS. It was a “no brainer”.

Rather than bore you tears (if you aren’t already) about how I went about studying for it, you can head over to my website and read about it here.

Things I’d Change

Just about the only thing I’d change is waiting to set a deadline. From the time I decided I was actually going to go through with this and the time I took the test, it was about 1.5 years. In no way should it take a year and a half to study for that exam. I mean, I didn’t devote myself to studying until about 4 weeks before the test…but then that’s all I did.

Fortunately, waiting so long to take the test didn’t really set my 5 year plan back at all, but now looking back, my 5 year plan could have maybe just been a 3.5 year plan.

So, if you’re thinking about getting certified, don’t waste your time trying to figure out the minute differences between all of them. Figure out what you want to do once you get a cert, choose a cert, and schedule the test. Don’t just pick a date some time in the future, but actually pony up the money and schedule the test so that you can’t let it slip.

Finally, a cert is really nothing more than a piece of paper that says you passed a test. If you want to be a professional trainer, you must continue to learn, seek out people smarter than you, and above all else, get your clients the results they are looking for.

I hope this wasn’t too boring, and I hope to see some of you over at my site. I cover much more than just fitness and nutrition. In fact, if you look right now, you can see a post (that I wrote whilst inebriated – that means drunk) about The 3 Phases Your Drinking Career on the front page. Wicked!

Lastly, big thanks to Josh for letting me post here. It’s been a lot of fun! Well, any time anyone let’s me talk about myself I think it’s fun. ;-)


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy July 15, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I love how you thought through which certification you got. When I was in graduate school the undergrads would ask me which certification they should get. I was always amazed that they didn’t think about what they wanted to do.

Personally I don’t have a PT certification. I’ve been training for 10 years now, but I also have a BS in Exercise Science and a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology. I am studying for the ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist exam currently though because when my boys are older I would like to work in Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation again.


Dave Sandel July 16, 2010 at 9:42 am

Thanks! Being anal about every major (or miniscule) decision I make comes from the engineer in me. Some things I just cannot escape. Dratz!

I wanted to include in the post (but it was already pretty long) that normally a degree trumps a certification and that I had considered going back for a degree, but my buddy talked me out of it. Because again, running a gym doesn’t require it. Working for an NFL team….might.

Thanks for the comment and good luck with your exam!


Kilo July 16, 2010 at 11:04 am

Dave, when am I going to see you taping ankles on Monday Night Football?


Dave Sandel July 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

As wicked as that would be, I’d much rather develop a Junior High kid into a Pro at my own gym….and then have him get me free sideline tickets so I didn’t have to tape anyone. ;)


jordan thomas June 5, 2011 at 10:55 pm

this is so me in a nut shell just the female version, very helpful!!m 22 i just graduated with my BS in earlychildhood edu and i do not want to do it at all. health and fitness is my heart and I was trying to figure out if i needed to go back to school and get another degree or just go for a certification, i really had no idea, this helped me out alot!!


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