As a newly certified personal trainer by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), I want to tell you my honest opinion about this certification and its exam, and some tips to study for it, especially if you —like me— come from an unrelated educational background.
Why I chose NSCA
When I started to think about getting certified as a personal trainer, I looked up several options and finally I opted for the NSCA because of its worldwide recognition, its proven seriousness and its widespread prestige. I also liked the possibility of not just preparing the exam on my own, but attending a little in-person course too.
Another thing I consider good, in spite of the fact that some people back out precisely because of it, is that you don’t renew your certification just by paying a fee, as it happens with others, but you’re required to gather education credits (called CEUs). You can obtain those by taking online or in-person courses, attending seminars or a symposium, reading specialized journals and taking a little test about them… That way, they guarantee a continuing education, that your knowledge is always updated and you have to make an effort to stay on top of things.
In my opinion, this gives more value to the certification, because it implies that whoever has it not only studied a bit years ago and that was it, but it’s a professional who throws himself into his area of expertise and updates his knowledge. The problem with this is that it costs money, so it’s something you should ponder, since if you’re not going to be able to renew the certification, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get it in the first place (because, if you lose it, you’d have to take the exam again to get it back).
In Spain, the price of the package that includes the exam fee, a mock test, the in-person course, the CPR/AED certification and the book you need to study for the exam is 675€. If this option is available in your country for a reasonable price, I believe it’s the best one.
You don’t need to have any degree related to sports. You just have to be 18 years old or more and have a high school diploma or equivalent. It’s true that most people who want to get this certification have studied Exercise Science, Physiotherapy, Nutrition or things like that, but it’s not needed. I studied History and Art History and I’ve been able to pass. What matters most is to be disciplined and being able to establish study habits. There aren’t physical test either.
I must say something else about degrees, though. Please, check the laws in your country or state before assuming this certification will allow you to work where you want to. For example, the Spanish laws are becoming more and more restrictive. I’m totally against that because it seems to me like people is too eager to restrict others’ freedom and protect their monopolies. You’re forced to choose what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re just 18, and you either get it right or you’re screwed, which is very unfair. I think there should always be as many opportunities as possible to change and build a new professional career from scratch. But, that said, just take this into account, because your job offers might not be as broad as those for someone with a degree.
Now I’m going to assess some specific aspects of the NSCA personal trainer certification and give advice to prepare the exam better:
The exam preparation course
I wholeheartedly recommend to take this course, even better if you can attend it in person instead of just online. It’s a 3-day intensive course in which all the syllabus is covered. It’s great especially if you, like me, don’t have previous notions on these topics, because it will serve you as an introduction to get more familiar with them, while if you go straightaway to read the book on your own you might feel overwhelmed.
In addition, they tell you what things are more important for the exam, the most frequent kind of questions, the units that are asked more and less, what data to learn by heart and what information you can just have a general idea about… So it’s really useful. Note down all these kind of things when they say them, because if not you’re going to forget.
You’ll be given a booklet with notes that is a good complement to the book, although we were warned not to study just that for the exam because people who do that fail. It’s not enough on its own, it’s not a substitute for the book. I suggest you use it to write on the margins your own notes during the course, especially mnemonic tricks (for example, now I’ll always remember that External intercostal muscles aid in Inhalation and Internal intercostal muscles aid in Expiration because the I and the E are interchanged).
The other prerequisite to take the NSCA exam apart from your age and the high school diploma is to possess a CPR/AED (that is, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Automated External Defibrillator) certification. If you don’t have it, don’t worry, because you’ll have an extra day in the course in which you’ll be able to get it.
There are people who’re surprised that you need a solid theoretical base to be a personal trainer. Yes, you need to study hard. The textbook is 700 pages long and it’s not just about exercises and training programs, but it also covers units on physiology, biomechanics, bioenergetics, nutrition, illnesses, legal aspects…
They use a very scientific approach, so if you come from the Liberal Arts like me there’ll be things that will be like Greek to you, and that in fact you’re not going to totally understand until the end. But don’t get discouraged, and try to see how interesting they are. For example, studying the chemical reactions at a microscopical level in our cells helps me get closer to God when I see how complex and perfect the design of the mechanisms of our body is. Truly, the human body is like a little universe.
The textbook not only is very complete, but it provides abundant bibliography so (in the future, not for the exam) you can dig deeper. Although one problem is that it lacks updating, of course, it doesn’t include the most recent research. And, since it’s a textbook, many things are taken for granted without mentioning that in fact different possibilities are being studied or there are discussions about it. But I think this is understandable and that generally speaking it’s rigorous.
How to study the textbook
NSCA teachers usually recommend that you read the entire textbook at least once. But that is if you’ve studied a sports degree. I organized my calendar so I could have time to read it 4 times and then have another week to revise before the exam. Since the textbook has 25 chapters, the easiest way to do it is to organize 4 months of studying.
The first reading is just to get familiar with the topics. Don’t be scared if you don’t understand anything in the first units, even after having taken the course. The most important concepts are going to appear again and again in the next chapters, so if you’re alert you’ll be able to make connections.
Sometimes people recommend to skip the introductory units and go straight to those most related to exercise so you don’t get discouraged. But I think it’s better to follow the original order, because if not, you’re going to find concepts that won’t ring a bell and therefore you’re going to pass over them, precisely those which you should have been learning from the first chapters. So from a mnemonic point of view the first strategy is more effective.
With my second reading, I highlighted the key words of each section. With my third reading, I highlighted more things, basically everything that’s fundamental to know, the core of each topic. With my fourth reading, I made concepts maps.
The last week is revision week. I devoted it to reading my concept maps and also the booklet I’d been given at the in-person course —including my own notes—, and the entire book twice again, but this time only what I’d highlighted, so it’s possible to do it in one day. I recommend you to do that at least once.
The practice tests
I recommend you to take lots of tests. In the textbook you have one at the end of each chapter. There are also longer questions, but skip them for now because they don’t provide any value for the exam and will make you waste time.
But, apart from the tests of the textbook, look up more on your own. This Youtube list is a good resource. At Kahoot you’ll find some more if you search NSCA CPT, and there are also several apps at the Apple Store (although the quality varies; but all practice is good).
If you’ve purchased the same package as me, it includes a mock exam. Leave it for revision week. And, even if you didn’t purchase that package, it would be good to buy the mock exam on its own, since it’s good for preparation because it’s the only practice test for this exam that includes video questions as the true exam, so the experience is more real.
Look at you
A tip I give you to study the units about movement is to locate the things on your own body. Do the movement and try to see what muscles are involved, and of those, which act as agonists, antagonists and synergists during concentric and eccentric contractions. Whether the movement takes place in the frontal, sagittal or transverse plane. Whether it’s a first, second or third class lever. It’s much more effective than trying to learn those things by heart, and it will serve you to apply it in real life with your clients later.
(Don’t worry if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I didn’t know most of those things before studying them for this exam).
Numbers matter, don’t skip them. Of course you don’t need to learn the super long and complicated formulas of the book, that’s common sense, but you’re going to have to do calculations. You can get asked things such as the equivalences of the percentages of 1RM. They can also give you several data from the results of the assessment of a client and ask you which one is below average. That’s why it would be awesome if you could memorize the 50th percentile of every table, but I think that’s impossible. At least, memorize the data regarding maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) and those that are repeated over and over throughout the book: BMI, waist circumference, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.
Do your calculations by hand in your practice tests because you won’t be allowed to use a calculator during the exam and it’s better if you get accustomed to it.
The exam has 155 questions, of which 140 are scored and the other 15 are for internal control of the organization (whatever that means). They aren’t going to tell you which ones are part of those 15, although if you see a very weird question about something that wasn’t in the syllabus (for example, about tennis) you can take for granted that it’s one of those instead of freaking out. Here you can see the percentages of questions from the different sections of the textbook that you’ll find in the exam, among other things.
Make the most of your time
You have 3 hours to do the exam. At first sight, 180 minutes for 155 questions (of which 25-25 include videos) seem too few, but don’t fret, you’re going to have plenty of time. It took me 2 hours: 1 hour to do it, 30 minutes to revise and other 30 minutes to basically stay there staring at the questions because I didn’t want to leave the room so early.
The exam is done on a computer, but you can go back to a question as many times as you want. The best strategy is to first go question after question, answering everything, so you stop worrying that you won’t have enough time to complete the exam. Then you can go back and revise the questions you had doubts about. In fact, you have the option, as you go through the exam, to mark questions for revision, so at the end you can click directly on them. I didn’t use it and preferred to do a complete revision, but it’s a good tool.
I warn you that many questions are put with bad intentions, to trick you. Because, instead of asking you to find the correct answer, they want you to choose the “most correct”. That is, maybe all of them are correct, but there’s one with a nuance that makes it more convenient for the case described in the question.
For example, they can show you a video in which a person is doing an exercise with two errors in their form, and ask you which one would be more urgent to fix. Or several deficiencies in a diet, or risk factors for an illness, or suitable exercises for an injury, or methods for planning training sessions… Go with your instinct and move on. I’d have liked that after the exam they gave you an analysis of your results to see which ones of these I’ve got right and wrong and an explanation about why.
Errors don’t count, so answer everything. You have 1/3 chance to get it right even if you choose the answer at random. And usually you can discard one of the 3 options using your brain.
How to pass it
Bear in mind that you need to get a 7 out of 10 to pass, not a 5. So before taking the exam you should be getting that mark at minimum, more or less consistently, in your practice tests.
I got really scared when I found out that only about 60% of the people who take this exam pass it. Above all, because if those people had studied a degree related to exercise and even so they failed, I had no chance. But precisely what happens is that most people who fail were overconfident. They thought they already knew enough and didn’t need to study. Or just took for granted that a personal trainer exam must be a walk in the park and anyone who goes to the gym can pass it. Don’t make that mistake.
The best part is that you’re given your mark instantaneously, so you avoid the uncertainty and overthinking at home. And moreover, since I’m sure you’re going to pass, you leave happy and relieved! 😉
I hope this article has been useful for you if you’re thinking about getting certified as a personal trainer, and that my advice serves you to prepare the exam the best way possible. I wish you lots of luck and welcome you into this thrilling industry!
PS. If you want to know more, ask in the comments section or contact me.