My journey to becoming a certified personal trainer began when I hit rock-bottom. Between completely abandoning the gym, spending too much time sitting at a desk, and eating just about anything I wanted, I packed on more than a few pounds (about 70, to be exact) during the first two years of the pandemic. With a wider-than-ever waistline and a lower-than-ever level of self-confidence, I finally had to embrace the idea of doing things differently.
However, little did I know that forming fundamental habits like lifting weights at least four days a week and cutting out processed foods would fast track me down an entirely new career path. As I saw the number on the scale drop from an all-time high of 285 pounds into the 240s, I gained a new appreciation for the discipline and knowledge it takes to build muscle, lose fat, and reshape your mindset.
Inspired to help other people achieve their own physical fitness goals, I faced the pivotal decision of choosing a personal training certification program. After weighing my options, I went with one that’s NCCA-accredited, provides a well-rounded curriculum, and offers a ton of useful resources and study materials: the International Sports Science Association (ISSA). I quickly learned why it’s one of the most popular certs in the fitness industry. This ISSA personal trainer certification review will give you an overview of the program design, highlight its strengths and weaknesses, and address frequently asked questions so you have all the answers.
At a price point of about $1,000, this personal training certification program is an excellent way to break into the fitness industry, especially for those without a formal education in exercise science.
ISSA clearly has your success in mind with many different ways to support your learning journey. In addition to a complete slate of course materials, they have a job placement tool, website builder, client intake forms, and a step-by-step business guide — all of which come included with your purchase of the personal training certification course.
A program design that includes audio and video lectures, reading assignments, and a workbook accommodates all learning styles. Plus, the ISSA website has additional resources for those interested in specializations like powerlifting and nutrition coaching.
Who is the International Sports Sciences Association?
The ISSA was formed in 1988 by a team of fitness experts with the goal of stemming the tide of physical decline and helping aspiring professionals enjoy a successful career in fitness. Nearly four decades later, the organization remains a pillar in the fitness industry, with more than 400,000 graduates across 174 countries, per the ISSA website.Besides their personal training certification program, ISSA offers fitness professionals a variety of other certification options, including Nutritionist, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Bodybuilding Specialist, and Kickboxing Instructor. The certifications issued by the ISSA are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the Distance Education and Teaching Council (DETC), both of which are nationally recognized accrediting organizations. They’re also affiliated with top-tier organizations like the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association. ISSA partners with many commercial gyms and local fitness facilities that you probably already train at, which means you know that your certifications will hold value.
ISSA Personal Trainer Certification Course Highlights
Whether you select their Certified Personal Trainer, Elite Trainer, or Master Trainer program, ISSA gives you access to all the tools you need to succeed, including a comprehensive guided study program complete with a textbook, audio and video lectures, and quizzes (one for each chapter). Although you have six months to complete the CPT course, it typically takes about 10 weeks. The ISSA even offers a $99 Fast Track program that provides an accelerated study guide so you can go at your own pace, skip the quizzes, and move directly to the final exam.
I kept it simple by signing up for the standard CPT course, which took me about four weeks to complete with about two hours of study time per day. At around $1,000, it’s less expensive than the Elite Trainer and Master Trainer programs. The textbook contained a wealth of information on everything from energy systems to exercise routines, and the lectures and quizzes reinforced those concepts.
All of your hard studying culminates in a final exam that consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. You must earn at least a 75 percent to come out on the plus side of the pass/no pass grading system. But don’t sweat if you get test anxiety — the test is both open-book and untimed (it took me about an hour and a half).
Plus, ISSA stands out from other organizations by offering free retests. Overall, the exam is more about applying the concepts rather than simply memorizing muscle groups and macronutrient specifics, so it’s more beneficial to real-world scenarios.
From the time you sign up for the certification program, the team — which includes enrollment specialists, a success coach, and bootcamp instructors — makes every effort to see you succeed with guidance and support. It’s up to you to contact them if you want or need extra help. You’ll also need focus and attention to detail to not only prepare for the final exam, but also have the confidence and tools needed to coach future clients.
Who Should Get the ISSA Personal Trainer Certification
Anyone who wants to channel their passion for health and fitness into becoming a certified personal trainer.
People who like to learn at their own pace. The guided study portion of this certification allows you to blast through the information you’re comfortable with and take deep dives into new material.
Those who want to be their own boss. ISSA includes a number of lessons on marketing and sales so you can start (and grow) your own personal training business.
Who Shouldn’t Get the ISSA Personal Trainer Certification
Anyone who wants to coach at the collegiate or professional level will likely need at least a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology or exercise science and a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) or the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
If you just want to learn more about working out and lifting but don’t expect to work as a personal trainer, there are more cost-effective and directed ways to do so.
Those who solely want to provide diet and nutrition advice should opt for the ISSA Nutritionist specialization or another dietician-related certification.
How Much Does the ISSA Personal Trainer Certification Cost?
Without any discounts, the ISSA personal training certification normally costs around $1,000. However, ISSA offers specials regularly that make it more affordable. The price can be paid in full or broken down into five or 11 payments with as little as one dollar to get started.
From a cost perspective, ISSA falls in line with industry standards. For example, the NASM CPT course is only slightly less expensive at $899. Meanwhile, the American Council of Exercise (ACE) provides three personal trainer certification options ranging from $675 to $975.
ISSA also offers two other CPT programs: Elite Trainer (which costs about $1,200 and includes one specialty course of your choice) and Master Trainer (which costs about $2,000 and includes one specialized certification track with four courses). In addition, if you don’t already have a CPR/AED certification (you’ll need one to be a CPT), you can obtain one through ISSA for just $49.
ISSA Certified Personal Trainer Study Materials
ISSA has a wide variety of study materials ranging from audio lessons to guided readings to live boot camps. Plus, signing up for the personal training certification course gives you access to 31 practice quizzes to help you get ready to pass the final exam.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the different study materials and resources the ISSA provides for students:
Foundations and Applications for a Certified Personal Trainer Textbook
Out of all the course materials, the ISSA CPT textbook is by far the most important. Not only are the quizzes and final exam largely based on its contents, but it’s a valuable resource because it covers a breadth of relevant topics. Available in an easy-to-navigate PDF format or in a print version for around $40, the ISSA’s personal training certification textbook includes the following chapters:
Health, Fitness, and Personal Training
Psychology of Behavior Change
Concepts of Biomechanics
Energy and Metabolism
Elements of Fitness
Principles of Program Design
Concepts of Flexibility Training
Concepts of Cardiovascular Exercise
Concepts of Resistance Training
Exercise Selection and Technique
Business and Marketing
Safety and Emergency Situations
Clearly, the textbook covers just about every topic a fitness trainer needs to know. While you may need a more formal education if you aspire to work with college or pro athletes (a high school diploma won’t suffice at that level), you’ll certainly be armed with the requisite knowledge needed to start your career in the field of personal training.
I found the layout and overall design of the textbook easy to read, and the ISSA did well to include plenty of diagrams and photos for support and added context. Given the complex nature of some of the topics — particularly the chapters on biomechanics and energy and metabolism — I appreciated having visual materials to rely upon.
Moreover, the inclusion of formulas, tables, and sample workouts made the textbook particularly valuable. I started the course with a solid foundation of weightlifting knowledge and ample experience experimenting with different diet strategies. Still, ISSA’s textbook taught me so much more about exercise and nutrition by providing comprehensive lists of exercises by body part and giving easy-to-understand examples of how to calculate caloric and macronutrient needs.
With your purchase of the Personal Trainer Certification bundle, you receive the ISSA’s guided study online material. The guided study lays out reading material, audio and video lessons, and a quiz for each of the 10 weeks.
Upon completion of the guided study, you should be ready to take and pass the final exam. Each week you can expect to dedicate between two to four hours to study, depending on your speed and familiarity with the week’s topic. You’ll want to read the assigned chapters of the textbook, listen to the audio lectures, then complete the quiz for the week. After that, check back to any info you were unsure of and brush up on it.
There are 18 different quizzes on subjects from the psychology of behavior change to client assessments to business and marketing. The quizzes encompass all of the areas of study you’ll need to master to become a well-rounded personal trainer.
In order to perform well, you will need to rely upon the reading and lecture information from that week. Nearly all of the multiple-choice questions pertain directly to the material in the textbook, with some of them containing specific phrases that can potentially trick you to steer in the wrong direction. So, be diligent about reading the details in each answer option before you make your selection.
Luckily, the quizzes don’t take long to complete. Most took me about 15-20 minutes to complete, depending on the difficulty of the topics covered that week. I also liked that I received instant feedback on the questions I answered correctly and those I missed, which helped me recognize the areas I didn’t understand so well and needed to revisit.
ISSA includes their CPT Educational Bootcamp which runs an online meeting once per week for five weeks to help you study and get you acquainted with other aspiring personal trainers. Each week focuses on a different topic and is designed to expand your knowledge on the subject, such as exercise selection. In addition, the instructors have open office hours each week where they host a live video Q&A session for one hour to give more individualized attention and exam prep support.
While I didn’t personally take advantage of this resource, I think it’s a plus to have it available. Getting one-on-one assistance and growing your network can only lead to a better understanding of the material and the fitness industry as a whole.
The ISSA guarantees that you’ll find a job within six months of completing their personal trainer certification, or they’ll give you a full refund. If you take and pass the certification exams, apply to at least three gyms within six months of completing your certification and aren’t hired, ISSA will give you your money back.
Luckily, I didn’t run into any trouble finding a job in the field. During my transformation journey, I formed a bond with one of the managers at the local YouFit I worked out at. Once I let him know I had completed the ISSA fitness certification program, that immediately opened the door to a position with the company. While being a longtime rugby player and weightlifter certainly helped, being able to officially call myself a certified fitness trainer gave me credibility to get hired.
Final Exam for the ISSA Personal Trainer Certification Program
The ISSA exam contains a total of 200 multiple-choice questions and is broken up into six sections: Basic and Applied Science, Client Assessment, Special Populations, Program Design, Nutrition, and Professional Practice, Drawing-In Phase, and Fiscal Fitness. As you can see, the sections are quite varied — just like your job as a personal trainer will be, too.
It can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours or more depending on your test-taking speed. I was able to complete the exam in just over an hour, though I did have prior CPT knowledge before enrolling in the ISSA program. Overall, you can expect to reference your textbook throughout the exam. Since it is allowed, it only makes sense to utilize it as a resource to ensure you perform well across all six sections.
Expected Study Time
ISSA says the certification can be completed in as little as 10 weeks and the guided study is set up for exactly that. If you come into this program with absolutely no knowledge, it may take you a bit longer. On the other hand, if you already have a solid base of knowledge in exercise science and biomechanics, you could potentially complete the course in a few weeks if you dedicate a few hours per day to it.
Although you need a score of 75 percent or better to pass the ISSA CPT exam, the pass rate is about 90 percent. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the final exam is a cakewalk because of that. Sure, the fact it’s an open-book test is a huge advantage, but you should also be committed to truly comprehending the material so you can deliver quality programming to your clients.
Should you have skipped some of the preparation, or test anxiety got the best of you, don’t sweat. Luckily, ISSA knows that, and you can retake the final exam — for free — within 30 days. You’ll only have to retest on the questions that you missed too since you already know the other stuff.
ISSA Continuing Education Requirements
To renew your certification, you need to prove that you’ve been keeping up with the latest science related to personal training and exercise. You can do this by providing proof of at least 20 continuing education units (CEUs) in the form of workshops, other certifications, seminars, or other approved activities. Recertification takes place every two years, which gives you sufficient time to hit the 20-CEU threshold.
In addition, the recertification cost is $99, which is among the lowest prices in the industry. Other recertification costs range from $150 to $300, depending on the organization. Best of all, if you get your 20 CEUs through ISSA, they waive the recertification fee entirely. I already set myself up to reap that reward by completing the ISSA Nutritionist course shortly after obtaining my CPT certification.
Potential Career Paths With an ISSA Personal Trainer Certification
It may seem pretty straightforward that getting your cert is a natural step toward being a full-time personal trainer, but there are more options available than just that one. After all, you don’t necessarily have to commit to only working in a one-on-one setting in a corporate gym. While that’s certainly an option, you can also parlay your personal training certification into becoming a fitness center manager, group fitness instructor, health coach, fitness writer, workout developer, or even a fitness model.
Earning my personal trainer certification through ISSA directly paved the way for me to secure a position at YouFit, where I built a loyal base of clients, expanded the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) group class program, and contributed to the company’s blog and social media efforts as a marketing department consultant and brand ambassador. Leveraging that hands-on experience and my journalism background also opened up opportunities to write for various brands in the fitness/nutrition space, which ultimately led me to join Breaking Muscle as a full-time staff writer.
Plus, don’t underestimate the power and income potential of putting your personal training certification to use via social media marketing. Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube offer endless possibilities to share your knowledge and passion about everything from supplements to biomechanics in an easy-to-digest form. Or, you could start a website where you sell customized training programs to clients around the world. Either way, you can utilize your CPT certification to build a business designed for today’s tech-driven world.
Pinpointing an exact salary is nearly impossible when there’s such a wide range across the fitness industry. While celebrity personal trainers can easily earn six figures, that’s not exactly the case for those who work in the corporate gym setting.
One estimate says the average personal trainer salary falls around $66,565. However, that largely depends on location, education, and years of experience. In general, a full-time personal trainer at your local gym will likely make closer to the $50,000 mark.
In my experience as an ISSA CPT, you also have to consider the income potential of working for yourself vs. for someone else. Building your own training business comes with some obvious risks and expenses like home gym equipment (if you decide to run your business out of your home, which is what I currently do), but it also comes with unlimited financial upside and full control. On the other hand, working in a corporate gym setting may offer more stability, along with benefits like health insurance, retirement, and the chance to earn commissions.
Other ISSA Certification Programs
You can boost your earning potential by adding more ISSA certs to your resume. Their most popular is the Elite Trainer program, which includes access to the NCCPT Accredited CPT Exam. According to the ISSA website, becoming an Elite Certified Trainer can allow you to make an extra $8,000 per year.
For a more sizable step up, you can become an ISSA-certified Master Trainer. This program provides six individual certifications that ISSA claims can help your training business earn $20,000 more annually. While all three Master Trainer tracks include Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist courses, you can earn certifications in areas such as Strength & Conditioning Coach and Transformation Specialist, depending on which track you choose. However, be prepared to pay north of $2,000 if you want to reach Master Trainer status.
A less cost-prohibitive but useful alternative is the Fitness Coach certification. This program includes the CPT course and one specialization of your choice out of the following options:
Strength & Conditioning
Even If you only sign up for the standard CPT course, you can earn a Fitness Coach certification by completing a specialization in the future.
ISSA vs. NASM
Compared to ISSA, NASM is better suited for a graduate of an exercise science or related program who wants a scientific-style model for training. So, if you have aspirations to work for a professional sports team or high-level college program, a NASM certification will give you a leg up.
Unlike ISSA, you do have a time limit (120 minutes) to complete the NASM final exam. Although you only need a 70 percent score to pass, the pass rate is significantly lower (64 percent) compared to the 90 percent pass rate with ISSA. Plus, while ISSA provides free retests, NASM charges a retest fee of $199.
ISSA vs. ACE
Aimed at group exercise enthusiasts who want to add personal training concepts to their classes, ACE offers three levels of their CPT course. Compared to ISSA, the price is more affordable, with the least-expensive program coming in at less than $700.
Despite having a much lower required passing score than its competitors (just 62.5 percent), ACE has a significantly lower passing rate than ISSA at 65 percent. You have 180 minutes to complete the final exam, and the retest fees range from $199 to $250. Like ISSA, you need 20 CEUs to recertify every two years. Unfortunately for ACE students, there’s no way to avoid the recertification fee of $129.
Parting Thoughts on Getting ISSA Certified
If you’re looking to build a career in the fitness industry, the ISSA Personal Trainer Certification is a great place to look. They offer top-notch preparation materials for all types of learners and even give you a week-by-week guide to keep you on track. The final exam was challenging and thorough in its scope, forcing me to carefully assess the question and answer options.
Overall, the collection of resources — from the exercise video library and sample training plans to downloadable client forms you can use right away — made investing in the ISSA’s program well worth it. Unless you have a desire to coach at the NCAA or professional level, you should feel secure about spending the time and money on obtaining your personal training certification from a company that’s helped countless fitness-minded individuals kickstart successful careers.
You must meet the criteria set forth by the ISSA which includes submitting all course quizzes, passing the final exam with a score of 75 percent or better, and providing proof of a current adult CPR/AED certificate. All of these requirements are neatly laid out on the home screen of the portal for you, and the final exam is locked until you complete all the quizzes.
Although most students utilize the online version, you can obtain a printed copy of the ISSA personal trainer certification textbook for around $40.
In addition to the 18 quizzes you must complete for the CPT course, the ISSA gives you access to 31 practice quizzes to help you prepare for the 200-question final exam.