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How to get an ISSA certification: Is it legit?

The COVID-19 pandemic spawned a home-workout revolution. Suddenly, people found themselves with extra time to exercise at home or in small, socially-distanced groups. They set up stationary bikes, treadmills, and rowing machines, almost doubling the equipment sold in previous years.

Still, even after all that shopping (and some workouts), people need the motivation of a fitness trainer to get off their couches.

The result? There’s never been a better time to find work as a certified personal trainer (CPT). If that’s you, you might be considering differentiating yourself from your competitors in the fitness industry by getting ISSA certified. But you’re wondering whether taking an ISSA course is legit. You’re also wondering just how to complete training.

We broke down the details so you can hit the books with confidence.

Is ISSA certification legitimate?

ISSA is legitimate and respected by many fitness employers. It’s governed by the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), an organization founded in 1988. In 2009, it became the first fitness training organization to earn accreditation from the DETC (Distance Education and Training Council). DETC is federally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which affords ISSA certification respect in k-12 and college training programs.

ISSA advertises that 95% of its newly certified trainers find employment within 6 months of passing the test, so certification reassures employers that candidates without experience are prepared and ready to be effective fitness professionals.

You don’t need to seek employment in an established gym, however. ISSA certification helps you establish trust with individual clients that you’re a professional with the know-how to help them achieve their fitness goals individually. If you start your own fitness training business, you can flex your business muscles and insure it with a fitness instructor policy from Huckleberry.

What is ISSA certification?

ISSA certification offers a self-study personal trainer course and a guided course that takes roughly 10 weeks to complete. Regardless of which you choose, the course covers 8 units full of background information in sports and exercise science and includes units on nutrition, strength, kinesiology, metabolism, and musculoskeletal anatomy and physiology. ISSA certification gets trainers some exposure to multiple fitness areas as well, from cardiovascular exercise to flexibility, powerlifting, and strength training. One commonly cited drawback of ISSA training is its focus on theory, not practical training program advice. It’s true: ISSA training should equip trainers to formulate their own plans to phase up their clients but does not give trainers a roadmap for client success or hands-on experience.

To get started, would-be trainers must be 18 years old and have finished high school. Another prerequisite is completing AED (Automated External Defibrillator) certification and CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) certification (sometimes packaged together in training courses) before taking the ISSA certification exam. CPR/AED certification requires practical training, so you’ll need to find a local provider.

The first step is choosing from an array of certifications and specialties. For most, “ISSA certification” means a personal trainer certification. Some also choose a specialty that spans types of clients and types of training. You might choose “lifespan coach,” “youth fitness instructor,” or “senior fitness instructor,” for example. You can also specialize in exercise therapy, kickboxing, strength, indoor cycling, or yoga, among others.

Become a personal trainer with nutritionist training and any other specialization course and earn the title of “elite trainer.” Complete personal trainer, nutrition, and 4 additional trainings and become a “master trainer.”

The benefits of certification

In a world where “experts” are self-proclaimed with a new fitness plan to sell to clients, there are plenty of benefits to ISSA personal trainer certification that show you’ve studied the fundamentals. Here are a few other reasons why certification makes sense:

  • Job opportunities: Certification shows employers that you’re serious about and dedicated to your profession. A gym is likely to hire certified personal trainers over applicants with no certification.
  • More job opportunities: Specializations will make you more versatile as an instructor, with the ability to jump in and substitute for various classes.
  • Job advancement: Certification makes trainers appear professional and shows they’re dedicated to distinguishing themselves in the professional. That’s a great quality for advancement on the job.
  • Becoming your own boss: A certification helps show clients you’re an expert. It established trust and loyalty that can help grow your own training business. Earning specialized certifications lets you offer a broader range of services and attract more clients.
  • Job satisfaction: Will you be happier with a certification? Maybe not, but with more tools to get started with confidence, you’ll be more effective, more valuable, and earn the perks that come from a job well done.
  • Networking: Certification can open doors to more prestigious companies and clients, helping you establish a legacy in your field. It all means more skill growth, more expertise sharing, and more business opportunities.
  • Professional athlete clients: One of the best paying and most coveted personal training gigs is working with professional athletes. But sports training certifications are often required when working for teams (which will also boost your reputation and allow you to charge more for your services).

Why choose ISSA over NASM or ACE?

ISSA is the most flexible and forgiving program of all fitness certifications. It’s a self-study course with an untimed, open-book test, so you can work at your own pace. You can move through the course in as little as 4 weeks, or take your time, juggling work, family, and certification.

ISSA’s program gives learners access to all needed course materials. That includes the textbook, workbook and study guide, and information about how to complete your course. You won’t need to complete your workbook, but it will help you on ISSA exam day. You will need to submit section quizzes along the way to show you’ve completed the course material.

There’s an accredited NCCA (National Commission for Certifying Agencies) exam you can take through ISSA to add weight to your certification, should you be focusing on a specific employer who requires it. That’ll require a proctor fee and a closed-book, timed exam. However, it can also add prestige to your ISSA certification for some employers.

However, if the gyms and careers you’re interested in do not require NCCA accreditation, you can take the open-book exam. Students who are deliberate and thoughtful can benefit from this kind of testing.

Students who appreciate the self-paced nature of the ISSA program, like those with day jobs, can also benefit from the ISSA approach.

Trainers with learning challenges also find the study materials cater to their unique needs. ISSA instruction is 100% remote and available in a variety of formats. You can use:

  • A traditional, written textbook
  • An audio textbook
  • Supplemental videos
  • A dedicated success coach who will help you study for and pass your exam

The bottom line: If you’re looking for a specific certification area not covered by ISSA, choose ACE or NASM. Otherwise, consider ISSA’s NCCA proctored test for some positions.

Comparing ISSA to NASM

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) offers personal training certification using its own curriculum and test guidelines. That means a traditional, proctored test consisting of 120 questions in 120 minutes. You’ll need a score of 70% to pass, but the average first-timer score is 64%. That’s probably because you’re studying from a well-designed but copious amount of study material. You’ll get more than with ISSA, but that can be overwhelming and hard to internalize.

NASM also offers more study options, all at different price points:

  • Self-study: Videos, chapter summaries, and practice exams
  • Premium self-study: Job guarantee if you pass the exam, plus access to NASM’s trainer app for a year
  • Guided study: Personal trainers answer your questions. You can retake the exam if you fail. You’ll get a hard copy of the textbook and a bonus course on motivational interviewing.
  • All-inclusive: Includes internship option with a personal trainer for experience in a gym. You can also recertify for life. Your CPR certification course is also included.

Both NASM and ISSA require a high school diploma or equivalency and CPR certification before sitting the exam.

Why not ACE?

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has been around since 1985 and has held NCCE accreditation since 2003. Like ISSA, ACE is a 10-week course. The course itself focuses more on behavior modification and endurance than ISSA and is considered a top choice for instructors focused on getting clients moving throughout the lifecycle, after illness, or through a weight loss journey.

It also comes with options to self-study or join a more guided group for discussion and extra study materials. For example, students can choose a guided course, with a full online textbook, audio lectures, notes, an online exercise lab, student forum, and online exam. That version also includes a job guarantee within 6 months, or you’ll get your course money back. ACE, like NASM, is not an open-book test. It comes with a pass rate similar to NASM: about 65%.

The road to ISSA certification

How long does it take to get certified?

ISSA Certification starts with a self-study program. You can start anytime. You have 4 months to complete the coursework, but you can complete the coursework and take the test as quickly as you like. If you choose to take the guided program, it’ll last 10 weeks, breaking down course units into weekly tasks and lectures.

Costs of certification

An ISSA personal training certificate costs $599, paid in interest-free installments over 12 months. You can add the guided course for $299. The good news? If you fail a section of the exam, you'll be able to retake it free. After that, you’ll pay $50 per attempt. If you fail to complete the course in 4 months, you can request a 2-month extension for free (after that, extensions will add to your costs).

What about recertification? ISSA certification needs to be renewed every 2 years for $99, plus 20 continuing education units (CEUs). ISSA waives the renewal fee if you complete your CEUs through them.

ACE offers multiple packages for its certification programs, from $269 to $449.

NASM’s basic course program is $599.

Get a head start with a personal trainer program if you need to up your game. You can stride into any gym in the country, confident you can explain the 3 phases of plyometric training while staying cool and calm.

You know what’s even easier? Protecting the investment you’ve made in your personal training business with small business insurance from Huckleberry. It takes less than 5 minutes to get a quote.

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