I get a fair few questions about how to become a certified personal trainer.
The short answer?
You buy a book, you study the book, you take a multiple choice test. You pass, you’re a CPT. You fail, you take it again.
Of course, it’s not that easy. My certification, as well as my nutrition certification, is through the American Council on Exercise (ACE), so my knowledge of personal training exams is limited to ACE. That said, here are my tips for passing the ACE Personal Trainer Certification – some of which I’m sure can be applied to other exams from other organizations.
Read The Book
It can be tempting to skim the material. Textbooks aren’t exactly the most exciting thing to read. Don’t cheat yourself out of reading the material. The textbook is – spoiler alert – full of good information, including case studies, review questions, and real-world application. You’re doing yourself – and your future clients – a disservice if you don’t read the text.
Everyone learns in their own way, but for me, I learn best by writing things down. I outlined each chapter and highlighted key points. This proved to be extremely helpful when I was reviewing material during the week leading up to my exam.
Know The Vocabulary
If you only use one tip from me to pass the ACE CPT exam, make it this one: know the vocabulary. I took things to the extreme by making flashcards, but when I was taking the test, I was really grateful that I took the time to learn the vocab. When I was stumped on a question, knowing the definitions helped rule out incorrect answers and I was able to make an educated guess at the right answer.
For what it’s worth, I only missed three questions!
While I was perhaps over prepared on the anatomy component, knowing the muscles and how they work together proved beneficial. I had the luxury of training with someone who knew the body well and took the time to explain how the body should work to me, so I had some additional help in that area. I downloaded an app – that I’ve since deleted and forgotten the name of – that quizzed me on anatomy and took advantage of worksheets to label body parts. My anatomy knowledge stuck – far more than it did when I took anatomy and physiology in college – and I can now tell you most the muscles in the body, and what they do without a second thought.
Take The Practice Quizzes
One of the best ways to prepare for the exam is by taking the online practice quizzes. They will give you a good idea of what’s on the test, and help you identify areas that may require a little more studying. The same goes for the full practice exam – it will really shed light on what you know well and what you should review more ahead of exam time.
On exam day, make sure you have your admission ticket and a photo ID. You won’t be allowed to take anything else in with you. Your testing center will supply pencils, scratch paper, and a basic calculator. If you have a sweatshirt or sweater with pockets or a hood, you will be asked to remove it. You can wear a sweater or sweatshirt without pockets or a hood. ACE has more exam day guidelines here.
A Few More Exam day Tips:
- Take your time. You have plenty of time – three hours – to complete the exam. Don’t rush. You’ll know the answers to some questions at a glance. Others, you may find yourself needing a few extra minutes. I really took my time, read through the questions and answers, and still finished with an hour to spare.
- Mark the questions to review. On your exam, you’ll be able to mark the questions you want to come back to. I recommend going through the exam once, answering the questions you’re sure of and marking the ones you’re less sure of. Then, come back to those questions with the knowledge that you’ve completed at least a portion of the exam already. It takes some of the pressure of a time crunch off.
- Ask for headphones. Your testing center will likely provide you with headphones, but if not, ask for a pair. There were other tests going on during my exam, and one person, in particular, was rather aggressive on the keyboard.
Areas to focus on:
ACE recently released updated guidelines regarding exam content. They now weight program modification and progression and professional conduct, safety, and risk management more than previous editions of the exam. When I took the exam, there was more emphasis on client interviews and assessments.
With that said, know how to implement and modify programming to fit client ability. Review the ethics statement in the back of the book, as well as the legal information presented in later chapters. Know the assessments outlined in the text, and what sort of exercise could help improve a client’s results on a re-test. Really understand the first few chapters of the book that dive into a client’s readiness to change, motivation, and efficacy, as well as scope of practice and more on ethics.
If you were to focus on only a few areas of anatomy, I’d recommend the muscles, bones, and circulatory and respiratory systems. It would also serve well to have at least a basic understanding of common disease in clients (diabetes, heart disease), general nutrition guidelines, and basic first aid (i.e. how to address extreme heat or cold).
After The Exam
Congratulations, you passed! Now what?
You’ll get a packet in the mail from ACE that contains your certificate, a card designating your personal trainer status that comes in handy for proving certification at interviews, not to mention for getting discounts at places like Lululemon and Athleta, and more information on your new career options. All of this is great, but:
You’re only a personal trainer on paper.
Most certification exams in the fitness realm don’t have a practical component. I think this is an issue. Anyone can memorize a bunch of information to pass an exam, but not everyone can coach. The single worst thing you can do once you have a piece of paper that says you’re certified is assume you know it all. You don’t. In fact, I’ll reckon you don’t know much at all. I certainly didn’t (I still don’t – and never will).
The single best thing you can do, even before you’re certified, is find a mentor in the fitness field. Look for someone who specializes in an area of fitness you’re interested in, someone reputable. Observe their coaching style. Take notes – mental and physical – of what you like and what you don’t like. Ask questions. Listen. Maybe even have a few different mentors. Intern, if you can. Get experience and remember that coaches need coaches. I’ll say that until I’m blue in the face. It’s why I trained at The Gym when I lived in Charlottesville, and why I go to CrossFit Local now.
Never stop learning and studying. I read journals and articles almost daily. I listen to webinars and take courses. I read books on strength training and conditioning. You have to take a certain number of CECs in order to maintain your certification. Don’t wait until the last minute to get those done. One, you’ll avoid stress, but two, you’ll stay up to date on current trends and recommendations.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help. You don’t know what you don’t know and as they say in Harry Potter, help will always be given to those who ask for it.
Do you have questions about the ACE Certified Personal Training exam? Ask in the comments!