Some certifications require more prerequisites than others, and some require a college degree. Here are some rough guidelines to help you navigate towards the best choice for whatever road you are trying to follow.
ACE - It doesn’t require a college degree, and it’s not too expensive. Check to see what your gym requires, but most accept this, and it isn’t hard to get relative to the other certifications. Keep in mind getting certified in personal training is just showing competence you won’t hurt someone during a session. It is by no means proof you are a good trainer, or can build a good program. Some gyms may not accept this certification as well. I’d recommend this mostly if you just want to break into the industry fast, and maybe have clients who already want to train with you and you need the credential.
NSCA-CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) - If you know for SURE you want to lean towards training athletes of all ranges, then you need this one. You won’t get a job without it. In fact, pretty much all college and professional sports teams are going to require this, a master’s, and a hell of a lot of internship experience from reputable coaches who can put in a good word. Strength and Conditioning is a very small field of coaches and they all know each other. Once you get this, I highly recommend hitting the internships quick and working under coaches who can give a good recommendation after. Keep in mind, in order to obtain this, you need a bachelor's degree (doesn’t have to be in Kinesiology).
NASM - NASM seems to be the most popular certification in most chain gyms. It’s a very reputable brand and the one I’ve found most gyms ask for when applying. They also have additional certifications geared towards elderly populations, chronic injuries, etc. This is great if you want to learn more than just general training knowledge. Remember, most of your clientele at a box gym is going to be middle aged and older. Having a solid background on how to specifically train elderly population and those with nagging injuries will take you much farther than the o
NCI or Precision Nutrition Certification - If you’re looking to get more into nutrition coaching, or want to further round out your skills as a trainer after getting your personal training cert, these are two highly recommended nutrition focused certifications.
What I love about these two certifications is they don’t just focus on the science. They talk just as much about psychology and practical applications. Anyone who's been a trainer for a while knows it’s more about your clients mentality than it is creating workouts. You have to be able to understand what’s holding them back mentally.
ELDOA and PRI - If you really want to continue your learning on a super specific level, these types of certifications will teach you all about an individual's joints, imbalances, and how to correct posture.
I think EVERY trainer should have both a personal training certification AND a nutrition coaching certification. If you TRULY want to work, and help people get better on ANY level (general population or athletes), while I don’t expect you to have a full nutritionist's scope of knowledge, you should know how eating plays into their life. The perfect training program is useless for someone's goals if they aren’t fueling it with the right foods in their body.