On Passing the NASM Personal Trainer Certification Test

I’m finally coming out from under the rock that was preparing for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Personal Training Certification.

I signed up for the self-paced program back in November but told only close friends and family what I was up to. You know — that group of people that still has to love and support you even if you fail. And, for better or worse, that’s exactly the attitude I developed preparing for the test.

I’m reasonably smart. I’ve always done well in an academic setting. I’ve been dedicated to my own personal health and fitness for over a decade. Yet, I was totally convinced I was going to blow this thing, mostly because it’s a pass/fail multiple choice test with no room for discussion or negotiation. I am a person who gravitates toward the grey area. I’m most comfortable in situations where there’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you can support your opinion. I write for a living, and before that I was a marketer — two professions that are basically like, “Here, let me explain to you why I think you should agree with me.” I majored in English and can still remember taking a math theory class for which the midterm exam was a five-page paper. I was so relieved to finally meet a math teacher who understood me.

This certification was the epitome of everything I’ve avoided for the past 15 years. With all of the information on human movement science, assessments, training concepts, program design, and nutrition, there were seemingly infinite questions, and each had one very specific answer. I initially found myself skimming over details and charts, instinctively thinking “I’ll just look that up when I need it.” The practice quizzes, which included all the stuff I’d considered Google-able minutia, were a wake-up call. That’s when I was like, “Shit. I could actually fail this thing.”

I didn’t, though. I passed, but I had to push aside my whole “Well, let’s look at things from a different perspective” perspective and take notes, make flashcards, use quiz apps, record myself reciting muscle groups (yes I actually did this), and do my own research when the course materials didn’t feel like enough information.

I read a lot of other PT’s posts on studying for and passing the test at first, but I stopped as my test date got closer. (At some point, reading about others’ test-taking fears stopped normalizing my own anxiety and just added to the stress.) But, initially, some of those posts were really helpful. I learned about this anatomy coloring book (tip: photocopy the pages so you can use it more than once), this quiz app, this muscles app (I used it as a reference all the time), and this remarkably generous person’s comprehensive suite of study materials that she’s made available as free downloads.

The NASM certification test isn’t easy, but it’s well-covered territory. With so much advice swirling around the internet, how I could use my perspective (see, it’s back!) to help the next generation of test-takers succeed? Here are some thoughts.

  1. Think about what it would be like to fail. Others will tell you to maintain a positive attitude, but I’ve never found that particularly helpful when facing anything that feels daunting or scary. If you’re riddled with anxiety about failing, allow yourself to go there mentally and think about what would actually happen (I did this countless times — just ask my husband). Failing would suck. You might feel disappointed, angry, sad, embarrassed, frustrated. You’d take some time to process and then pay (ugh) to retake the test. Or maybe you’d walk away for a little while. Or forever. But, no matter what, you would ultimately be okay.
  2. Now, think about passing. That’s right — even perennial worrywarts deserve a mental vacation. Think about how freakin’ good it would feel to hold that little computer print-out and see “EXAMINATION RESULTS: PASS.” You’d want to hug the proctor even though he gives no shits about any of this. You’d have the impulse to throw an impromptu party at the nearest bar…but then you’d remember it’s 2 PM on a Monday. So then maybe you’d just get a salad at Pret A Manger in midtown and slowly eat it while you happily text everyone you’ve driven crazy over the last few months with panic attacks and emotional breakdowns.
  3. Slow and steady isn’t always best. I initially approached this endeavor like a reasonable, balanced 35 year-old woman. But it was only when I started obsessing over it like a caffeine-fueled college student with a precarious financial aid package that things started to really click. Many of the concepts build on information from earlier chapters, so I don’t recommend allowing more than a few days to pass between study sessions. That being said, I don’t recommend cramming either. You will need to understand and apply what you’ve learned to pass.
  4. Pick a reward. Do you like stuff? It’s okay to admit it that you’re motivated by the idea of owning another thing. Or maybe you’re more evolved and like to reward yourself with experiences. Me? I like jewelry. I picked out a very specific strength-themed piece of jewelry from Tina Tang at Iron Strong Jewelry and mentally dangled it in front of my nose every time I got annoyed with studying. I recommend finding something you normally couldn’t justify buying yourself and then shamelessly treat yourself for making it through to the other side.

So, I’m a certified personal trainer. Now what? I’m working on that part. To be honest, I originally took the certification course so I could be a more informed writer. I toyed with the idea of training people, but I’ve started to take steps towards actually doing it, which is…exciting! Stay tuned…

Thinking of taking the NASM certification test? Feel free to ask me anything!