How To Pass The ACSM CPT Exam

Today I passed the ACSM CPT exam, and not to toot my horn or anything, but I pretty much rocked it. The exam is scored on a similar scale as the SATs: Highest possible score is 800, passing is 550. I got a 731. I think this qualifies me to give a little guidance, no?

To start off, my background is not in exercise physiology or anything like that. I got my undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Management Information Systems. I am a CPA. Certified. Public. Accountant. Not helpful. Working out is something I do for fun and stress relief.

That being said, I have a healthy appreciation for learning and have always had an interest in all things health-related (duh, I mean, the name of my blog should have given that away). I took a weight training class and a nutrition class in college and have continued to familiarize myself with nutrition and working out ever since. Comparing me to the rest of the pool of people taking this exam though, I would say my baseline knowledge was at the lower end of the spectrum (I feel like we all have an interest in working out and being healthy, right? Why else would we be studying for this exam?).

Given my lack of experience and knowledge, you’re probably thinking that I spent months and months studying this this thing. Nope. My timeline was as follows:

  • Saturday, July 21: Ordered study materials from LWW.com.
  • Thursday, July 26: Study materials received.
  • Saturday, July 28: Cracked my first book open.
  • Friday, August 10: Reached my burnout point of studying and decided to take the exam a week before I originally intended. Scheduled exam.
  • Sunday, August 12: Rocked the exam.

For those of you counting, that is 15 days of studying. And during this time, I am still working a full time job 40 hours a week as well as a part time job 4 hours a week and fitting in a meager amount of socializing. Why the time crunch? I start school on August 20th and between my full load of courses and working, I don’t want to be trying to study for something else. I ordered my materials with the intention of setting them aside until my month long winter break in December, but then read about the 6-8 week waiting period for getting your official certification. If I studied all December, took the exam in January, and didn’t get my actual certification until March, I would be missing out on all those New Years and Spring Break people anxious to get in shape. Not good a good business decision. That’s when I started evaluating the time before fall semester and decided to go for it.

Before I jump into my study approach and exam tips, let me emphasize that I don’t recommend this speedy approach to ANYONE. All my life, I’ve been an above average student (Valedictorian in high school, Summa Cum Laude in undergrad) with awesome test taking skills (1510 on the SAT, 1550 on the GRE, top 5 score on the CPA exam in Georgia, etc). My decision to cram for three weeks was based on my demonstrated history of taking tests and knowing how to study. Additionally, I am registered to take an Anatomy and Physiology course in the fall and spring, so even if I decided never to take the ACSM CPT exam, it wasn’t going to be a waste of time to learn some of the material. I need to know this stuff for school regardless. This is not for everyone. There, now you’ve been warned.

Study Tips:

  1. As much as it pains me to do so, I recommend purchasing the three recommended study materials below. Some people will tell you that you need a fourth book, but for the purposes of passing the test, this is all you need. I bought mine directly from LWW.com. Google around for promo codes. I was able to find one for 10% off my order.
  2. Read the Resources for the Personal Trainer from cover to cover, for comprehension. What does that mean? That means when you read a paragraph, you should be able to tell me what you just read. If you don’t understand it, google. I found wikipedia and exrx.net (particularly the section on joint articulations) to be extremely helpful in helping me understand many of the concepts in the book. I was more than a little overwhelmed when trying to learn about the muscles, bones, joints, etc. I’ve never taken an anatomy class before. This was A LOT. But I find that taking the time to understand things as you go through them will prevent you from having to go back over them a millions times. Not to mention, this is too much info to memorize.
  3. Read the KSAs now. I don’t recommend doing this until after you read the main book. The KSAs and books don’t line up with each other as far as order of information and how things are organized. I wasted a fair amount of time trying to cross-reference stuff to make sure I was getting everything. It was a waste of time. Read the first book because you’ll need to know about 95% of it. Then read the KSAs. This will give you an idea of what you’ve already covered and what to be on the look out for in the next book.
  4. Next read the Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, with a heavy emphasis on Section III: Exercise Prescription. Fill in any KSA gaps that the first book had.
  5. Go through the Certification Review book. Now, there is a lot of info in this book and in the Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription that you don’t need to know because these books are geared toward multiple certifications. Just go ahead and accept that. In the certification book, you can skip most of Chapter 11 and all of Chapter 12. Due to time constraints, I also skipped Chapter 4. Take the quizzes at the end of each chapter. I did this yesterday and was getting in the 80s range on them. If you’re feeling uneasy about your scores, go back through the textbooks. Don’t be afraid to re-read a chapter or two for more comprehension. Sometimes things will sink in even better the second time around.
  6. Study every chance you get. I devoted large chunks of my weekends to studying (e.g. 8 hours minimum on Saturdays and Sundays). I also brought the books with me to the gym and would read while doing cardio. I also had the textbooks pulled up online (you get access to an online version of two of the books) and would read at work during my lunch breaks. I would also read at night after work if I had nothing else going on.



Specific Tips:

  • Check out the exam composition and studying strategically. If you’re trying to decide what to study at the last minute, don’t waste time on program administration or human behavior. If you read the first book for comprehension like I told you too, you should have absorbed enough info already.
  • Google spotting techniques. And let me know if you’re successful. I had 3 very specific questions asking where to stand, where your hands should be, etc. and had no clue what the right answers were. I tried finding this information online and just couldn’t get anything specific enough. I have no idea whether I got those right or wrong.
  • Understand the concepts of concentric and eccentric. Know how they apply to agonist and antagonist muscles during certain moves. Also know how this applies to walking or running uphill and downhill. I did a good follow-up post explaining the concept here.
  • Obviously, know the major muscles and have an understanding of where they are on the body so you know what kinds of exercises will work them. The exam doesn’t have diagrams on it, so don’t worry about knowing EXACTLY where it is.
  • Know your risk stratification down cold. There will be several questions asking how many risk factors and what sort of stratification to put these people in.
  • Know the general exercise prescription for a healthy population.
  • Know special considerations for children, elderly, and pregnant women.
  • Know what position a pregnant woman should never exercise in and why. 
  • Know how to calculate maximum heart rate, HRR, and a specific heart rate at a given %.
  • Know how to calculate BMI and ideal body weight (including how to convert from pounds to kg and inches to meters)
  • Know how many calories are in the macronutrients and how many calories are in a pound.
  • Know the definitions of absolute and relative contraindications, but not necessarily what they are.
  • Be familiar with different types of resistance training approaches (supersets, splits, pyramids, etc).
  • Know the planes of motion that muscles move in and be familiar with the types of joint movements. Although there weren’t as many questions on this as I would have liked, there are enough to warrant knowing it.
  • Know the SITS muscles and what each one does.
  • Know specific recommendations for working out in hot and/or humid conditions.

I’m running out of tips. Plus I need to save some brain power for learning how to actually be a personal trainer since this certification really doesn’t make me feel entirely competent in being able to truly design a good workout program for clients (but hey, at least I’ll know when to refer them to a doctor!). Also, if you’re interested in knowing why I picked this exam to take, check out my previous post about studying for the ACSM CPT test.

45 thoughts on “How To Pass The ACSM CPT Exam

  1. Hi! Just wondering if you had sold your books yet. I already own the Guidelines for Exercise Testing & Prescription, but I need the other 2 to study for my CPT exam. Let me know if you haven’t sold them/asking price via email. Thanks!

  2. Hi Lauren! I just started studying for the exam and have hit biomechanics….just wondering if you could let me know if that’s something I really need to focus my time on because I def. don’t get it! Hope you’re kicking ass as a personal trainer ;)

  3. Hi Lauren!! Many thanks for the great tips and advice!! Just started studying today and your advice has been a great comfort!! Thanks again!!

  4. Lauren! Thanks for this it was super helpful. I’m wondering if you can clue me in on where you got your promotion code though?? I have googled around and have only found that going to a workshop gets you the discount (which I am hoping not to go to one of those).

    Thanks!

    • Hi Angela…I just googled ‘lww promo code’ and RetailMeNot (love that site) had this one: WZP02FSD for 20% off. The site said it worked 2 days ago, so hopefully it would still work!

  5. I really appreciate this information. Much of what I have found is advice for how to ace the test in the shortest time possible, but I’m actually trying to learn something so that I can apply the knowledge needed for the certification! I have always been a good test taker, and nothing (not SAT, GRE or my multiple educator certification tests) has freaked me out like this CPT exam! I’m certified to teach Algebra I up through Calculus in two states for Pete’s sake and I’m nervous about passing this one! Your instructions are very helpful.

    • Mandi…if you did well on all those other tests, you will be FINE. It sounds like you know how to study. Just take some time, learn the material, and it will be a piece of cake. The math and analytical side of you will actually help because once you learn the muscles and bones, it will be much easier for you to understand the motions and planes of movement than it will be for a lot of people because it is all a bunch of geometry when you stop and think about it. You have an edge on the rest!

      • I passed with a 712! Your tips were great and I totally see what you meant about the spotting questions! I went to the 3-day workshop and their handout on spotting didn’t even come close to helping me answer those questions!? There were a lot of seemingly random questions where if you got distracted while reading the textbook for even a split second, you wouldn’t know the answer. Overall, I didn’t think it was that difficult, but I would definitely not recommend that anyone go into this test without preparing! It was easier than I thought (but still not easy) because I read the materials and studied quite a bit. Good luck to anyone else taking the test! I’m off to plan my new career :)

  6. I have been studying for this exam and I have always been a horrible test taker. This information is very helpful and I will apply it to my studying. Thank you!

    • Hi Mike! Off the top of my head, I can’t recall having any questions like that. I would just generally understand the concept of METs and what MET ranges correspond to the recommended intensity levels.

  7. Hi, your article was exactly what I was looking for…I’ve been a CPT for 12 years, just went thru massage school and want to take the acsm. I’m giving myself about 12 days to read thru it all and was hoping I wasn’t crazy for attempting this short of a turnaround.
    To give you some advice– personal training is actually about communicating, empathy and caring for your client’s well-being. Yes, it’s important to have knowledge and be creative, but people will stick around if you care and in turn, accept you for faults. I always err on cautious side and never pre plan until that client walks thru the door…I can read energy immediately! Wish ya well and thanks!

  8. I have my undergraduate degree in Kinesiology. We always have used ACSM guidelines throughout my collegiate career. I was also involved in an internship in which I was given four clients and asked to write them exercise prescriptions three times a week for my last semester of school. I have been studying for about three weeks for the exam. I am confused as to what you mean about studying the “spotting” portion of the text.

  9. Thanks for the article, it was very helpful! I just passed the exam today with a 692, not as quite as convincingly as you did, but respectable I guess. I also took about 15-20 days to study for the test, and while it doesn’t sound like I studied as much or efficiently as you did, I had already taken Anatomy, Physiology and Ex Phys which helped a lot. Anyway, The pointers were very good. I forgot to look up about spotting and there were 3 questions on it that I basically just had to guess on. Knowing those, eccentric contraction stuff and risk factors were really important so thanks for the tips!

  10. FYI, for anyone still interested in purchasing study materials from LWW.com, the coupon code “WZP02FSD” still works! It’s good for 20% off AND free shipping. I even selected the overnight shipping option for FREE! *Jumps on table and does victory dance*

  11. so glad i seen this site. i have been studying and reading all summer here and there.
    now its time to head back to school for my fall semester and am mad at myself for not getting certified yet. i am thinking about cramming for the exam on top of school. so fingers crossed! thanks for the tips and a idea of what to expect!

  12. Really? skip chapter 11 and 12 of the Certification review?
    Are you saying I don’t need to memorize walking and running formula? or electrocardiography?

    • aslo what it is that you call the KSAs?

      I have the three books called:
      1-Resources for the Personal Trainer
      2-Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription
      3-Certification Review book
      I have nothing called KSAs?

  13. Would you say that Chapter 5 in the Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription doesn’t apply to the CPT exam but more to the health fitness expert ?
    Thanks.

  14. Hi I’ve passed my ACSM exam this year july i just need to put my information on acsm website could u pls help with this regards i am confused with this process thanks n waiting for ur reply

  15. Hi I’ve passed my ACSM exam this year july i just need to put my information on acsm website could u pls help with this regards i am confused with this process thanks n waiting for ur reply

  16. You’ve been so helpful so far! I appreciate you taking the time to help us! I know you touched on biomechanics already, but I was wondering if Newton’s laws of motion were on the test? Also, how in depth do I need to understand vectors of muscular force? I’m reading this section now, and I’m lost! Please help!

  17. Thanks SO much for this, I’m reading the resources for the personal trainer book now in hopes of taking and passing the exam in February. Did you use the Job Task Analysis to help study…it’s 16 pages and I was wondering how much going over each item helps or if doing the review book and quizzes should be my focus. (http://certification.acsm.org/files/file/JTA%20CPT%20FINAL%202012.pdf)
    I just started the joint and muscle section and am overwhelmed! Your list helps a lot but how much should memorization should I focus on?

  18. Thank goodness I came across your blog. I have the desire to obtain such a certification with my background in Exercise Science. I have just struggled in choosing which certification to obtain. My choice mostly is between ACSM and NSCA and primarily b/c my undergrad used both tools and I know they are both great. I think I am going to get my CPT from ACSM and then the CSCS through NSCA. I also tried your promotion code listed above just to see before purchasing—it does work! :)

    Cheers!
    Joshua

  19. Hey I just got the study materials and am looking at the Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Do I need any of the first two sections? Should I just look at the Third section?

  20. Lauren,
    Thanks for the great advice! I have a similar over enthusiastic study plan of about half a month.. Your blog gave me some motivation after some intense discouragement that it is taking me longer than I thought to get through the material. I’ve been so bogged down in chapter 3 with all of the anatomy stuff and spent days now drawing diagrams. (Now I know that probably wasn’t necessary..) Question: Were there any questions about the origin and insertion of the muscles? They seem to be the hardest for me to remember.

    Thanks again!

  21. Hi! Great info. I am studying for my test. When I am done with my books, (I have the updated version, plus lots of ACSM study guides as well as flash cards.-Also, the group exercise instructor certification prep. Message me at pumyage@gmail.com and I will be more than happy to sell them all at a discounted rate!

  22. do they ask on the exam in which high school i went too and if i got a diploma and do they ask to see the CPR degree THANKS PLEASE REPLY ASAP

  23. I cleared my exams on Feb 26th 2014 .

    How long does it take to receive the certification hard copies.

    pl reply. thanks in advance

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