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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.