Find a couple places where you want to work. Ask what their certification requirements are. Then cost out how much it will be for both the certification and the renewal. You have to do what works best for your employment goals. I’ll just tell you about the 3 that I’ve held and maybe that will help you think more about what suits you. There’s always an opportunity to educate through CECs specific to your interest area if you get a cert and find it’s not filling an area well enough for you.
A lot of people go with AFAA because it’s cheap and it’s perceived to be easier than some of the other certs. I held it for 8 years. I never had trouble getting a job with AFAA, but the pain in the rear was getting renewed. They require you to take at least one of their courses and they never come to my area except to do their basic cert workshop, which I didn’t want to keep taking over and over. So I had to do one of their online courses and for what I paid, I didn’t feel I received much value. That was the last straw with me and AFAA. Personally, if I’m going to spend money, I want VALUE, not necessarily the cheapest item. I was sick of the CECs and I will never hold AFAA again unless I’m required to.
I now have ACE personal training. It’s a well reputed cert and it’s opened doors. I found it to be more rigorous than AFAA, but also that was because I went from group-ex to personal training. There are a few places that want their trainers to have ACSM, NASM, or NSCA. One of the places where I work, I’m the only trainer that isn’t NASM certified. I was hired for my specialty certifications, enthusiasm for what I do, and track record. So in some cases, a cert perceived to be “lesser” can be overcome by the skills and personality of the interviewee.
In another two months, I’m taking my NASM exam. It’s definitely more comprehensive than ACE. Very information-dense. I like their assessment model and how it feeds into their program design. It’s not that ACE is weak on assessment, but NASM is more thorough in my opinion. I’m at a place in my career where I want and perceive a need to have a higher tier cert to add to my credibility as a CEC provider.
Another thing I’ve looked into is a fitness degree. A masters degree would be about 2 years and about $14,000. I wouldn’t do a bachelors because I already have two masters degrees. At this point in my career and life, NASM is a good stopping point for me. I’m all for education, but I don’t know that a masters degree would add enough of an increase to my employment opportunities when I’m already doing nicely. If my hindsight were 20/20, I would’ve gone to graduate school in physical therapy or exercise science. But I can do your taxes for you, lolol!