NASM Certified Personal Trainer Exam – Introduction
Passing the NASM CPT Exam from the National Academy of Sports Medicine will reward you with one of the best personal trainer certifications you can achieve, as well as one of the more difficult.
The pass rate is a hair-raising 65 percent! After you spend months reading and digesting a 700-page book, you don’t want to go through it again.
I went from “not getting it” to a much better overview of the material after a series of ah-ha moments. I couldn’t believe how well prepared I was for the test despite not doing many practice questions for the final exam.
I’ll share with you the main tips and tricks for NASM exam preparation so you can build your confidence fast.
This article reveals my top 12 strategies as to where you should focus your study time, even before taking your first practice exam, so you can pass the NASM-CPT Exam on your first try!
My Top 12 Tips to Pass the NASM CPT Exam
#1. Understand the NASM outlook
The NASM CPT Exam is not a gotcha test, attempting to trick you into failing and taking the test multiple times. Instead, its purpose is to verify that you understand the principles of the NASM OPT Model.
NASM has a specific outlook and you will understand the material much faster if you grasp why NASM developed its system of training in the first place.
So, looking from the 30,000-foot level, the first notion to get a hold of is muscle imbalance, which is the outcome of a sedentary lifestyle. Muscle imbalance is the bane of modern society and the cause of decreased mobility and fitness as you age. NASM defines muscle imbalance as the alteration of a muscle length surrounding a joint.
When you are in a complete state of health, your muscles are neither too short nor too long. They are in a state of perfect balance.
But, the length of your muscles changes when you are in a deconditioned state, one muscle shortens and its opposing muscle lengthens. This problem of muscle imbalance is exactly what the NASM OPT Model aims to address.
Correcting muscle imbalances can help improve:
- postural distortions
- joint pain
- risk of injury
- limited mobility and
- athletic performance
And now you know why the NASM OPT Model places so much emphasis on knowing the most common muscle imbalances as well as the stabilization and balance training exercises to correct them.
#2. Fitness Assessments
NASM speaks of seven specific fitness assessments:
- General history such as; occupation, lifestyle, hobbies, as well as
- Medical history
The above two fitness assessments are known as subjective information, meaning you must rely on the person telling giving you the information.
And from all the subjective info you need to know, arguably the most important to remember is the PAR-Q Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire because the PAR-Q will alert you to any potential cardiovascular risk from exercising.
On the other hand, the next five are objective information, assessments that you can objectively measure:
#1. Physiologic assessments such as;
- heart rate and blood pressure
#2. Body composition testing, for example,
- hydrostatic water weighing,
- skinfold caliper test,
- bioelectrical impedance
#3. Cardiorespiratory assessments like:
- YMCA Step test
- Rockport walk test – (preferred for those who are overweight/obese.)
#4. Static and dynamic postural assessments, for instance:
- Static (no movement necessary) postural assessments can reveal:
- pronation distortion syndrome – flat feet, adducted and internally rotated knees (knock knees)
- lower crossed syndrome – lower back arch, anterior pelvic tilt
- upper crossed syndrome – characterized by a forward head and rounded shoulders
- Dynamic (movement required) postural assessments, such as:
- the overhead squat assessment
- single-leg squat assessment
- pushing and pulling assessments
#5. Performance and skills assessments, such as;
- push-up test
- davies test
- shark skill test
- upper extremity strength assessment: bench press
- lower extremity strength assessment: squats
#3. How to learn the overhead squat assessment
Of all the postural assessments, the most important assessment for you to know backward and forward is the overhead squat assessment (OSA). It is the dynamic movement screen for the 5 kinetic chain checkpoints:
- Feet and ankles
- Lumbo-pelvic-hip (LPHC) Complex
- Head/cervical spine
These checkpoints will help you identify the muscle imbalances you need to address for a client (or yourself!) as a personal trainer. Fortunately, many of the same muscle imbalances and corrective strategies are present in pronation distortion, lower crossed, and upper crossed syndromes.
Also, the number of ‘overactive’ and ‘underactive’ muscles in the pushing and pulling assessments are thankfully few, but the overhead squat assessment is the big fish you need to catch for several reasons:
- you can apply the same tight and weak muscles to other postural distortions
- similarly, you will also know the corrective strategies for the other postural distortions
- you will have many questions on the NASM CPT Exam about the overhead squat assessment
Therefore, if you memorize the OSA, you will do yourself a big favor, because you will sail through many of the questions with enough practice.
Fortunately, NASM makes it a lot easier by providing an OSA solutions table 7.6 on page 196 of NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training 6th edition.
Why memorize the overhead squat assessment solutions table?
The importance of this overhead squat assessment solution table to passing your NASM CPT test is why I want to help you memorize this solution table. It looks overwhelming at first, but you will get the hang of it faster than you might think possible right now.
Plus, considering that there are over 600 muscles in the human body, all you have to do is memorize a mere 34 muscles for the compensations mentioned in the table. Easier said than done, right?
However, all you have to do is remember a silly story about an elf who is sick and tired of working in Santa’s workshop. This elf story is my mnemonic device which will help you memorize all of the overactive and underactive muscles. You can design your own fantastic story of course, or feel free to use my tale of tired elves at the North Pole!
It is tried and tested, so I know it works!
This elf story is my mnemonic device, it helped me tremendously on the NASM test, so I know it can help you.
First, here is the story:
Meet Larry B. Archy
Meet Larry B. Archy, one of Santa’s most unproductive elves. Imagine you took a trip up to the North Pole to evaluate working conditions. There are five main scenes in this movie to see in your mind and take note of all the bolded letters:
Scene #1. 1000-year-old Elf with a gash
As you enter the workshop, you see Larry B. Archy, an ELF with a GASH across his hips. He is at least the AGE of 1000 – Picture an Elf who is 1000 years old with a Gash from Santa across his hips for not working fast enough.
Scene #2. Larry B. Archy feels like he is in hell holding a bottle of ghee
This ELF’s name is Larry B. Archy, and he is just sick and tired of working for Santa. To the point that he feels like he is living in HELL holding a large bottle of ghee, but think GHI as its spelling.
Scene #3. He screams out “AFF”, let’s stop production and get some immediate r&r!
So, out of tremendous frustration, Larry screams out, AFF! I cannot take this anymore! I am so tired of my lazy boss Santa telling me what to do, and asking always, is it done yet?
Are the other elves that I am responsible to manage finished? Did you feed the reindeer?
AFF! he cries out and Larry makes both arms fall forward in exasperation. Larry shouts to all of the other elves, let’s start a walkout! It is time for a work stoppage!
So, Let’s sTop Production (LTP) in Santas factory, we have had enough! And instead of working for Santa, we will get some iMmediate R & R – MRR.
Scene #4. Larry quits and heads to Antigua beach
So Larry B. Archy quits Santa’s workshop and takes a vacation to Antigua Beach. Standing in the sand on the beach, Larry suddenly sees his own feet turn out to the sides.
And as an Elf, he knows that as soon as his feet turn out, it means he is hungry and has to order his favorite Sandwich of Bacon and Lettuce (SBL). Elves as you know do not eat tomatoes or eggplant, nothing from the nightshade family, only SBL, sandwiches stuffed with bacon, and lettuce.
Larry is so happy with his SBL, and that he made the right choice to bolt from Santa’s workshop to the beach, he roars out in celebration: “MMm Good, So tArt and Popular!”
Scene #5. Reclining on the beach – his knees flapping like a bat
After his delicious sandwich for lunch, Larry reclines on the beach, still in his Elf clothes, but he sees that his knees are exposed because the patches came off, and his knees move inward towards each other.
Larry’s knees flap inwards and out like a Virtual Bat VBAT. And finally, he sighs in happiness, Very More Only Good VMOG, which is how elves say very good, I made the right decision to revolt and flee Santa’s workshop, how Very More Only Good!
Life is a bowl of VMOG!
How this movie of Elf Larry B. Archy will help you
Once you review these five scenes in your mind and know the story, you’re ready for the explanation. If you review this short story often enough, you will know the most critical parts of the OSA solutions table like the back of your hand.
And every time you run into a question like “Which muscles could likely be tight or overactive if a client exhibits feet turning out during the overhead squat assessment?”, you will immediately know the answer is Sandwich of Bacon & Lettuce, SBL, which stands for Soleus, Biceps femoris short head, and Lateral Gastrocnemius.
Don’t worry about the names of the muscles yet or what tight and overactive mean, we will tackle that in the next section. First, get the story and its symbolism down pat.
The story is a mnemonic device and all of the bolded letters and words will help you remember the unfamiliar compensations and muscle names.
Here is the story decoded:
Note the views (lateral and anterior), as well as the compensations in the next section. Remember that compensation means that you or your client’s body is compensating during the assessment because of a muscle imbalance.
Each compensation reveals the likely muscles causing the compensation, either because they are too tight, short, and overactive or weak, long, and underactive. If you are not sure of what that means, hold on till section four.
Lateral view (looking from the side)
You get an invitation to visit Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. As you enter the workshop…
Excessive Forward Lean Compensation
Looking from the side (Lateral View), you see an ELF (Excessive Forward lean compensation) with a GASH (Gastrocnemius, Abdominal Complex, Soleus, Hip Flexors – overactive muscles) across his hips; he is at least the AGE (Anterior Tibialis, Gluteus Maximus, Erector Spinae (underactive muscles) of 1000,
Imagine an Elf who is 1000 years old with a Gash from Santa across his hips for not working fast enough.
Lower Back Arch Compensation
This ELF’s name is Larry B. Archy (Lower Back Arch compensation), and he is just sick and tired of working for Santa, to the point that he feels like he is living in HELL (Hip Flexors, Erector Spinae, Latissimus Dorsi (tight muscles).
Larry B. Archy is holding a large bottle of Ghee, but imagine the letters GHI (Gluteus Maximus, Hamstring Complex, Intrinsic Core Stabilizers such as; transverse abdominis, multifidus, transversospinalis, internal oblique pelvic floor (weak muscles).
Arms Fall Forward Compensation
So, out of tremendous frustration, Larry screams out, AFF (Arms Fall Forward compensation)! And Larry makes both arms fall forward in exasperation. Larry exclaims to all of the other elves, let’s start a revolution! It is time for a work stoppage!
So, Let’s sTop Production (LTP – Latissimus Dorsi, Teres Major, Pectoralis Major/Minor (overactive muscles)) in Santas factory, we have had enough! And instead of working for Santa, We iMmediately need some R and R – MRR (Middle/Lower Trapezius, Rhomboids, Rotator Cuff (underactive muscles).
Anterior view (looking from the front)
So Larry B. Archy quits Santa’s workshop and takes a vacation to Antigua Beach, (Anterior View).
Feet Turn Out Compensation
At the beach, while he is sitting under the umbrella, Larry sees his own feet turn out (External Rotation compensation) to the sides. And as an Elf, he knows that means he is hungry and has to order his favorite Sandwich of Bacon and lettuce SBL (Soleus, Biceps Femoris Short Head, Lateral Gastrocnemius (overactive muscles).
I am sure you know that Elves do not eat tomatoes or eggplant, nothing from the nightshade family, only SBL. Larry is so happy with his SBL, that he made the right choice to bolt from Santa’s workshop to the beach, what a sandwich and he shouts out:
“MMm Good, So tArt and Popular! MMGSP (Medial Gastrocnemius, Medial Hamstring Complex, Gracilis, Sartorius, Popliteus (underactive muscles).”
Knees Move Inward Compensation
After his delicious sandwich for lunch, Larry lies down on the beach, still in his Elf clothes, but he sees that his knees are exposed because the patches came off, and his knees move inward (compensation) towards each other.
Larry’s knees flap inwards and out like a Virtual Bat VBAT (Vastus Lateralis, Biceps Femoris Short Head, Adductor Complex, TFL (overactive tight muscles).
And finally, he sighs in happiness, Very More Only Good VMOG, which is how elves say very good, I made the right decision to revolt and flee Santa’s workshop, how Very More Only Good! VMOG (Vastus Medialis Oblique, Gluteus Medius/Maximus (underactive muscles).
#4. Explanation of overactive and underactive muscles
Now that you have a good grasp of the postural compensations and the overactive and underactive muscles, you need to understand what that means. So, do not skip over any of the remaining sections.
What did you just memorize?
I did not have a good enough understanding of overactive and underactive until I realized the following – the NASM OPT Model is NOT interested in training your muscles, as much as it is in developing your nervous system!
Once I understood that NASM’s focus is on training your nervous system, suddenly overactive and underactive muscles made sense.
Here is why:
Your CNS or central nervous system is composed of your brain and your spine, also known as your axial skeleton. The CNS interprets the nervous signals that it receives from your internal receptors.
But, how do these neural signals get to your CNS? It is through your peripheral nervous system which is spread throughout your body. The primary unit of your nervous system is the neuron, and the two types of neurons to remember are the afferent and efferent neurons.
The afferent neuron is responsible to deliver signals back to the brain for processing, and the efferent neuron returns the decision and response of your brain back to your muscles.
If you keep in mind that A comes before E, you can retain the idea that the Afferent neuron precedes the Efferent neuron when you are taking the NASM CPT Exam. Besides, you will never forget it!
For instance, suppose you touch a pot that is way too hot, the mechanoreceptors in your finger(s) signal the afferent neurons back to your brain which then interprets the data. As a result, the brain sends back efferent neurons to your hand muscles to contract and pull away from the pot.
Pretty amazing right?
#5. The impact of a sedentary lifestyle
The OPT Model is built around the assumption of a sedentary lifestyle that plagues many people by leaving them in a deconditioned state invariably with muscle imbalances. Now that you have an idea of how the nervous system works, imagine what happens when you sit all day.
There is a reason that scientists have coined the term “Sitting Disease” and why the overhead squat assessment is so crucial to understanding your client’s state of fitness.
It is because chronic sitting is also sensed by your body. Therefore, when you sit down, your body sends afferent neurons that tell your brain to activate or contract your hip flexors and deactivate or lengthen your hip extensors, mainly your gluteal muscles, hamstring complex, and intrinsic core stabilizers.
Because for movement to take place, muscle A on one side of your body must contract, and the opposite muscle B must lengthen to allow muscle A to contract and move the bone to which it is attached.
Think of doing a biceps curl; as your body senses that you are lifting against resistance, your brain activates your bicep muscles to contract and simultaneously deactivates your triceps. If your triceps do not lengthen, your biceps cannot contract.
Similarly, when you sit, your hip flexors are in a state of flexion, and your glutes are in a state of extension. And when a person sits all day and night, at the kitchen table for breakfast, in the car, on the bus or train, at a desk, and again for the commute, plus on the couch while watching TV, guess what happens?
#6. Overactive hip flexors
Yes, you got it, your hip flexors are overstimulated by efferent neurons and your extensors are understimulated. As a result, the hip flexors of most people who sit much of the day are ‘overactive’, chronically stimulated by your nervous system, which leaves them shortened, and tight.
On the other hand, their opposing muscle group, your glutes, are chronically ‘underactive’, and understimulated by your nervous system, and as a result, the most powerful muscles in your body are left weakened and lengthened!
Keep in mind that your skeletal muscles are voluntary, meaning that your nervous system must connect to your muscles for them to contract and move your skeleton along its merry way. This voluntary nature of your skeletal muscles is in contrast to your heart and organs which function no matter what you are thinking of.
But, if you want to move your body, you need to think.
This connection of your nervous system to your muscles is referred to as neural drive. So, in the hip flexor example, your hip flexors are in overactive neural drive, whereas your glutes have a lack of neural drive.
The result of chronic inactivity is weakness and deconditioned muscles. And when the largest and most powerful muscles (gluteal muscles) of your body are deconditioned, that is not a good thing.
Of course, the terrible effects do not show up immediately, but over time, any human body will experience the same pattern of muscle imbalance that leads to pain and injury. For example, the most common pain in modern society is back pain.
Does it now make sense why? If not, keep reading.
#7. Synergistic Dominance
When your prime mover muscle, the muscle which is supposed to be responsible for movement flakes out because it is too weak, your body calls upon assistant muscles. Therefore, if your glutes are weak because of excessive sitting as we have explained above, what happens when you need to lift something off the ground?
Normally, when you lift an object, you want your strongest muscles, like your gluteus maximus, your main hip extensor, to do the lifting. You do not want to put that stress on weaker muscles, right? But if your strongest muscle is actually the weakest, now what?
Now your body has to call on weaker assistant muscles, for example, your hamstrings or erector spinae muscles of your back to do the lifting and snap, crackle, pop, and there goes another back to a physical therapist for rehabilitation therapy.
You can now see why 80 percent of the adult population in the US and 70 percent worldwide in industrialized countries experience back pain, which is a leading cause of disability.¹
#8. Altered Reciprocal Inhibition
Additionally, in the above example of weak gluteal muscles which is a result of excessive sitting, there is another important term that you need to know for the NASM CPT Exam.
That phrase is altered reciprocal inhibition, and it means this exact circumstance where an opposing muscle group becomes weak, lengthened, and underactive, because of abnormal overactivity.
The normal state of reciprocal inhibition is when your body inhibits neural drive to a muscle such as your triceps to allow for the contraction of your biceps.
NASM’s corrective strategies are geared towards fixing the problem of altered reciprocal inhibition by increasing neural drive to weakened muscle groups.
#9. The Posterior Chain
You will notice that most of the weakened muscle groups are all on the posterior chain. The front of your body is referred to as the anterior and the muscle groups of the back half of your body are referred to as your posterior chain.
If you browse through NASM’s postural assessments, note that many of the underactive muscles are from the posterior chain, such as;
- lateral and medial gastrocnemius
- gluteus maximus and medius
- erector spinae
- hamstring complex
- mid/lower trapezius muscles
Whereas many of the overactive muscles are on the front of your body, the anterior chain, such as;
- hip flexors, a group of 11 muscles, of which the most important to know are your quadriceps, specifically the rectus femoris, and the psoas muscles.
- The one ‘trick’ question you might see is “Which muscles are overactive if you see an excessive forward lean compensation?” and your options are:
- anterior tibialis
- gluteus maximus
- erector spinae
- rectus femoris
If you memorized the OSA Elf fable above, you know that the tight muscles of the excessive forward lean compensation are GASH, the gastrocnemius, abdominal complex, soleus, and hip flexors. If you do not understand that the hip flexors are a group of muscles that includes the powerful rectus femoris of your quadriceps, you might get that question wrong.
But now, you won’t!
Now that you are aware of the serious neglect of the posterior chain due to modern convenience, it is easier to appreciate the great value of full-body compound exercises like squats and deadlifts that heavily target the posterior chain muscle groups.
#10. Corrective Strategies
However, barbell squats and deadlifts are only appropriate exercise selections in phase 2 strength endurance training.
Phase 1 of the NASM OPT Model focuses on corrective strategies such as;
- quadruped arm/opposite leg raise
- ball wall squats
- squat to row, and
- ball cobra
Notice that all of these strengthening exercises are for the posterior chain muscle groups of the glutes, erector spinae, mid to lower trapezius, and rhomboids. Once you understand which muscles are underactive, it will be easier for you to select the appropriate strengthening exercise.
#11. NASM OPT Model
The purpose of the OPT Model is to enable you to design a safe and effective training program that will get results.
As you already know, NASM wants to teach you how to fix muscle imbalances first and foremost. Therefore, the most important phase to focus on is Phase 1 Stabilization Endurance.
It is this phase that will help you train your nervous system, as well as prepare your joints, tendons, and ligaments for higher-intensity phases like Strength Endurance, Hypertrophy, Maximal Strength, and Power.
Nevertheless, you still must know all five phases to sit for the NASM CPT Exam.
Because the OPT Model is so critical, I wrote a separate post – the NASM OPT Model; A Guide to Optimum Performance Training for more details. Once you know the five phases of the OPT Model, you need to learn the acute variables, and for that, I have an excellent way to remember the most important ones.
#12. Acute Variables
The acute variables include repetitions, sets, rest, tempo, and frequency. The fascinating idea about the acute variable is that merely by changing the variables, you can change the outcome of your training.
Identifying the result of your training is based upon the principle of specificity also known as the SAID Principle, which means Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This principle says that your body will respond to the demands you make of it.
If you sit more, you will get better at sitting more, and your body’s shape will reflect that state of deconditioning. On the other hand, if you walk more, and do squats, pushups, and deadlifts, you can dramatically change your body from fat to fit, faster than you ever thought possible.
In another example, if you want to build maximum muscle size, also known as hypertrophy, you will select a rep range of 6 to 12 reps, whereas, for maximal strength as in powerlifting, you select 1 to 5 reps.
With five phases and multiple acute variables, again there is an overwhelming flood of information.
However, the good news is that NASM appears to first want to make sure that you understand the stabilization phase, and is particularly interested in the acute variables for resistance training. Fortunately, there is a somewhat easier way to remember them, which is coming up in the next section.
NASM CPT Exam Acute Variables Memory Aid
This memory aid is specifically for the resistance training acute variables because you will most likely be tested on these acute variables. Some people recommend memorizing the acute variables, but that is a massive effort.
I believe you will be adequately prepared between memorizing the overhead squat assessment and the following technique for the above acute variable information. If it worked for me, it can work for you.
While NASM lists reps before sets, I found it more useful to do the opposite and learn the sets before the repetitions.
How to remember the acute variables without memorization
How to remember the sets
Phase 1 of the OPT Model calls for 1 to 3 sets, 12 – 20 reps, an intensity of 50 – 70 percent of your one-rep max, a 4/2/1 tempo, and 90 seconds rest.
Fortunately, you can remember the rest of the phases as long as you know the first one, which is Stabilization. All you have to do is add 1 to both sides of the set column for the next three phases as in the memory aid:
You don’t have to memorize the sets between phase 1 stabilization and phase 4 maximal strength, you only have to remember that the number of sets of stabilization for resistance training is 1 – 3. And you will automatically know that strength endurance is 2 – 4, hypertrophy is 3 – 5, and maximal strength is 4 – 6.
For the power phase, you will have to remember that the sets are 3 – 6.
Once you know the sets, you can figure out the reps because of the purpose of each phase.
For example, the purpose of stabilization is to train your nervous system, and condition your joints, tendons, and ligaments, but not to build muscle. Therefore, you will not be using a high load of weight, and lighter weight will remind you that you need more reps, which is best characterized by the 12 – 20 repetition range.
Once you have at least one acute variable like sets down pat, it is easier to fill in the rest of the table.
Note on Tempo
By the way, a 4/2/1 tempo means that you use a count of 4 during the eccentric part, the lowering, a count of 2 for the isometric when you hold the weight with no movement, and a count of one in the concentric lift when you raise against the resistance.
You find the same pattern in the other tempos of 2/0/2 and x/x/x, where the translation is that:
- the first number corresponds to the lowering or eccentric action, and
- the second number to the isometric phase with no movement, and
- last, the third number to the concentric or lifting stage
How to Pass the NASM CPT Exam – Wrapping Up
This post reveals some of the basic concepts I wish I had down pat before studying for the NASM CPT Exam.
Take a more detailed look at the NASM OPT Model; A Guide to Optimum Performance Training and dive into deeper detail on How to Memorize the Overhead Squat Assessment for the NASM CPT Exam.
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