Preparing For the New ACSM Exercise Physiologist Exam

A colleague of mine, Emily Iddins, recently passed the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Health Fitness Specialist  (HFS) exam so I asked her to share her experience and suggestions to those who might be considering the exam.  Since the time that Emily passed the exam, the ACSM has actually changed the name of the exam.  In the future, this exam will be called the Certified Exercise Physiologist exam.  The exam requires a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.  It is meant to certify and credential those professionals who train apparently healthy populations and those with uncomplicated medically controlled diseases cleared for independent physical activity.  It also includes fitness management, administration and supervision.

Over the past year I bounced back and forth trying to decide which certification I would pursue and I am so happy that I pushed myself toward ACSM -HFS as it is a well-rounded fitness certification. Five long months of studying multiple hours a day and going through a mountain of notecards proved not to be wasted effort, but allowed me to write that acronym after my name. Now that the test is behind me, I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it may help others, whether that be in the decision making process or the actual studying.

The first step is to visit the ACSM website and read up on all there is to know about the certification. What are the qualifications and the tools you need to prepare. I recommend purchasing all of the books listed:

This literature and practical application together should be plenty in order to prepare for the exam. I was lucky enough to see how everything applied through my job as a Fitness Specialist in a corporate setting, but students should be able to find the same opportunities through their classes, fieldwork, internship, or job.

There are 17 chapters to cover so it’s important to give yourself ample time to read through each chapter, make notes/notecards (I did both) and to review. I worked my way through the book by focusing on one to two chapters per week with a big review on the weekend. Some sections take more time or require more focus than others. All 17 chapters are important, but the exam content outline breaks down the percentage of questions on the exam from each domain as listed below.

  • Domain I: Health and Fitness Assessment – 30%
  • Domain II: Exercise Prescription, Implementation (and Ongoing Support) – 30%
  • Domain III: Exercise Counseling and Behavioral Strategies – 15%
  • Domain IV: Legal/Professional – 10%
  • Domain V: Management – 15%

The above breakdown should be a determinant in the amount of time you spend in each section. I have to repeat, all of the information is important and will apply in whatever setting you choose to use this certification, but as you get closer to your exam date, narrow your focus to Domains I and II. In terms of chapters, I thought chapters 2, 3, and 7 in the Resources text should be the biggest focus. In those three chapters, you’ll find pre participation screening guidelines, fitness assessments and exercise programming, and exercise recommendations for individuals with controlled cardiovascular, pulmonary, and metabolic diseases.

Make sure to know:

  • The 8 coronary artery disease risk factor thresholds
  • The signs and symptoms of cardiopulmonary disease
  • The relative and absolute contraindications
  • The risk classification chart (like the back of your hand)

You will be given multiple examples of clients for which you must determine how many risk factors they have, their risk classification, and what level of supervision is needed based on intensity. You should also be familiar with how to determine exercise intensity whether that be with the heart rate reserve method, VO2 reserve method, peak heart rate method, etc. I recommend memorizing the metabolic formulas and conversions, however these were provided during my test.

My last piece of advice is to use the certification review exam as just that; a review. If you don’t know a question, stop, break it down, and make sure you understand before moving on. I personally didn’t time myself on the practice exam because I thought there was no point. The actual exam is 150 questions and you have 3.5 hours to take it which should be more than enough time. I am a slow test taker and I had plenty of time to go through the exam and review every question I flagged (and there were a lot).

Overall, make sure you take the time to study hard and to review so that you can go into the exam with confidence. I hope that these tips come in handy and wish you good luck on your journey to becoming a certified Health Fitness Specialist – in the future to be known as Certified Exercise Physiologist.

8/4/17 Update: The ACSM has new changes to their exam since this post. We would direct you to their Frequently Asked Questions Page regarding exam updates for up-to-date information.


5 thoughts

  1. Thank you for your input! Would you say to read the Guidelines or Resources book before the other, or somehow read both at the same time?

    1. HI Rachel! Sorry it took so long to respond. I would say they are equally important and can be read in either order. They will eventually serve as resource / references.

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