How I Studied For, Took and Passed the AFAA Group Exercise Instructor Exam

I PASSED!!!!!! I am now officially certified as a group fitness instructor by AFAA!!!!!

For years, I’ve been mumbling about getting certified as a group exercise instructor. I’ve been addicted to group fitness since I was about 16 years old, hoofing it over to a local studio to take dance and strength training classes. I’ve taken just about every format — hip hop, yoga, step, water aerobics, spinning — and have not yet met a class I didn’t love.

I don’t know what exactly caused me to move this particular goal from the dream list to the reality list, but as I heard myself say for the 1,000th time:

“One of these days I’m going to sign up to become an instructor…”

I decided to just do it.

Off to take my AFAA certification exam! Ahhhhhhh #bucketlist

I asked my fellow IDEA Advisors for their advice, and also read these posts:

Pinnable AFAA

And after all of that homework, I decided that AFAA was the best certification for my particular needs. There are other programs, including ACE, ACE and NAFC, but AFAA seemed to be highly recommended by both professionals and gyms. And as it happened, AFAA was running its discounted APEX program in Orlando right when I was looking to sign up.

The posts that I linked to above do a fantastic job explaining the process of the certification day itself, so if you want a breakdown of what to expect in terms of a timeline, check those out. I wanted to take some time to share a few of the takeaways that I have from my experience, and a few tips that I think may help you if you’re currently preparing for the exam yourself.

Study For & Pass the AFAA Group Exercise Instructor Exam


The Written Test

When you sign up for the exam, AFAA mails you a study guide. USE IT. The exam day is split up into a review of the guide and a review of the exercises that you’ll demonstrate in the practical section, but it really is designed to be a recap of what you worked on at home. In my case, the trainer did a great job of focusing the review on what was actually on the test — in some cases, saying “This will be on the test, so listen up!” and that was very helpful. But had I not spent 2-3 nights a week over the course of 6 weeks reading the guide, taking the practice test, using flash cards (printed out from this site and this site) and actually committed some of the more difficult terms to memory, I really think I would have had a hard time.


(I ended up getting 100% on the written test — and I know that would not have happened had I not spent that time at home. It also helps that I’d actually been studying for the NAFC exam, covering similar material, for several months before AFAA.)

A few key points:

  • Know your anatomy and kinesiology — up and down, front and back. You WILL need to know where your trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, deltoids, gluteus maximus, etc. are and how they work. You’ll need to know the difference between inferior, superior, anterior and posterior, as well as the planes of your body. You’ll need to understand joints and ligaments and cartilage and more.
  • The test is multiple choice or matching, so you don’t need to worry too much about memorizing terms — I’d spend your time trying to understand them instead. There were several questions where I think I would have had a difficult time writing out the answer, but could easily choose from the most likely correct answer, based on context clues.
  • You’ll want to get a good grasp on AFAA’s recommendations for leading a safe and fun class. I spent a lot of time — too much, I now know — memorizing the equations for measuring heart rates, the list of suggested beats per minute for different formats and other complicated formulas. You’ll need to know that those things exist, but the exam really focuses more on keeping your clients/class participants SAFE, so go over the study guide sections on dealing with special populations and health risks.

The Practical

I expected the written test to be hard. So when it went smoothly, I breathed a sigh of relief. As it turns out, the practical was the real challenge for me. That surprised me, because I’ve been taking classes for so long — I thought working out would be second nature. But it was the end of the day, I was actually the very last of 100+ students to go, and I was absolutely fried. Mentally and physically, I felt like overcooked spaghetti.

I passed, obviously, and while I had a few bad moments worrying about my results in the weeks after the exam, I took heart in knowing that the proctors really only failed you if you did one of two things: demonstrated a move that would be so unsafe as to potentially hurt one of your students (a plyometric jumping jack into splits during the warmup section, for example) or demonstrated a move that was inappropriate for the section or the muscle without correcting it (demonstrating a lunge during the pectoralis major section, for example, or doing ballistic/bouncy stretches during the warmup).

Thankfully, ALL of this was demonstrated and reviewed during the morning and early afternoon sessions, and we were told exactly what the instructors would be looking for. The hardest part, again, was keeping it all straight in my fuzzy brain — keep in mind that you’ll have worked out for most of the day AND will have to work out through the practical exam, serving as the students for all of the other people taking the test.


For the practical, which is done as a group for the first half, the proctor would call out a muscle: “gastrocnemius! deltoids! hip adductors!” and ask you to perform one or two exercises appropriate for that muscle, followed by an appropriate stretch for that muscle.

There were many options to choose from, and since everyone is moving at once, there’s really no time to look around and make sure that you’re on the right track. But for example:

  • Pectoralis Major
    • exercise: Chest Fly, Chest Press, Push-Up
    • stretch: Clasp hands behind back and gently press down, press chest out
  • Upper Back (Trapezius, Rhomboids, Latissimus Dorsi)
    • exercise: Bent-over row
    • stretch: Clasp hands in front and gently press away from body and round back
  • Gastrocnemius
    • exercise: Calf raises
    • stretch: Lunge back, press heel gently into the floor

My advice to you — advice I wish I’d taken myself, because I would have been less stressed! — take a deep breath and KEEP IT SIMPLE. The exercises are pretty obvious. You know that a lunge is not working your shoulders, and a push-up is not working your gluteus maximus. So don’t over-think!

Also, when it’s time to give your individual presentation, remember: SMILE! Speak slowly and clearly. Introduce yourself and the exercise you’re demonstrating. Show multiple levels for different populations. AND USE ALIGNMENT CUES: shoulders down and back. Abs engaged. Spine in neutral. Your neck is a natural extension of the spine. Etc. Use your five AFAA questions to determine whether something is safe for your class.


Make sure that you come prepared to work out, all day. You’ll get some breaks but they’ll be short, because there’s so much to do before the exam. At my exam, we were able to leave for lunch, but I am glad I brought a cooler so I didn’t have to go far. I was able to eat, stretch, go to the bathroom, do some quick studying and be ready to go for the afternoon.

As it turns out, I’m already teaching — yay! — but even if you’re just interested in exercise science and may not ever want to teach, I think this is a very valuable learning experience. My grasp of anatomy and kinesiology has already helped me in my individual practice, because I understand the way my muscles and joints are working in combination with each other.

What other questions do you have?

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  1. says

    Awesome recap! I’ve considered getting another certification (i currently have yoga sculpt from core power yoga) this one sounds like it really did go over the body, more than just the motions of movement.

  2. says

    CONGRATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! In my younger years I was certified by AFAA! I let it lapse as I had to use my college degree & get in Corporate work to support 3 stepchildren…. I know you are going to be wonderful!!!

  3. Raymond says

    Did Anyone Do A CarDio RoutinE For Their 3Levels Demo? I TeAch Zumba So I’m Much MorE Comfortable With CaRdio/Aerobics Than Strength. ps. Congrats!

    • says


      There’s an earlier section of the practical where everyone has to show cardio, and they want to see different levels during that part as well. But for the strength section, it needs to be something that specifically isolates a muscle group. You’ll do both cardio and strength.

      • Raymond says

        Thanks for the quick response! I was referring to the individual demo section where you teach the class for 1-2 minutes. Most blogs talk about demonstrating 3 levels of strength (ex. push up knees under hips, push ups knees to head straight, full push up). Did you see anyone demoing 3 levels of cardio?

        OMG – Sorry for the crazy letters! My phone went bonkers!

        • says

          Raymond — I wondered what had happened with the text!

          There were two people out of 50 in my class that demonstrated cardio rather than strength. So as long as your proctor is OK with it (and I’d check) you should be fine. You have to show three different levels in only 1 minute, so I think most of us found that easier to do with an isolated strength demo, especially since most of what led up to it focused on cardio.

          But if it works for you and the proctor, go for it!

          • Claire O'Hara says

            What would be an example of a Level 3? I was thinking that as well for the cardio portion where you do 1-2min. I’m a U-Jam (soon to be instructor) and we only do 2 levels so I’m trying to figure out how would I even do a Level 3

  4. says

    Congrats girlie! I know I’ve taken the NASM exam that took me 6 months to prep for so don’t know why I’m stressing over this one!

  5. says

    I am starting to seriously consider making fitness/health more of my “work” instead of my “play”. I’m kinda over sitting at a desk and want to work for myself. I haven’t quite put together the what or how, but I think getting a fitness certification is a good start. So- why’d you choose AFAA? What about NASM or ACE?

    • says

      GREAT questions, Steph!

      NASM and ACE are fabulous organizations, and I am looking into getting my personal trainer certification through NASM, after speaking with other CPTs. For me, AFAA was the right pick for group fitness because a) all of the gyms and studios in my area accept that accreditation b) the people I spoke with who teach or have gotten certified told me that AFAA had a strong foundation in exercise science and kinesiology, which was important to me c) AFAA had the APEX program in my area, which meant that it was only $99 for me to get my certification.

      I have really liked my experience so far, and am really impressed by the resources that are available for continuing education. But again, I am considering NASM for my next exam and ACE has a great reputation as well.

      There are some programs that you can get certified in without having a group ex certification — for example, PiYo Strength, which I teach, does not require it. I’m very glad I have it (I use it in every class, especially when giving alignment cues) and most gyms/studios will still require the extra certification, but not all. The studio where I teach does not require AFAA, but it’s small (and I have my own liability insurance and bring in my own equipment, so that’s fairly uncommon).

      • Nicole says

        I was wondering when you say PiYo strength are you referring to Beach Body PiYo Live? I am A PiYo Live Instructor, I was wondering if maybe there was another PiYo class? LOL

      • Nicole says

        Also Thank you Very much for all your helpful tips!! Really detailed..And it is totally a nerve racking day. It seems like i have done classes a million times, but on that day seemed to forget everything in five minutes. LOL

  6. Jill says

    Awesome Katy. This is very helpful to me, as I am an AFAA certified Personal Trainer signed up for my AFAA Group Ex cert August 3rd. Was wondering about the practical, so it sounds do-able and I now know what to focus on. Thanks!

  7. Maureen Kibler says

    Congratulation on passing and for the great advice – I am taking mine during the ZUMBA convention in Orlando in August (I’ve been a licensed ZUMBA instructor for almost 3 years now) and felt that the time was right to do it. FIngers crossed!! I haven’t studied in over 20 years (unless you count my elementary school kids math homework) so I’m pretty nervous!

  8. Holly Llewellyn says

    I am looking into taking the same AFFA/APEX 1 day class you took. I currently am certified to teach Body Pump and was wondering if, when doing your individual presentation, weights were available for you to use and was there music provided or could I bring music to present to? I am comfortable teaching with weights- I am not sure how confident I would be teaching anything more “aerobics-y”

    • says

      Hi Holly!

      No real weights are available. You can simulate using weights, though — and a lot of people did that. Our instructor’s only caveat was that if you were going to pretend to be leading a class using weights, with (for example) bicep curls or weighted lunges, you needed to simulate actually getting the weights into your hands or onto your body, to show that you can safely role model proper form for your students. And you needed to simulate how the weight would actually affect your flexion/extension (so not just whipping your arms up and down — actually showing some resistance, even if it was faked for the test).

      Our proctor recommended actually pretending to grab the weights from the rack, or to pull the cables down and really running through the exercise as if there were real weights.

      I think you’ll be just fine if you demonstrate the weights, but keep in mind that you’ll still have to show some basic cardio moves in the test — in my version, they LITERALLY told you what exercises to show in the study portion of the day, so I kind of memorized those routines and just jumped into them at test time.

      The music is set by the proctors as well. I don’t remember the BPM but they changed it up to the AFAA-recommended speed per workout section (slower for the warmup, faster for cardio, for example).

      Let me know if you have any other questions — I loved the experience and highly recommend doing it at APEX!

  9. Chelsey Lair says

    Hello, I am currently taking AFAA’s certification online for group exercise. I was curious what you are teaching at gyms now that you are certified? I am almost done…all I need to do is take the exam and practical exam then I’ll be certified :) But, I am unsure what I will be qualified to teach afterwards. So, what do you do for your classes? And how do you prepare?

    • says

      Hi Chelsey!

      You will be certified to teach any group fitness class — aerobics, some basic yoga, boot camp, etc. It’s kind of a general program, so you’ll learn about creating choreography (BPM per type, for example, or proper moves for individual muscle groups) but you won’t actually be taught specific workouts or programs.

      While I definitely felt prepared to *teach,* I wasn’t sure how to start. So I got a few specialty certifications, particularly PiYo Strength, which was a separate class/exam but prepared me specifically for that workout, and now I’m teaching that and looking for other workout-specific programs I can take.

      Hope that helps!

  10. Lindsay says

    Hi! Way to go!! I am curious how close the practice tests are to the real test? I see the same 75 questions around. I am also doing mine online so no one is there to ask questions! I LOVE that you posted the sites for the flash cards, that is awesome! Thanks!

    • says

      They were pretty close — so I would definitely go through those. The hard part is, though, that the questions could be kind of tricky, and they will give you two answers that *seem* like they could be correct, so I’d spend some time on the online flash cards that I mentioned above…

  11. Nelson Walker says

    congrats on your certification, i am thinking about doing the 3 day workshop for 499, do you think its beneficial or should i do the online courses, I’ve been trying to study an hour a night but i am inconsistent, i am wondering if the 3 day workshop will provide me with everything i need to pass the test.

    • says

      Hi Nelson!

      When are you planning on taking the exam? An hour a night of studying should be more than enough, as long as you’re focusing on the big topics (kinesiology, class safety, etc.) and while I think the workshop is certainly going to help, that’s a lot of money to spend.

      Just to be clear — are you talking about AFAA group fitness, which is what I posted about, or a more intense personal training program through AFAA or another certification board? I have not heard of a 3-day workshop for the group exercise certification through AFAA, and that’s the only credential I have personal experience with.

  12. Makall says

    Hey thank you so much for creating this post! I am taking the certification workshop and test tomorrow. I am feeling totally overwhelmed. Before we take the practical part of the test, do they give us time to practice what will be tested on, or do we just jump right into it and expect to be prepared?

    • says

      Hi there! It looks like I missed the chance to respond before your test — I hope it went well!

      We did have some breaks to either work on our own or in groups to review what we’d learned and practice our routines. I spent some of my lunch break doing that, because I wanted to make sure I was confident on all of the verbal alignment cues.

  13. says

    I’ve read this post a few times but now I’m seriously thinking about taking the plunge in 2015. I see there’s an APEX $99 day in my neighborhood in February so thanks for this post. If I actually sign up and go, I’ll lyk.

    Thank you again.

    • says

      Yay! I hope you do it — I really, really liked the experience and find myself using what I learned in every group exercise class I now teach.

  14. Jayme says

    Thank you for posting this! I’m taking the exams in Feb so this has been very helpful. I do have a question though….for the 8 min section where you show a warm up, cardio section, and cool down. Are you doing this by yourself and the other students are your class??? Or is everyone doing this at the same time but it’s your own routine with the AFAA instructor walking around grading.

    • says

      You do all of that as a group (at least in the Apex workshop, we did!). Everyone did it at once, with several proctors walking around making notes on individuals. Then we each individually had to demonstrate one exercise, demonstrating proper introduction, correct alignment cues, etc.


  15. Robert Sorensen says

    Thanks for the useful post! My wife is getting ready to start studying for the course, and I wanted to know if you felt like the textbook was necessary to pass the course. Would it be enough if she stuck to the videos and the printable study guide? Let me know, thanks!

    • says

      Hi Robert — please wish your wife good luck for me!

      I found that the videos and study guide were enough, and I didn’t get the text book, nor did I feel like I needed it (obviously I passed, so that’s a good sign!). It absolutely would not HURT, but the study guide really focuses on the items that are on the test, and just getting through all of that content was tough.

      I’m an exercise science junkie, so I may end up getting the book just for my own ongoing education, but for the test, I don’t think it’s required.

  16. R Hermanson says

    We have a lot in common. I weigh what I did in high school. I am also passionate about fitness. I also live in Florida. The only thing we don’t have in common is that I have yet to take my test. How long did you spend prepping for the test?I found this article very helpful.

  17. andrea says


    Great post about the exam. I am taking mine next weekend and have a question about the practicial portion which I am most nervous about. What did the cardio portion involve? Also- did they keep the warm up questions pretty simple? Last question just curious- what exercise did you demonstrate at 3 levels? Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Andrea!

      Overall, try not to stress about the specific move. I did, and in hindsight, I think if I had just taken a deep breath and kept it simple, it would have been a lot less terrifying!

      For us, because it was a large group, we did several sections all together — including the cardio warmup and cardio section. So you could pick your move (maybe a step side touch, a light jog, etc. for the warmup, or knee repeaters and grapevines for the main cardio) but the proctors did want to see you mix it up, rather than just demo one move. During the group workouts, we didn’t have to talk or give cues (only during the individual demo).

      I showed the tricep dip, moving my feet out further to show an advanced modification.

  18. says

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this post! I’m taking my exam on Sunday (Eeeeeeek!) and I had actually found both those sites for studying and flash cards a few weeks back and have been taking the tests and using those to study along with the study guide I got. Like you, getting certified is something I’ve wanted to do for years, I’m kicking myself I didn’t do it sooner because trying to find the time and energy to study being a mom is hard! So here’s hoping that the last month and a half of studying during short nap times and most bed times will get me through!

  19. Heidi says

    I’m so glad I saw this site! I have the certification workshop coming up in a couple days and I didn’t even know I was supposed to receive a study guide. I even called them to say I received no confirmation email and they still neglected to tell me I should have a study guide.

    Thanks again!!!

  20. shalyse says

    Hey so I am studying for the written as we speak and I am curious to know how detailed they got in the anatomy… do you need to know each quad group( vastus lateralis, vastus medialis etc.) or just your quads? also has anyone taking the practical online through the camera? This scares me I would much rather do it in person… is that an option?
    Thanks!!!! :)

  21. D says

    HI, Katy!

    This piece was so helpful! One question though, how long after your certification day did you hear about your results / receive the physical certification??


  22. Kristi says

    Hi Kate, in addition to the study guide which was included with registration fee do you also purchase any of the recommended materials including manual, textbook, practice test, or DVD? happy to make the investment but unless its absolutely necessary I’d rather save the money. Or maybe borrow from a friend who recently studied for PT certification.

    Thanks for such a thorough and detailed post. So, so helpful.

    • says

      Hi Kristi!

      I did not buy any additional material — just the exam and the study guide at the APEX rate of $99. I found those to be enough, but APEX also was a day of studying in-person with a trainer, followed by the two tests, so it was like a workshop. I was very thankful I’d studied before I showed up, so it was more of a review than anything.

  23. Andrew says

    I want to congratulate you and also thank you for posting this! I signed up for the AFAA Personal Training Certification Online and was wondering if you are familiar with what score is needed in order to pass the test. Thank you!

    • says

      Thanks, Andrew — good luck!

      I honestly can’t remember if it’s 70% or 80% on the written test…but it’s somewhere in that range!


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