Sorting Out Personal Trainer Certifications

Club owners today are faced with more than 300 certifications for personal trainers and instructors. Which are worth the value of the paper on which they are printed and which are worth a lot more? For club owners new to the business, that decision can be difficult. For those well versed in the industry, it's just a pain to weed through the “junk” certifications to get to the nationally recognized ones. However, five certifying agencies have banded together to create a standardized accreditation process for certifying agencies in an effort to help club owners, to ensure the credibility of nationally recognized certification tests and to increase the credibility of the industry.

“Certification is one of the most loosely and inappropriately used terms in this industry,” says Ken Germano, president of San Diego-based American Council on Exercise (ACE), which offers four fitness certifications. The health club industry must define and discern the difference between a certification, continuing education and a certificate of advanced qualifications rather than lumping everything together as a certification, he says.

Stepping up to the plate to meet the certification challenge are five certifying agencies — ACE, Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). The agencies are developing minimum competency requirements for certification exams and an accreditation process for certifying agencies.

The groups met in late May to formally agree to pursue this standardized accreditation process. Now, the groups are researching what it will take to get each group through the process, says Jeff Dilts, director of business development at NASM.

“All the groups were just great — so positive and unanimous about raising the bar,” he says.

NASM is in favor of creating an accreditation process that the leaders in certification would have a voice in but not control and would revolve around a list of educational standards that each group would adhere to, Dilts says.

Each of the main certifying groups has areas of strength so that while there should be criteria for the organizations, it doesn't necessarily mean there should be only one certifying agency, he says.

“We don't want to create a monopoly by any means, but the bar needs to be raised,” says Dilts.

Bill Howland, IHRSA spokesperson, calls the coalition's work valuable. “It will put the pressure on the more nefarious, less credible organizations,” he says.

While these five agencies are not the only valid certifying agencies in the industry, their long histories lend them additional credibility.

“We're 100 percent behind the effort of these organizations to enhance the credibility and the quality of the certification process,” says Howland. “This evolved from our end when our members expressed to us their frustration with the situation. As an operator, our members were frustrated with the lack of consistency.” The clubs were hiring trainers with certifications, but they soon discovered that some certifications didn't mean much, which meant the clubs had to take time to train the trainers in some basic areas.

Not dealing with the certification “mess” could negatively affect the health club industry and members. As clubs reach out to deconditioned club novices, the potential increases for member injuries from improperly trained and certified trainers and instructors or from staff offering advice in areas in which they are not certified.

“Clubs are being held responsible for not only what happens inside the club, but also what advice is being dispensed,” says Rick Caro, president of Management Vision in New York. “They need to be careful that they are qualified to dispense the advice.”

So far, the industry hasn't seen a rash of injury-related lawsuits, but if hiring better-qualified staff lessens the likelihood of future lawsuits, then it's an investment worth making, says Dr. Tom Baechle, executive director of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Certification Commission in Lincoln, NE, which offers two certifications. Baechle is also the chair of the Exercise Physiology Department at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

“It all comes down to members,” agrees April Morgan, vice president of fitness operations at Sports Club/LA in Los Angeles. “Our members join to get results, and we want them to work with people who know how to give them results and give them to them safely.”

It also may come down to whether the industry can set standards before the government comes knocking. From time to time, the issue of licensing has arisen on a state level, but Howland says that the concern about standards is really about credibility.

“Organizations such as ACSM and NSCM have invested a lot of time and energy into developing curriculum and training and exams,” Howland says. “Unfortunately for them, the nefarious organizations out there are undermining the credibility of the profession and the work these groups have done.”

Still, many in the industry are loath to see the government step in as it did with the physical therapy industry. Instead, they would prefer that the industry voluntarily and proactively step up requirements and training.


If the issue isn't settled, more large clubs may just start certifying their own trainers. Not only would that cut into certifying agencies' business, but it also would make it difficult to verify minimum levels of competency throughout the industry. A common standard for minimum competency is something the certifying agencies are working toward.

The agencies are looking at getting accreditation from a third party, such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is the certifying arm of the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA).

Currently, few certifying exams in the industry have been accredited by a third party. One agency that has been accredited by NOCA is ACE.

“There's only one way to build a certification and there's only one way to accredit it whether it's for personal trainers, electricians or physical therapists,” Germano says. “It must be accredited by a certified board.”

The NCCA, which is the only national accreditation body for private certification organizations in all disciplines, measures the ability of certifying organizations in any industry to accurately discriminate between qualified and unqualified professionals. To earn NCCA recognition, a credentialing body must demonstrate an ability to develop and administer psychometrically sound examinations using set criteria. Organizations may apply and be accredited by the NCCA if they demonstrate compliance with each accreditation standard.

The NOCA standards are serious and time-consuming to meet. The application is several hundred pages long, and it takes about a year to apply for it. After being approved, an organization must then work to maintain the standard.

“So, when you look at the process and you pan the industry, how can there be more than 300 organizations that offer certifications?” asks Germano.

In addition to finding a certifying agency with third-party accreditation, a club owner can look for an agency with academic approval of its curriculum, such as NASM has from a major university. In fact, the group offers a master's degree in association with that university.

“In terms of what to look for: academic approval of education and testing process or look for third-party standards such as NOCA,” Dilts says. “If you just apply those two rules, the field [of certifying agencies] would get narrow very quickly.”

Knowing that a certification organization is accredited by NOCA is important for some club owners. Joe Rose, general manager at American River Athletic Club in Sacramento, CA, says that the NOCA accreditation shows that the certifying group is not resting on its laurels.

“I have certification. This just validates the certifying body that much more,” he says.


While the industry is taking more steps to self-regulation than it has in the past, it's not there yet.

“It will continue to go there,” says Germano. “It's all positive. It's just it's a fragmented, confusing niche right now. Too many organizations have been allowed to prosper. When you see a certification for $39.99, you have to ask, what is this all about?”

As long as club owners accept less than top-quality certifying bodies to certify their trainers, then a plethora of certifying agencies will exist, diluting the credibility of certifications and of the industry itself. In addition, until this issue is settled, personal trainers will never acquire the level of respect to which they aspire.

“The industry must regulate itself now,” says Germano. “Any maturing industry goes through this process. If it doesn't take steps to self regulate now, then that leaves it to the hands of other bodies to get involved.”

The positive is that the certifying agencies — often competitors — are working together to create a higher bar for competency. Once the competency standards are issued and the accreditation process is set, the ball is in the court of club owners.

“If club owners don't support it, then we would have created these standards for nothing,” says NSCA's Baechle. “Because if club owners don't hire based on these standards, then what good are they?”


In the mind/body business, certification isn't any less confusing.

“It's become more of a problem with everyone hanging a shingle on their door and offering Pilates certification,” says Brent Anderson, co-founder and president of Polestar Education, a Pilates education and certification company. Polestar offers four certifications in Pilates instruction.

Anderson has been working with the Pilates Method Alliance in Miami on the certification mess. The Pilates Method Alliance is the not-for-profit professional association for the Pilates method. The group has a goal to establish and maintain a national certification exam for Pilates instructors.

Anderson compared the Pilates certification proliferation to the medical school situation in the early 1900s. At that time, medical schools abounded as anyone and everyone opened their own schools. It wasn't until a third party began analyzing and rating medical schools that the “fly-by-night” medical schools disappeared, the average schools either closed or upgraded their programs and the good schools continued. In addition, the rating system almost completely ceased the opening of new medical schools as people saw they would be held to certain standards. Anderson says that a rating system of the Pilates certification programs could prove to have the same “thinning” effect. But, who would rate the programs? Perhaps the Pilates Method Alliance, which is trying to decide its role in the certification situation.

Pilates is a mess as far as certifications go, agrees Alexandra Brinsmade, director of training development, Town Sports International. Some certifying bodies require 600 hours of instruction and a lot of money to get certified, which makes it difficult to afford the time and money to get staff certified.

While there's nothing wrong with a group offering a two-day workshop on Pilates instruction, the problem comes when a group uses the word certification at the end of the workshop, says Anderson. No Pilates exams are yet accredited through a third party, but Anderson says that that goal is imperative. However, a lot of work defining the practice must be done prior to any group applying for this third-party accreditation.

Yoga is in a similar predicament. Yoga instructors have several certifications from which to choose, some of which are offered through the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America (AFAA). The AFAA recently added a yoga certification because clubs requested a need for a yoga certification due to the increase in popularity of the program, says Laura Gladwin, acting chair of the AFAA Board of Certification and Training.

A company called YogaFit in Hermosa Beach, CA, offers testing for yoga instructors on four levels, as well as specialty training for seniors, children and pre-post natal, but Beth Shaw, the owner and founder of the company, says that she would call what she does teacher training for yoga instructors in a health club setting rather than certifications.

Shaw says that standards are needed for instructors who teach yoga in health clubs, but the standards must come from the fitness industry itself.

“There are many yoga organizations that are trying to set those [certifications], but the health club industry is a completely different animal than the yoga studio,” Shaw says. “There's a different environment in each. Anyone setting those up will have to be within the fitness club industry.”

In the end, Anderson says the situation will work itself out. Certifying companies will either rise to the level necessary or they will disappear, he says.

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