Personal trainers have a variety of backgrounds, from those with a single certification to those with multiple certifications and university degrees. Fitness facility operators have to decide which level of personal trainer best fits their needs and their members’ needs.

A personal trainer with a degree is not necessarily more skilled than a personal trainer who has only a certification, says Robert Goldman, founder and president emeritus of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), Chandler, AZ.

“There are some trainers without even a university degree that are very, very good,” Goldman says. “But I think the more credentialed, the more education someone has, the more positive impact they can have on that club.”

Personal trainers who lack the education specific to their profession not only hurt the industry but hurt their potential clientele as well, says Brian Oddi, a team member with NASM and an instructor in the department of sports and health sciences at American Public University (APU), Charles Town, WV. APU offers a bachelor of science degree in sports and health sciences with a concentration in exercise science, as well as a master’s of science degree in sports and health sciences. Both Equinox and Sport & Health clubs have participated in APU career services programs, says Jay Richardson, manager of strategic partnerships, sports and fitness, for APU, which offers all of its courses over the Internet.

“To have the education on top of the certification within the field covering all aspects is vital,” Oddi says. “I’ve seen trainers come to the gym with no foundation.”

However, personal trainers with degrees may be overqualified for clubs that do not have the budget for degreed and certified trainers, says Amy Hyams, vice president of educational services at certifying educational body World Instructor Training Schools (W.I.T.S.), Virginia Beach, VA.

The Value of Certification

“Somebody that gets an advanced degree and an advanced certification can expect a certain salary level, and if the gyms aren’t willing to pay that, then they’re not going to get that level of professional,” Hyams says. “Another piece of it is, what is the consumer demanding? We all know that consumers don’t necessarily know what to look for when they’re hiring a personal trainer or going to a gym. They’re not demanding a certain level of credential because they’re not aware.”

Club operators that Hyams has spoken with tell her that a university degree is not more important than a certification.

“A kinesiology degree will give you a great understanding of the human body, not necessarily how to train, motivate and work with an individual,” she says.

Once fitness facility operators decide whether or not to require a degree, they must make another decision: Which certifications should they require?

Often, certifying agencies offer their own educational courses. W.I.T.S. has a curriculum taught at several hundred colleges and universities across the country.

Jay Del Vecchio, founder of W.I.T.S., says a good education program for personal trainers consists of interactive faculty, a creative curriculum design and practical hands-on laboratories.

“It’s one thing just to show somebody an exercise and make them memorize it and regurgitate it,” Del Vecchio says. “But then can you adapt it and make it fun and interactive for different clients and present it as such? That’s a skill. That’s the salesman end of it.”

W.I.T.S. also partners with several club companies, including 24 Hour Fitness, Bally Total Fitness, LA Fitness, Gold’s Gym International and Town Sports International. This year, the company extended its courses from six weeks to nine weeks. Next year, it will increase its internships from 30 hours to 50 hours, Del Vecchio says.

Club operators also can turn to certifying agencies that have been accredited to ensure the certification is properly preparing the trainer and in turn, protecting their members.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is the accreditation body of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence, lists 13 fitness certification organizations that have an NCCA-accredited personal trainer certification. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) also accredits certifications.

W.I.T.S. is accredited by the International Association of Continuing Education and Training, which accredits training programs that meet standards set by ANSI.

The goal of certification is to protect the public from harm, says Todd Galati, director of credentialing for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), San Diego, one of the 13 organizations that have an NCCA-accredited personal trainer certification.

“Part of the NCCA accreditation is making sure that that certification process follows a number of key steps to ensure that the certification is robust,” Galati says. “It’s shown that this person is prepared to develop and implement safe and effective fitness programs for the general population across a broad spectrum.”

ACE not only has a certification for personal trainers but one for group fitness instructors, advanced health and fitness specialists, and lifestyle and weight management coaches. ACE’s certification criteria do not change for someone who already has a college degree, Galati adds.

“We don’t raise the bar for what you need to know,” he says. “And we also don’t lower the bar for people that come in who do not have the degree. The bar is set where the professional should be competently practicing.”

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), Colorado Springs, CO, offers NCCA-accredited certifications for both personal trainers and strength and conditioning specialists. Like ACE, the focus of certification for the NSCA is the safety of the client.

“We’re going to tell you what our certifications are,” says Greg Nockleby, the marketing and public relations manager for the NSCA. “But we’re also going to tell you that no matter what, be certified, have the right amount of education and have the right amount of qualifications in order to write a program for your client. Ultimately, the safety of your client comes first. Only a certified individual can properly assess and prescribe that particular program according to their [client’s] needs.”

Sidebar: Organizations that Offer Personal Trainer Certifications

Organizations that Offer Personal Trainer Certifications

The following is a list of the 13 fitness certification organizations that have a National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredited personal trainer certification. Some organizations may have other NCCAaccredited certification programs.

  • Academy of Applied Personal Training Education
  • American College of Sports Medicine
  • American Council on Exercise
  • The Cooper Institute
  • International Fitness Professionals Association
  • National Academy of Sports Medicine
  • National Council for Certified Personal Trainers
  • National Council on Strength and Fitness
  • National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association
  • National Exercise Trainers Association
  • National Federation of Professional Trainers
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association
  • Training and Wellness Certification Commission

Source: Institute for Credentialing Excellence, www.creditialingeexcellence.org