What do you do when your personal trainers come into your club with a variety of backgrounds, training experiences and certifications, and none of them seem to be offering a consistent message to your members? For WOW! Work Out World, a Brick, NJ-based chain of 36 clubs in the northeastern United States, Canada and Japan, the answer was to offer training classes of its own, culminating in what the club calls a WOW! certification.

Many clubs have offered their own staff training to indoctrinate their employees with their company's mission and methods. For example, the YMCA offers its own in-house education program for trainers and group exercise instructors. 24 Hour Fitness requires all staff to hold or earn a NASM certification and also has a group fitness continuing education program called Xpedition. However, these clubs don't call their training a certification.

Some in the industry argue that too many companies use the term certification too loosely for what actually constitutes a training class. In reality, they argue, a certification requires passing an exam that has been accredited. In fact, IHRSA has recommended that by Jan. 1, 2006, health club management hire personal trainers who have been certified by an organization that has received or applied to receive accreditation from the National Commission of Certifying Agencies or other accrediting agencies that have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

While WOW! doesn't plan to seek accreditation for its training, the company is comfortable calling its training a certification, says Todd Brown, vice president of personal training and nutrition at WOW!. That's because its certification is based on standards developed by a certifying agency in the United Kingdom. Brown had been recommending that trainers get certified by one U.S.-based certifying agency, but the expense for the exam was getting too high for trainers, he says. So, Brown found a certification company based in the United Kingdom with similar standards to the U.S. agency and based WOW!'s program on that company's materials and tests. WOW! then created its own team to educate its trainers.

The chain hires trainers who have a degree or a national certification. The company also will hire individuals without degrees or certifications if they have a passion for fitness and can pass WOW!'s online exam of 100 questions. They then must either obtain a national certification or pass WOW!'s certification course and exam within a period of 90 days. Once hired, trainers at WOW! aren't required to keep up any certifications other than the WOW! certification, Brown says.

The chain began offering its own certification less than a year ago for three reasons: cost, uniformity and retention.

“If we can offer that education at a more affordable price than elsewhere, then we'd be crazy not to do it,” says Brown.

Although initially offering the certifications for free, the chain now charges trainers $30 (the money goes to the instructors). Since charging for the certifications, attendance has “shot through the roof,” Brown says. “What a lesson in value. We've actually had a waiting list for certain programs.”

In addition to lowering costs for trainers, an in-house certification provides uniformity in trainers' knowledge, Brown says.

“At other chains, some of the trainers have one certification, another has another, and every trainer has a different education level,” Brown says. “I can't have that because what is being delivered to the end user is different.”

By offering a WOW! certification, Brown also hopes to retain trainers.

“You can invest time, energy and effort in a trainer, and if they have a national certification, they can leave your company on a dime and go to another one,” Brown says. “But if we created our own in-house certification that wasn't nationally recognized but did the job of creating quality trainers, and if we compensated them more as they went through [the various levels], then it would increase retention. So now if they left, they would have to start over.”

Graduation Plans

WOW!'s certifications come in three levels. All trainers start at level one. When they complete the in-house program, which takes six to 10 weeks depending on the trainer, they advance to level two. When they complete the advanced specialization certification, which can take from 10 weeks to four months, they advance to level three.

The company's training has two components. The trainers must first complete home study materials with CD ROMs and online quizzes. Once completed, they come to a live component taught by one of the WOW! educators, who also administers a test at the end.

Trainers' pay is dependent on their level of certification. Trainers may also receive training to teach extra classes, with their pay for those classes also being dependent on their level of certification.

“As we funnel them through, it gives trainers the education they want at a reduced price, creates uniformity, and it positively impacts our staff retention because they are making more here than if they go to another club,” Brown says.

No Time for Recess

Bally offers similar training with personal trainers advancing from level one to level four and pay increasing depending on their level of training completion. However, Bally requires that their personal trainers maintain a certification from one of 10 Bally-approved certifying agencies, and Bally doesn't call their training a certification.

Bally mandates that regardless of a personal trainer's degree or certification, he or she must take the company's week-long, highly intensive course in personal training fundamentals, says David Van Daff, senior director of education and development at Bally Total Fitness.

“It's our safety valve to make sure our trainers have the educational knowledge,” Van Daff says.

Once the trainer passes out of this class, he or she can begin working on the floor. No exam is required.

“What we found over time is regardless of the education background of personal trainers, when it came down to interacting with clients and training them, they were lacking,” Van Daff says. Certifying agencies offer lecture workshops, books and CD ROMs, but that doesn't necessarily mean certified personal trainers know how to spot and cue a client's first bout of weight lifting, he says.

“So all those practical skills are taught during the fundamentals course,” he says.

In January, New York-based Equinox began offering its personal trainers additional training through its Equinox Fitness Training Institute (EFTI). Modeled after a college curriculum, EFTI offers a sequential course load with more than 200 classroom hours, extensive reading and practical applications on the gym floor. The program creates cohesiveness within the Equinox personal training program and personal training staff, says David Harris, Equinox personal training director.

“The emphasis is on problem solving rather than recipes,” he says. “Trainers learn to become excellent problem solvers, understanding the client's specific goals and building on their strengths while remaining sensitive to their limitations. It's not about what they should be doing, but how to help them do it better.”

Despite the training, Equinox stays away from calling it a certification. Brown says that the education provided to personal trainers is important to success regardless of the type of training that it offers to staff.

“When trainers don't possess the education and can't answer client questions, they lack the confidence to present their services to people, and they struggle to pick up clients,” Brown says. “The trainers that pick up clients are those with confidence. Increasing their knowledge through education is one of the greatest things that a company can do for trainers. We've seen a huge change in their confidence.”

ACE Partners with NIRSA

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has formed a strategic alliance with the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) to support certification in the area of fitness and recreation. NIRSA, the nonprofit trade association for intramural and recreational sports professionals, serves more than 4,000 fitness professionals, students and associate members in the recreational sports field throughout the world.

ACE will provide curriculum to NIRSA member universities through the ACE University Program and preferred pricing to NIRSA members on certification exams and textbook materials. In addition, ACE will promote NIRSA's Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Exposition to its fitness professionals.

“NIRSA members have an immediate impact on the fitness industry, and we hope to successfully aid in their pursuit of quality certification and credentials,” says Graham Melstrad, director of educational services for ACE.

In return, Kent J. Blementhal, Ph.D., CAE and NIRSA executive director, says he hopes the relationship “opens the doors for more of our members to become certified fitness professionals.”

NBFE Exam Ready Soon

The beta version of the written exam from the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) will be available on June 21 to the pool of about 300 personal trainers who were randomly selected to take it, says Dr. Sal Arria, founder of the NBFE.

The volunteers can go into one of 400 Thompson Prometric sites across the United States to take the beta exam within a two-week period after June 21.

The NBFE will examine the results, make final changes to the exam and then make the actual test available in August for personal trainers. As of the beginning of May, 2,000 trainers had signed up to take the exam, Arria says.

The trainers will be given a list of Thompson Prometric sites to call and set up an exam time. Exam centers are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Trainers will have their exam results before they walk out the door the day of their test, Arria says.