Acronyms are just letters arranged in an order. The validity of those acronyms vary depending on who is judging them. The list of acronyms that make up personal training certification agencies numbers at least 75, which is too many for some in the business.

“I'd like to see some certifying agencies disappear,” says Ellie Ciolfi, executive director of Strength in Numbers Inc., a personal training business in Maryland.

She's not alone.

“We want quality rather than quantity,” Al Wasser, fitness coordinator at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, CO, says about certifying agencies.

The large number of certifying agencies dilutes the credibility of a personal training certification because it seems that any person can walk off the sidewalk and say he or she has a personal training certification, says Joey Lowery M.S., head personal trainer at the Monroe Athletic Club in Monroe, LA.

“If we reduce the number [of certifying agencies] and people just go to a group of four or five certifying agencies, you'll see the best of the best will come out on top in this industry,” he says.

Much to the chagrin of certifying agencies, fitness facility owners and managers aren't concerned with keeping the 75 or more personal training certification organizations in business. Instead, they want a smaller group of good-quality agencies that will provide them with well-trained personal trainers.

The recommendation by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) could be the tool to decrease the certifying agency numbers and sift out the bad certifications.

“This process was driven by our member clubs saying, ‘Give us some guidance. How do I choose from these certifying organizations out there?’” says Helen Durkin, director of public policy at IHRSA. “So the drive to do this came from the membership.”

IHRSA recommended that by the first of this year, IHRSA-member club owners only hire personal trainers with certifications from agencies that have been accredited by (or are in the process of obtaining accreditation from) the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or have had their curriculum accredited by the Council for Higher Education and Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, five agencies have received NCCA accreditation and at least five others have applied to receive accreditation.

Wasser approves of IHRSA's recommendation because it forces some of those organizations to say, ‘What do we have to do to become IHRSA recommended?’

“I'm for anything that will minimize the number of certifying agencies so the personal trainer will be thought of as highly as a certified public accountant,” he says.

More to the Mix

Were that all there was to the certification issue, the matter would be simple. The large certifying agencies with the funding and the small ones that secure the funding (accreditation efforts can run more than $25,000) would receive accreditation while the other certifying agencies would slip through the accreditation funnel never to be heard from again.

However, the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) has added itself to the mix by offering written and practical exams that it has termed “national boards.” At least 14 certifying agencies that are not pursuing third-party accreditation have signed on as affiliates of the NBFE, betting that personal trainers and club owners will prefer the status of passing a national board to having a third-party accredited certification. So far, 1,200 personal trainers have signed up to take the NBFE exams, according to the organization, despite the fact that the NBFE is not part of IHRSA's recommendation and the group does not intend to seek accreditation through NCCA or CHEA.

While IHRSA has not taken an official stance on the NBFE, Durkin indicated the trade association is open to seeing where the effort goes. The main concern about the NBFE is that accredited certifications have already created a pool of qualified trainers. Requiring trainers to qualify again by taking the national boards asks them to requalify themselves, but taking the exam won't make them any more qualified, she says. Therefore, the national boards could lessen the pool of qualified trainers because trainers may not want to qualify a second time.

Who Is Following Whom?

Now all clubs face a decision about whether to hire personal trainers with accredited certifications, hire those who have passed the NBFE exam or require them to do both.

IHRSA is not tracking how many member clubs are following its recommendation, says Durkin. However, if Ron Clark's numbers are any indication, many clubs are following the recommendation. Clark's certifying group, National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT), became accredited by NCCA on Nov. 15. Gross revenue since then has increased 150 percent to 200 percent, he says.

“We cannot believe the spike in business since we've become accredited,” Clark says. “The only contributing factor has to be our accreditation.”

In the past month, the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM) also has seen a spike in registrants for its accredited exam, says Alan Russell, director of the Health Sciences Institute at NASM. In the first week of January, the organization exceeded the number of registrants in its entire month of January last year, he says.

However, many are still debating whether to follow the IHRSA recommendation or the NBFE.

Some of the Sport & Health Co. clubs in the Washington, D.C., area are following the IHRSA recommendation, says Don Konz, CEO of Sport & Health. However, that doesn't mean he's against the national boards, which as of yet, are not a requirement at his clubs, but he said they're moving in that direction.

IHRSA-member club Monroe Athletic Club, is following IHRSA's recommendation, says Lowery. The club has gone even further, though, in that it won't even consider a personal training candidate if that person does not have an exercise science-based degree.

The personal trainers at Monroe Athletic Club who don't have accredited certifications have one year to receive an accredited certification. Personal trainers must cover their own cost to take the exam. For the most part, the club's personal trainers have not balked at the requirement, says Lowery.

“They see where I'm coming from in the sense that anyone just walking in off the street can come in as a personal trainer,” says Lowery. “They don't want to be put in the bad apple bunch. They want to be known as the good people and competent.”

The Westerville Parks and Recreation Department in Westerville, OH, is not following IHRSA's recommendation, per say. Prior to the recommendation, the organization had only accepted certifications from three certifying agencies — all of which either already have NCCA accreditation or have applied for it.

“We'd been doing it already in recognition that those are the best in the industry for personal trainers and group fitness,” says Mike Herron, fitness manager at Westerville Parks and Recreation. He especially likes that the certifications require a minimum of a bachelor's degree to take the tests.

“We want to make sure that our personal trainers have that undergrad experience,” says Herron.

Educational requirements aren't important to everyone. If Wasser could set up industry requirements to become a personal trainer, he would require that personal trainers take one national exam and then take one of the top five or six certification exams depending on their area of specialty.

That doesn't mean Wasser is a proponent of the NBFE. While he understands the intent of the group, he is concerned that some of the certifying agencies that he considers top quality are not affiliates of the NBFE. The NBFE welcomes any certifying agency to join it, but most of those who pursued NCCA accreditation have chosen not to join the NBFE.

The lack of certain certifying agencies on the NBFE affiliate list also bothers Herron who is not yet recommending that his trainers take the national boards. Instead, he is waiting for pass/fail numbers on both parts of the national board exam.

“If the industry leans toward that, then we will,” Herron says.

Ciolfi also is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the NBFE exams.

“I guess any kind of a process that this industry will go through to enhance our image and to help create a more professional and more educated work force will be helpful,” says Ciolfi.

What's Up Doc?

Beyond decreasing the certification agency numbers, efforts in this area may help increase the likelihood that doctors would recommend personal trainers to their patients. IHRSA's objective is to educate the medical community, policy makers and the public about the role that exercise plays in health care, Durkin says, and that effort could include educating them about accredited certifications.

The NBFE has stated that because doctors are familiar with the term “national boards” they will be more likely to refer patients to a trainer that has passed the boards.

While Lowery is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the NBFE exam, he agrees that doctors may take a personal trainer who has passed a national board more seriously than one with an accredited certification.

“I understand how boards are,” says Lowery, who trains several physicians. “If you took the time to do that, you are on top of your game.”

Ciolfi says doctors will look at trainers' academic background and training, but she agrees that the term “national boards” may be a motivator for them when it comes to deciding which trainer to recommend to patients.

Do You Have a License for That?

The IHRSA and NBFE efforts are especially important if the industry wants to keep government out. During this legislative session, Georgia has introduced legislation to license personal trainers in that state, IHRSA's Durkin says. Other states have expressed interest in licensing at one time or another, but nothing has come of those efforts. Once most states hear about third-party accreditation of certification, they back off of their licensing talk, Durkin says.

Wasser is not opposed to licensing for trainers reasoning that it would increase the level of professionalism associated with personal trainers, he says.

“When the public sees a CPA or lawyer, they have a certain image in mind,” says Wasser. “When they hear personal trainer, do they have that same image?”

He's aware that licensing isn't a popular notion in the industry, which wants to regulate itself. However, he hasn't seen self regulation work yet to decrease the number of poor certifying agencies, he says.

“What would be the fear of being licensed?” Wasser asked. “If someone wants to be the best personal trainer they can be and help people, they want to make their training as rigorous as they can, and if that takes licensing, so be it.”

However, Ciolfi calls licensing “a slippery slope.”

“I'm not sure we need to go that far,” she says. “We're still a young industry. I want to see where this process goes first.”

David McGarry, fitness director at Cooper Aerobics Center at Craig Ranch, takes a middle-of-the-road stance on licensing.

“Not being a huge fan of government regulation, I'd probably go against it, but it could help,” says McGarry. “It could at least set a minimum bar.”

Clark and Durkin say that third-party accreditation would prevent state-by-state licensing because it shows that standards are in place in the industry and that the industry is regulating itself.

However, Dr. Sal Arria, executive director of the NBFE, says the only national standards in place are those set by the NBFE.

“If a single certification organization were able to create a true national standard via NCCA accreditation, then there would be a great deal of commonality of content between certifications and their examinations. In actuality, there is a great deal of difference between the educational requirements, curricular content and examinations from the certification organizations holding or pursuing NCCA accreditation,” he said at a certification panel session presented at the Club Industry show in November.

While the NBFE is not pushing licensing, Arria says that the national standards the group has in place would help prevent 50 different standards and 50 different state board examinations should licensing occur.

Where It Goes from Here

Whether these efforts prevent licensing or increase the likelihood of doctors recommending personal trainers to their patients, both models have stirred up discussion in the industry.

“Ultimately, the debate is good because it does bring issues to the table as far as saying we have some issues that need to be addressed,” says McGarry. “Do we have the answer yet? No, but we are moving in the right direction in talking about it.”

Lowery agrees.

“We have 8,000 people in the United States who are personal trainers, and half are not certified or are certified with an unrecognized certification,” he says. “People have been hurt or haven't seen the gains they want due to the lack of knowledge of their personal trainer. If a narrowing of the playing field occurs, a lot of good things will come from it in the personal training world and the client world.”

The decisions that fitness facility owners make in this area over the next few years could change the industry. The industry isn't taking the decision lightly, but the two “competing” sides are creating confusion, Herron says. For him, the decision is about ensuring that the time and money he invests will be invested for the long term. “Will it be around in 10 years or do I spend all this money and in 10 years it's out of business?” he says.

Herron is hopeful that as people learn more about their options and make their choices, the best option will rise to the top or the right compromise will be funneled out to create a larger group of quality trainers.

The Case for Accreditation

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) recommended that by Jan. 1, 2006, IHRSA member clubs hire trainers with certifications from organizations that had been accredited by (or were in the process of receiving accreditation from) the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or established accreditation bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education and Accreditation and/or the United States Department of Education.

What Proponents Say

Proponents of third-party accreditation say that this path will lead to a more professional view of personal trainers and will prevent licensing of the profession because it will show legislators that the industry is taking an active hand in policing itself. Proponents also contend that doctors are more likely to refer their patients to a personal trainer with an accredited certification.

What Detractors Say

Detractors say that third-party accreditation still does not set one, single standard for the personal training profession. They contend that a single standard is necessary to increase the professionalism of personal trainers, increase the likelihood that physicians will recommend their patients to personal trainers and decrease the likelihood of licensing — while also being prepared with a single standard should licensing occur.

The Case for NBFE

The purpose of the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) is to provide nationally standardized examinations for different levels of personal training based on scopes of practice, no matter what school or program a personal trainer attends. To do so, the group is offering “national boards” or a nationally standardized test for personal trainers.

The NBFE engaged Thomson-Prometric — a developer and provider of testing services — to guide development of the personal fitness trainer examination. Registration for the knowledge-based written component, or Part I, of the exam is open. Part II, the practical exam, is anticipated this year. Candidates must have successfully passed Part I before they are eligible for Part II.

Personal trainers with a current certification from a certifying agency that is an affiliate of the NBFE or with a two- or four-year degree in a fitness-related field can register to take the exam.

What Proponents Say

Proponents say the NBFE opened its development process to input from the industry, welcoming anyone to participate in the process; therefore, the group and its exam have been inclusive. They developed the largest personal fitness trainer job task analysis ever conducted, creating the industry's first formalized standards of practice. The belief is that by using the same nationally conducted job task analysis in education, certification, accreditation of organizations and for national board testing, there will be a consistency and continuity in the fitness industry that has not existed before.

What Detractors Say

Some certifying agencies contend that the NBFE is just another certifying agency in an industry with too many certifying agencies. They say that the process that the NBFE undertook to create its exam is no different from the process that quality certifying agencies undertake for their exams. Detractors say that no recommendation exists to take the NBFE exam; therefore, why would personal trainers subject themselves to the additional time and expense to take another exam?

As of Feb. 1, 2006, the following is the status of these certifying agencies.

Certifying Agencies with NCCA Accreditation

  • ACE (American Council On Exercise)
  • NSCA Certification Commission
  • NCSF (National Council of Strength and Fitness)
  • NFPT (National Federation of Professional Trainers)
  • NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)

Certifying Agencies that Have Applied for NCCA Accreditation

  • ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
  • IFPA (The International Fitness Professionals Association)

Certifying Agencies Applying for Both NCCA and NBFE

  • The Cooper Institute
  • National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA)
  • National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)

Certifying Agency Considering Doing Both NCCA and NBFE

  • NCCPT (National Council for Certified Personal Trainers)

Certifying Agencies That Are Affiliates of the NBFE

  • American Aerobic Association International/International Sports Medicine Association (AAAI/ISMA)
  • Academy of Applied Personal Training Education (AAPTE)
  • Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA)
  • American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA)
  • International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
  • National Association for Fitness Certification (NAFC)
  • National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT)
  • National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)
  • National Exercise Trainer Association (NETA)
  • Professional Fitness Instructor Training (PFIT)
  • The Cooper Institute
  • World Instructor Training Schools (WITS)
  • International Association of Resistance Trainers (IART)
  • U.S. Career Institute

Other applicants are also awaiting review. Visit www.NBFE.org for updates to the current list of affiliates. To learn about the types of accreditation, go to www.clubindustry.com/types_of_accreditation.