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Personal Training Certifications: A Different Perspective

I’m going to start this off by saying that I fully expect many of you to disagree with what I say here.

Oh well.

Talk about personal training certifications and you’re bound to get a bunch of opinions and some people get pretty worked up over it.

I’ve heard plenty of fitness professionals complain about people being able to get certified in a 1 or 2 day weekend workshop or do a home study certification.

I’ve also heard a few guys scoff at people when they created their own certifications.

This is where I’m about to lose half of you.

Get over yourself.

See, coming from working in a University setting – this is how we looked at the educational hierarchy:

Level 1: Certification

Level 2: Associate Degree

Level 3: Bachelor’s Degree

Level 4: Master’s Degree

Level 5: Doctorate

Ummm, which is the lowest in this hierarchy?

Yep – Certification.

In my opinion – a Certification is a starting point – and only a starting point – for someone who wants to become a personal trainer, or in the case of specialty certifications – become more proficient in a particular discipline.

Let me give you another example outside the fitness industry that hopefully you all are familiar with.

CPR Certifications.

I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t take 6 months to get one of those. And if we’re equating importance of knowledge acquired with length of the course – shouldn’t it?

We’re talking about someone learning to save someone’s life, right?

If you’re going to give someone CPR, shouldn’t you practice more than an afternoon?

Shouldn’t you practice under adverse circumstances – because it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll actually be using what you learn in anything other than adverse circumstances.

To quote the American Heart Association: “The CPR Certification is a basic program designed to give you the confidence to respond in an emergency situation with skills that can save a life.”

But you wouldn’t assume that going through a CPR Course qualifies someone to be an Emergency Room Physician, would you?

You wouldn’t even say that qualifies them to be an EMT, right?

No – the Certification is simply a workshop where you learn a set of skills and some specific knowledge –and then are tested on the material that was presented to assess your proficiency.

Isn’t that what most fitness certifications are?

A workshop or specific material with a test to make sure that you were actually paying attention?

Personally – I wish more people had certifications where they gave a workshop and then actually tested you on the material that was presented.

These guys may hate me for saying this, but do you think the industry would be more or less effective if Mike Boyle was delivering workshops and the attendees were tested to see if they actually ‘got it’ when they came to training athletes?

What about if Alwyn Cosgrove gave a workshop on fat loss programming and the trainers were tested on their understanding of the material?

That would be bad?

Not from my perspective.

Personally, I don’t think that ‘too many certifications’ is the issue at all.

The issue is that some people think that Certification = Expert.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If you get a Certification, this is what it means to me: you were willing to fork over some money and invest some time and effort into learning more about a particular subject and are willing to be tested to measure your knowledge / proficiency.

It’s the starting point.

To become an expert, you don’t wait on your Diploma to arrive in the mail – you continue to study, research and work.

When you get your Certification – you know CPR – you’re not a doctor.

Let me know what *you* think about personal training certifications below.  Do you think I’m wrong?  Tell me why.  Do you agree? I want to know.

Dedicated to your success,

Pat Rigsby

Pat Rigsby is a Co-Owner of the International Youth Conditioning Association & the youth fitness franchise Athletic Revolution as well as a fitness industry consultant serving thousands of personal trainers and fitness entrepreneurs. Sign up for his fitness business free newsletter to discover proven marketing, sales and business strategies, along with blog updates, news, and more! While you’re at it, follow him on Twitter.

Facebook comments:

  • Jacob Mcluskie

    You make a great point. I certainly agree with you in most respects in terms of being certified is certainly only a starting point. I’m not sure exactly how the process works in the US but in Australia some companies offer an 8 week course where you come out a qualified trainer.

    In my opinion there is no way these guys that finish school and do 8 weeks of study have the approriate skills to help someone with their health. But then again i guess there is only one way to get experience.

    A great topic!

  • Raj Thompson

    I find it funny how people think they’re experts because they got certified through NASM, NCSA etc. To tell you the truth a trainer can be book smart and use big words if they want too but they sure as hell won’t be booked with clients. Clients could care less who you certified through. They want to know if you have the knowledge to get them to where they need to be. A certification is a must but there shouldn’t be a hirearchy of the type of certification. NASM, NSCA, ISSA or whatever cert a trainer has means he or she has basic knowledge but there are so many articles, magazines and books that can enhance your knowledge.

  • Jonathan

    Great Post Pat!

    Some thoughts from a dude who has 9 of the best certification the industry has to offer:

    #1) The body is one of the most complex things in the universe. Learning never stops and can take on many forms, personal experience being the most valuable.

    #2) However, 1 year of experience repeated 10x is not the same as 10 years of experience!

    #3) Therefore, it is important to go out and learn from multiple disciplines and perspectives, which allows us to be comprehensive and…

    #4) …allows us to educate our clients and provide real world solutions for them.

    “The purpose of knowledge is action” ~ Sir Francis Bacon



  • Mark

    I agree with the main point of the article. However, I don’t see the difference between testing after a Boyle or Cosgrove workshop versus testing after learning a 16 hour course in CPR?

    Also, if professionals are spending their time and paying the money to attend a workshop, I would assume that those people would put in the time and effort to get something out of it. If they aren’t willing to study and understand the material then it’s their loss.

    But I do agree with your last point. I really dislike when people have a know-it-all attitude after they complete a basic certifcation (especially if they let it be known that they are ‘certified’)

  • Noah

    Like all the others, I agree. What drives me crazy when I watch the “trainers” at my gym is body language. They don’t care about the person in front of them at all and it’s totally obvious. They show them an exercise and stand there and count to 10. There’s no encouragement, no praise, just count to 10 and write it in a log book. Plus they all look like professional beer drinkers and not a trainer.

    No people skills.

  • Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins

    While I understand what you’re posting, and agree with it in the context with which it was posted, it’s just not (at least IMO) representative nor indicative of much of the fitness world/industry.

    A “certification” is more or less – simply put, anyway – just a third party test of some sort to determine that an individual knows something. This is supposed to signify to the otherwise uninitiated third-party (i.e. – customer) that the certified individual actually knows what they’re doing and can be trusted to do what they’re been ‘certified’ to do.

    And herein lies the problem.

    One of the posters above mentioned that certs have been bastardized by the industry. How true.

    Certifications have a bad “rap” b/c of who is giving them, who is able to get them, and what it takes to actually become ‘certified’.

    There is one *major* fitness organization out there right now…I won’t mention it by name…but is arguably one of the most popular certifying bodies right now and has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. This organization offers more different versions of it’s certification (different levels, a ton of specific certifications, etc.) than you can shake a stick at.

    Here’s the rub though – it’s certification guidelines aside (which some people would consider “sketchy”, but I won’t comment on) – the participants of the certification program AREN’T EVEN TESTED. So, in essence, as long as you make it through the certification weekend and the check clears, you can be ‘certified’.

    And that sucks.

    And let’s be honest – a certification is designed to be a test, is it not? It is supposed to test your knowledge/abilities/etc. Yet how many certifications actually *teach* you during their certification? How is that testing you? It’s not. That is seminar – not a certification. But, b/c you get a plaque at the end, they can jack up the price by up to 10x.

    And now you’ve got anybody who deems themselves an “expert” (and has enough paying customers/fanboys who agree) putting out a certification. Ugh.

    I see nothing wrong with certs per se, but as they’re being perpetrated now…at least in America…I think the vast majority are a sham.


  • Rachel


  • Kevin, CSCS

    You hit the nail on the head dude! Nice article.

  • Richard

    THIS IS GOLD!! I find it remarkable that people are now claiming that a brief exposure to a Certification course makes them an expert in a specific field. I view these courses as a ripple in a pond – they are designed to whet the appetite and encourage further investigation on the part of the students. Attending a weekend seminar does not an expert make! Thank you for bringing this out into the open!!

  • Jeff

    Last time I checked Paramedics(EMTP) are “certified”. In my line of work, be leary of ANYONE who says they’re an “expert”, run the other way, they’re going to get you killed.

  • Bill Davis

    Yeah, you said it. Certs are great starting points, and I think the “industry” has profited wildly from them. The public at large thinks a cert means something. But it doesn’t, necessarily. It means somebody took some time to study (maybe), took a test, and paid a fee.

    Same in the IT industry or anywhere else for that matter. You bring up a great point about CPR – I took a baby CPR class before I had my first child and I’ll be damned if I knew 5 percent more coming out than going in and I certainly would not feel very good about having to perform CPR on my kid or anyone else for that matter.

    Experts abound. Not.

  • Tyler English


    I couldn’t agree with you more!

    People ask me all the time what certifications do I have and don’t get me wrong I think being a NASM-PES, CPT was hard work and well worth both the studying. The problem lies in that there are too many in our industry who feel like you said…

    If they obtain a certification they are an expert!

    I had a follower on Twitter ask me the other day how I became a Core Training Expert…and I simply replied through my 8 + years of hands on experience. It wasn’t given to me by a book or a test.

    You can use my brother as an example. He served our country in the USMC for 5 years where he reached the rank of Sergeant. In that time he became a Combat Conditioning Specialist, A Black Belt Martial Arts Instructor but more importantly he spent time running the Body Composition Program every morning with his Marines on base.

    For that work alone he was recognized by his fellow Marines as the Expert on base.

    He returned home to run boot camps with me and as I have told him having a certification next to his name is no where near as important as the experience he gained through his work with those Marines. It is his service and that work accomplished within the USMC that helps set him apart from others in our industry.

    I am always researching, reading, developing and fine tuning everything I do. Studying those who have been here before me and making sure everything I do can not be matched in my area. For that I consider myself an expert.

    No certification can provide me with that.

  • lynnell

    I hear ya! Our provincial regulated certification is a weekend course.

    One of my intern always asks me why I keep her on, as I am always going on about education and she just got her second cert.

    I tell her its because she has the desire to learn and get better!
    and My members love her!
    She also sees the value in the internship program, when it would have taken her years and thousands of dollars to get the knowledge she has now!

    Oh yeah and thanks BJ! Because I have learned more from you in the past 6 months then I have from anyone else in the past 4 years!

    On a side note: Just because you have a masters doesn’t mean you can apply it!

  • Brandon Popp

    I like the message you sent out. Im gonna graduate with a degree in kinesiology (submajor exercise and fitness) in may. I am not certified as of yet, but I want to do ACE. Ive heard some facilities say you have to be certified in something. School has taught me that with a degree in kines, that may be all the “certification” I’ll need to start off as a basic level trainer. What do you think? I obviously realize that learning never stops when dealing with fitness but once I graduate in may, where do you think my next step should be? My goal for the immediate future is to be a personal trainer for the summer months then from there I dont know. Should I start with something simple as ACE, or take time to study for a CSCS exam.


  • Pat

    Hey Brandon – Getting the ACE credential will certainly do you no harm. Get it then work toward the CSCS.

    I’d also suggest you go to at least one of the Perform Better events and one of the events we do.

  • Kerry


    I could not agree with you more. You must be held up to a standard level or people will get hurt. I have spent years on my education and will continue. I am a Doctor of Chiropractic, Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician, Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner, NASM – Corrective Exercise Specialist and will be starting a Diplomate program next year in Sports. I believe to provide quality service to my patients and clients, I must continue to educate myself and prefect my skill. Clients will seek out the professionals, so you might as well be one.

  • FitNeicey

    I agree with you totally. I am planning on obtaining more certs as I go, to keep abreast of the latest and greatest and newest helpful information, What do you have as far as CE certs?


  • Tanner

    You could not be closer to the truth! Maybe CPTs are upset with these types of certification programs because they went to a trade school, paid 10k and after 9 months earned their certification. While Johnny CPT earned a similar certification without the same time/financial investment.

  • Patrick

    Part of what we need to do here is put things in their proper context. Twenty five to thirty years ago, when the personal training field was suffering through it’s early birth pangs and organizations like IDEA, AFAA, ACSM and the NSCA were about the only game in town in regards to trainer certifications, most trainers were either strength and conditioning coaches who had power and/or olympic lifting backgrounds, aerobics instructors who wanted to branch out economically, or bodybuilders who wanted to make a living training folks. The strength coaches usually had great backgrounds in the area of strength training with very little knowledge of “regular” nutrition or medical exercise. The aerobics instructors knew how to motivate people and had basic training in exercise and nutrition but usually didn’t have strong backgrounds in the serious strength training side of things. Bodybuilders knew a lot about weight lifting, dieting for competition, and on the competitive side, steroids and diuretics but most had little academic background and were not exactly the best role models when it came to what constitutes realistic health and fitness lifestyles.

    At this point as well most trainers working in clubs were making minimum wage and scrounging to pick up some personal training work on the side along with the second or third job they usually had to work to make ends meet. Very few trainers had degrees because at that point most people in the fitness fields in college went on to be PE instructors. Back then this was definitely an in demand field and certainly they were better paid than the average personal trainer. Fields like exercise physiology and kinesiology were great academic fields but they were mostly educated on the research side of things and they had little practical ability to apply.

    Certifications were designed at that point, and really that’s what they still ought to be at this point, to establish a baseline of knowledge for ensuring some consistency for both the consumers and for the owner/operators who were hiring these trainers. For anyone who’s been through the academic ringer in terms of pursuing bachelors, masters, doctorate, you know that you can learn a great deal but you also waste a ton of time and money on things you couldn’t even begin to use let alone need to be a proficient trainer. That’s where all the specialty certifications come into play and have value like a Corrective Exercise Specialist, Medical Exercise Specialist, Nutrition Specialist, Youth Fitness Specialist, etc. You can’t really learn these things in most college programs so you need specialty workshops and well run certifications – well run would usually mean something with a workshop and then both a practical and written exam – to enhance your skill set which you then take into the field to gain experiential knowledge.

    The best trainers are always going to strive to obtain quality certifications, quality academic instruction, years in the trenches being mentored by excellent fitness and personal training directors, and the oft forgotten element that really creates success… if you suck as a people person and you are really just getting into the field because you think you can get rich and be your own boss then you really should reconsider your choice of vocation. The old saying holds true, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

  • Lisa

    I can see what point you are trying to make. But I would like to clarify that there are two types of people who have a basic certification. The first is the one who is out to find the quickest route to get certified and wants to make money. The second is the one who is diligent with learning and continues to take CEC courses to expand their knowledge base. There are a lot of people out there who have degrees and care as much as the first type of person I mentioned; they just happened to waste a bunch of time along the way. And of course there are those who have a good base of education, they have the degree but have no idea how to apply it to the client. Personally I would rather train with the one who has the basic certification, and is constantly learning.

  • xena both

    OMG Finally a place where I can vent my frustration about this very same topic!!!! Because just this week I start a new job after been away for a while for a long time (buts that besides the Fitness is my passion, my late discovered passion. I’v always been in sales and also worked as membership sales consultant at a big health club. But I never worked as a cscs or a pt what also happend to be one of my goals for the near future. Just because I love it so much,even fascinated by it how fitness can transform your body…and LIFE!! I do not have any official education in fitness yet but will make a move soon in that direction!
    But back to my frustration part..because I love fitness so much and even want to make a living of it.. I read/research A LOT on my own about to know about everything healt/fitness related in advance(library,being on several mailinglist like yours,internet etc). So I know about bit and pieces about what is working,how it is working,why it is working or why something is not working or ineffective or even downright dangerous..And all kind of new techniques that are comming in place with training protocols and so or nutritioni nformation like intermitting fasting for example..Anyhoo for a un-official fitness pro for lack off better word I’m pretty up to speed and will comtinue to be so with certs/degrees and all!

    Now my new boss..a nice lady who is 47, with a outstanding body( which she primarly have because A good genes and her background as turner and later a bodypump teacher(!)..her own words).. She don’t like strenght training(her own words) but yet she makes programs for clients..(only single movements like old bodybuilding stuff..)
    Now get this she also had her cert prox 30 years ago and she talks like she knows it all.. but she never..get this..NEVER heard of the core exercise..PLANK??!!! I was stunned…to hear this..thought she was joking but horrifying she was not…..! This is how she tell her clients to warm up(and its the ONLY warm up what they must do according to her..) twist the body on a twist machine,50 times and twist the body(upperback) with a stick.. WOW I could not believe and here what I’m seeing…! She even has a corner with..OMG light weights 4 the women(even calls it the women corner..???!!!) The men that are working out there luckily are doing there own thing(at least the most of them but most of the women that are training there follow a program by here…She even has acommercial ABCRUNCH thing that she advice to people to use for crunching and also promotes regurlar crunches to people.. I think this woman,how sweet she might be has no clue and and has stand still in time!!! I’m baffeld!!!
    Here is the might say leave and find another up to date modern healthclub and I will certainly do so…but I can not go yet because this is part of my compliant return in the workfield.. iI must accept this job for a certain period of time..therefore i must work with here..But I can’t see myself telling somebody to crunch for abs or even use that ridiculous abthing…Can somebody please tell me how to get through this unbelievable period I”m in with this situation…I’m just stunned!!!! Never heard of plank,compound exercises,recovery techniques etc???? But yet you own a gym??(by the way what she is doing part time because in all the 21 years she have it, she still cannot make a living of it…wonder why???!!! I feel like this is one more hurdle I need to overcome or a test to see how bad I want this fitnesscareer…because this is really unbelieveable..

  • Randy Woody

    I feel the industry needs to evaluate true experts in the field and if you want a license to become a “trainer” you will have to study and intern under that person at their facility for 12-18 months. Along with this you would be given home work and textbooks to get the book knowledge. Other than that the industry is really missing taking it to the next level and being recognized as true professionals. Hey Matt –Crossfit–be an olympic style lifting coach in 1 day!!!! Woooo-wooo!!! Yea right. Heck I have owned my own facility and trained more clients than anyone I know and I am constantly searching out new information. Tyler hit it right. Drop the ego and improve. I am old enough to be Pat’s dad but I have no problem seeking advice when needed.

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