Licensing vs Certification: Why Fitness Professionals should be Paying Attention to Certifications

June 17, 2017


The Fitness Industry is very dynamic. Thriving within it takes a certain kind of professional. One that can easily navigate between both improving their credentials and mastering their craft as well as staying on top of the latest marketing trends and tactics. Most of the trainers we meet have all dabbled in and maintain some form of marketing initiative, whether its a complex blog and affiliate page, or simply passing out flyers hand to hand or word of mouth referrals. In fact, the marketing push for trainers is known to be such a necessity, that the majority of gyms and fitness based businesses devote one third of their time (on and up to 70% in some cases) to sales and marketing training. With such emphasis being placed on this facet of training (brand-promotion, self-promotion) it's easy to see how many professionals find themselves stalled from a career development standpoint when the majority of their time is focused on acquiring new clients and contracts.  With that said the demand for this crucial effort is not such to justify a lack of knowledge, expertise and regulation within a field where professionals not only work hands on with clientele but also make recommendations regarding health-based decisions. 


Scope of Practice


If you've worked in and around the medical field you'll be sure to recognize the phrase "scope of practice". In the medical field there are some doctors who are general practice as well as specialists who focus on areas or aspects of the body and specific ailments. There are many situations where patients are found to have conditions which fall outside of their area of expertise. Rather than take risk of harming their patient with uninformed, untested approach, they refer their patient to a peer whose qualifications and past experience dictate that this patients' case falls within their "scope of practice" or credentialed area of focus. Scope of practice relies on on a professionals credentials (degree, certifications, additional courses, past clients and cases, etc). Scope of practice is heavily regulated and professionals base their business model, marketing efforts, strategic partnerships, affiliates, accepted insurance providers and much more on this system. 


How this relates to the Fitness Industry


Just as doctors have a regulating board, and rules by which they determine who they can and can't administer care to, personal trainers and other fitness based professionals have this on a much smaller scale. Generally, you will find that in order to be qualified to train clients at a facility, you must have a certification. This is a requirement because most certifications (either through an accompanied course and associated material) provide you with enough information to work with clients safely. It also protects gyms in the event an injury occurs during one of your sessions (can you imagine the legal and financial implications if an injury happened during a session and it's revealed that the trainer had no certification)? Going further, most gyms (most good gyms) assign clients to trainers based on that trainers certification because by looking at their credentials a fitness manager can ascertain who they best equipped to work with and actually deliver results. 


"All Certifications are not the same"


Each certifying agency creates their own curriculum and ultimately the certifications that professionals can use.  While that allots for drastic differences in your training and testing, their are standards that dictate pre-requisites like CPR/AED training, and client screening protocol. That in addition to the employers themselves implementing systems by which they can maintain a quality standard among staff and programming means that the industry is moving in a positive direction. There are some that argue that this isn't happening fast enough and present "licensing" as the metaphorical spur to speed up the pace but what is licensing and what will it mean for the industry. 




Think of licensing as the proposed next step beyond certification. A License would dictate who is allowed to practice "personal training" and other areas of the fitness industry based on outlined pre-requisites. While this would cut the number of pseudo trainers and and supplement peddlers, it introduces a unique problem for a number of professionals. In past iterations of legislation (particularly its proposal in Washington, DC.) personal trainers would be required to have a 4-year degree in order to work with clients. While regulation in it's purest form is great for some industries to prevent danger to consumers who don't always have the time to research each business individually, in the case of personal trainers, licensing in this form would effectively cull the industry meaning that with a few signatures, your career would be brought to a halt. What about the professionals who have years of experience and started when regulations were not as prevalent (personal training is still a relatively new industry by comparison)? What about certified trainers who work as well as attend additional programs and courses? What about those who invested in certifications and found employment with  plans to continue?  


In the case of proposed legislation in Washington, D.C specifically the industry was growing at such a rate that regulation was justified, just not in the manner that it was introduced.


"The job of actually determining who qualifies as a “personal trainer” – and therefore legally allowed to practice their profession – was delegated to the little-known Board of Physical Therapy, a five-member body responsible for licensing physical therapy in Washington.One conspicuous red flag: The board is primarily composed of practicing physical therapists who directly compete with personal trainers for clients. They have an obvious interest in making it as difficult as possible to become a licensed trainer, since doing so cuts down on potential competition. In fact, an early draft of the licensing rules required trainers to have a four-year college degree – an arbitrary requirement that does not fit with the demands of the profession, but would cull the herd.The power to legally bar competition might also explain why then-chairwoman Senora Simpson, herself a physical therapist, pushed so hard for her board to be tapped to write the rules.Fortunately, the rules the board ultimately adopted were not as punishing as they could have been. Owing to the public pressure, the final adopted rules called only for a two-year degree or a certification from a fitness organization. Trainers active in Washington for at least the last two years are grandfathered in under the newly adopted plan."


No Set Standards


"Even if the board could be trusted to act impartially, there is another problem to consider: There is no commonly accepted set of norms and standards in personal training.Different credentialing organizations utilize different training regimes and testing techniques. One industry group, the Coalition for Registration of Exercise Professionals, representing established sports medicine groups, has lined up against industry upstart CrossFit, which has its own training program.The board had been expected to select one of these competing credentialing models, cementing it in law and forcing competitors to make costly changes to their business models for no good reason. No doubt many would go out of business as a result.The Coalition has been a rare backer of D.C.’s push to regulate; no doubt it hoped that its credentialing standards would be used for government-issued licenses. If that were the case, Coalition members would have had a competitive advantage over all of their competitors.In its rush to regulate, Washington, D.C. walked into a quagmire, with layer upon layer of special interests vying to use the power of government to keep their competitors out. This is exactly the sort of anti-competitive situation that even the Obama administration warned of in a recent report calling on states to revisit and pare back their occupational licensing regimes.Fortunately, D.C. appears ready to reverse course. A bill introduced by Council member Jack Evans would repeal the board’s authority to regulate personal trainers. It looks likely to pass.Washington’s misguided foray reveals the pitfalls of government trying to pick winners and losers. Hopefully other states considering expanding their own occupational licensing schemes will learn from the district’s mistakes."


What We've Learned


While Licensing would create new assurances for consumers, if implemented in a similar fashion to Washington D.C it could spell doom for a number of businesses and trainers. Personal trainers, should be without a doubt be certified and regulated to some degree, but part of the responsibility of the consumer should be doing research on the individuals and gyms they want to train with. Licensing would not completely remove risk. Legislation should be applied more heavily to certifying agencies in terms of examination, follow up CEUs (Continuing Education Credits) and course instructors. It is an easier way to promote the same values as licensing without turning the entire field upside down onto it's head. 


Certifications You can Rely On


My top picks for certifications are those that combine more than just general information about the body, and a few exercises. I love the programming behind both the ACSM and NASM certification programs.  Here's why . . . 


ACSM not only has one of the best certifications available to personal trainers, their organization has a very diverse membership that includes several other health related professions. This means that their content is far from stagnant and once joining, you'll be privy to the latest training methods, but also gain a larger understanding of how your work is a crucial component of the industry itself. 

With more than 50,000 members and certified professionals strong from 90 countries around the globe. Representing 70 occupations within the sports medicine field, ACSM is the only organization that offers a 360-degree view of the profession.From academicians to students and from personal trainers to physicians, our association of sports medicine, exercise science, and health and fitness professionals is dedicated to helping people worldwide live longer, healthier lives.


Certifications: ACSM Certified Personal Trainers® (CPT)ACSM Certified Group Exercise Instructors® (GEI)ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologists®​


Although this was one of the most difficult courses to prepare for and pass examination, it provided more of a medical view of personal training and helped prepare me for the work I was doing in corrective exercise and injury prevention. You can't go wrong with ACSM. 


NASM is one of my top picks because of the wide breadth of certifications and workshops they actually offer and comprehensive course material. You definitely get your money's worth with this company in both the training and it's positive reception among both employers and clients. 


Certifications: Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Corrective Exercise Specialization (CES), Performance Enhancement Specialization (PES)

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