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What really makes a good trainer? Part 2: Certifications

The purpose of this article is to equip you with the know-how to discern the career coaches from the hobbyists and the pros from the bros. Drawing on what I’ve learned from over 10 years in this field as a trainer, training manager, gym owner, and private coach I’m going to share with you the most important factors in what makes a good trainer and the nuances you need to know to make the best choice!

If you haven't read Part 1 go check it out now and learn what difference Education makes in training!



Are you ready to learn about the most misunderstood part of the entire world of training? You're about to get the scoop that few people know and even fewer will tell you: it's the truth about personal training certifications.

Let's start with what certifying organizations claim to be and what most of the public thinks about them.

Companies like ACE, ACSM, AFAA, NASM and numerous other acronyms, advertise themselves as resources for fitness professionals to continue their education and obtain certifications which will serve as proof of their knowledge and capability to potential employers and clients, taking their career to the NEXT LEVEL! [eye roll]

For the public, certifications hold the promise that by selecting a trainer with their credential you as the customer are in the trustworthy hands of a real pro - after all, they have letters after their name!

In case you haven't already discerned it from my sarcasm, let me tell you my perspective as someone who's seen behind the curtain over a decade in the game:

Fitness certifications (with few exceptions) are a smoke and mirrors show deceiving both trainers and training clients! They are businesses using artificial authority to make hefty profit off of well-meaning people who aspire to have a career in fitness.

If these seem to you like extreme accusations, consider the following points:

  • Of the hundred or more certifications, all but a couple are merely based on multiple choice exams done by computer - not observation of actual training.

  • After the initial exam cost ($300-$1K), companies continue charging fees every year to maintain or renew the certification along with requisite Continuing Education Courses from an approved list at an additional cost to the trainer.

  • Certifying organizations in no way verify that trainers holding their credential are actually following their guidelines in the day-to-day practice of coaching.

  • Certifying organizations never revoke their credential for bad practices or ethics violations by the trainer (mainly due to the point above- they have no idea).

Here is what I consider the most damning point of them all:

Nowhere in the study guides, textbooks, or exams for the major certifications is there any mention of the question, "are the clients making progress?".


That's right. The unfortunate truth is these organizations are not in business to improve people's health, performance, and mindset like a trainer is. They are in the business of selling the well-meaning trainer a certification and reaping additional profit off them annually.

Here's the bottom line:

When seeking out a trainer, take their certifications with a grain of salt as they do not necessarily denote expertise. I don't mean that you should hold it against them mind you, as they are probably just an eager, enthusiastic person who did their level best to follow the path that most of the industry conforms to. I can relate to them, I am them.

To obtain my first job as a personal trainer while in college, I was required to get a certification. I went with the credential offered by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as recommended by my future manager. I paid the fee, passed the test, and continued to pay ACE for 6 years to keep being able to say I was certified.

I began to see the issue during this time when I noticed how many people were able to obtain similar certifications and get training gigs who had no business giving instruction in a gym. Folks who would simply buy a study guide, memorize answers, pass a test, and think "I'm a pro now!". FALSE.

Disillusioned with the common PT certification I decided to aim higher.

The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is widely recognized as the gold standard certification for coaches focusing on performance and what's more, only people with a Bachelor's degree or better in an exercise physiology-related field are even eligible to take the test for it.

After graduating with my Exercise Science degree (and saving up the money) I registered to take the exam and began studying intently. On exam day I went to the local testing center (basically a computer lab approved to proctor hundreds of different tests in innumerable fields) sat in front of a screen and clicked enough correct boxes to finally receive the vaunted CSCS credential. But already I saw the problem. The big picture of why most certifications fail to truly provide a reliable measure of expertise:

How can they possibly know if I'm qualified to coach without observing me perform training movements or, more importantly, teach someone else to perform them?

Despite the more interesting subject matter, the more selective process, and the cooler title, my new certification I had looked forward to earning for years was really no better than the first one.

While I was and am a competent and capable coach, neither of these certifying organizations I had paid into for years had anything to do with it. The credential, the piece of paper, the letters after your name are all part of an illusion that fools both trainers and their customers alike.

All that being said, you should neither seek out nor avoid a trainer with one of the 'nationally accredited' certifications.

Just use this simple test as your guide:

If they use their certification as a selling point in lieu of a well thought-out set of training principles, they still have some maturing and learning to do before branding themself an "expert".


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