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Choosing the Right Coach or Personal Trainer: Does Certification Matter?

In Part 1 of the discussion on the qualifications of Strength & Conditioning Coaches and Personal Trainers we discussed formal education. In Part 2, we’re going to get into professional education. This always seems to be a hot topic of discussion among trainers and coaches. These days, there are so many certifications, specializations, licenses, and letters a trainer gets to put after his/ her name. Additionally, there are various layers and levels of certification. As with formal education, opinions, including my own, are mixed. This article, by design, is a mixture of fact and my personal opinions. So how do we determine if and/or what certification matters? Let’s dissect a few things before we get there.

Let’s start with the letters. As we covered in Part 1, the first letters after a trainer’s name (if applicable) represent his/her highest degree in formal education (college, university, etc.). The letters afterwards represent certifications in the fields of fitness, strength and conditioning, and nutrition. They are ordered from most prominent to least (or the one the trainer is most proud of to the least). Some have a few letters, some are hyphenated. Some trainers hold multiple similar certifications, while others choose a “less is more” approach to continuing education. All look good to the untrained eye. Let’s check out our example trainer from Part 1 again.

Johnny Coach, MS, NSCA-CPT, ACE-FNS

Reading left to right, this is interpreted as his degree (Master of Science), main certification (Certified Personal Trainer through the National Strength & Conditioning Association), and a specialty certification (Fitness Nutrition Specialist through the American Council on Exercise).

Now, let’s take a brief look at the differences between a certification and a license. A license is a state- or federally-mandated approval of your ability to conduct your practice. The professions requiring licensure are typically those where medical care or prescription is being given in some fashion. Parts of the allied health industry that might cross over into the fitness field a little may include chiropractors, physical therapists, dietitians, nutritionists, and massage therapists. A certification simply provides the public with proof that you’ve had some sort of training predating your employment that prepared you for your current job. We’ll cover more of that later.

Before we get into individual certifications, let’s look at some of the governing bodies you might have heard of. Four of the most popular right now are: the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Overall, all are fine governing organizations. Members pay dues and receive beneficial discounts on continuing education and supplementary materials. It is noteworthy that, at the time of this post, only the NSCA and ACSM have their own peer-reviewed scientific journals. It is also important to note that membership in these organizations is not the same as being certified through them. Even further down the rabbit hole, these governing organizations are governed by bigger private organizations which provide accreditation to their certifications (e.g. NCCA). There is no reciprocity between governing accreditation organizations so a CPT through an NCCA accredited organization likely isn’t recognized by another. Whew. moving on.

In training and coaching, there are two main certification types: strength & conditioning coach and certified personal trainer. Did you notice that I didn’t mention nutritionists? That’s because true nutritionists and dietitians must be licensed. Anyone holding a nutrition specialization certificate is legally only allowed to give nutrition counseling and advice. Only dietitians and nutritionists can prescribe meal plans. Any certification worth anything requires you to pass an examination before being awarded your certificate. A good rule of thumb is the harder the certificate to achieve, the more prestigious it is perceived to be. Some certifications require a bachelor’s degree to hold. There are additional certifications that many organizations consider to be a main certification such as: group exercise instructor, special populations instructor, health & fitness instructor, and so on. Essentially, these can easily fall underneath the CPT category or be considered specialty certifications as far as I’m concerned (more on these below).

Specialty certifications or specializations are certificates held but are only made legitimate by holding a certification through an organization with the same accreditation. for example, to hold an ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialization, you must hold a main certification through an organization accredited by the same people. In this case, it would be the NCCA. Other specialization can range from broad in scope to mind-numbingly narrow (Youth Fitness Coach, Kettlebell Training). It’s my personal opinion that most specialty certifications are no more than additional forms of continuing education: great information to have as a coach to continue learning and evolving but ultimately rendered useless without a main certification. To elaborate, the information gained form these certifications isn’t greater than the amount received form attending conferences, viewing webinars, or reading textbooks/ journals. It’s just another avenue to earn your CEUs. The real ridiculousness comes when certifications get so specific, you wonder why they even exist. I’ve never understood why a kettlebell certification ever existed. I’ve never known a coach that needed a barbell or a medicine ball cert so why would I need one for what I consider to be just another tool of the trade?

So does it matter? I was relatively non-committal with my answer on formal education but for certifications, it does matter. Your trainer or coach should be certified. Does it matter through whom, or what certification? Now you need to look at the scope of the job the certification is being earned for. If you are trying to coach in college, these days you basically NEED to be a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA. It requires a bachelor’s degree and is basically the bare minimum credential for being a coach in the NCAA. If you are working at a personal training studio, that will be up to the owner but usually, any CPT will do. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be judging trainers based on which organization they are members of and what certification they received. Pragmatically, having no obstacle to becoming a trainer would allow any pump monkey from a big box gym (you know who I’m talking about) to dole out body building tips and get paid for it. I mentioned FSPs coaching standards in Part 1. We ask that applicants hold or be working towards an NSCA-CSCS, NSCA-CPT, or ACSM-CPT certification. These are widely considered to be the gold standard in coaching and are, in my opinion, the two hardest certifications to earn. You should put in at least 4 months of studying before taking the exam at a specified testing center–not from the comfort of your own home. Opponents of standardized testing will tell you that a pressure-packed exam is not the best way to award certifications or determine aptitude. Maybe, maybe not. However, in the real world of coaching, if you can’t recall information on the spot when it’s just a pencil and paper in front of you, how can you expect to do it when someone’s safety is in your hands. Choose your specialty certifications or don’t. If a trainer attained a broader specialization that’s more distinct from the main cert (e.g. nutrition-related), he/she should feel free to throw it after their name. It can be a great marketing tool and even though they may have been completely qualified to give nutritional counseling before, they’ve now made someone less-versed in this nonsense aware of it. Like I mentioned before, as long as you find the information somewhere, you don’t need a piece of paper to prove you know how to use a certain piece of resistance training equipment.

For you, the consumer, your trainer should hold a certification relevant to the scope of his/ her training sessions with you and yours. You shouldn’t even be in the same room with someone who doesn’t have one at all. Either through degree, certification, or through conversation, you should have a sense that your trainer is competent enough not only to manage your safety throughout the workout, but to adequately demonstrate prescribed exercises and progressively guide you to your ultimate health- or performance-related goals.



Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Author: Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS View All

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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