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Personal Trainers: Recommendations for Training and Certifications

May 7, 2020

The fitness industry has taken an interesting turn due to temporary gym closures in parts of the country. It has forced personal trainers to enter the world of virtual training. While virtual training isn’t new, there is no doubt that it has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If you are a personal trainer, now is the opportune time to sharpen your skills. Fitness organizations recognize the need for online access to their certification programs and fortunately many already had the programs in place. Whether you continue virtual training or not one thing remains, you should still be certified and you’ll always be competing for business. 

So what if you were just about to enter the professional personal training field, or looking for a career change? Where do you even start since there are hundreds of fitness certifications available online? Here are suggestions to help you navigate through the process as well as some advice if you are already a certified personal trainer and looking to sharpen your saw to make yourself stand out.

Personal Training Certification

The first step when entering into the personal training world is to get a credible Certified Personal Trainer credential. When potential clients search for “how to choose a personal trainer” there will be a list of things to look out for. One of the items is to make sure an individual is certified. Their next search entry might be “best personal trainer certifications.” 

Now comes the confusing part – all the paid ads show up on top and now everybody is the “best” certification. As a former fitness director of almost 20 years, to get your foot in the door to most clubs, you’ll want to earn an NCCA-accredited certification. NCCA stands for National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Established in 1987, the NCCA is an independent, non-governmental agency that sets the standard for professional certification programs. Their objective is to ensure programs follow the health, welfare, and safety standards to provide quality programs to the public. The NCCA uses a peer review process to establish accreditation standards, evaluate compliance with the standards, recognize programs that demonstrate compliance, and serve as a resource on quality certification. They ensure the following when evaluating a certification:

  • The certification is an appropriate measure of knowledge and skills.
  • The exam process followed confidentiality protocols to be fair and unbiased.
  • The organization supports its professionals.

There are 13 NCCA-accredited personal trainer certifications available. Below in alphabetical order are 4 organizations that have been around the longest and have the NCCA stamp of approval.

For a complete list follow this link https://www.credentialingexcellence.org/nccadirectory and under the “Industry” category choose “Fitness and Wellness.”

  1. American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  2. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
  3. National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
  4. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

You will have to research each organization and learn about what their mission values are to determine which one is right for you. Some organizations require a Bachelor’s degree to be eligible to sit in for their exam. If you have a specialty in mind like post-natal fitness, corrective exercise, or sports performance enhancement, that may affect which organization you choose. Each offers sub-specialty courses and/or certifications once you’ve passed their Certified Personal Trainer exam. If you already follow industry respected experts, you may want to check out their credentials since oftentimes their ideas are in line with an organization’s mission, philosophy, etc.

There are no federal or state regulations on personal training. It comes down to what individual gyms prefer. Having a certification tells both a hiring gym and a consumer that you have taken the steps to show that you have the basic scientific knowledge of fitness and the competence to create safe workout programs. For you to maintain your credential, you must partake in continuing education events or courses. Each organization will have its own set of criteria and point system for you to follow.

Specialty Certifications or Continuing Education

Are you already certified and ready to take it to the next level? Now is a great time to set yourself apart. The onslaught of “free” virtual exercise classes and motivational fitness videos by certified personal trainers and non-certified fitness enthusiasts have taken social media by storm during the COVID-19 pandemic. With that said, I see a lot of exercises not performed correctly, or equipment based exercise(s) not set-up properly. If you are currently using the fitness accessories below but have not received formal training, consider looking into online continuing education courses and/or specialty certifications. These are amongst the most butchered exercises demonstrated on social media!

TRX Suspension Trainer 

The king of bodyweight exercise and variations where you make your body the machine is also the king of poor technique. The four things I see the most is improper installation of TRX, incorrect strap length relative to the exercise performed, inefficient set-up and start of an exercise, and poor core stability or body alignment during exercise. So much focus seems to be on just being able to complete a set of an exercise versus proper execution. However, learning the correct installation and set-up of the TRX ensures correct and safe exercise techniques.   

Kettlebells 

Introduced by the Russians in the late 1800s, kettlebells offer exercises that can improve your strength, power, and mobility. When programmed properly, you can do fat-burning metabolic HIIT circuits with just one kettlebell and some floor space. The most popular exercise performed with the kettlebell is the swing. I see three major technique flaws online. First, the set-up of the kettlebell and the first initial rep – kettlebell placement and body position before that first swing is important to prevent injury. Second, the lack of hip hinging during the swing – this the very essence of the exercise. Finally, how to properly hold a kettlebell during overhead movements – a lot of hand and wrist strain can be significantly reduced if the kettlebell is held correctly for a given exercise.

Resistance Band Loops 

This has been a great accessory to bodyweight movements that focus on the hips and glutes. While there are certainly other body parts that can benefit from band loops, the glute workouts are amongst the most searched posts on social media. There are a lot of great variations that have evolved but the one thing I am seeing the most is a disregard for what’s happening throughout the entire kinetic chain while hitting those glutes. With the focus mostly on the area being worked, I’m seeing a lot of rounded or hyper-extended low backs, rounded shoulders, and/or poor head and neck alignment during the exercises. Learning common faulty movement patterns associated with band loop exercises (or any exercise for that matter) and knowing how to cue these exercises will help set you apart from your competition.

If you are looking to add additional certifications, I suggest looking into the following:

Functional Movement 

The Gray Institute®, the leader in functional movement, offers a variety of online courses to help you become the go-to movement professional. Gray Institute® is internationally acclaimed for innovation in development, mastery, and delivery of Applied Functional Science®. AFS is how the human body moves in all three planes. Choose from 3DMAPS® (3D Movement Analysis & Performance System), Certification in Applied Functional Science® (CAFS) as well as specialization courses in Functional Soft Tissue Transformation (FSTT) and Golf. Each of these courses are designed to make you the go-to movement professional in your field.

Functional Movement Screen (FMS)

FMS dives into the importance and science of movement. The program teaches you how to recognize movement patterns that support work, sports and daily activities. In addition, the program provides instruction on identifying principles to support the importance of movement screening, explaining the role of mobility, motor control, and functional patterns in fundamental movement. FMS allows you to make programming decisions and provide valuable feedback throughout your training process to ensure you are meeting clients’ short and long term goals.

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCS)

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists apply scientific knowledge to train athletes. Their primary goal is improving athletic performance. CSCSs “conduct sport-specific testing sessions, design and implement safe and effective strength training and conditioning programs and provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention. Recognizing that their area of expertise is separate and distinct, CSCSs consult with and refer athletes to other professionals when appropriate.”

If you are brand new to the personal training industry, make sure you choose a reputable and credentialed certification. This will help get your foot in the door of a gym. If you have been in the game for a while, make sure your ideas and practices are still current and relevant. Most importantly, double-check and make sure that the information and content you are putting out is correct for efficacy and the safety of your viewers and potential clients.  

About The Author 

Randy Leopando, CSCS, FMS, RCPT*E

A fitness industry veteran of 22 years, Randy is the Training and Education Manager at TRUE Fitness.  He spent much of his career as a fitness director and operations management for a privately owned fitness facility that offered general memberships, personal training, group fitness, small group training, Pilates, nutrition counseling, and sports performance training.  Randy has been a consultant for ACE, regional committee member for NSCA, and currently provides education on TRUE cardio and strength products to club owners and staff.