Personal Training Certifications: Approach with Caution

"Certified Personal Trainer." It sounds so... official! So professional! But what if I told you that many certifications are almost totally worthless? 

For brevity, I'll divide certifications into three broad categories:

  • Nationally accredited certifications
  • Unaccredited online certifications
  • Practical certifications

The former are commonplace; many commercial fitness centers require their trainers to have at least one nationally accredited certification such as NASM, NSCA, ACE, or ACSM. While they might sound official, they're not particularly difficult to obtain: they require a few months of studying followed by a multiple-choice exam. In their defense, these certifications are meant to be foundational. Someone whose only experience is attaining one of these credentials is likely not ready to be an effective coach; the certifications give a broad overview of anatomy, kinesiology, exercise technique, and (sometimes) business and marketing strategies. 

Unaccredited online courses are essentially the bottom of the barrel: they likely require little study or prior experience, are easy to pass, and are relatively inexpensive. They're not held to the standards of a national accreditation organization such as the NCCA. 

Practical certifications may or may not be accredited, but they require the trainer to demonstrate proficiency in the exercises, and they may be assessed on their ability to coach. StrongFirst, for example, offers three certifications that take place over two full days and require attendees to perform difficult workouts and correct mistakes while coaching their peers. Other well-known practical certifications include CrossFit's various certifications, MovNat, Ground Force Method, RKC, and Starting Strength. 

Don't Expect Much ROI 

Aside from the unaccredited online courses, there's really nothing wrong with any of the above certifications. But for trainers, accruing these certifications can be a massive waste of money. While they can indeed impart valuable specialized knowledge, their relative obscurity to the general public makes a return on investment a dubious prospect. 

In nearly 15 years of personal training, I can count on one hand the number of times I've been directly asked if I had a certification. The prospective client had no idea what a 'good' personal training credential was; he just wanted the reassurance that I had something. And that's part of the problem: nobody outside of the fitness industry knows anything about personal training certifications. Many of the best and most successful trainers I've known have no certifications to speak of, or have cheap throwaway online certifications. Certifications are often very expensive (StrongFirst's weekend courses cost over $1,600 apiece), and plenty of trainers simply don't have that kind of cash burning a hole in their pockets. 

But even among those who do have lots of certifications, it's usually the case that they do little to help them become successful trainers. I once worked with an enthusiastic woman embarking on her new personal training career after being certified through RKC. RKC, which you've likely only heard of if you're in the industry, is a kettlebell instructor certification. The fact that few outside the industry even know what kettlebells are, much less what RKC is, means that she quickly faced a tough reality check over the lack of interest in kettlebell instruction. 

Onnit, a fitness and supplement company based in Texas, offers a number of certifications that include "Foundations" (a biomechanics and movement course), kettlebells, steel maces, barbells, and... battle ropes. Yes, battle ropes:


Now don't get me wrong, battle ropes are lots of fun and I've used them with my clients for years. But how many prospective personal training clients are holding out for a trainer whose an expert with battle ropes? How much battle rope programming does a trainer really think they can get away with before the client gets bored?

The importance of education

It's important to emphasize that I'm not knocking continuing education. By all means, spend some money and work under a coach who is an expert in barbells, kettlebells, steel maces, or even battle ropes. If you can afford them and you don't expect a return on investment, by all means grab the certifications. However, most of these organizations offer various seminars that only cost a fraction of their certification courses. Remember StrongFirst and their $1,600 certification courses? An all-day seminar, sans certification, in which you can learn their teaching methods, is only $300. Save the other $1300 to reinvest in marketing, apparel, or other seminars. Heck, go twice! You'll still save $1,000. 

Often, simply hiring a coach for a while is more cost-effective and beneficial than attending expensive seminars for certifications no one outside the industry has heard of. For example, I worked for six months under the guidance of an Olympic weightlifting coach who has trained several national record holders. He does not hold any 'official' Olympic weightlifting coaching credentials, and nor do I. The USAW offers certifications for Olympic weightlifting instruction; a friend of mine attended (it cost him $500) and said that almost no one at the seminar had experience in the sport and could demonstrate proficiency in the lifts—but they walked out with a coaching certification nonetheless. 

A good trainer will be dedicated to their own continuing education—through reading and research, attending seminars, collaborating with other trainers, and working under the guidance of other coaches. But trainers should be cautious in chasing additional certifications—most likely, it will be for your own edification and not present much return on investment. The public is simply too out of touch with the industry to know or care about the innumerable certifications out there. Get one if you are passionate about learning what is taught, and the cost is comfortably within your means. But don't chase one certification after another in the misguided expectation that it will further your business—your personal story, your referrals, and your ability to quickly demonstrate your expertise will take you much farther than a laundry list of certifications.