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Personal Best Fitness Blog

What Exactly Does ‘Certified’ Mean?

Phil Ray - Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Certification, accreditation, and licensure

What does it all mean to a personal trainer in terms of being truly qualified to perform responsibly, safely, and according to acceptable industry standards? Acceptable according to whom? The American Council Exercise (ACE®)? The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM®)? The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA®)? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM®)? TRX®?

Who “certifies” the certifying agencies? One organization is National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). NCCA is the organization who certifies ACE®, ACSM®, ISSA®, NSCA®, NASM®, AFAA®, NFPT®, NESTA®, etc.

If a personal training or fitness related certification is NCCA certified, does that mean it is a “good” certification?

Not necessarily. An NCCA certified personal trainer or fitness related certification simply means that the certifying agency produced a certification that met certain NCCA content and testing requirements. It does not mean that the individual who successfully passed the certification has demonstrated mastery of the skills or has the demonstrated ability to train clients.

QUESTION: If you are an aspiring personal trainer, or TRX® instructor, or CrossFit® gym owner, or yoga group class instructor, are you qualified to teach and train others after having attended a one, two, or three day seminar or after having completed an on-line course? Are you indeed qualified because you successfully obtained the “certification?”

Before answering that question, consider the definition of “certification.”

According to one organization, by definition,

“Certification is the term applied to the process whereby an individual voluntarily submits his / her credentials for review based upon clearly identified competencies, criteria, or standards. The primary purpose of certification is to ensure that personnel employed in a particular industry or discipline meets certain standards of performance.”

According to another organization, again by definition,

“… the intent of the certification process … is to provide assurance to the public that a certified [ individual ] has successfully completed a training program, and an evaluation, including an examination process, designed to assess the knowledge, experience, and skills requisite to the provision of [ proper service to the client / patient / customer ] in that specialty.”


No, you are not ready to train individuals. If you completed a two-day certification, you have not demonstrated through written or physical examination that you are competent in anything. Certifications call themselves “certifications” because they can … not because they are necessarily “reputable.”

Certification, unlike a “license” is not a “permission” to act, but rather a statement of completion or qualification. Certification is a private matter, issued by a private organization. It does not involve the police power of the state, and is not a state privilege. Anyone can “create” a certification.

So if a “certification” is accredited, does that make it “good” or “better” than one that is not accredited? Well, that depends. CrossFit is ANSI accredited. But does the ANSI standard ensure that a person who has attended a 2-3 day CrossFit certification is prepared to properly screen a client, develop and implement a suitable, safe, program design with appropriate progressions, adaptations, etc.? No, it does not mean that. ANSI accreditation simply means that the CrossFit training program meets certain ANSI standards … it does not mean that those who complete the ANSI accredited CrossFit program are prepared to train anyone.

Not to pick on CrossFit®, but the same is true for any “certification” be it TRX®, or ACE®, ACSM®, NASM®, or NSCA or Mad Dogg Athletics Spinning® certification or International Kettlebell Fitness Federation (IKFF®) Level 1 / 2 kettlebell instructor. Some “certifications” are awesome relative to demonstrating both mastery of the knowledge and capability to train others. Some … not so much.


So what does certification mean in the health & fitness world?

Simple answer:  it means that the participant has demonstrated certain skills that meet only the certifiers’ requirements.

The quality of that certifier (a/k/a certifying agency) and the certifying agencies standards in the health & fitness industry vary tremendously because the personal training industry is not a regulated profession. Unfortunately, too many certifying agencies simply focus on generating certification “revenue” without requiring prerequisite training and education prior to “certification” such as an electrician certification and licensure program would require apprenticeship.

What’s an aspiring personal trainer or fitness professional to do? When in doubt, apply common sense. Follow these common sense certification guidelines (that really apply to any profession):

  1. Get an education FIRST. Before you become a certified public accountant (CPA), you would get an accounting degree.  Before you become an over the road truck driver with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), get experience as an apprentice and then take the CDL exam.  Before you become a personal trainer or take a two-day Crossfit instructor course, get a health & fitness education.
  2. Get certified SECOND. Pursue an accredited, reputable certification after you have a baseline education.  Good certifications will TEACH the information, APPLY what you have learned, and then TEST both your ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE and your PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE. The test should require you to DEMONSTRATE COMPETENCY.  That process requires weeks if not months (not 2-3 days).  
  3. Get continuing education THIRD.Level 1 certification should progress to Level “X” through continuing education and demonstrated ability.  CONTINUING EDUCATION should include mastery of the certification content through time tested experience, defined progressions, and future testing recognized by Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, etc.
  4. Seek out mentors and mimic experts CONTINUALLY.  Learn from the masters and the recognized experts.  One size does not fit all.  Learn the process that the experts follow in designing, developing, and applying personalized programs for individuals.  Mimic the experts.

In summary, do not allow yourself to be misled into thinking that just because you secured a “certification” through a 2-3 day class from an accredited certifying agency that you are ready to train anyone.


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