Licensing Debate: Personal Trainers, Group Fitness Instructors

by Ryan Halvorson on Nov 19, 2008

The November-December 2008 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal (2008; 5 [10], 16) reported on proposed legislation that would require personal trainers in Washington, DC, to register with the mayor and submit fees biennially. Registered personal trainers would be regulated by the Board of Physical Therapy and would operate within a scope of practice delineated by the board. Now, other states are following suit.

On October 6, 2008, Senate Bill 2164—the “Fitness Professional Licensing Act”—was proposed in New Jersey. This legislation would require that a governor-appointed board oversee the licensing and regulation of personal trainers and group fitness instructors.

Should the bill become law, professionals seeking licensure would have to complete “an approved course of study of not less than 300 in-person classroom hours, as prescribed by the board after consultation with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.” Those hours would include at least 50 hours of unpaid internship “in the presence of and under direct supervision of a licensed fitness professional,” to be provided by the school offering the approved course of study. Upon program completion, professionals would need to pass a final examination.

Trainers and instructors possessing either an associate or bachelor’s degree in physical education, exercise science, exercise physiology or adult fitness would be exempt from the classroom study, internship hours and final exam. Professionals obtaining certification prior to enactment of S 2164 would have to hold a certificate from the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) or other board-approved organization. They would be required to offer proof of enrollment in or successful completion of at least 150 in-person classroom hours.

Across the board, fitness professionals agree that personal training and group fitness instruction should be regulated for optimal safety. However, some find the proposed legislation inappropriate. “With the increase in obesity among the young, frailty among the elderly and [an] overall decline in fitness, it is outrageous that the New Jersey state senate is trying to balance the bloated state budget on the backs of personal trainers and their clients,” says Joe Stein, president of Renaissance Fitness & Wellness Inc., in Little Silver, New Jersey. “Lowered standards, onerous additional requirements that most certified [trainers] have already met, and increased licensing fees are not the way to help the people of New Jersey.”

New Jersey-based personal trainer and life coach John Allen Mollenhauer disagrees. “I think the respect, quality of service and impact of the personal training industry will be far higher and the opportunity greater for the committed group of professionals when the barriers to entry are higher, like any other profession,” he says.

“IDEA Health & Fitness Association opposes S 2164 for a number of reasons,” say Kathie and Peter Davis, IDEA executive director and chief executive officer (CEO), respectively. “The bill’s education requirements are not in line with current industry practice and require so much time and cost that they would definitely discourage both group exercise instructors and personal trainers from entering the field. Also, the bill is not taking into account the third-party standards set by NCCA and the 10 personal training certification bodies who have become accredited by NCCA. The industry is taking responsible measures to self-regulate, and this bill completely overlooks this very important fact.”

Sal Arria, MSS, DC, president of the NBFE, remains neutral on the subject but believes that, if states adopt licensing requirements, a nationwide license should be offered. “It is in the best interest of the fitness profession to utilize one National Board Examination as a terminal licensure exam in lieu of ending up with 50 different state board licensing exams,” he suggests. “This model has been very successful in some medical and allied health fields, but unfortunately there are still many that require 50 different state board exams in addition to 50 different education and continuing education requirements. Obviously this places unnecessary hardship on professionals who move [from one state to another].”

Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, also agrees that uniform regulation of fitness professionals should be administered, but finds the proposed requirements for licensure cumbersome. Bryant believes that, as proposed, the bill would “inhibit efforts to both provide protections for the consumer and facilitate growth of the fitness industry in New Jersey.” He suggests using the standard established for other allied healthcare professions through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Institutions offering vocational 2-year programs, 4-year degrees or advanced degrees can receive CAAHEP accreditation.

Bryant also requests that the current standard, as regulated by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), should be upheld instead of switching to NBFE. “Existing codes of ethics, standards of care and a clearly defined scope of practice for the personal training profession are recognized and accepted by the leading fitness certifications organizations accredited through the NCCA,” he adds.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) mobilized its members and spoke out against S 2164 in October 2008 on the grounds that the bill ignored the great majority of the personal training industry that has embraced accreditation; nominated a single certifying body over an entire market of accredited certifying bodies; established requirements that would increase costs for trainers and consumers; established arbitrary education requirements; and required unworkable and expensive oversight.

According to Joe Moore, the president and CEO of Boston-based IHRSA, “the industry should regulate itself rather than have outside forces who know little of our industry do it.

“As an advocacy organization, it is important to us that trainers be qualified,” said Moore. “We want to support policies that help our member businesses grow, and alert our members when the government tries to do things that might hurt their businesses. We have a public policy division that tracks proposals and mobilizes our members to act.”

If passed, S 2164 could set a nationwide precedent. In addition to Washington, DC, and New Jersey, Maryland and Georgia are also considering fitness professional licensure, according to the NBFE website (www.nbfe.org/news/press_releases/stateLicensing_082008.cfm; retrieved November 12, 2008). To read the New Jersey bill in its entirety, visit http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2008/Bills/S2500/2164_I1.HTM.

IDEA Fit Tips, Volume 6, Issue 4

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is the publications assistant for IDEA Health & Fitness Association. He is a speaker and regular contributor to health and fitness publications and a certified personal trainer.

31 Comments

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  • Tom Smith

    It's important there's a minimum standard for what a personal trainer should be, but requiring yearly fees (and possibly a license?) is a bit far. There should be a much better way to handle this.
    Commented Dec 03, 2014
  • kelli martin

    Trainsmart, And many WITHOUT exercise related degrees are passing these tests, EVEN the major ones. As of last year, I no longer carry a certification. I don't have to - everyone I train knows that I have the education and experience. Same for those who ask me to speak or present exercise related programs. I refuse to support an industry that perpetuates such a lax standard.
    Commented Feb 28, 2012
  • Train Smart

    Personal training should be licensed so that these so called certifications disappear. Certifications are just a way to scam money. I hate that I have to spend $300 to take a personal training certification test that insults my intelligence. Those who aren't confident with their knowledge get sucked in to buy pricey "textbooks" and "practice exams" only to find out that the information is extremely basic and common sense. So why are these ridiculous certifications out there? It's all about money. These big certifying organizations oppose the bill because they'll lose A LOT of money. Think about how much they make from exams, recertifications, textbook, practice exams and continuing education classes. Anyone with a BS in kinesiology can pass these stupid certification exams. Also, it's fine to have the Board of Physical Therapy determine our scope of practice. They use evidence based exercises with patients and require detailed notes to track progress. If all fitness professionals used evidence based training methods and documented progress in a more detailed manner, the world of personal training would be a lot more safe and effective overall. I'm certified under one big organization, but refuse to get another certification with hopes that a license will eventually become a requirement.
    Commented Nov 30, 2011
  • Gautam Gautam

    I am agree with you. This topic on which you discussed has been bantered about for years, but it sounds like some are taking it to the next step. Nice topics, thank you for providing with a lot of valuable information. i shall be waiting for your next blog.
    Commented Jul 03, 2011
  • Noelle Brownson

    There used to be a similar situation decades ago in the Athletic Training profession. There were many people working in the scope of professional AT's, but with little or no formal schooling, since none was offered. Becoming a certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) now requires formal schooling in an accredited program, passing one national exam, and annual continuing education. These provisions have made it into a true profession. There were growing pains in the process and I'm certain that not everyone loved it, but it worked. I feel it is long past due for personal trainers to be required to complete a formal education. Our work is no less demanding of a thorough knowledge base than the work of ATCs. And the consequences of not having a thorough education and a systematic approach to training clients could be just as disastrous as that of someone performing the tasks of an ATC who is not qualified to do the work. So I for one, feel that licensure would elevate the profession tremendously. Without it, we are requiring a public who isn't educated in health and fitness to know how to find a qualified trainer: to know what certifications to ask for, to know what college degrees to ask for, to know what continuing education to ask about. It's just not fair. Could you imagine having to know all these things when trying to choose a doctor, dentist, or even hair stylist? It's unfair to expect consumers to be able to sift through it all.
    Commented Feb 17, 2011
  • Michele Williams

    I think getting a fitness certification should be sufficient. For me getting this credential at least shows that you're dedicated to the profession besides you're continuously updating your skills via CEC's. It has not been my experience that licensing will ensure professionalism, I work with professionals who are licensed and not all of them are professional. As for pay I think that it should whatever the client can afford to pay. I think we're setting a "standard" by getting a certification. What we should focus on is getting world mentally and physically healthy. It's ashame that the majority of adults in the United States are overweight and the kids are not to far behind. Let's work on prevention and maintenance.
    Commented Dec 26, 2010
  • Dave Parise

    READ THEN READ BELOW PLEASE Should the bill become law, professionals seeking licensure would have to complete “an approved course of study of not less than 300 in-person classroom hours, as prescribed by the board after consultation with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.” Those hours would include at least 50 hours of unpaid internship “in the presence of and under direct supervision of a licensed fitness professional,” to be provided by the school offering the approved course of study. Upon program completion, professionals would need to pass a final examination. MY COMMENT TO THE ABOVE-1-We all must understand how this came about in the first place. People are getting injured by overzealous so called certified professionals. Unpaid internship can only be valued as good as the mentor / teacher / instructor 2- We should not allow any person collect professional fees, without a nationally accredited certification. 3- more text book will not help -today's trainers need hands on application- They need to feel, palpate, and understand. This process will delineate between nonsense, and common sense exercises. The industry as a whole should determine a list of exercises that should never be performed by a certified trainer. This list should be known to the general public. We market and promote all dysfunctional exercises, so to make people more aware should be easy. All too often we dismiss the science behind exercises and true joint function. Knowing also that there's nothing new under the sun &/or that many others share the same common view, then groups (whatever their view may be...usually, ridicule or have skepticism or antagonistic behavior), come to what in their eyes/hearts/minds, is, "the truth" about a particular exercise. They become married to it, or they say “ well look at her, or him it must work! Today’s exercises are influenced by the emotions or prejudices. We invent these exercises done by an individual, and it can never be considered to represent a general and objective belief. So for those that deny there are absolute truths in anatomy and exercise mechanics &/or say all truth is relative, are misrepresenting to create the illusion. This illusion is totally based on a feeling. Objectively exercise is below the skin where the joints tendons and ligaments experience internal forces. We must stop watching pieces of skin moving and equate that to making sense. The primary concern, must be “safety first”. Textbook exercises can’t be memorized. Exercises demonstrated by a coach, or some famous body builder are not defined as ‘specific and finite.” Miss fitness age 24 and her genetically gifted body worked hard, but did she work smart? Exercises have to be created, much in the same way an artist takes a few basic colors and creates a never-ending spectrum of colors on canvas. This is the way to be a requested professional... understand a few basic scientific principles about joint and muscle function. This application will allow you to create millions of sound exercises. But all exercises are not created equal. Creating an appropriate exercise is a matter for careful professional judgment. The “general gym members” go through life seeing only the superficial various shapes of skin that move while holding a weight. But there is a hidden reality unseen by most people and some exercise “experts.” Exercise reality is below the skin where bones and tissue tolerate and generate invisible forces. These forces are really what encompass an exercise. This is what we must learn to understand in order to understand exercise and how to create and manipulate it. Dave Parise CPT FPTA Results Plus Personal Training 3013 Dixwell Ave Hamden CT. 06518 EM: daveparise@resultsplus.com Web: www.resultsplus.com Office: 203-288-8822 Cell: 203-675-5575 Fit-Pros Academy / School www.fitprospersonaltrainingschoo
    Commented Jun 26, 2009
  • John Stevens

    The governement's job is not to pre-screen fitness instructors. Furthermore, one-size fits all licensing is a bad idea. You simply cannot have one licensing body for all of the different types of Group Fitness instructors; Zumba, Kickboxing, Yoga, Personal Trainers, Kettlebell, etc... A licensing Body is only concerned about quantity. Quantity of class room hours, quantity of question you can answer, the quantity of dollars it's licensing process brings in. It will never be about quality, it never has. Look at any other licensing body, there are bad doctors and lawyers and appraisers and real estate agents that have all simply had the cash to invest in the licensing process. Licensing ultimately means nothing more than you had the time, money and or connections to get licensed. If the industry is self-regulating the Government has no business trying to tell us who is and is not qualified. It's just a way for the government to essentially tax us (but call it a license) for choosing our profession and to create govt jobs for it's buddies that it chooses to appoint to the licensing body. I've met plenty of trainers that had excellent GPAs and book smarts that simply can't teach, or get results from clients. I've met a lot of trainers that have no formal education for their job except a weekend certification and a c.p.r. class that can consistently produce excellent results with their clients.In our industry we teach strength, movement and physical transformation, this simply cannot be learned by a book or evaluated from a written exam. Only clients and employers can be the ultimate judge of that, not some govt appointed licensing body. I think the whole process should basically work in reverse and forget Govt licensing all together. Go get a weekend cert, start training and learning in the trenches, learn how to get results from clients, then endlessly further your education and improve your skills.
    Commented Apr 30, 2009
  • kelli martin

    I completely support this bill or some similiar attempt to raise the bar for fitness professionals. I am beginning my search for more information and both my partner and I will donate whatever time or input necessary. As a business owner, I have interviewed several 'fitness professionals' who have no business working with the public. They come to us looking for a position with no formal education and (maybe) with a weekend certification. While it escapes me why anyone would consider shirking college, I also fail to see why anyone would even feel a certification that they can mail in or even one that they can get in a weekend is equivalent to a four year college degree and an accredited certification. My most recent shock was from a website that was sent to me by a medical professional in the small town where I was raised. The lady featured in the site was a former 'fatty' who within a few months of losing weight obtained a not-so-great- personal training certification and a mail-in nutritional specialist certification and was proclaiming her ability to help others. No degree, no education and no real knowledge. The public as no real way to discern a properly credentialled professional from one who isn't and this type of trainer is potentially dangerous. Our profession deserves to be treated like one. The cost is no big deal.
    Commented Apr 01, 2009
  • Joseph Stein

    Is this bill back in play again in NJ? I just saw a IHRSA Legislative Alert on 3-26-09 which seemed to imply this bill is alive and well. Does anyone have any additional information?
    Commented Mar 27, 2009
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