You ask an interesting question that I don’t think any individual trainer can answer. I wonder if there have been any employability studies done by ACE, IDEA, NASM, IRHSA, etc.
There are many, many ways to be a good trainer. I’m sure those of us with training experience can think for just a short time and come up with examples of great trainers with college degrees and also great trainers with a training certification. And we can also think of trainers with degrees and extensive certifications who we wouldn’t hire in a million years.
In an ideal world, trainers would have a mix of education and experience. Neither a certification nor a degree is a perfect indicator of a person’s ability to interact with an actual client.
Here is a simple answer:
It really depends on what that particular gym/fitness manager/owner is looking for in a trainer. The vast majority of locations prefer to hire certified trainers. Beyond that, adding a college degree and experience are also in the qualities they are looking for in trainers and would definitely help with the hiring. I can’t tell you how many times I have witnessed trainers with only a certification in their arsenal who had no idea of how to train clients. They copied other more experience trainers and then pass it on to their clients. Others had more experience even without any college degree to back up their knowledge. And then there are those trainers who do have the college degree and a certification, but no experience.
So the question here is what are you looking for when hiring a trainer? Personally I would look first the type of certification they have, then if they carry a liability insurance (especially if they are going to be hired as independent contractors), experience and then a degree. Today, the best trainers out there have a graduate degree in exercise/sports science or exercise physiology, one or more certifications and most importantly many years of experience.
But like I said, it depends on the gym which you or anyone else is looking to get hired at. I hope this helps.
strange as it may seem, some gyms require that you have both. That is at least true for the place where I teach some classes. The rationale is simple: a college degree, as important as it is, loses its value over time because there is no requirement for continued education. All good certification programs mandate a certain number of continued education credits over a 2 year period to stay current.
You may notice, though, that some advanced certifications, such as ACE AHFS, require a college degree as a pre-requisite.
It isn’t easy to get a degree from an accredited college/university. Not that getting a certification is easy, but it takes less time and study than 4 years +.
If you have a college degree in exercise science, why not get the certification as the cherry on top.
If you only have a NCCA accredited certification, why not get all the education you can to place on top. You may not go to college, but you can get a lot of additional education after your certification.
A long time ago people who worked in gyms tended to be those who worked out. It was rare to have someone with a degree (it was rare to have many degree programs outside of the world of sports and coaching). Group exercise and personal training certifications grew out of a drive for the industry to position itself as more of a profession, to create a way to help those with a certain level of knowledge stand out, and to set some standards as to what that knowledge should be. As the profession grew, as more jobs were available, and as more people got certified more people began also to enter the profession by way of getting a degree. One could imagine that things could have gone differently and fitness could have been offered by hospitals first, rather than by private gyms, and there could have been a standard where all trainers would be expected to have credentials more similar to an exercise physiologist.
But in the world we have there is a system that has grown up that most gyms look for a well known national certification. That credential does not say one has the deep and thorough theoretical knowledge, but has the practical knowledge, and as was already pointed out, will continue to get new training at regular intervals. A doctor goes to medical school, but as part of their licensure must take continuing education… the same with a lot of such professions.
I see from your profile that you have a degree in a fitness field. It sounds like you have found some places have wanted more. The good side to this is that given the knowledge you have you would likely not need to spend a lot of money on training, but could buy a study guide and relatively quickly get your national certification (certainly more quickly than the other person with just the certificate).
I think Harris is right. Places that are hiring usually are looking for more than just one thing. (and frankly every part of fitness has so many people looking for work it is very much a ‘buyer’s market’): A national certification is a baseline that you know what you are doing and reduces liability to the club, insurance shows professionalism and also reduces liability, a degree on top of that shows commitment and I suspect allows for more upward movement for some jobs, and experience is extremely desirable as it decreases the amount of time the company has to spend on training.
This is a very interesting question and has spurred some really well thought out responses. Thank you for posting it.