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10 Benchmarks for Elevating the Personal Training Profession

Twenty years ago, most personal training clients were “apparently healthy” and had higher-than-average discretionary incomes. Today, physical inactivity is a global issue affecting all ages and abilities. Expectations and demand for personal training professionals are changing as the industry matures and clients’ needs evolve. Are we meeting the requirements of this dynamic market?

Discerning employers and consumers expect more from trainers than rote exercise knowledge. “We might hire 1 or 2 personal trainers out of every 10 who interview for a job,” says Mitch Batkin, senior vice president of fitness for Sport & Health, in McLean, Virginia. “Geographic location is a huge factor, but I estimate that we hire 1 out of 10 who apply in some locations—1 out of 15 in others,” says Paul Diedrich, director of physical activity for Plus One Health Management Inc. (with facilities nationwide). Both men say they feel pressure to grow their respective organizations, but not at the sacrifice of quality. Other employers echo this sentiment.

Personal training is a growth industry. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that jobs in personal training and fitness instruction will increase by 24% between 2010 and 2020, faster than the average 14% expansion for all occupations (BLS 2013). The BLS projects growth from employee incentives (to join a gym), healthcare reform, aging Baby Boomers and unfit youth (Zabonick 2013).

The Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association identifies three key drivers for growth: longer life expectancy, obesity rates, and increases in discretionary income (Ablondi et al. 2012). “Many clubs have doubled their personal training staff. Given this upward trend, it is clearly a great time to be part of the fitness industry,” says Joe Moore, president and CEO of IHRSA.

However, we have work to do. Observers have identified 10 benchmarks as important to the continued evolution of the personal training industry. Since there is no requirement to have formal education or credentialing, the industry must self-regulate to achieve minimal standards. How can all stakeholders unite to continue to develop personal training as a valued and admired profession?

Benchmark 1: Certification

Sources agree that certification is the most important industry benchmark for elevating the personal training profession. Most say the gold standard for certification in the United States includes accreditation by a third-party organization such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Not all certifications meet the same accreditation standards, however.

Lisa Borho, MS, MPH, professor of health and physical education at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, finds the lack of consistency and unity among accredited personal training certifications frustrating. Fabio Comana, MA, MS, director of continuing education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), wants to raise the bar: “As we move toward wellness, our industry requirements are too diluted,” he says.

Efforts are underway to advance development of well-qualified fitness professionals. “ACE, NSCA, ACSM and NSCF have founded the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals,” says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief science officer
for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “These founding members are working to bring all organizations that offer NCCA-accredited certification programs together to provide the structure, leadership and advocacy efforts the fitness profession requires to earn formal recognition . . . as part of the healthcare team.”

Another issue is that fitness-industry employers ultimately need to be gatekeepers. Hiring people with nonaccredited certifications erodes consistency. “Because the industry is largely unregulated, whoever does the hiring decides what the standards are for that facility,” says Rod McDonald, vice president of Can-Fit-Pro in Toronto.

In Switzerland, Laszlo Pinter, Technogym® master trainer and co-owner of FITZONE, says, “The industry is moving toward a 5-star rating system similar to [the one used for] hotels. [It] will include evaluation of standards such as trainer qualifications, ratio of staff to members, and safety policies.” National registries are also helping to create a consistent world-wide standard.

Since the average consumer is unlikely to understand the difference between accredited or nonaccredited certifications, it falls to fitness organizations to educate consumers. “We need more consumer awareness about the importance of high-quality certifications,” says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA Health & Fitness Association, in San Diego. “Also, resources like IDEA FitnessConnect enable consumers to verify credentials from 150 certifications and training organizations online and to find fitness pros in their communities.”

Benchmark 2: Foundational Education

Closely related to certification, the second benchmark of professionalism is a solid foundational education. The fact that someone with no foundational training can take a certification exam compounds the quality-control problem. No specific experience or educational prerequisites—other than CPR, and in some cases AED and/or first-aid training—are required. Bryant says it is not unlikely that, in the future, certification candidates will have to complete a minimum curriculum before taking an exam. “The American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) would [also] like to see graduation from an accredited training program as an eligibility requirement for the certification examination,” says Richard Cotton, national director of certification for ACSM.

There is consensus that trainers need more basic preparation, but opinions diverge regarding how to meet this need. Most experts agree that a bachelor’s degree in exercise science is a bonus, but is not essential as long as a candidate shows an equivalent understanding of how to design and apply exercise programs and work with people. Borho supports a 2-year associate’s degree that includes a 120-hour internship, for a total of about 1,300 hours. “We find that our students are just able to meet [ACSM] standards of knowledge, skills and abilities by the end of their 2-year degree,” she says. “I think a bachelor’s degree is too high a standard. A job-specific degree seems to be more appropriate than the more typical exercise-science degrees that emphasize theory over practice.”

“More classroom education is not the answer,” says Bobby Cappuccio, New York City, cofounder of PTA Global and former content manager for FitProTM and PTontheNET. “We need to focus on which trainers need to be educated and in what domains.” Many agree that having a doctorate provides no assurance that a person can demonstrate an exercise properly or can effectively communicate with and motivate people—two quintessential skills for successful trainers.

Benchmark 3: Ability To Apply Knowledge

Personal training is a highly interactive, people-intensive occupation. Having a degree or passing a certification exam demonstrates domain and theoretical knowledge, but it’s more difficult to measure interpersonal communication skills and other “soft” skills. To close this gap, experts see a need for more mentorships or internships.

“One of the challenges the industry faces . . . is lack of quality mentorship/apprenticeship programs for newly certified fitness professionals,” says Bryant. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Committee on Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences (CoAES) accredit academic programs in exercise science and require an internship, a certification pass rate, and employment benchmarks (see www.caahep.org and www.coaes.org).

Some employers are recognizing this gap and are partnering with higher-education institutions and personal training vocational-education providers. Sherri McMillan, MSc, owner of Northwest Personal Training, in Vancouver, Washington, partners with Clark Community College to include interns in her studio. “They are learning theoretical, academic information [at school], and we provide on-the-job practical training. The majority of trainers we hire come through this internship.”

For trainer educators and prospective employers, partnering seems to be a wide-open win-win opportunity—one that gives trainees hands-on experience so that they are professionally ready to work with clients immediately after completely the program.

Better Health Through Fitness Coaching

Experts interviewed agree that today’s trainer is not simply an exercise instructor but rather a lifestyle advisor and health motivator. “Trainers need to understand that their roles are changing,” says Donna Lynn Hutchinson, owner of On The Edge Fitness Educators, in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Clients can get exercises anywhere. They want more; [they] want someone who can help with injuries, lifestyle changes, behavior modification, nutrition and sports training. A trainer of the future needs to stand beside a client throughout her lifespan and adapt to her needs.”

Experts see three skills—benchmarks 4, 5 and 6—as critical to a trainer’s evolving role in this regard.

Benchmark 4: Communication Skills

“People want the guide by the side,” says Cappuccio. Today’s client does not want to be spoken at, but rather to be engaged. Trainers must be able to listen and to explain. Diedrich and others emphasize appreciative inquiry and motivational interviewing skills. “We need to connect beyond selling,” says Diedrich. “We need to listen to what consumers actually want and connect them with something that creates sustainable change.”

Batkin advocates communication as a key programming tool. “Our trainers must be good communicators to give appropriate workout to someone who may be twice their age, is nowhere near as fit and can potentially hurt themselves,” he says.

Benchmark 5: Knowledge Of Motivation And Behavioral Change

Bryant reiterates the importance of communication and behavioral change skills as fitness professionals “reach populations beyond the 15%–20%” who currently make up most fitness-facility members. Cotton believes that “behavioral knowledge and skills should be assessed in the certification exam.” In corporate settings, Diedrich says, trainers should be agents of change for people who are deconditioned. “We need trainers who can demonstrate empathy, who understand the transtheoritical model of change and who can communicate long-term progressive programming.”

Many certification organizations emphasize communication and coaching skills in their exam preparation and acknowledge their key role in helping clients with behavior change, motivation, adherence and more.

Benchmark 6: Friendly, Approachable Personality

Another essential “soft skill” is the ability to make clients feel cared for and welcome. Many high-end employers see trainers as key personnel in providing positive experiences for clients. In an IHRSA survey of club operators, 80% of respondents noted that, in addition to certification and education, a friendly personality was the number-one quality required by fitness pros (Abondi et al. 2012). This attribute is critically for retention.

“The reason programs like Crossfit&reg or Zumba&reg are so popular is that they have created a sense of identity and community,” says Cappuccio. “Club operators need to create opportunities for trainers to develop more of a connection with members.” Many believe that small-group training programs may be a way to cultivate a stronger sense of community while managing costs and making training more fun.

Benchmark 7: Assessment,
Risk Stratification And Progressive Program Design

Experts agree that, with higher numbers of deconditioned people seeking assistance, trainers must be able to assess risk level and know when and how to modify exercises. “A personal trainer’s job is composed of assessment, program development, program implementation and legal professional consid- erations,” says Cotton.

McDonald points to scope-of-practice issues. “While there are clients who require a greater depth of expertise and should be referred to personal trainers with deeper knowledge [and/or to] a network of other health professionals, the vast majority of clients do not require this. Most clients require guidance and supervision. Trainers need to be able to recognize when…to refer out.”

Most experts interviewed think foundational training should include how to use functional-movement screening to identify issues and provide appropriate solutions. “If you’re not assess- ing, you’re guessing,” says Ken Baldwin, director of Quality Products, Education & Conditioning, in Brisbane, Australia. “Not enough trainers are being taught how to posturally screen clients and how to design corrective exercises. “Trainers need to know more than how to put someone into an exercise machine. They need to know how to improve people’s well-being and their movement for everyday life.” A good understanding of risk stratification is essential so that trainers do not give people exercises that are too difficult.

“In some cases, [our] testing doesn’t provide a basis for exercise programming, or worse yet, it is injurious—for example, full sit-ups or a step test,” says Debra Atkinson, MS, founder of Voice for Fitness LLC. “We’re risking injury [for some clients] before they even begin training.”

“[According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], injury rates from exercise were up 4% across the board between 1997 and 2007,” Comana says. “I’m concerned. As personal trainers, we have to be accountable for the pro- grams we create. We require more from our pros, who need to stop hurting people.”

Benchmark 8:
Nutrition And The Big Wellness Picture

Many experts note that trainers need more continuing education and a more comprehensive understanding of the full picture of health and wellness, including nutrition, which is a primary component of a successful program. Much misinformation is available to clients; an educated trainer can be a valuable source of credible knowledge.

Another important point is that fitness training cannot be offered in a vacuum. “Much of our training teaches us how to be a unidimensional source of information,” says Cappuccio. “We don’t educate enough about how to put it all together,” says Annette Lang, owner of Annette Lang Education Systems LLC, in New York City. “I call it Activity, Leisure, Exercise and Synergy (ALES). [It’s about] how to balance all the variables that make up the total picture [for the client].” Integration is critical to tailoring a program to meet individual needs and promote long-term success.

Hutchinson posits that a trainer’s “scope of practice” should be redefined so that personal trainers can help clients in all lifestyle areas. Many experts view more nutrition education, in particular, as a key factor. Personal trainers do not have to be registered dietitians; however ,they do have to inform clients about how to apply nutrition fundamentals. “Trainers need to move from the image of technicians to one of a health professional providing services that support both primary and secondary disease prevention,” says Cotton. For more on nutrition and scope of practice, read “Elusive Boundaries for Nutrition Scope of Practice,” in the March 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal

Benchmark 9: Understanding Of Multiple Special Conditions

Industry leaders agree that continuing education is essential. Opinions diverge, however, on where foundational knowledge ends and continuing education begins. “Very few people fall into the category of ‘healthy’ today,” says Borho, who emphasizes that trainers need to know about multiple health conditions as part of foundational training.

“Customization is the name of the game,” says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, in Vancouver, British Columbia, adding that demand is growing for services for active older adults. However, he says, trainers must keep in mind how diverse the population is in their “physical and cognitive abilities, life experiences, lifestyles, health conditions, needs and expectations.”

Many of the leaders who were interviewed think additional education is necessary only if trainers work with clients in particular categories. McDonald says we should align skills with needs. “I believe there should be a low barrier to the profession so that we can attract more people. The strength of our industry is that it is inclusive. While it needs to get better to filter out the duds, this is largely related to finding those foundational standards and creating levels for individuals to attain after entry.”

Benchmark 10: Risk Management And Documentation

Risk management is an important foundational component, and trainers should practice it from day one, whether they are employees or entrepreneurs. Risk-management education outlines a systematic way for individuals and facilities to ensure that clients are safe.

Cotton says risk-management testing should be included in the legal-considerations domain of the certification exam. Borho notes that the Clark College fitness-trainer program includes instruction on developing a risk-management policies-and-procedures manual.

Brett Klika, 2013 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and director of athletic performance for Fitness Quest 10, in San Diego, and others recommend that trainers learn documentation skills such as the “subjective, objective, assessment, plan (SOAP)” system of note-taking, which is standard for allied health professionals. While basic documentation is part of risk management, more advanced skills—like taking SOAP notes— can prepare a fitness professional to be an official member of a primary-care medical team. To learn more about SOAP notes, visit www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/taking-soap-notes.

Potential Roadblocks: Wages And Current
Business Model

Observers agree that current compensation and professional-development models are among the key reasons why the personal training profession isn’t meeting the benchmarks cited in this article. If trainers can’t earn a living wage, they can’t invest in continuing education; even the cost of maintaining certification can be a burden.

Some think that positioning trainers to work as part of the healthcare continuum and raising certification and education requirements will improve earnings. “If facility operators would embrace the opportunity to offer program-based solutions that support workplace wellness, health reform law and new opportunities in primary prevention, it would necessitate a more traditional work shift for fitness professionals, [with] wages and productivity bonuses instead of session-based compensation,” says Bryant. “This could lead to a dramatic improvement in the experience and opportunities for employers, professionals and consumers.”

Higher-end fitness facilities and studios that depend on retention typically pay personal trainers a straight salary with benefits. “100% of our exercise specialists (who provide both personal training and floor staffing) are full-time salaried employees, and many of our personal trainers are part-time salaried employees,” says Diedrich. While rates charged for personal training are growing, they vary widely depending on facility type and geographic location.

Current challenges for trainers include being required to sell training slots (without pay), work off-the-clock hours, carry split shifts, and pay for their own continuing education while receiving low training wages. Bryant notes that courts are now looking at fitness labor practices, which are often not in compliance with labor laws.

Others believe wages will improve as trainers meet more-diverse client needs by becoming more flexible in scheduling and program development. “Trainers need to offer services for clients with more moderate incomes,” says Cotton. “Training a client once or twice a week only works for clients with higher incomes. Trainers need to offer services that better match a broader income range.”

“As personal training becomes more tied to health than to ‘getting that vacation six-pack,’ it will universalize the need for the service,” says Klika, who adds that as more people see value in personal training, compensation will ultimately increase.

Service To The Client Comes First

The personal training industry has tremendous potential to help millions worldwide. However, to effectively serve people of all ages and abilities, the industry needs to evolve. Service must permeate every aspect of what we provide—from understanding what each client wants and needs to applying our knowledge and skills in ways that support and inspire the people we train.

Employers and trainers must align their interests so the professional goals of the certified, educated trainer are consistent with the business owner’s goal to serve and retain clients and have a prosperous enterprise. Education providers, certifying organizations and trade associations must partner with employers to provide both foundational knowledge and continuing education. The public has to be better educated about the importance of certification, and all stakeholders must work together to create more-collaborative relationships. When all players focus on how best to achieve client success, everyone wins.

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