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Personal Trainer Certification

A look at the current status of accreditation, certification and licensure.

There is much talk about certification, accreditation and licensure in the fitness industry today. Whatever might be said about this trio of topics, a couple of points can be underscored: they inspire passionate discussion among industry leaders and other professionals alike; and the terms themselves and their word cousins can be very confusing. So confusing, in fact, that this article contains its own glossary to ensure that readers can navigate through and clearly understand the differences.

Where do you stand on these topics? Do you know whether your certifying agency is accredited by a recognized source? How important is that? You will find guidance on these questions and many others in this, IDEA’s most current and in-depth research on the subject to date. >>

In the Beginning

In 2002, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) began working with fitness industry leadership on an initiative to “promote safety for consumers working with personal trainers in health clubs.” So states the opening paragraph of IHRSA’s April 2008 accreditation announcement to its members.

From that initial plan came the recommendation by IHRSA that, as of January 1, 2006, “member clubs hire personal trainers holding at least one current certification from a certifying organization/agency that has begun third-party accreditation of its certification procedures and protocols from an independent, experienced, and nationally recognized accrediting body” (see the sidebar “Defining the Terms Surrounding Certification”). Since that recommendation, a lot has changed for personal trainers and consumers in the industry.

Today, trainers have the security of knowing their certification is a respected document no matter where they go, and consumers have the reassurance of knowing more about the qualifications of their trainers. Most health clubs now require their trainers to hold a certification, and give preference to those that are awarded by accrediting organizations. What’s more, a majority of certifying agencies now follow IHRSA’s recommendation by becoming accredited through an accrediting body that meets the IHRSA standards of being “recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and/or the U.S. Department of Education for the purposes of providing independent, third-party accreditation.”

Some organizations were out in front of that recommendation and already had accredited certifications in place. For example, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredited the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) in 1993 for its Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS®) program and in 1996 for its Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT®) program, making it the first organization to offer an accredited personal trainer certification, according to Mark Roozen, director of certification for NSCA, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The first agency to offer an accredited Group Fitness Instructor certification was the American Council on Exercise (ACE), in 2003. In that same year ACE received accreditation for its Personal Trainer and Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant certification programs. With more than 40,000 ACE-certified fitness professionals working in 107 countries, and about 36,000 NSCA trainers (25,000 CSCS and 11,000 CPT) in 59 countries, that is quite an impact on the professionalism and reputation of the industry, especially taking into account that those are just two of the accredited certifying agencies.

Accreditation and Self-Regulation

According to Joe Moore, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Boston-based IHRSA, “the industry should regulate itself rather than have outside forces who know little of our industry do it.” The recommendation for third-party accreditation came from IHRSA as a result of several factors—adverse publicity regarding sites where trainers could get “certified” by doing almost nothing; a desire to protect clients and health clubs; quality assurance; and a belief that the industry should govern itself.

“As an advocacy organization, it is important to us that trainers be qualified,” states 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.”

For example, IHRSA mobilized its members and spoke out against an October 2008 attempt by the New Jersey Senate to require licensing for personal trainers 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. (For more information, see the sidebar “U.S. Legislation” in this article and “Personal Trainer Licensing Debate” in the Making News column.)

Certification Choices

For trainers trying to decide which organization they should be certified by, there are a variety of choices, with some significant differences. There are certain factors to weigh that can narrow the options. First, several organizations meet IHRSA’s standards for accrediting bodies. The National Organization for Competency Assurance/National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NOCA/NCCA) is probably the most familiar to trainers, as it has awarded accreditation to many of the certifying agencies (see the sidebar “Certifying Agencies Accredited by NCCA”). Although the two acronyms are usually written together, there is a difference between the two: NOCA is a membership organization that sets quality standards for credentialing bodies, with a focus on certification, licensure and human resource development, while NCCA is responsible for accrediting programs and organizations. IHRSA recognizes several other accrediting bodies, including the Distance Education Training Council (DETC), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and others recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education.

An estimated 90 organizations offer a variety of fitness-
related certifications. ACE chose to become NCCA-accredited as a way to highlight the excellence, rigor and value of the ACE certification. As one of 10 NCCA-accredited fitness certification agencies, ACE feels that the accreditation makes it easier for
aspiring fitness professionals and consumers alike to make an
informed choice about certification, while clearly distinguishing between qualified and unqualified fitness professionals.

“By earning an NCCA-accredited certification, fitness professionals demonstrate that they are qualified to take a legitimate place on the healthcare continuum. This is critical for developing an appropriate level of professional recognition within the field. This awareness continues to positively impact reputation and compensation levels,” says Scott Goudeseune, president and CEO of San Diego–based ACE. Since the accreditation went into effect, Goudeseune has seen the benefits of that recognition for ACE, while noting that the ACE exam was already so comprehensive that all ACE professionals were not required to resit for certification following the accreditation. “We have seen an increase in professionals holding nonaccredited credentials coming to ACE to earn a credential that holds the NCCA seal. They are seeking to keep or earn a job that requires the credential. In addition, ACE has seen an increase in the number of colleges offering the ACE University/College Curriculum, including Stanford University and the College of William and Mary.”

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is another NCCA-accredited certifying body; the very first to certify health fitness professionals, it has four accredited programs—Personal Trainer, Health Fitness Specialist, Clinical Exercise Specialist and Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist. According to Richard Cotton, MA, national director of certification for ACSM in Indianapolis, Indiana, “We chose NCCA because we feel it’s the only true, across-the-board accreditation process.”

Laura Fast, MBA, credentialing certifications director at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, which is also accredited by NCCA, mentions other benefits. “With accredited examination programs, certified personal trainers now have a better understanding of the level of responsibility they have in their profession, which (has) resulted in higher levels of trainer quality. The Cooper Institute has gained a better understanding of our role in the industry, too. Through changes in our certification renewal program, we are working to empower certificants to take charge and responsibility for planning and achieving their career potential.” Fast sees accreditation as a first step in providing the public with something on which to base decisions. “As the industry grows, I’m sure that additional ways will be identified to help the public understand the value, importance and quality of certified personal trainers.”

Also following the IHRSA-recommended path toward accreditation is the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). Based in Sherman Oaks, California, AFAA has submitted an
application to the DETC. According to Linda Pfeffer, RN, president of AFAA, “We chose to seek accreditation from an organization that is approved by the U.S. Department of Education and CHEA,” which is consistent with AFAA’s requirement that its certified trainers must pass both written and practical examinations.

Following a Different Path

While holding a strong commitment to certification, most of the remaining certifying bodies have not opted to pursue accreditation, as it does not align or may not be relevant to their mission. For example, Jazzercise offers a personal training track called Personal Touch, which is a class format under the Jazzercise umbrella. Before becoming a franchisee, every instructor is trained and certified in a manner that is specific to Jazzercise’s mission and goals. The case is similar for a number of specialized brands (e.g., STOTT Pilates®, Drums Alive and Turbo Kick® programs, etc). Both certifications and certificates are offered for these types of programs.

One organization that does not offer courses, classes or continuing education is the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE). What it does offer is a “single, nationally standardized written and practical examination for personal fitness trainers” with an eye toward placing those who pass the exam on a national registry. Sal Arria, DC, president of the NBFE, explains its interest and role in having a standardized test. “The NBFE recognizes that third-party accreditation is one way to determine if a certification organization meets a standard stipulated by that accrediting body. This does not supersede the need for a summative examination based on standards derived from the fitness industry.” But where does the NBFE fit into the puzzle then?

This is where the issue of licensing may come in, and the NBFE is planning for that possibility. “While the NBFE has not taken any formal position to advocate state licensure or regulation of any fitness professionals,” states Arria, “the Board Examinations of the NBFE are properly positioned to be used in such proposals.” The NBFE website further elucidates that “if a state licensing program adopts the National Boards as its licensing exam, then a fitness professional who takes and passes the National Boards will have satisfied that state’s requirement to take and pass a licensing examination.” In other words, if a nationally recognized industry standard were in place, according to the NBFE, then personal trainers would be able to practice in multiple states or move from one state to another without needing to retest.

While no states had mandated licensure as of the end of 2008, legislation has been proposed in a number of places (see the sidebar “U.S. Legislation”). With this possibility in mind, AFAA “has chosen to utilize the NBFE’s extensive domain analysis in the development of AFAA’s current Personal Fitness Trainer Certification V3 course, thereby preparing trainers for both AFAA’s certification process and the NBFE exams.” What this means is that AFAA does not require its certified trainers to take the NBFE exam, but it does recommend it, as AFAA views the exam as a unifying step that will allow all trainers—including those certified by other organizations, those who are not certified and those with a 4-year degree—to be viewed as true “allied health professionals.” Then, according to Pfeffer, “the confusion will stop—and states may no longer see the need to license—when it becomes clear that the NBFE provides objective,
industry-developed, nonpartisan testing and educational criteria.”

Global Perspectives

Is the rest of the world the same as the United States when it comes to accreditation, licensure, certification and registration? Yes and no. A desire for professionalism, recognition, education, standards and quality can be found everywhere, but the path to these goals differs from country to country. In Brussels, Belgium, the European Register of Exercise Professionals (EREPS) is an independent process for registering trainers working across Europe in a central European database. This includes 35 national registers from countries and states across Europe—e.g., REPs UK is part of EREPS.

EREPS director Cliff Collins says that “increasingly, registration by exercise professionals is viewed as a license to practice.” In order to qualify for registration, trainers must “demonstrate reasonably that they have the skills, knowledge and competencies required to meet the European Health & Fitness Association (EHFA) standards. Members must also have adequate liability insurance; EREPS has a specially designed policy that covers our registered trainers everywhere in the world except the U.S. To maintain their registration, members have to complete continuing professional development, and they have to abide by a code of ethics.” The EHFA accreditation process allows training organizations to apply for their programs to be mapped against the EHFA Standards and Competence Framework, not against each other.

Here is an example:

The EHFA has accredited the personal trainer program for the European Institute of Fitness (EIF). Once a trainer has successfully completed the EIF course, that trainer can become registered with EREPS and confidently apply for jobs throughout Europe and any other country that recognizes the EHFA and EREPS.

While no universal set of standards exists for fitness professionals, Collins says that the closest thing would be the standards put in place by the EHFA. Countries such as Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand are part of an international partnership between registration bodies—the International Confederation of Registers of Exercise Professionals (ICREPS)—that follow the EHFA standards. Through this affiliation, personal trainers can work outside of their country of origin.

Ken Baldwin, director of QPEC (Quality Products, Education & Conditioning) in Brisbane, Australia, explains how certification and registration work in his country , which has a similar setup to other places. “Until July 2008, each state/province was responsible for the registration of all their own personal trainers. Now all registrations come under Fitness Australia, which is the national governing body that oversees everything. To remain current in your registration, you must obtain continuing education credits by undergoing further training at conferences and workshops. No training for trainers is done by Fitness Australia; it is all done by outside training organizations.”

In South Africa, there was no national body for overseeing registration of personal trainers when this article was in production, but an oversight body was expected to be in place by the end of 2008 or early 2009. “The goal is for all training organizations to obtain accreditation from a (government-approved) body,” states Franciska Venter, research and development specialist at Virgin Active in Cape Town. Venter has been involved in the process for the last 3 years as part of a committee focused on establishing the constitution and workings of the fitness regulation board. “Training must be to agreed standards, within a national framework wherever possible, as it’s no good if someone is trained in one province if their qualifications are not recognized in another. Also, it isn’t ideal for one employer to increase staff members’ skills if another employer doesn’t recognize them.”

An Eye to the Future

As 2009 rolls on, what else is on the horizon regarding issues that are important to personal trainers? At the Cooper Institute, Fast shares that “a primary focus will be on helping certified personal trainers continue to grow in the field. Along with this is an exciting opportunity that will soon be available for organizations like the Cooper Institute that offer knowledge-based certificate programs in addition to accredited certification programs. NCCA is developing a standards-based process much like the certification accreditation process that will allow continuing education providers to demonstrate quality measures for their programs, and we look forward to that.”

Goudeseune is also looking ahead with optimism. “ACE will continue to work with the NCCA to maintain accreditation of [ACE] certification programs for the benefit of the public and the advancement of the fitness profession.” One important change at ACE for 2009 is its requirement, effective January 1, that “all new and renewing ACE-certified professionals in the U.S. and Canada must hold both a current CPR and AED card.”

At IHRSA, Moore says there is nothing unusual on the agenda, but “if something comes up, we will react [on behalf of all IHRSA members].”

At ACSM, Cotton believes that, owing to the economic situation and the cost to states, there probably won’t be much happening in 2009 regarding licensure. On a final, optimistic note, he comments that “the industry is more professional than it has ever been.” So it is, and so it shall continue to be!

Defining the Terms Surrounding Certification

Here are a few definitions that may make it easier to spoon through what can become a complicated alphabet soup of terms on this topic:

Accreditation; Accredited. A third-party, administratively independent organization grants accreditation to a certifying body when that body submits evidence of meeting identified certification program standards. One way to understand the difference between accredited and certified is to keep in mind that programs are accredited, whereas trainers are certified.

Certificate Program. A certificate program is a knowledge- or curriculum-based program that supplies education followed by a test based on the course’s learning objectives. Drums Alive is an example of a certificate program.

Certification Program. A certification program is developed according to identified standards, has independent education or exam preparatory resources, and uses a stand-alone exam with questions based on an identified profession. A certification organization can offer educational materials for prospective candidates as long as that agency’s materials are not a required prerequisite to obtain the credential. The ACE exam is an example of a certification program.

Certification vs. Certificate. Another way to understand the difference between these two is that certification affirms a knowledge and experience base for practitioners in a specific field, whereas a certificate recognizes further study of a particular aspect within a field.

Continuing Education. Continuing education consists of ongoing professional development courses that meet standards set by a certifying body. Once a practitioner has earned certification, that trainer or instructor must show proof of participating in a specific number of continuing education courses in order to renew and maintain that certification (the number is set by each organization). Many certificate programs qualify as continuing education courses.

License; Licensing. With mandated licensing, legislated regulation—overseen by a governmental body—requires practitioners in a specific field to obtain permission to practice from a board or other regulatory body after providing proof that they have met certain qualifications. In any state or country that mandates licensing, no one by law is allowed to practice without that license.

An important distinction to keep in mind is that certifications are voluntary and are managed and overseen by the industry itself, whereas licensing is mandatory and government regulated.

Registry. A registry, which works on a principle of self-regulation, is a type of database that recognizes the achievement of exercise professionals against agreed standards. While a registry is not an accrediting or certifying body, it can require that anyone wishing to be listed on the registry show proof of certification. For example, the European Register of Exercise Professionals is a regulated, central database that lists exercise professionals who meet prescribed minimum standards, follow a code of ethics and participate in continuing professional development. By becoming registered, professionals gain recognition for meeting such standards.

Standardized. An industry or practice is standardized when regular and proper principles and norms are identified and articulated for it. Standardizing something requires the inclusion and participation of a broad base within an industry.

Standards. Standards are a set of skills and a body of knowledge that are derived from the norms and best practices of an industry. Using the properly applied principles of psychometrics, these standards may be used to generate testing objectives and exams which are valid, reliable and free from bias.

U.S. Legislation

In a few states, bills have been introduced that would require personal trainers to obtain state licenses in order to practice (for industry reaction and IDEA’s stance, see the related news story “Personal Trainer Licensing Debate” in the Making News column). Here are four bills, plus their status as of this writing:

New Jersey State Senate Bill 2164. The Fitness Professionals Licensing Act, introduced on October 6, 2008, 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 study. Upon program completion, professionals would need to pass a final examination.

Trainers and instructors possessing either an associate or a 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 requirements. 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.

Maryland House Bill 814. Personal Trainers Licensing, introduced on February 6, 2008, would have required personal trainers to be licensed by the Board of Physicians. The bill proposed that trainers should “hold a current certificate from a national certifying board or association approved by the board to practice personal training,” hold a current CPR and AED certificate (both required by ACE as of January 1, 2009) and have a college degree in order to qualify for a license. This bill was withdrawn on March 11, 2008, with no action taken.

Georgia Senate Bill 228. Licensure of Personal Trainers, introduced on February 27, 2007, states that the Georgia Board of Fitness Trainers shall establish guidelines, and that no personal trainer will “provide personal training without a license. The board may grant a personal trainer’s license to an applicant who meets “minimum qualifications and training requirements . . . and who holds a certification from a national certification organization that is accredited.” No further action has been taken on this bill.

Washington, DC, Athletic Trainer and Personal Fitness Trainer Amendment Act of 2008. This proposal is currently in the mayor’s office. It is expected to be introduced soon in the D.C. Council, where it will receive a bill number. Check www.cms.ihrsa.org for updates on this bill, as well as state-by-state details on other legislation.

Certifying Agencies Accredited by NCCA

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is the accreditation body of National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA), a membership organization. More than 85 programs, mostly in the medical and health fields, are currently accredited by the NCCA. The following is a list of those that include certification of personal trainers.

American College of Sports Medicine

  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • Exercise Specialist
  • Health/Fitness Instructor
  • Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist

American Council on Exercise

  • Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist
  • Group Fitness Instructor
  • Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant
  • Personal Trainer

The Cooper Institute

  • Certified Personal Trainer

International Fitness Professionals Association

  • Certified Personal Fitness Trainer

National Academy of Sports Medicine

  • Certified Personal Trainer

National Athletic Trainer’s Association Board of Certification

  • Entry-Level Athletic Trainer Certification

National Council on Strength and Fitness

  • National Certified Personal Trainer

National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association

  • Certified Personal Fitness Trainer

National Exercise Trainers Association

  • Certified Personal Trainer

National Federation of Professional Trainers

  • Certified Personal Fitness Trainer

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Certification Commission

  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist



Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, www.afaa.com
American College of Sports Medicine, www.acsm.org
American Council on Exercise, www.acefitness.org
American National Standards Institute, www.ansi.org
British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association, www.bcrpa.bc.ca
The Cooper Institute, www.cooperinst.org
Council for Higher Education Accreditation, www.chea.org
Distance Education and Training Council, www.detc.org
European Health & Fitness Association, www.ehfa.eu
European Register of Exercise Professionals, www.ereps.eu
Fitness Australia, the Health & Fitness Industry Association, www.fitness.org.au
International Confederation of Registers of Exercise Professionals, www.icreps.org
International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, www.cms.ihrsa.org
Jazzercise, www.jazzercise.com
National Academy of Sports Medicine, www.nasm.org
National Board of Fitness Examiners, www.nbfe.org
National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association, www.nestacertified.com
National Organization for Competency Assurance (NCCA is linked on this site), www.noca.org
National Strength and Conditioning Association, www.nsca-lift.org
QPEC (Quality Products, Education & Conditioning), Australia, www.qpec.com.au
Register of Exercise Professionals New Zealand, www.reps.org.nz
Virgin Active Health Clubs, South Africa, www.virginactive.co.za

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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