Does it Matter if Your Coach/Trainer is Certified?



I came across the attached Men’s Health article written by Jeff Tomko and found it to be thought provoking.  Anytime I see articles that make you think in a popular magazine, I appreciate the fact that the information is reaching a large audience because it is simple to understand.  I decided to write my own “follow up” to this article because I believe it is important for people to know what they’re getting from a coach or what they should be looking for in a coach if they decided they do in fact need or want to work with a coach.  It is by no means a comprehensive article on coaching or a review of specific certification programs.

The gist of the article is that the author earned a certificate to be a personal trainer but it was not accepted by any gym because it was not from an organization which has a reputation for quality education for its certified trainers.  The author goes a bit more in depth into the expectations for a certified personal trainer, what it means to have a certification from an accredited agency, and the dangers of working with a poorly trained or untrained coach/trainer.

“I am now Jeff Tomko, personal trainer, and after the test, I got an email with a downloadable certificate that proved it. Three weeks later, I received the real-deal certificate in the mail, and I’m ready to guide you toward your fitness goals, taking your money and putting your health at risk, despite never having worked with a client or, you know, studied fitness.”

The reason I found this article interesting is because it highlights a serious deficiency in the fitness/personal trainer industry, but it also overlooks some aspects of becoming “certified.”

What does a certification mean?  Basically it means someone paid a set amount of money for a piece of paper.  In the US one can drive a boat their entire life and never need a license to do so unless they want to make money doing it.  If you have an 8 person passenger pontoon boat you can drive your family and friends around any lake, pond, river or other inland waterway the vessel can handle for as long as the boat floats.  If you want to turn that boat into a money making business providing tours you need a Captain’s license issued by the Coast Guard.

You may have been lifting weights since you were 13 and in your 20’s you want to become a professional, you may need a certification (unless of course you are working for yourself).  

The author of this article writes, “After some light studying, I took the test in my kitchen, googling as I went… I ended up answering 30 of the 40 questions right, and apparently this was enough to qualify me as an expert.”  As for the Googling, that refers to this program’s ability to conduct an open book test (testing is a topic for another time). While the article indicates the particular certification the author earned is not necessarily “legit”, the same type of argument could be made for anyone who has been certified by one of the bigger name programs in the industry.  Anyone who is good at studying can pass a test, but it doesn’t mean they will be a good coach – they may already have an idea of how they want to “train people” but also know what they need to do to become “certified”.

“Ill-trained trainers often push clients too hard. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal identified three common issues in negligence lawsuits against trainers: unnecessary high-intensity training, training outside the scope of practice, and improper instruction and supervision.”

In referencing the above quote, I would argue that having a certification or being “qualified” doesn’t necessarily certify someone in common sense or qualify one to not be a terrible coach.

The article points out, there are exercise/fitness certifications for just about any niche: kettlebells, ropes, youth, elderly, people with cancer, group fitness instructor, endurance performance, power performance, fitness for people under 5 feet tall, fitness for people with nine fingers, and the list goes on.  (Ok, I made those last two up, but you get the idea). And there are other types of coaches that often specialize in eating and behavioral changes: wellness coach, lifestyle coach, health coach, keto coach, Mediterranean Diet coach, mindfulness coach, and that list goes on and on as well.

To be clear, I’m not knocking the certification or the process.  What is important is the expectation of the coach for the client.  What do I mean? Let’s consider the simple fact of why we have coaches: people want to become a better version of themselves and they can’t do it on their own.  This may be someone who wants to burn fat and build muscle but doesn’t know how to build a workout program; it may be someone who wants to change their eating habits but doesn’t know what to look for in healthy food choices; it may be an athlete who wants to improve their performance, it may be someone who has been sedentary most of their lives and just doesn’t know where to start.  The common factor is assistance is needed. That being said, the certificate that a coach holds comes with the assumption the coach knows what they are doing and the client will achieve the goals they have established. It comes with the idea the coach has spent months and long hours learning the material, understands processes, and possibly has some, even if minimal, experience.

As the article pointed out there are many online courses one can take to become certified, but not all are immediately recognized.  The main ones are National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), American Council on Exercise (ACE), International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), American College of Sports Medicine, and there are plenty of others.  One can do a Google search to find out which is the best program to take, but honestly I could not determine what makes one better than the other. Some are accredited by one body, some are accredited by another body, and some aren’t accredited at all.  

I have taken the NASM course and the ISSA course and in my opinion there wasn’t much difference other than for the NASM course you have to schedule a date to take a test in person and for the ISSA you take the final test online.  Also NASM has their OPT model which to me is a fancy way of describing a building block approach incorporating a few of the different elements of physical fitness. NASM’s course is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies and ISSA is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission and the National Board of Fitness Examiners.  (This article is not intended to be a review of the best personal trainer certifications, but I do feel it is important to identify some of the differences in the programs). Both programs cover basic anatomy, both courses cover basic physiology, both courses cover biomechanics, both courses discuss training and progression, and both courses have a short sections on nutrition, special populations (women, youth, and elderly), and both courses have a chapter or two dedicated to how to build a business.

Lastly, there are those courses such as the one mentioned in the Men’s Health article that have no accreditation, there are institutions who teach to the standards of NASM or ACE, and there are courses available on the internet in the form of MOOC’s (massive open online courses).

One of the things that makes a great coach/trainer is the desire to seek self improvement.  It is imperative that a coach never stops learning once they have gotten their certificate, and all the big name certificate folks do require a coach/trainer to earn a certain amount of continuing education credits while their certification is active and current.  Continuing education credits can come from other courses offered by the certifying agency, they can be sought out by the coach/trainer, they can be acquired through MOOC’s and other online learning platforms. The point is a certification doesn’t make the coach/trainer, and once certified, the coach/trainer must continue to stay on top of the latest information.

Now, you could find someone in the gym with 15% body fat, not overly huge but definitely ripped with muscles and throws up 115kg (250 lbs) on the bench like a parent playing airplane with their young child, and offer them a few bucks for some help with your workout. You may do better with the “gym rat” than you would working with the guy who’s been racking up certifications one after the other but has no practical experience working with clients.

“Burke’s point is important: Certifications aren’t everything. Easy certs can be a harmless way to start working with clients while improving your fitness education. Furthermore, some quality trainers don’t have any certs, but they were athletes or bodybuilders themselves and forged experience working with clients.”

For the coach or trainer looking to earn a certification they need to research and decide which certification they want to pursue.  For the potential client, it’s not so much about the certifications the coach/trainer has but they should try to learn something about the coach/trainer.

I have a personal trainer certification, a mind-body certification, and multiple nutrition and sports nutrition certifications.  It is highly unlikely that a client will ever ask where I got my certifications or if they can see my certifications. I got them because at one point in time I decided to pursue a career in health and wellbeing and figured I needed some documents to put on my resume.  But truthfully long before I earned any of my certifications I was learning on my own – reading scientific research, case studies, blogs, watching easy to understand videos, listening to podcasts by people with either 20+ years of experience or post graduate degrees in exercise and nutrition related fields of study.  Oh, and never mind that at one point in time I was directly responsible for the physical training of hundreds of US Marines.

I have no doubt one could gain quality education taking a course on Future Learn, Alison, Coursera, or Udemy but that nice certificate of completion will not land you a job in a gym if that’s what you’re looking for.  However knowledge is power!

Just remember, when looking to hire a coach/trainer or if you’re deciding to become a coach/trainer, there is a lot more to it than simply getting the certificate.  As the article stated, if your coach/trainer does not conduct an assessment, sit down with you and go over your background, and last but far from least, help you establish specific goals, it doesn’t matter if they are NASM certified, ISSA certified, NCSA certified, NSCS certified, you may want to find a different coach.  

Original  Men’s Health article:
Additional certification review from Fitness Mentors.  This is probably the best review/description of different certifications I have come across to date.

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Author: James Conner , USMC (Ret.)

I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently living in Ireland, where I am enrolled as a student at the University of Limerick getting my degree in Exercise Science. Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist,  Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach.