There are no state (or federal) laws requiring "personal trainers" to be certified.
6 Scary Truths about So-called "Personal Trainers"
The industry is not well regulated. I can tell you from experience that many trainers working both independently and in gyms have no certification or credentials that qualify them to train others. How can that be? Well, a single regulatory body for personal trainers does not exist. There are countless different personal training certifications or certificates available. Not all are created equal (more on that later). Unlike dietitians, which have specific roles, responsibilities and guidelines they must adhere to by law, no such regulations or laws exist for personal trainers. By law, for example, a person must meet certain requirements to call himself or herself a dietitian or nutritionist. In contrast, there is no law that stipulates what is required for someone to attach the status "personal trainer" to his or her name, so be wary. Yes, there may be some exceptions to this rule. An experienced professional with a master's degree in exercise physiology is probably more qualified than many personal trainers whose only experience comes from their weekend certification course, but unless you know everything about that person's education, background and experience, a certification is still a good thing to look for.
They got a "certification" over the weekend. Not all personal training certifications are equal. If you want a well qualified trainer, not just any certification will do. Personal training certifications run the gamut in cost, requirements, difficulty level and prestige. Some are so easy to get that a person can just fork over a few hundred bucks and get a certificate in the mail in a matter of days. Others require a bachelor's degree in a relevant field to even to sit for the exam. If you're looking for a qualified trainer, look into the certification that the trainer holds. A reputable certification will require that the person be CPR-certified, take an exam that contains both written and practical application questions (often conducted in-person), detail the required score the person must achieve to earn certification status, and require continuing education credits to remain certified by that organization. In general, the more difficult the exam is known to be, the more in-depth your trainer's knowledge will be (assuming he or she passes the test!).
They are not certified at all. According to the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, up to 45% of trainers who claim to be certified aren't. That's shocking! Your "certified" trainer's status may not be up to date if he or she allowed it to lapse, which happens if a trainer doesn't complete the required number of accredited continuing education credits each year. Continuing education is a must for any trainer to refresh his or her knowledge and stay on top of the latest research and trends in the industry. A currently-certified trainer should be able to show you his or her current certification card, which should have an expiration date on it. If it does not carry an expiration date or just looks like a "diploma," then continuing education probably isn't required by that organization, which should make you wonder. And yes, many trainers work without ever having had a certification. One clue is the title "personal trainer" instead of "certified personal trainer," but asking to see a copy of the current certification works, too. The IDEA Health and Fitness Association has recently created a great website to set up consumers with trainers—and verify that they are currently certified.
They have no experience. Even after passing a personal training exam, a certified trainer could have no experience training individuals. And an uncertified person working as a trainer could have even less—no formal training (education) at all. Simply being certified—even from one of the best organizations—does not mean that your trainer will be a good one. Personal training requires a person to take a great deal of knowledge and apply it to a wide variety of individualized cases, which is no small feat. This doesn't even get into the other issues like personality fit, motivational style, how well the trainer designs workout plans to your individual needs, or how well the trainer cues you and pays attention to proper form during each exercise. Yes, every trainer once started as an inexperienced one, but if you want to ensure the best experience, ask about theirs—and for a list of references, too.
Potentially putting your health, body and life at risk. I know that a lot of people hire trainers as motivation to push themselves harder than they would on their own, but a good trainer ALWAYS puts your safety and well-being first, using gradual progressions—not working you so hard that you throw up or pass out. No, those are NOT the signs of a good workout. While each organization that certifies trainers includes several safety standards that their trainers are supposed to abide by, including lists of exercises that they deem too risky and precise guidelines for how to progress a person through a fitness program, your trainer may go against these rules based on his or her own ideas and theories. I've seen countless trainers whose workouts are completely inappropriate and unsafe for the weight, health issues and fitness level of their clientele. I've seen trainers in the gym who allow people to perform highly advanced exercise in poor form and do nothing to correct them. And in my opinion, it's the goal of far too many trainers to push a person to their physical limits, despite the fact that doing exactly that is counterproductive to that person's goals and against the safety recommendations of exercise organizations. Technically, such actions would (or should) result in that trainer's certification being revoked. But for that to even happen, the certifying body has to know about it and take the time to investigate and revoke the status.
Just because they are in shape doesn't mean they are qualified to train you. Many trainers got their jobs by word of mouth from friends or family members, simply because they look good, lost weight or are really "into fitness" themselves. Many gyms are willing to hire "trainers" who simply have an interest in fitness but otherwise no credentials. Remember that there are countless diet and fitness programs one could follow to get into great shape. Some are safe. Some are healthy. Others are extremely risky. What works for this one individual may not be appropriate for the people he or she trains. Would you trust a layperson who happened to figure out the trick to getting a good body themselves to do the same for you? I hope you answered no. While a lot of people may say yes to that, I would exercise a lot of caution—especially if you've never exercised, have been injured, are overweight, or have had any health or medical issues at all. Certifications do exist for a reason—both to protect the fitness consumer and the trainer (against liability and lawsuits if they hurt you in some way). Certifications are based on medically accepted science, safe protocols, good judgment and sound research, among countless other safety measures. While a non-professional may have a good deal of knowledge about exercise, proper training in anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, exercise assessments and prescriptions and other areas covered by a good certification is essential. What your friend with a six pack read in a magazine may not be accurate, safe or effective for you, even if she feels qualified and experienced to train you. Without having read a personal training manual, studied the material and passed a test, she doesn't know what she might not know.
Would you trust a doctor who didn't go to medical school?
I didn't think so.
So why would you place your health in the hands of an unqualified person who could potentially hurt you?
Personal training is booming, part of a $30 billion fitness industry in the United States. There are lots of ways to get one of these so-called “certifications.” You can attend a two-day clinic and take a test for your CrossFit Level 1 certification. You can become an American Sports & Fitness Association water-aerobics instructor with a lifetime renewal, taking the test instantly (and as many times as you want) and paying the $499 fee only if you pass. Or you can do CorePower Yoga teacher training, which a spokesperson said is less about prepping you to teach (despite, you know, its name) and more about helping you “take your practice to the next level.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that about half a million people hurt themselves using exercise equipment annually.
Injuries in the news
- "42-year-old Connecticut man complains of blurred vision and begged to stop mid-session, but trainer pushes him to go harder on the rower, resulting in a stroke."
- "45-year-old New York woman suffers back injury after trainer had her do jumping jacks, burpees, and deadlifts even though she’d said she recently had spinal surgery."
- "62-year-old Connecticut woman slips off Bosu ball and fractures hip and wrist"
Do they have a degree in exercise science/kinesiology?
Do they have a nationally recognized, legitimate certification? (ACSM, NSCA, CSCS, ACE, NASM)
Is their certification up-to-date?
After all, you are paying for this service....