The best certifications for trainers

By September 15, 2016 January 13th, 2017 Blog

Did you know that in most states you can’t cut a person’s hair or paint their nails without first accruing a set number of hours of experience AND passing a state board exam? And yet when it comes to personal training NO such regulation exists!

But does this fact matter? Do you actually care if your trainer is certified? Or is real life gym experience good enough for you? My opinion on this matter may surprise you…

I learned that wannabe trainers there have to undergo serious schooling and score at least an 85 or better on a set exam before they’re even allowed to intern in a clinical setting. That’s a far cry from here in the US, where you can become a certified trainer over the internet for a $99.00 fee. And in many cases you don’t even need any formal training to open a training studio or purchase personal training liability insurance. It seems to me that one of the reasons the industry is so scattered with contradictory information is that we have people working in the gym world who really shouldn’t be.

Not that there’s any shortage of ‘certifications’ flying around. In fact that’s a big part of the problem – there’s so many of them that they’re meaningless! Now I’m not discounting that obtaining a certification can teach you the basics of exercise and nutrition. Truthfully those fundamentals can’t be argued with.  But once you learn basic human anatomy and quality nutrition, I believe the next attribute a trainer needs to have is passion and experience. It cracks me up when I see ‘trainers’ from other gyms smoking or leading unhealthy lifestyles. Fact is many people view being a personal trainer as a second job. But I think if you want to be a great trainer it must be your primary occupation and to quote a cliche, you must WALK THE WALK.

For all of you potential trainees, let me ask you – do you even know what any of the certifying agencies are? If I told you that I was ISSA, NASM, WITS, ACE, NSCF or AFAA certified, would that mean anything to you? What about if I was a C.S.C.S. or a functional movement specialist? Let me guess, you’re all in the dark about what any of these letters mean right? Of course you are! And to make matters worse, I’ve NEVER even been asked if I’m certified – in 20 years not one time by a single client! So again, I have to ask – does it even matter?

The truth is my strength and knowledge of fitness, health and nutrition came from my own desire to learn, my own trial and error and my own passion for this career. I have been certified throughout the years by various organizations, specialty classes and at one time I was a certified nutrition consultant (what does that even mean!) I currently am certified through the X,Y,Z but I only took the test to be able to say, “I’m certified”. Experience, both in my own programs and with clients, continually teaches me. So what does this all mean? Should trainers have to take college level classes or achieve degrees to become trainers? And if so will they be better than trainers who aren’t certified? I’d have to say no. And here’s why…

Personal training is NOT just about dictating exercises and teaching someone how to do a push-up or a squat. It’s about interaction with another human being and having an understanding of human psychology. In fact I think one subject that should be taken by trainers is a basic psychology course. Much of my training expertise comes from understanding different personalities and emotions. There’s no certification that teaches it – you either learn it or intuitively feel it. Trainers that have a great understanding of what to say, when to say it and how to motivate clients are the ones that excel. That, plus understanding program design and progression are key to a successful experience for the client. You can’t just simply throw exercises at people and expect for them to make progress. But sadly this is commonplace in many sessions – a trainer arbitrarily picks exercises and just dictates them. Frankly any trainee with a fitness magazine can do the same for themselves!

A great trainer will assess you, design a program around your needs and level of conditioning, and continually evolve the workouts to help you reach your goals. Don’t get me wrong, a certification is a good indicator that a trainer has an interest in fitness, but it’s absolutely not a sign that they’re good at what they do.

But what do you think? Have you had a bad experience with a certified trainer? Do you think a certification is important? Do you even know if your own trainer is certified? Are they a level 3 trainer at your gym? Is that based on supplement, and training sales? Yes it is FACT!


What’s the Best Personal Training Certification?

I want to be a personal trainer, someone said to me recently. “What’s the best personal training certification” they asked.  This is probably one of the biggest questions people ask when they decide that they want to be a personal trainer. It makes sense because there are so many different organizations out there that your head would spin trying to figure them all out.  For example, just a few fitness organizations include, AAAI/ISMA, ACE, ACSM, AFAA, ISSA, NSCA, NFPT and NASM to name a few.  Also, each organization has different certifications that have cool names like Health Fitness Instructor, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, or Exercise Specialist.  Which is right for you?  This is what I want to talk about

To that I often reply that there is no such thing as “The best cert”.  Trust me on this.  There is no employer that ever checks on or cares about a specific certification. A certification only means you know the “minimum requirements” needed to be a personal trainer. Employers just request a specific cert based on what’s popular.

You should not believe anyone who says “This is the best fitness certification”. People who say this stuff are just repeating what they have heard others say.

For example, many people say that American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) as “The best” organization to be certified by but if you attempt to get this cert, you will probably have to learn all sorts of metabolic calculations to pass the test. Believe me when I say that if you work in a gym or are self employed, you will NEVER have to do those types of calculations.

I’ve been told the ACSM still teaches body fat testing using skin fold calipers. Again, while that is good to know, most big chain health clubs never use this method because of the liability associated with people touching people. Gyms have been sued over trainers doing things perceived as inappropriate.

I hear a lot of people say ‘the NASM is the best”.  It’s a fine cert and people who have this certification usually know a lot about joint angles and stuff like that. But I’ve noticed that when those people take the AAAI/ISMA test, they usually fail it!

I know this is true because I’ve seen and graded their tests.

I’m telling you the fact that there is no “Best” personal training certification because I don’t want you to get caught up in what I sometimes jokingly call the fitness industrial complex.

Fitness certifying organizations are businesses, of course. They want to make money. There is nothing wrong with this (we all need to make money). The marketing of organizations however are often so good that they convince people that their cert is the “Best,” which is simply not true.  Trainers who are already certified by these organizations are often biased that their cert is the best also. Sometimes this is because their fitness organization is the only one that they have been exposed to.

Always remember that Exercise is drug.  Personal trainers prescribe exercise and the benefits of exercise are many.  This is why fitness trainers need to know what they are doing so they can prescribe the right dosage of exercise.

Focus on knowledge – not just a fitness certification.  Be holistic in your approach to fitness and don’t be dogmatic and think that “my cert is the best”. No fitness organization is the best.

Some people ask if personal trainers need a license. For more insights on this, read about the differences between a personal training license and certification.

How to Pick A Fitness Certification

Let me now give you some things to think about to help you pick which personal trainer certification might be best for you.

  1. As a personal trainer, do you want to specialize in any particular group?  In other words, do you see yourself working mostly with athletes, seniors, kids, and people with medical issues?  Think about this and investigate what fitness organizations might make it easiest to help you to eventually get to that goal.

If you are just starting a career in fitness, you may not have any idea who you like to work with.  This is ok.  Eventually you will.  Stick to a well-rounded, recognized fitness organization rather than one that specializes in any particular area.

  1. If you want to work at a particular gym, go to the gym and ask them for a list of fitness training certifications they accept.  All gyms have a list of personal training certifications they accept.  The General Manager or Fitness Director of the gym usually has this list. I can say this they think you learn hands on application when passing the test. This is not true, fact is you only passed a test.
  2. Somebody told me a story of a person who took a online personal training certification on his cell phone in the parking lot of a gym he wanted to work at.  After “passing” the test, he went into the gym and they printed the cert up on the gyms printer.
  3. Sometimes gyms will have their own “Personal trainer certification”.  The certs are sometimes taught by the gym staff.  Do not pay a health club for their “Certification

Someone once told me they paid a gym over a thousand dollars or their “Cert” only to find out later that no other gyms accepted it.


  1. You need to have a CPR and AED certification in addition to your fitness certification.  When you apply for a job, most gyms will ask you for this.  Save yourself time and get it before you apply.  Having this can also help you command more money from a gym.  Gym owners want an educated staff just in case an emergency happens (and they do…).  If you are certified in both AED and CPR, they want to keep you around.  This gives you bargaining power when you negotiate your rate of pay and incentives.


  1. Don’t fall for any organization that says you are a “Master Personal Trainer”. There are Master Personal Trainer certs out there but let’s face it, nobody is a “Master”.  Heck, I’m not a master – and I’ve written 3 books, and trained over 500 personal trainers, and 10,000 clients!

Nobody knows everything, and we all can learn from each other.

I wrote Certified VS. Qualified to teach people what they really need to know to be a personal trainer – the science – and the real life info  – that never makes it into textbooks.

  1. How hard is it to get re-certified?  Once you have your cert, do you have to get recertified every year, every 2 years?  Also, what do you have to do to get re-certified?  Ideally it should be pretty easy to get re-certified as a personal trainer. That’s why @ you have to connect with a live assessor and answer questions and demonstrate moves via skype to become recertified.
  2. Ask your friends who they are certified by AND also ask them what they like and don’t like about their organization.

Everybody always asks me how to get certified. Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me how to get qualified?  A certified personal trainer is not a qualified personal trainer.

The best? NASM can be because they sold the most certs…that’s the only reason.

Be qualified – and not just certified – and you will be OK


Training Requirements

There are several different paths one may take to become a personal trainer, though certification and post-secondary education programs are the most common. Certification is not mandatory in order to work as a personal trainer. HOWEVER if you want to be qualified, and literally learn what to do and not to do with a client. Understand how to assess and recommend specific exercises based on anatomy, not gym talk. Perhaps you should check out a 30-year school for creating qualified personal trainers.


I would now like to state a fact: Generally speaking certifications do not demonstrate or develop one’s hands-on ability. Personal Trainer examinations do not effectively delineate between qualified and unqualified personal trainers. Knowledge is not power, application is power.  Passing a test, exercising, or having a certification doesn’t make you a “qualified” Personal Trainer. There is no National Board that enforces a mandatory prerequisite essential to one’s hands-on capability—which leads to a safe and optimal exercise program.  Accredited organizations do not mandate that trainers have a certification. However, you will gain informative “book” knowledge. This makes you nothing more than a smart textbook “rent-a-buddy”. I want you to consider this as a major platform to exert knowledge. However by no means should you feel you are ready to work as a professional, by having a certification. I did not say you can’t – I am just stating an objective fact. We want to stop all the painting by number trainers, and create personal Picasso’s. As professionals we must understand the body and how it functions — based on science not “gym” talk or how an exercise feels.  “A law in science (anatomy) is different than a judicial law. A judicial law is argument. That’s why we go to court. So, in physics we have a different law and you cannot change anatomy and the way it functions. We changed anatomy based on the way it feels!” When we do we are asking for trouble! Remember that fact!



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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Joe Laxton Joe Laxton says:

    I’m in a little different boat. I purchased a small town gym a few months ago. I am the employer so the certification has nothing to do with me getting a job. I wanna be better than my competition. I wanna set myself apart from the pack. I’ve been in sales for 15 years. I do competitive body building (I need to re-think some of my training) I love working with people and helping them set and achieve goals. I’m in a town of 13,000 people. After 3 month open, I’m at 110 members. I do have the ability to get people to follow me, I really just want to be the best person for them I can be.

  • Luke Baumer Luke Baumer says:

    if your gym wanted to do BMI testing . What would be the best way for that ? not the skinfold test obviously .

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