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Novice or Expert: How Professional Are Your Trainers?

Knowing the educational and experience background of your trainers and instructors can help you to hire and train them.

THE FITNESS INDUSTRY is maturing and growing, and continued change is inevitable. It was not too long ago that there were only a few organizations certifying and recognizing fitness professionals such as personal trainers. The work of teaching weightlifting techniques, exercise routines and personal training was left to "gym-rats." In those days, it seemed that the only relevant credential for becoming a personal trainer was a muscular physique. Much has changed since then. Biomechanists, physiologists, certified athletic trainers, and other experts on pathology, exercise physiology, nutrition, health and the body are teaching and mentoring the new generation of fitness practitioners.

In the midst of this change, educational programs in fitness, wellness, exercise science and the like have emerged. Organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association are formally recognizing educational programs that offer degrees leading to strength and conditioning credentials (presumably a precursor to accreditation). Furthermore, there are certification programs in all sorts of varieties and specialties. Due to lack of strict regulation, there is also a deluge of associations and quasi-professional organizations that offer these certifications and sub-specialties (some more credible than others).

In light of these occurrences, it is incumbent upon managers and owners, as well as certified practitioners, to understand the process of professional development and promote excellence within the industry.

Defining a professional

What is a professional and how is a professional defined? These questions have broad implications in the fitness industry, and become central factors when discussing the future of the industry and its standing as a credible and desirable field to enter. These questions are also critical to effective management. The answers influence how managers and owners hire new staff, treat annual performance evaluations, determine raises, determine continuing education needs and many other management-related issues.

Fitness practitioners may be surprised to find out that many do not meet the minimum criteria to be considered "professionals" by other health-related professions. This has huge implications on credibility when forging relationships with physicians and other medical-based fitness professionals, such as certified athletic trainers, physical therapists, chiropractors and exercise physiologists. Furthermore, credibility as professionals should drive an individual's (and professional associations') strategic planning when determining current and future educational needs.

The fact is that the fitness industry is its own worst enemy. This statement is based almost exclusively on the vastly different standards and guidelines of practice found between the different organizations and among practitioners. There seems to be little (if any) universal competencies required of fitness practitioners. It is shameful what some organizations try to pass off as a certification. Until there are more recognized and accepted competencies and proficiencies for fitness practitioners, the credibility of the practitioner is left to individual efforts.

So, what is the definition of a professional? Traditionally, it is the professional who is educated and the technician who is trained. What is the difference between education and training? Education, classically defined, is the equipping of an individual to perform undefined functions in unpredictable situations.3 The key to being a truly educated personal trainer or fitness instructor is the ability to adapt in uncertain and undefined situations by using critical thinking skills.

Training is defined as the preparing of an individual to perform a defined function in a predictable situation.1 A common understanding is that technicians have their decisions made for them.2 Technicians (similar to the novice) are told what to do and how to do it; educated professionals are capable of advancing their profession's body of knowledge through various creative initiatives.2

Training is exactly what is occurring in the weekend "certification" course, where skills are assessed at the end of the program (usually a weekend long) on only those skills addressed in the training program.

Technical ability alone is not enough to become an expert in the fitness industry. An example is someone who is taught a prescribed approach to fitness programming. For example, having a prescribed protocol for people with a certain BMI or in a particular age group, regardless of fitness level or medical history.

Levels of professional development

Classically, there are five levels that professionals progress through in their career. These five levels are novice, beginner, competent, proficient and expert.

Novice. The novice is the beginning practitioner with little or no experience. Classically, the novice is a new graduate. At this stage, it is difficult to differentiate between the technician and the novice professional. Novices are like technicians in that they have little to no experience in the environment in which they are expected to perform; but, unlike technicians, they have learned critical thinking skills, but need experience to exercise those skills. Novices are typically taught "context-free rules" that are to guide their behaviors.1

Novices always apply the same procedures to a certain situation, no matter what; they are rigid and inflexible. Modifications to the expected norms or standards are met with frustration. For example, during the initial client intake interview, the novice has a scripted checklist of how to do it, what questions to ask and what advice to give, complete with a photocopied list of warm-up exercises and stretches. As novices gain experience, they begin to use a set of "guidelines," which may not be as stringent as rules or laws.

The novice personal trainer or fitness instructor needs close attention from management, and benefits greatly from the mentoring and shadowing of more experienced practitioners.

Competent. The competent personal trainer has about two or three years of experience.1 The hallmark of progressing to competent is that the practitioner begins to see how current actions influence future outcomes. Mastery has not yet been attained, and speed and flexibility within program design and protocol development is slow. But the competent personal trainer is now beginning to venture out and experiment with new protocols. For example, during an initial client intake interview, the competent personal trainer still has the script and photocopied sheets, but now can help the client see and understand how exercise of any kind will be beneficial to the overall goal. However, competent personal trainers still lack the ability to design a "program" or exercise prescription "on the spot" without consulting textbooks, previous protocols or mentors. The competent personal trainer uses loose guidelines instead of strict rules to guide behaviors.

The best way to develop the skills of a competent personal trainer is to have them briefly review textbook knowledge (by now it should be pretty well grasped), but have them spend a majority of their professional development in reviewing and solving case studies and performing problem-solving exercises.

Proficient. The proficient personal trainer has several years of experience, has about five years of experience with one specific population (e.g., children, older adults, obese, runners, etc.), and is much more advanced in seeing clients in different contexts. For example, the proficient personal trainer understands what additional influences affect the client, and has a holistic view of the person; they do not focus only on the client's goals. Proficient personal trainers can now tell clients what is or is not a "good goal" for them, and can even offer new or alternate goals. For example, during the initial client intake interview, the proficient personal trainer can "sense" if the client will be successful, and can "sense" what the difficulties and roadblocks might be. Most significant is that the proficient personal trainer can now modify a program or protocol "on the fly," and knows immediately how to adjust for unforeseen roadblocks or delays (such as unexcused absences or an illness).

Guiding the proficient personal trainer's behaviors and decisions are maxims. Maxims are the nuances of the situation.1 Novices and competent practitioners skip right over these, ignore them or miss them completely. The proficient personal trainer knows how to interpret and use these nuances to their advantage, where the novice or competent trainer might not even recognize them. For example, a nuance for personal trainers can involve how to handle exercise contraindications or risk factors. If the personal trainer disagrees with a physician's plan for a referred client, the proficient personal trainer has grounds for the disagreement (based on past experience with similar clients) and can successfully consult with the physician to modify the prescribed protocol.

Expert. Expert personal trainers are mid-career practitioners, and do not rely on analytical skills (rule, guideline, maxim); rather, they depend on their understanding of the situation.1 This is not to say they don't use analytical tools, but they are just that - a "tool" to be used if needed. The expert personal trainer instinctively knows what to do and how to do it. There is a difference between knowing how to do something (knowledge) and what to do (wisdom). Experts often disregard the "how to" (even if it means breaking the rules) and substitute their ideas and protocols based on experience. Experts have an enormous background of experience, and can zero in on a problem without going through a myriad of alternate scenarios before reaching a conclusion or making a decision.1 This is demonstrated, for example, with periodization training, by just knowing where their client is that day and how hard to push them. Some days the client needs to be pushed passed their threshold, and other days they need to go home early; the expert intuitively knows the difference, without asking 20 questions first.

Experts do one other thing no other level does, and that is invent or innovate new ways of doing the same old things, and getting different results each time. It is the art of "tweaking." Critical thinking, problem solving, ethical practice, and integrating new research and theories are a few of the issues that become critically important when separating the novice practitioner from the expert. Experts promote knowledge and embark in scholarly activity (like mentoring, writing articles, and speaking at conferences and workshops).

The role of experience

Experience is not simply the passage of time. An expert personal trainer can take a new client for the first time and immediately fall back to a novice level. For example, say an expert personal trainer with 12 years of experience working with obese diabetic adults is asked to head up a new fitness program for prepubescent athletes. Having never worked with that population, that expert is now a novice all over again, although the learning curve may be much shorter. Experience is based on the contact time, and based on how much refinement and how many life-learning lessons have occurred. FM


  1. Benner, P. Novice to Expert: Excellence and power in clinical nursing practice. Prentice Hall Press: Upper Saddle River, N.J., 2001.
  2. Johnson, M. Definitions and models in curriculum theory. Educational Theory 17(2): 127-140, 1967.
  3. Knight, K.L., and C.D. Ingersoll. Developing scholarship in athletic training. Journal of Athletic Training 33(3): 271-274, 1998.

Hiring Practices: Practical Implications

When hiring new fitness personnel, what is it that is most desirable to you? A degreed candidate, experience, personality, leadership ability? As the fitness industry continues to evolve, degreed candidates will become the norm, and eventually will be the standard. So, how do you find who is best in a hiring situation? The answer lies in how they answer your interview questions. If they answer with the proverbial "textbook answer," chances are they are a novice. If their answer is, "it depends," chances are you may be getting someone with real experience. However, if the answer is "it depends," always probe deeper and ask how their answer would be applied in one situation versus another. This can help weed out the novices (if you don't want to hire a novice, that is).

What are the benefits of hiring someone with a degree in exercise, health or sports science, health or wellness education, etc.? The educated personal trainer (in this case, a college-level degree) enters the industry at a higher level or tier. For the degreed personal trainer, the novice level is worked out while in college (making less work and supervision for you). During a four-year program, book knowledge is instructed (and mastered) early on, and, in the upper-class years, critical thinking and case studies are used to test and verify that knowledge. Lastly, there is entry-level experience. Senior projects, internships and field experiences are required. The result is an entry-level "novice" who has a bit of experience (and is, perhaps, already competent). Once this candidate is hired, the journey to "competent" is dramatically accelerated. Not so with a true novice, who enters the profession with (possibly) a valid certification, but no supervised field experience(s). Degreed personal trainers (because of greater competency) have an accelerated learning curve, can handle a more complicated client load sooner and can assume more risky clientele sooner, increasing revenue and the credibility of your staff, and having a greater positive effect on the bottom line.

Paradox of Experience

Experience is not merely the linear progression of time. Obviously, quality of that experience is a central issue. Even after 12 years of experience, if, for 12 years, it has been done the wrong way, that 12 years of "experience" is worthless. The first year may prove to be worth three years (or more) of normal experiences if those lessons are critically analyzed and learned from. This is where effective mentoring can enhance and accelerate the learning curve, making experiences and failure valuable.

The attainment of degrees does not constitute expertise. It is quite possible to be an expert without a degree, but is near impossible to be an expert without practical experience. The paradox of experience is that experience is only valuable if you have learned from it.

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