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Certifications, Education and Staffing

Understanding the different certifications available, and the roles of accreditation, education and experience, can help you hire the most qualified staff for your fitness center.

The necessity of trained fitness practitioners has always been important to the industry. And, as the fitness industry seeks to enter into new markets, it is important that fitness practitioners have the most credible credentials available, including accredited certifications and, possibly, an exercise-science-based degree. Experience is also important. Fitness center managers must take charge of the hiring process, and require that their trainers have the right background for the job. People skills and on-the-job training are also of vital importance.

Nationally accredited certifications

Certifications are of major importance to fitness professionals, and whether certifying associations are nationally accredited is now an issue. To stay competitive and maintain credibility, personal trainers and fitness instructors should, by now, have certifications from organizations that are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). NCCA accreditation is rapidly becoming an important industry standard, and national accreditation is a significant advancement toward greater professional standing for the fitness industry. The justifications for nationally accredited certifications are many, but three stand out. They include regulating professional growth, reducing risk and ensuring minimum competence. Regulating professional growth. Regulating fitness professionals is accomplished by hiring only personal trainers who have earned accredited certifications. It is no secret that many fitness practitioners have earned "certifications of convenience." Accreditation can help to limit these types of practitioners from entering into the industry. While this transition might be painful for many facilities and personal trainers, it is certainly for the best, and can help weed out "certification mills." The best personal trainers and fitness centers will successfully adapt to the changing climate and industry standards. Reducing risk. Reducing risk is also a byproduct of this change. Practitioners who come from accredited certification programs will presumably have a better grasp of industry-specific knowledge, skills and abilities (also known as KSAs or competencies). These professionals should be less likely to engage in behaviors that are outside of their scopes of practice and training. They may also be more open to including other healthcare professionals, with different areas of expertise, into their client's programming. This is not only better for the client, but it is also better for the liability of the professional and the fitness center. Ensuring minimum competence. Ensuring minimum competence is a key role of accreditation, and has a two-fold benefit. First, it levels the playing field between certified practitioners with a more common (or general) set of competencies, regardless of the certifying agency. This means that employers can be more confident in the basic skills (i.e., KSA) of their candidates. Second, national accreditation helps to weed out certifying agencies that have less-rigorous standards, which cuts down on the number of less-competent practitioners. Minimum competence is the key designation here. A newly certified personal trainer is by no means an expert (incidentally, a 20-year veteran is not necessarily an expert, either). Newly certified candidates from accredited associations, although "certified," are still entry-level.

Hiring implications of accreditation

As accreditation continues, a more level playing field can emerge. This level playing field requires greater human resource savvy on the employer's part when hiring potential candidates. Therefore, it is left to the manager to hire the right people for the right reasons, including a high level of interpersonal skills and assessment ability. First impressions, internships, resum? preparation and interview skills, while always important, will have greater significance. For the applicant, this means better preparation and more attention to detail; for the employer, this means greater scrutiny, better interviewing of applicants, and greater knowledge and awareness of the certification and education processes. National accreditation will also increase the influence of exercise-science-based degrees. With so many certifying agencies offering accredited programs, the level of education attained by the practitioner increases in significance and importance. In fact, some certifications already require a four-year exercise-science-based degree, or a minimum number of "working" hours, before exam eligibility. This is a trend that may also help the fitness industry gain credibility within the health and medical communities.

Education and training

At present, much of the fitness industry is based on technical training. This is problematic on at least two fronts. The first is that the fitness industry is clamoring to be recognized and accepted as a viable industry in the health profession, which it is unlikely to achieve as long as technical training is the primary method of credentialing practitioners. Second, fitness programming is unpredictable, and often requires non-traditional solutions. For example, not only is the vast diversity of clients problematic (e.g., geriatric, adolescent, obese), but the ranges of health status vary dramatically within any given group.
National accreditation is a significant advancement toward greater professional standing for the health and fitness industry.
Additionally, there are many certified personal trainers who can only work with a limited number of populations. Ironically, the population with whom many certified personal trainers are most "qualified" to work is made up of those who need a personal trainer the least (i.e., healthy adults). Basically, fitness practitioners are trained to work with clients who are expected to all respond in similar ways, or who have little risk of adverse responses. Entry-level personal trainers are, for the most part, technicians who have been trained to use varied exercise equipment on otherwise healthy people. As it is now, if a client's health status is "unpredictable" or at risk, someone with formal education (i.e., advanced credentials) is often called in to consult - or outright referred. Enter the role of education. Accredited certification programs are an essential element of preparing fitness practitioners, but formal education is gaining importance. Looking to the certification process alone for fitness programming and prescribing exercise and lifestyle habits are beyond the scope of many practitioners. Educating future practitioners over a pre-established period of time (not in a weekend, by mail or online seminar), where a minimum level of competence is later determined by a nationally accredited certification exam, is important.

The role of experience

As important as education is, experience is what separates the good from the great. Experience is akin to wisdom (knowing what to do), and education is akin to knowledge (knowing how to do it). It is certainly possible - and even likely - that bad experiences can be a better teacher than good education. However, the value of experience is only as good as the individual's ability to extract wisdom from it. Knowledge not withstanding, the most effective personal trainers will be able to extract multiple lessons (i.e., wisdom) from a single experience, good or bad (this is related to context-free competence, discussed later). Be wary of the individual who requires several experiences before they "learn their lesson." The best combination is, of course, education and experience. For personal trainers, it is vital to keep up-to-date on new knowledge and research, and emerging evidence in the healthcare arena. However, this new knowledge is useless unless it is applied correctly. How to apply that knowledge in the best possible way is usually a product of experience. The novice practitioner rarely knows the pragmatic value (i.e., what to do) of new knowledge, while the proficient or expert practitioner can take new knowledge and implement it when and where appropriate. Novice personal trainers often stick to pre-set rules and prescribed patterns, and may recommend fads and other popular advice. However, as experience grows and wisdom is extracted from those experiences, the novice progresses to competent, then proficient and, eventually, expert. Exercise tailored to the individual, combined with sound nutritional advice, is the only sensible option to prescribe. Employers, mangers and facility owners need to take seriously the competence of their fitness staff.

Hiring competent staff

Hiring competent fitness practitioners from the beginning is essential to everyone's long-term success. Increase the likelihood of competence when hiring fitness staff by investigating applicants' certifying organizations. Are they accredited and reputable? What type of delivery method was used? Is the exam valid and reliable? Next, what is the applicant's level of education? Finally, what is their experience level? Perhaps most tricky is determining experience. You need to ask the right questions, and use case studies and alternate scenarios during the screening process. Another thing to watch for during interviews are "textbook" answers, which often indicate a lower level of experience. Hiring competent fitness practitioners who will serve the mission of the organization, generate revenue and promote professionalism within the fitness industry are critical factors that primarily fall on the shoulders of facility owners, managers and employers. Therefore, certification, education and experience must first and foremost be taken seriously by this same group - some fitness practitioners will only be as good as they are expected to be.

What types of competencies to look for

To be successful, employers need to be aware of required industry- or context-specific competencies, as well as those competencies that transcend context. Industry-specific competencies include knowledge and use of a variety of exercise machines, free weights, cardiovascular equipment and other tools of the trade, and how these tools interact with each other. There also needs to be a solid knowledge and understanding of human anatomy, human physiology and kinesiology, and how they each influence each other. Typically, the assessment of these competencies is left to the certifying agency. Assuming the exam candidate passes the exam, the level and depth of the competence is only as good as the association. National accreditation will help to make sure minimum competencies are met, which eases the burden on the employer. However, there are certainly certifying agencies that are not accredited that exceed minimum standards set by accrediting agencies. Keep in mind that the purpose of accrediting agencies is to ensure minimum standards are met, and nothing more. Other industry-specific competencies include knowledge of the demographic populations (i.e., potential clientele), fitness-based software, exercise techniques and site-specific fitness programs. These competencies may have to be introduced and assessed by the employer during orientations or internships. Competencies that transcend context and significantly contribute toward success tend to be leadership-related. These competencies include communication ability, appropriate use of body language, empathy, use of influence, organizational savvy and interpersonal communication, to name a few. Employers need to look for and expect both context-specific and context-free competencies in their personal training applicants. Typically, it is the context-free competencies that contribute the most to success. Presumably, if candidates are certified, they all have similar industry-specific competence. It is exactly these "context-free" competencies that help the personal trainer to handle unforeseen and unexpected circumstances. One can argue these skills are innate, while others can argue that they are learned behaviors, but that is certainly beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, there is ample research that demonstrates leadership competencies (as identified above) are learnable.

Types of certifications

There are obviously as many types of certifications as there are organizations that certify people; many clubs even offer their own brand of certification. These in-house certifications can be great, as long as the individual understands their limitations. Here are the types of certifications available, and what can be expected from them. Personal trainer. The most common certification is for personal trainers. The main misconception is that this is a one-size-fits-all certification. It is often assumed that a certified individual is qualified to work in any setting with any number of clients. The opposite is true. The personal trainer is first a generalist and, therefore, must have a broad knowledge base. While a broad knowledge base is critical, it also means much of the specific knowledge required to work with many populations, such as adolescents, geriatric, obese, competitive athletes, diabetics and others, is lacking. The minimum competence of most personal trainers qualifies them to educate clients on how to use equipment, motivate clients, teach basic flexibility and recommend basic exercise strategies for general fitness goals.
As important as education is, experience is what separates the good from the great.
Personal trainers are not qualified to offer in-depth nutritional counseling or to recommend supplements. Not only is recommending supplements sometimes a conflict of interest, it is outside of a personal trainer's scope of practice. Virtually no nutritional information is included in personal training certification programs. The most successful personal trainers must engage in ongoing continuing education credits (CECs or CEUs) to stay up-to-date and learn to use and implement new and innovative equipment and fitness strategies. Mandatory continuing education is a hallmark of all good certifications, regardless of the type. Exercise specialist. Some associations offer exercise specialist certifications, which are a variation of the personal trainer certification. The difference is, there are typically additional pre-requisites to meet for exam eligibility (such as documented experience with certain populations and/or recommendations from medical/health professionals, or an exercise science degree). Exercise specialists, then, have an advanced understanding of how to integrate exercise into the lives of individuals with higher risk factors. Group fitness instructor. Group fitness instructor certifications are not synonymous with personal training. Managers need to recognize that, while those who hold these certifications are competent to train individuals, these certifications are centered around group dynamics, and may lack some of the training associated with personal training certifications, such as risk stratification and other initial assessment items. Group fitness certifications are designed around teaching larger classes or groups of people. Obviously, even the words "group" and "personal" explicitly indicate different goals. Group instructors rarely spend one-on-one time with clients. Often, the first time they see their clients is the first day of class; they depend on other fitness team members to determine appropriateness of fit into their class. Group-based certifications are designed around motivating groups, and maybe even specialized group programs, such as group cycling or Pilates. Certainly there are overlapping competencies (such as anatomy, etc.), but the focus and goal of the group instructor is different from other certifications. Granted, most of the time, group fitness certifications are combined or added to personal training ones, which is the best case. However, in circumstances where group instructors are not also certified personal trainers, they should not be expected or asked to act as personal trainers. Strength and conditioning/performance enhancement. Strength and conditioning certifications are designed specifically for working with a special and highly motivated clientele: the competitive athlete. These certifications focus on developing clients' power, strength, speed, agility and balance. Unlike personal training, general fitness and weight loss is typically not a concern. Strength and performance coaches are certainly qualified to work with general fitness or weight-loss clients, but they run the risk of prescribing too much, too fast, too soon, given their propensity for high performance and competition. These trainers tend to be good motivators and accept few excuses. Virtually all of the strength and conditioning types of certifications are considered "specialty," or advanced, certifications, and many (if not all) require a college degree in an exercise-science-related discipline. Despite being advanced certifications, they do have limitations. Like personal trainers, strength and conditioning practitioners have little competence with clients presenting cardiovascular risk factors. Employers may be concerned about a higher level of liability, as the areas in which strength and performance coaches tend to excel are those dealing with competitive performance and those that are high-intensity. Also, hiring individuals with these certifications can be cost-prohibitive, as they are usually a bit more expensive to recruit and retain. Rehabilitation and reconditioning. Rehabilitation certifications wade into a tricky area - some argue that the fitness industry should stay out of rehabilitative therapy altogether. Managers and employers must be careful with how they promote this service. This is the domain of allied healthcare professionals who specialize in rehabilitation and reconditioning of orthopedic and musculoskeletal injuries. These professionals include athletic trainers, physical therapists and some chiropractors (who, by the way, may also hold personal training certifications). Each of these professions have specific academic degrees in their specific profession, national certification boards that govern their credentials and state licensure. Organizations that offer rehab and reconditioning types of certifications must be careful (especially if they try to bill insurance companies) about what they offer clients. Obviously, there is a huge amount of liability that comes with this type of service. The main issue is ethical. Implying that your trainers have the credentials and have gone through similar credentialing processes as the professionals listed above is outright lying. This is not to say that there is not a place for this type of certification - there certainly is. Certified reconditioning specialists have many additional CEUs but, most importantly, they have a personal interest in working with these types of clients. However, to work well, these rehab-certified practitioners need to have a network with local physicians, athletic trainers and physical therapists who are willing to refer. For these relationships to take place, credible credentials and documented outcomes are of utmost importance. Special populations. Special populations for the fitness market usually means adolescents and older adults. There are obviously many more special populations, but the liability is huge, and individuals with systemic diseases and multiple major risk factors need to be under the care and supervision of medical specialists and clinical exercise physiologists. Those special populations that are "less risky," such as adolescents and older adults, require trainers with special credentials, and they should have their physician's clearance to exercise. Obviously, these two extreme age groups represent opposite ends of the spectrum, and each one responds differently to exercise stress. Basic personal training courses do not take into account the special metabolic, heat regulation or musculoskeletal concerns of prepubescent clients. With the epidemic of child obesity and diabetes, the temptation is huge to put young children in fitness programs, which is a great idea; but, these populations require certified practitioners who have special training for working with this population.

Buyer beware

A huge number of fitness-based certifications are available, and it is a buyer-beware industry. There are great organizations that offer accredited certifications, there are non-accredited organizations that offer great certifications, and there are charlatans offering worthless certifications. When hiring fitness practitioners, all certifications are not created equal. If you are confident that your applicants are competent, then you must consider the type of certification they have earned. You must consider its reputation and whether the certification is offered by an accredited association. Professional development in the fitness industry depends on getting the right people doing the right jobs, based on their passions and qualifications. The onus of this first falls to facility owners and managers, who hire and staff the practitioners in the industry.
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