Should Your Personal Trainer Be Licensed?

Last week, fellow coach Ross Curtis posed the question of whether or not personal trainers, coaches, and other individuals in the fitness profession should be licensed. The fitness profession has largely operated without any sort of government oversight since its inception. Anyone can call themselves a “personal trainer” or “fitness coach,” even without any prior experience working out or interacting with people. The barrier of entry to work in our field has historically been very, very low.

I remember the first time I set foot in the industry many years ago. I had no training certification whatsoever, and hadn’t even worked with people in any coaching capacity. All I had was a nice degree in biomedical engineering (only somewhat related to exercise, and that’s a stretch) from a prestigious university, and a passion for fitness that I curated over several years of working out and seeking the best training methods out there. Yet, I was immediately hired to work as a personal trainer at one of the largest and most dominant commercial gyms in that marketplace.

Although I had the drive and determination to succeed in the industry and help people to the best of my ability, it’s hard to say if I was exactly qualified for the job in the first place.

In recent years, many states have begun introducing legislation requiring personal trainers and coaches to obtain state-issued licenses. These licenses would allow them to legally work as fitness professionals and provide services in that category. Currently, only one of these measures has passed–in Washington, DC.

Perhaps the biggest problems facing this sort of legislation is that “fitness” means different things to different people. What exactly does “fitness coaching” mean? For one person it could be losing weight, for another it could be to win a powerlifting meet, and for yet another, to run a 10K. These are all vastly different goals, and all can be achieved through very different training approaches.

With such a broad definition of fitness, I can see why it’s so hard to standardize the licensing process for trainers and coaches. What sort of knowledge do we actually need to know to get legally licensed?

Within the industry, it’s already hard to agree on that. The industry is full of many certifying bodies, like the NSCA, ACE, NASM, ACSM or even CrossFit. Believe it or not, one of these organizations believes that squatting below parallel is bad for you. Some of the trainer/coach certifications that are offered by the organizations here can be obtained in as little as a few weeks by anyone who pays a registration fee. And there’s definitely one organization here that people love to hate because of their training methodology and culture.

As I touched on in this article, fitness certifications are a very mixed bag. There are many of them. Some are easier to obtain, and some are less stringent to maintain.

It’s easy to be misled by all the titles and acronyms that personal trainers use in their resumes or LinkedIn profiles. In addition to general fitness training certifications, like those offered by the NSCA, NASM, or ACE just to name a few, many companies also offer certifications in their own training system and methodologies. Your bootcamp instructor might’ve received a certification from that specific bootcamp company. However, she doesn’t necessarily need a training/coaching certification to teach it, nor is she legally obligated to have a general training/coaching certification to work as a bootcamp instructor in the first place.

With all this confusion surrounding certifications, academic pedigree in a related field is perhaps even more important than certification when it comes to qualifications for a personal trainer. Someone who has a master’s degree in exercise science, kinesiology, human performance, or other similar fields, has likely gone through 6 extra years of education to be a fitness professional; the 6 weeks someone might spend studying for a certification pales in comparison to this. This qualification is so important, that it’s required for all our coaches here at Halevy Life.

But when it comes to the issue of licensure for personal trainers and fitness coaches, the problem isn’t that no sort of licensure exists; it’s that no licensure that specifies a minimum standard of knowledge for the fitness industry exists.

Let’s put it this way. Wouldn’t you want a legitimate, legally-practicing doctor to work on any medical issues you have? I certainly do. But if we don’t have a clear definition of what “medicine” is on a basic level, we would never be able to license doctors.

That’s the problem with personal training now. There are too many certifications, and too many different standards. However, we don’t have to agree on what fitness actually is, we just need to agree that there should be a minimum standard of knowledge for the entire profession. We can all agree on anatomy and physiology, right? Unfortunately, some personal trainers can’t even identify bones and muscles that are involved in their exercises.

To look at the issue from a different perspective, massage therapists and physical therapists are also required to have licensure to legally practice in their respective fields. This doesn’t mean that all physical therapists agree on the same therapy approaches, nor does it mean that all licensed physical therapists are actually good at rehabilitating their patients.

Licensure doesn’t immediately weed out the “good” from the “bad” in any industry, whether it’s medicine, physical therapy, massage, or cutting hair. But with regards to the fitness industry, licensure can establish a minimum baseline for the knowledge one actually needs when it comes to training people about their fitness and physical activity. We need to prevent people from becoming “expert trainers” just because they’ve been working out 5x/week for two months.

No one would argue that exercise and physical activity imparts many health benefits that could extend your life and make it better. Believing in the efficacy of exercise is like believing that climate change is real. Although we may never agree on the best way to train people and to achieve results, we should be able to agree that there should be a minimum level of expertise to ensure competency. The key here is licensure.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.