Is your personal trainer qualified?

As more and more people are realizing the benefits of regular exercise and seeking ‘expert’ advice, the demand for personal trainers is growing. With this increase in demand, fitness chains, privately owned facilities, and corporate wellness centers do not necessarily hire the most qualified trainers. Unfortunately, not all personal trainers are qualified to deliver the results that they promise. A qualified personal trainer can develop a safe, efficient, and effective exercise program but an unqualified trainer could do more harm than good!

Think about the people you hire to perform services—physicians, real-estate agents, childcare workers, hair stylists. They all have one thing in common: They are required to obtain state licensure. With the exception of fitness professionals, all other health-care professionals such as physicians, physical therapist, athletic trainers, or registered dietitians are required by state laws to receive either licensure or state certification to practice in their respective fields of expertise. A fitness professional observes as you push your cardiovascular, muscular, and nervous systems; drive your heart rate and blood pressure; and strain your joints and ligaments — but there’s less oversight for these individuals than for the woman who waxes your unibrow!

Who can be a personal trainer?

Because of the unregulated fitness industry and the high demand for trainers, fitness facilities typically hire low-cost, and often unqualified, fitness professionals. In fact, the fitness industry is so loosely self-regulated that it has spawned several hundred certifications that just about anyone off the street could earn.  Consider the following examples.

The American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA) is one of several online personal training certifications. The AFPA is located at a P.O. Box in New Jersey. The cost for the AFPA personal training certification is $315. According to the online certification process, the AFPA claims to have produced over 57,000 certified personal trainers and fitness professionals worldwide. The AFPA requirements are that you must be at least 18 years of age, have a high school diploma or GED, and have basic familiarity with anatomy and resistance training. There is not even a requirement for CPR certification! Prospects must pass the test with a minimum score of 90%. But if a prospect fails, the AFPA will mail the tester the incorrect questions and give the tester two weeks to make corrections.

The National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA) offers a Certified Personal Trainer Certification and gives you two options for becoming certified. First option, you can attend a 2-day workshop/lecture that commences with an exam for $399. Second option, you can choose to ‘Test Only’ for $249. NETA does not require candidates to attend their workshops or even purchase their study materials as a prerequisite to the exam!

Similarly, a recent job posting for a national franchise gym lists only the following requirements:

  • Motivated, self-starters who want to help people achieve their personal best
  • Career minded individuals that want to grow with a great company
  • Team players with a desire to be part of the best
  • Individuals who are passionate about fitness

There are no education or certification requirements. Are candidates meeting these meager requirements qualified? You can’t deny the facts and research supports that they are not qualified.

Trainer qualifications

What makes one personal trainer more qualified than another? Malek and colleagues (2002) developed and used the fitness instructors knowledge assessment (FIKA) exam to measure a fitness professional’s knowledge in the areas of nutrition, health screening, testing protocols, exercise prescription, and special populations (e.g., individuals with diabetes or hypertension). Their key findings include:

  • Fitness professionals with 5-18 years of experience had no more knowledge than those with less experience, with overall scores of 44% and 42%–equivalent to an ‘F’ on any grading scale.
  • Those with at least a bachelor’s degree in exercise science scored higher in ALL areas than those without a degree did, with overall scores of 68% versus 37%.
  • Fitness professionals with ACSM or NSCA certifications scored higher than those without one of these certifications, with overall scores of 83% versus 38%.
  • Those holding both a bachelor’s degree and either ACSM or NSCA certifications scored 85%, the highest scorers, while those with neither scored only 36%. The average score was 55% for those who held either a bachelor’s degree OR a certification.

This and other research supports the proposal that a qualified personal trainer must, at a minimum, hold a bachelor’s degree in exercise science-related field and a certification from a nationally recognized organization, such as ASCM or NSCA. 

According to Melton and colleagues (2008), other characteristics of a qualified trainer include:

  • Knowledge in basic sciences and nutrition
  • Able to work with a diverse group of clientele
  • Uses behavioral strategies
  • Positive/supportive leadership style
  • Strong communication skills

As the fitness industry continues to grow at astronomical rates, Malek (2002) and Melton (2008) and colleagues also recommend that state licensure be required for fitness professionals. While several states have proposed such legislation (e.g., New Jersey, California), Louisiana is currently the only state to pass licensure legislation for clinical exercise physiologists.

The bottomline

In recognition of the abundance of inadequate trainers for people to choose from, ASCM published guidelines to help people find a qualified trainer: Selecting and Effectively Using A Personal Trainer. As mentioned, there are more personal trainers now than ever, making it difficult to discern the good from the bad. Don’t fall victim to the poorly regulated fitness industry. Be certain that the trainer you entrust will help you achieve your goals in a safe and effective manner.

THINK – you are putting YOUR LIFE and YOUR future someone else’s hands. And you deserve only the best!


ACSM (2005). Selecting and effectively using a personal trainer. Retrieved from

Malek M. H., Nalbone, D. P., Berger, D. E., and Coburn, J. W. (2002). Importance of Health Science Education for Personal Fitness Trainers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(1), 19-24.

Melton, D.I., Katula, J.A., Mustian, K.M. (2008). The current state of personal training: an industry perspective of personal trainers in a small southeast community. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(3), 883-889.


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