Do Certifications Make Trainers Dumber?
Updated: Jan 26
In the industry of making people move around in interesting ways, dropping a grand or two on a weekend certification once seemed as common as fitspiration memes on Instagram. But I thought I noticed something slightly encouraging happening over in that Fitness Industrial Complex that I try to keep in my periphery. Was the popularity of fitness certifications for trainers waning? Perhaps gone were the days of those extra initials after a trainer's name, indicating their loyalty to whatever trend they decided to invest in. There seemed to be fewer trainers proudly displaying their certification as an identity through those letters tagged onto the tail of their name like a cosplay college degree.
Was the old model of buying someone else's information, just to turn around and sell it to their clients, finally crumbling away? Were trainer certifications dying? Nope. I was wrong. Like, WAY wrong. I forgot there were things called hashtags.
Although some of the information in certain certs might be worth adding to anyone's training knowledge quiver, a chunk of our population seem to only find information legit if it is packaged as a certification. This education trend infiltrated the fitness industrial complex, due to it's unregulated capitalist tundra, to a degree where people seemed to forget how to learn. They just buy other people's thoughts.
Let's explore why this might be. What follows was originally written about 12 years ago, yet it turns out it is still as valid as ever, with one important caveat. There are a very small handful of certifications that hold strong value. Unfortunately, due to the broken system that we'll explain below, any cert actually worth anything might be lost in the mix. Being a shining light in a cauldron of poop is a tough place to be. Perhaps the good information can be shared without the albatross of a diluted label. How about a call-to-arms for creating a new teaching scenario so folks who chose to stay within the realms of the fitness industry can actually learn and process the information worth holding onto? That may be another blog post entirely.
A Brief History of the Certificate Racket.
Although certifications are so ubiquitous that choosing just one seems like eating just the bread from a buffet table, there once was a time when they held slightly more meaning, if only due to a scarcer marketplace of options. Initially the fitness industry had 3 major players, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the Aerobics and Fitness Assoc. of America (AFAA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (yep, you guessed it, ACSM), and over in the coaching world, which was a separate tribe entirely, there was the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA.), but they steered clear of the burgeoning "personal training" trend. Well, at least for a while. Now keep in mind that roughly 35 years ago, none of these existed, or at least no one cared yet. But somehow the big 3 eventually convinced fitness corporations that this new industry of personal trainers needed some sort of benchmark as to what their heads were full of... some sort of standardized education that made them blandly employable. Eventually, as the fitness industry grew, the big 3 (which added a small handful to their ranks, including NASM and, yes, NSCA) succeeded so well at convincing the fitness industrial complex of their worth that you couldn't get hired as a trainer without one of these kindergarten badges of honor, which generally took about 2 days to earn and had some sort of test at the end. A template that is still so successful you can legally open a franchise or affiliate gym from certain companies with just the minimal requirements of their certification and a lot of money.
Now despite the fact that they were usually essential for employment, not a single one of these certs was required by law, as there was no governing body for personal training, at least here in the U.S., and it remains that way today. In other words, massage therapists, physical therapists, hair stylists, and mechanics are all in a legal league beyond the training world, since they are licensed and government regulated. But not the fitness industry. And this is a mixed blessing. Although the entertainment that quite commonly passes for training (or 'coaching') has not yet caused enough damage to incite the highly litigious into precedent-setting legal action, the government hasn’t gotten it’s dirty little claws into the game, deciding who does what with whom, and what standards will be enforced.
In other words, as an industry, trainers are free. Free to be as insipid, hornswoggled, enlightened, or brainwashed as we wanna. And in this rare libertarian industry, we see a great deal of what it means to be human. For one, it becomes blatant our need to have our education validated by something other than the quality of its application. New information to a modern trainer is to be collected. Whether it is used or not, whether it is even valuable or not, seems secondary. The product of information becomes more important than actual info itself. You can grow your information collection! Your worth as a trainer has increased because you're certified! Heck, for some it's almost like info hoarding. Even in my early career, before certs were all the rage from anyone with a new idea (or a regurgitated old one), I collected over a dozen of them, like trading cards to impress other trainers. Yes, they've all lapsed. By many, many years. But my ancient history also includes a huge peek behind the curtains. The story of being a young trainer, for me, involves teaching for certification companies and providing continuing education units for multiple certs for my own workshops. That's right, full confession time. At one point I certified and helped re-certify folks for the big players in the game.
At some point on my journey, the information became less of a product and more of a tool. What I did with it became the quest. The time had come to literally sit at the feet of many masters, and then return the favor to many students, with nary a certification to worry about. This type of learning exchange worked for centuries, and keeps the education itself as the focus, not the validation of the education. So why wouldn't we just take the workshop sans a certification? Our humanness sometimes suffers from a confidence void. We believe our journey isn't enough, so we'll eagerly buy someone else's experience. The otherwise useless pieces of paper (and initials to add to our name) tell us that we're now riding the wave of another thinker's process, that their successful experience becomes ours, because we've now bought into it. We, ergo, are valid.
Certifications enable anyone to not think for themselves. And that just might be making us dumber as an industry. Here's some quick points to consider about this certification world... If you're a trainer, how many times has a non-trainer (ya know, like a client?) asked about your certifications? In my two and half decades of this game, maybe 3. Most folks have no idea what certifications mean! The SFG or CSCS after your name (or the more current animal flow hashtag) is only there to impress other trainers. The rest of the planet doesn't give a damn. Period. And if they did, they obviously don't know the truth about the industry.
First, anyone can create a ‘certification,’ leading to the vast and confusing world of trainer certs available to anyone with ducats and a dream. Yup, my 108 year old deaf neighbor in a walker who smells faintly of cheese and old air fresheners can create her own weightlifting certification tomorrow if she wanted to live that fantasy. The chronically slouched Gen Z barista across the street who lives on K-Pop and PBR could create the next posture assessment protocol cert if he could pull himself away from TikTok for more than 10 minutes. Do you like using a certain tool? A stick, a rock, a hammer? Sell a certification for it.
Is it good for business? Perhaps telling a client or potential client that being certified in Left-handed Gyroscopic Biomechanical Tectonic Quasars (LGBTQ for short) will wow them right into your clutches, but chances are they won’t have any idea what that means. Or they simply won’t care. At fitness gatherings eons ago we used to boast to each other about our certs, not unlike whipping out the stats of our 12th level magic user at a D&D convention and bragging about his +6 save against polymorph spells. But, alas, Joe and Jane Public couldn't give a greater rat's ass.
Yet, somewhere along the way we decided that just learning and applying the info wasn’t enough. We had to PROVE that we gathered the information (which doesn't prove that we know how to use it), at least to each other. Gimme that piece of paper. Look at my hashtag!
So the certification market/racket has a wide range of options. What started as generalizations (the ‘personal training’ cert or the ‘aerobics instructor’ cert) has diversified into a vast cornucopia of specializations (there are at least 8 different major schools of thought for kettlebell certifications alone, and more than a couple mace certs exist in a world where none are needed, beyond the 9 people on the planet who know what a mace is and can fork over $400 to impress their few Instagram followers). They don’t all suck, in fact the information behind a handful of them might be money well spent. BUT, no one outside of the actual industry understands how they work or what they mean.
Why should you care? If this is a libertarian marketplace, than buyer beware. Unfortunately, that would only include the trainers subscribing to this certification nonsense. The innocent pawns are the clients, who are still part of a system that turns to us for their muscle smarts and movement education. If the trainers are blinded by their own hyperbolic propaganda, what sort of product is the public, the client, going to get?
A certification gets a trainer to believe, way too quickly, that they've learned what they need to know. This is why freshly certified neophytes are opening their own gyms or starting their own boot camps with a frightening growth rate. Son, you didn't learn puppy dick in your two-day course, and chances are you were barely given the tools to teach what information you did acquire.
Grok this: perpetuating movement and force development in another person (or a big group of people... yikes) takes a lot more than enthusiasm and some new hashtags. I might've been wrong in calling a certification the kindergarten of understanding. It might actually be pre-school.
That's why I don't offer a Bodytribe certification. I'll give you tools, ideas and a template to expand your learning horizons. We'll work together on filling your head and making your body groove in new ways. But what, in a day or two, are you going to show me, or yourself, that proves that you are capable of creating something amazing out of that? And that's under the assumption that you will actually make these ideas simply part of your own stew, and not just spew my thoughts and the philosophy of Bodytribe through your lips blindly.
Meanwhile, if you want to truly be Bodytribe educated, you have many options. Join the website, host or join a workshop. Email me and open a dialog. Spend some time expanding your brawn and fattening up your brain by creating your own journey from our template. It's your art created from a mixture of our groundwork and your experiences.
But okay... you can get certified at any of my workshops. You create whatever name you want to give it. I'll sign it. At no extra cost. Make sure the initials and the hashtag are super cool though. Ya wanna put them all over Instagram. #bodytribe
On a sort of related note, do trendy fitness challenges have value? Let's chat...