Guest Column - January 2006
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The Validity of Accreditation

National Council on Strength and Fitness

By Paul Garbarino

The progression of any industry is driven by necessity, demand and the available resources to support the growth. The fitness industry is no different. Significant growth over the last decade has created a tremendous demand for qualified practitioners. The need to fill staff positions has become a common ongoing chore for many fitness facilities. Difficulty in finding staff for many facilities is compounded by the fact that services are related to the instruction and promotion of physical activity, which of course comes with an inherent risk for injury and therefore necessitates qualified candidates. This suggests the new hires must meet the qualification criteria necessary to deliver services in a safe and effective manner. Additional concern arises when employers consider the largest segment of the market to be served has the highest rate of disease. Prudent managers who maintain a reasonable concern for liability risks realize the importance of finding and hiring only qualified staff.

Determining qualifications for fitness staff positions requires understanding the roles and responsibilities of the job task being performed. The key is to hire individuals who have the aptitude for the job and the expertise to perform it safely and effectively. The easiest way to establish expertise is to identify candidates who maintain a legally defensible competency that has been measured and documented through a universally acceptable process. An example of a qualification measure is a discipline specific degree from an accredited university or college. Another, and even more common qualification measure used in the fitness industry, is professional certification.

The purpose for a professional credential or certification is to identify an individual who has met the minimum standards required to effectively carry out a defined job task. It most often requires the candidate to meet specific assessment rigors aimed at measuring his or her knowledge, skills and abilities as they relate to the job task they are becoming certified to perform. Any person earning a certification or credential through a valid process has demonstrated that they maintain the minimum knowledge and skill set needed to successfully carry out the job task.

Recent attention both in and out of the fitness industry has focused on the appropriateness and validity of many certifications being offered to fitness professionals. The question of credibility has been aimed at the myriad of organizations boasting official sounding names and touting unsubstantiated claims of distinction. The primary reason for concern is that in many cases these organizations are offering certification to individuals under the false pretense of valid competency assessment. Questionable administrative practices; unproctored, online and open-book examinations; and the use of assessment instruments void of appropriate and requisite development standards are all examples of invalid examinations and unethical certification activities.

For a certification to be valid and provide legal defensibility to the competency it measures, it must use an assessment instrument that meets specific development and administration standards. These rigorous standards are designed to assure that the certification status assigned to any professional who has met the defined competency requirements is bona fide. This mark of legitimacy is necessary to protect consumers who intend to employ their professional services.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is the accrediting body of the National Organization for Competency Assurance. The NCCA provides accreditation to organizations that have gone through a voluntary review and have been proven to offer legitimate certification. The accreditation is an important distinction because it communicates to stakeholders of the certification program and the general public which professional certifications are valid.

For an organization to earn NCCA accreditation, it must apply and meet the prerequisite standards for an accreditation review. Once the application has been approved, the NCCA runs a thorough audit of administrative, financial and certification procedures. The assessment instrument undergoes close scrutiny to ensure it is in fact valid, reliable and psychometrically sound. The manner by which the assessment instrument is delivered is also reviewed to ensure it complies with recognized standards and maintains complete legitimacy.

The NCCA accreditation symbolizes the valid process legitimate certifications programs use. It identifies the certifications that represent legally defensible professional competency and conveys quality assurance to administrators and the general public.

Employing NCCA-accredited certified professionals speaks volumes of a club's commitment to providing quality service and protecting its members from harm. It sends an important message as to the relevance of documented competency and its effect on maintaining a reduced liability risk.

The fact that the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has made an industry-wide recommendation to hire trainers certified by accredited organizations communicates very clearly that it is unwise to accept certification of questionable integrity. In addition, the Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company, the primary provider for IHRSA club insurance policies, is offering discounts for clubs hiring trainers certified by NCCA-accredited organizations. The NCCA-accredited certifications provide the layer of liability protection that every club owner needs and every member deserves. Currently the fitness industry has three accredited certification programs. The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and the American Council on Exercise have all earned the NCCA accreditation for their certification programs.

This well-known, defined and universally recognized process is the correct and true method to determine competency assurance when certification is a measure of qualification. Qualified staff maintains the greatest aptitude for successful job performance and carry-out professional responsibilities with the lowest risk of liability and is often the highest regarded among club members. Facility management not recognizing the relevance of the NCCA accreditation for the certifications that its staff holds would seem to have questionable professional judgment. Hiring staff holding NCCA-accredited credentials just makes professional sense.


Paul Garbarino is director of operations for the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF). For more information, visit