Certifiably Safer in the Fitness Industry

By David L. Herbert

In the January, 2015 issue of Recreation Management, Kelli Ra Anderson authored an article on why and how personnel certification in the recreation and health/fitness industry improves safety. While her effort was ambitious, further information needs to be presented to more completely portray what has happened over the past 20 years in the health and fitness industry as to fitness professional certifications.

In the early 2000s, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the largest fitness trade association in the United States, perceived a need to elevate the qualifications of fitness professionals. That effort, at least in part, was driven by the number of claims and suits which were being lodged against personal trainers in the years preceding IHRSA's effort. Some of those lawsuits garnered considerable media attention, which focused on the perceived lack of professional training for these fitness personnel.

Due to the foregoing, IHRSA began to evaluate the issue. In 2006, IHRSA issued a final Board of Directors recommendation on the matter to its member health and fitness clubs. This action ultimately recommended that clubs hire only personal trainers certified by certification organizations that were accredited either by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

In compliance with this recommendation, the organization that many health and fitness professional certifiers turned to for accreditation was the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), formerly known as the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Others opted for accreditation by the NCCA. Organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) chose to have their certification programs accredited by the NCCA, while other organizations such as the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) and the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) chose to become accredited by the DEAC. Certification organizations that have been accredited by NCCA have certified approximately 160,000 or more fitness professionals according to publicly reported information,i while DEAC accredited fitness professional certification organizations have certified more than 500,000 fitness professionals in the United States and at least 73 other countries.ii

There are differences between these accredited certification programs. For example, the certification process for NCCA-accredited fitness professional certifiers involves only the successful completion of a written examination for health and fitness professionals without any specified prerequisites for education and without any hands-on practical training or testing program to evaluate a certification candidate's ability to actually carry on fitness screening/prescription/leadership/supervision activities. Many NCCA-accredited fitness professional certifiers require that applicants be 18 years of age, high school graduates or the equivalent and have completed a hands-on certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)iii. DEAC-accredited certifiers have similar requirements but have specified and established educational programs leading to the actual written and in some cases, practical examinations required of successful certification candidates. AFAA, for example, a DEAC-accredited fitness professional certifier, requires the completion of practical training and testing as part of its certification process. AFAA's written examination is also accredited by Vital Research of Los Angeles, which accreditation is in addition to AFAA's DEAC accreditation. AFAA is therefore dually accredited for both its written and practical examinations.iv

Other organizations such as CrossFit have had their fitness professional training program examined by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which has issued an accreditation to CrossFit demonstrating that its trainer program represents quality education and training. While such ANSI accreditation is for a certificate rather than certification, it is not the only other kind of credential for fitness professionals that is available in the United States. The National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) also registers personal fitness trainers who have opted to take and pass NBFE's written national board examination and its practical test.v

The focus of all these credentialing programs was to provide third-party evaluation and approval of the demonstrated knowledge and in some cases performance of fitness professionals based on established and defined professional working responsibilities and duties. The hope was that such qualifications would lead to better service to consumers and therefore fewer complaints and thus fewer claims and lawsuits.vi However, more may be needed.

Statistics on injuries compiled from 2007 to 2012 demonstrate that there has been nearly a 60 percent increase in exercise-related injuries during that time.vii In this regard, some may ask: Has certification of fitness professionals failed because of the increase in injuries to consumers? Is additional training needed for fitness professionals? Are the injuries related to the fact that more consumers are exercising and therefore there are more injuries? Are consumers who are engaging in exercise older and/or unhealthier than their counterparts of 2006? Are personal trainers prescribing too much/too soon for these consumers? Do personal trainers lack proper skills in screening, prescription, leadership and supervision? The answers to these questions are not clear, but if professionals are not providing proper screening, prescription, leadership and supervision due to their own lack of required and tested practical training, the present certification system needs to be examined and policies changed.

JoAnn M. Eickhoff-Shemek, Ph.D., FACSM, a well-known fitness educator and fitness risk management expert has stated the following:

Most individuals that become CPTs prepare for the certification exams by reading recommended resources, attending workshops, or participating in online programs. It is the opinion of this commentator that this is not nearly enough. Formal education along with supervised practical experience is needed to prepare personal trainers for all tasks they perform, not just fitness testing. Currently, none of the NCCA accredited certifying organizations require completion of any formal education or evaluation of practical skills prior to sitting for their CPT exams. In addition, none of the standards in the NCCA's Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs require candidates to possess any formal education or practical experience prior to sitting for an NCCA accredited exam.viii

Anthony A. Abbott, Ed.D., a Florida exercise physiologist and frequent expert witness in fitness litigation, has also stated:

…just because one is certified does not necessarily equate with his or her being qualified. To become a truly qualified personal trainer requires an in-depth knowledge of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics and principles of exercise science coupled with considerable hands-on training.ix

Gary Pitts, a prominent Canadian sports and fitness attorney, has stated:

Perhaps the most serious deficiency of many certification programs is the lack of practical testing and/or a 'hands-on training component,' which is not provided by some certifications. For example, would you hire a pilot who has not been taught to fly an airplane?x

Clubs and fitness facilities that establish hiring policies to allow employment for only those who are certified by passing but a written examination with no hands-on assessment or testing of their practical skills are probably increasing their legal liability exposures. If such employers hire only fitness instructors who have not demonstrated their ability to perform necessary practical services such as screening, prescription, leadership and supervision of clients then those who confine their hiring policies only to written exam takers will have very little room to argue that their employees or contactors were properly put in charge of other human beings. Participation in exercise and fitness activities has inherent risks of injury and even death; the addition of fitness instructors without proven practical skills to the mix of risks only increases those risks. If no one has any practical training, who will be at the wheel—those with no proven ability to be able to safely drive?xi

To be sure, certification of fitness professionals has come a long way since the early 2000s, but the question remains: Does the present certification process, some of which includes only a written examination, provide the requisite skills necessary for screening, prescription, leadership and supervision of consumers involved in fitness and exercise activities? Time and the number of relevant claims and suits on the subject will tell the tale. But remember that between 2007 and 2012, injuries related to exercise and exercise equipment have risen nearly 60 percent. Related fitness liability insurance premiums have risen 6 percent with some insurance companies each year during the last two years as well.xii While it appears that certification helps in providing a safer environment for consumers, more is needed. Practical, hands-on training and testing should address the foregoing concerns put forth by many, including industry experts.


David L. Herbert, is an Attorney at Law, David L. Herbert & Associates LLC, Attorneys & Counselors at Law in Canton, Ohio. He also is editor for "The Exercise, Sports and Sports Medicine Standards & Malpractice Reporter," PRC Publishing Inc. in Canton, Ohio (www.prcpublishing.com). Visit www.herblaw.com for more information.


i See, https://www.facebook.com/crepusreps - Posting dated October 30, 2014.

ii See, http://www.afaa.com/ and http://www.issaonline.edu/ - There are probably more such certified professionals based upon the number of other organizations which have also become accredited by the DEAC.

iii It may seem somewhat incongruous to some that NCCA accredited fitness professional certifiers require hands? on practical testing of fitness professionals for cardiopulmonary resuscitation but don't require any practical hands-on testing for the actual certification of those same professionals as personal trainers or group instructors. In this regard, even those seeking driver's licenses are required to pass a hands-on driving test in addition to a written test before they ever operate a vehicle on public streets pursuant to the issuance of a regular driver's license to them. In this regard, many may wonder if they would ever get in a car with a driver who had only passed a written test. Are fitness professionals equipped to screen, prescribe, instruct, lead and supervise fitness activity with no hands-on training?

iv Isn't it Time for Education & Evaluation of Hands-on Competence in Personal Training? A Call for Dual Accreditation of U.S. Fitness Professional Certification Programs, Vol. 32, No. 4: 38-42, AMERICAN FITNESS, (July/August 2014).

v See, http://www.nbfe.org/.

vi See supra, footnote 4.

vii Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, cited in, Maechel, Amber, "Health Club Operators Must be Aware of HIT Dangers to Mitigate Risks," CLUB INDUSTRY, 21:49, January 25, 2015.

viii Eickhoff-Shemek, J.M., Ph.D., FACSM, "Potential Issues with the Job Task Analysis", THE EXERCISE, SPORTS AND SPORTS MEDICINE STANDARDS & MALPRACTICE REPORTER, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July, 2013):54-57. Footnote in original omitted.

ix Abbott, A.A., Ed.D., FACSM, FNSCA, "Fitness Professionals: Certified, Qualified and Justified", THE EXERCISE STANDARDS AND MALPRACTICE REPORTER, Vol. 23, No. 2 (March, 2009): 17, 20-22.

x Pitts, G., "Choose Your Certification(s) Wisely!" Vol.2, No.6 :22-26, FITNESS TRAINER (June/July 2014).

xi See supra, footnote 3.

xii Email correspondence by author with Ken Reinig, fitness industry insurance executive, January 29, 2015.

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.