02/05/2014 12:54 EST | Updated 04/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Do Personal Trainers Need College Degrees?

It's always a touchy subject to start talking about this, but I thought I'd take a whirl.

In the fitness world, there's so much opinion-based work out there, that it's really difficult to quantify one's merit based on what school of thought they follow -- it has to be based on their hands-on abilities as a trainer. Now, it doesn't take too much to be able to get basic, standard certification as a trainer and learn to keep a grown adult with zero gym knowledge safe in an exercise environment. It's no secret that there are weekend certifications out there that do just that.

The grey area exists, however, when trainers begin to get labelled of their worth directly based on their qualifications, and nothing more. This is seen often in both the workplace, and in the eyes of the general public.

The Workplace

This mentality can give a lot of good guys the shaft when it comes to getting employment or moving up in a world of employment. Many up and coming trainers who know their stuff can be corralled to the sidelines of the job (or not even get hired at all) based on the sole fact that they haven't attained certain qualifications that many deem as "staples" to grant them merit. To many workplaces (especially more high-end ones), a college degree or diploma is a prerequisite before even landing an interview to be considered as a personal trainer.

My question: Why? I'm not one to knock the benefits of university. During my time spent in university, I attended classes in anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics that tremendously helped my initial knowledge base when it came to the world of personal training. On that note, I also attended classes in Self, Culture and Society, Geography, Music, and Humanities that had absolutely no carryover to what I wanted to do with my life. Because schools are businesses too, they're not going to hesitate to require students to take all such courses to be "well rounded" in pursuing their academic degree.

Now, I understand that the elite clubs need something to differentiate themselves from other box gym clubs that hire just about anyone off the street. So typical thinking would lead an employer to set a standard for minimum credentials attained. I get it. But, why not consider letting your differentiating factor be the actual levels of hands-on competency and result-based proficiency that said trainers have as part of your company? Training is of those industries.

Every personal trainer's first sessions with clients will always be terrible. There's just too much practical experience, anecdote, and time spent in the game yet to be attained before skills can be developed. That's something your in-class schooling can mildly affect, but not dictate. Unfortunately, in this industry, lack of degrees or certain certifications sometimes can bar very competent individuals from receiving promotions or raises, regardless of how many years of experience and industry-specific accomplishments they may have achieved. Sad story.

The Public Eye

The fact of the matter is this: The everlasting dominant crowd of people who will NEED personal training as more than just a luxury are the middle-aged and older crowd of this generation. Chronic pain, muscle imbalances, the growing reliance on general strength, functional mobility, and flexibility are but a few reasons why. On top of this, this group of people doubles as a population who can generally afford to make something like personal training a part of their lives. They're more established in their careers, make good money, and have earned a comfortable living over time. They're not prepared to pick up and move to a different city, go career hunting, or make another major life change. Since personal training generally caters to this crowd of people, it's important for companies to hear what they think about what makes a good personal trainer.

See, if this were an excel program, there would be a lot of "if" statements to embed in the coding. If the public are successful themselves, then chances are they're in a career where a degree in their field may have had much more relevance or been a direct prerequisite to what they needed to learn next. (i.e. Law school, getting your M.B.A, etc). They may then place a further importance in doing so in the training world to be a legitimate trainer, and blindly follow even the greenest of trainers if they have that credential on paper. If the clientele are in an older category, say my parents' age -- late 50s and early 60s respectively, then regardless of their upbringing or background, they very likely may have adopted the mentality that a degree or continued education is the be-all and end-all to "making it" in society from a secular perspective. It's an old-school mentality that most old-schoolers can't shake, despite looking at numerous accounts that may not prove otherwise, but definitely allude to the fact that it's not quite as black and white as it seems.

The Truth

The truth, in my opinion, is that the opinion of the workplace is based on the opinion of the public eye. Let's put it all together. People in fitness often want to build companies that generally cater to an elite, private clientele. Such a company (and most others) will want to put their clients' needs and demands first. That means that company's elite, private trainers for this clientele will need to be up to the clientele's standards.

Elite clientele in MY city will tend to fit the description I listed above. A bit older, lucrative, and well off. Their idea of a trainer, in general, will have nothing to do with the components of their actual training ability. Much rather, it'll have to do with how "qualified" he is, and where he "went to school for this."

The funny thing is, most employers to whom this conversation topic is raised will agree with my line of thinking, namely, it's not about the certs or degrees, but about the experience and practical application of foundations of personal training as they're found specific to each client on a case by case basis. The great majority of that is something school just can't teach. Unfortunately, they have to jump ship and join the machine that simply perpetuates the same erroneous thinking that exists in this industry today.

My take home points are these: Firstly, to the clients -- think critically when it comes to hiring a personal trainer. Credentials are good for some things, but not all things, and insightful knowledge into the demands of this industry will be huge keys for warranting whether a prospective trainer's skills actually deem him fit to work with you.

To the trainers -- if the road to academia is what you feel is the right avenue for you, by all means, put the pedal to the metal. But don't feel too badly if you lack school-based education. Sure, in some cases it means not spending quite as much intensive time into deep rooted studies of very industry-specific foundations. But in other cases, it means you haven't put thousands of dollars into learning the opinions and perspectives of others. This industry is truly unique because your success in it solely depends on what YOU put into it -- and that includes attaining practical knowledge that can help you and your clients.

Class dismissed.


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