The word "certification" headlining an article is enough to send shivers up my spine. It's a tired, controversial subject and has been unfairly scrutinized at times, although there are admittedly abuses of the word.
Because there aren't any controls or mandates that steer trainers down a consistent course of career development, a free-for-all exists where weekend workshops and online questionnaires are sold as credentials. Further review aimed toward clarity is an absolute necessity in the adolescent, but noble industry, in which many aspiring trainers fail to find the careers they hope for, often from misdirection.
In facilitating a self-directing voice of credible professionals, it becomes important to steer trainers toward the right start or, for those beyond the starting line, steer them toward a high degree of professionalism, and the certification process is a platform from which a career can be launched or developed.
I make no apologies for excluding any agencies — exclusion is not intended to reflect the absence of merit. This is a brief article on a complex topic, and the content will unfold based on opinions contributed by a diversity of employers. The handful of quotes and opinions from some certification agencies are intended more to reflect the collective vision than to exhibit any form of dominance.
Before we get into the specifics of what a certification is supposed to represent, let's understand what certification doesn't do. It doesn't guarantee you a job. It doesn't guarantee you clients. It doesn't allow you to instantly attach a value to an hour of your time. It doesn't instill personality or ensure that you know how to coach and influence, and it doesn't promise to personally connect you with influential people who can help you grow.

What Is the Intent of Certification?
Dr. Sal Arria, President of the National Board of Fitness Examiners, is no stranger to controversy, and his efforts to establish a national board exam opened up the floodgates and, amidst the tension, may have driven the industry to find agreement as to a standard of credibility.
According to Dr. Arria, certification is a means by which we can measure the competence of individuals in a professional discipline in order to protect the consumer. "I believe that, as the industry matures, there will develop a sense of unity among certification organizations, equipment sellers and employers. With time and continued growth, I hope they come to realize we are not each other's enemies. The enemy that we're fighting is consumer inactivity. We should collectively be doing everything in our power to effectively meet that end."
In relaying the primary purpose of certification, Roger Earle, Associate Executive Director of Certification for the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) responds: "Certification is intended to protect the public, to create some level of distinction for those who are able to provide credible (quality) services and effective exercise prescription in a safe environment."
Mike Clarke, CEO of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) strives to deliver evidence-based science to the health and fitness professional. "Heading into the future, personal trainers will become a part of the allied health team, and they will likely pan out as the group that is most cost-effective and powerful in delivering positive health and wellness outcomes related to weight loss, mobility and function. It's our responsibility as a certifying body to help improve the overall standards of what personal fitness training is, making sure trainers are applying the best science possible and also recognizing that there is a business to personal training that requires an understanding of the consumer."
Dr. Cedric Bryant of the American Council on Exercise (ACE) agrees wholeheartedly that certification is intended to provide the consumer assurance of a pre-screened individual displaying a baseline of competency. He embraces initiatives to challenge certification organizations to meet a standard and offer meaningful credentials recognized by employers and consumers. "In the alphabet soup of acronyms out there, the consumer has a difficult time understanding what is a legitimate measure of competence and indicator of safety."
What Are Employers Looking For?
Todd Durkin, CEO of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, California, realizes recruiting and screening are vital to building and maintaining a staff of legitimate professionals. According to Todd, certification is important, but it makes up less than 50% of what gets a candidate in for the first and second interviews. "I'm looking for people skills above all, followed by the willingness to be part of a team. I will then delve into references and referrals, job experience, work ethic, willingness to be flexible and direct evidence of commitment (i.e. continuing education)."
The certifications Todd views as prerequisites are (in no particular order) ACE, NSCA (CSCS or CPT) or NASM. He holds a respect for some other agencies but hasn't had many applicants come in with other than the three he relies most upon. "With the three certifications serving as a cornerstone of our hiring process, I've found people to be adequately prepared from a technical standpoint when I look at their full scope of knowledge. The certification allows them entry to be schooled into our system."
Scott Larkin came to Gainesville Health & Fitness in Gainesville, Florida, with an extensive background as a certified athletic trainer, having been involved in the recruiting and hiring process for over five years. Scott expresses a common frustration among those in the role of hiring trainers: "Some of the less credible certification organizations provide their applicants with a false sense of knowledge, and, in the field, someone lacking an understanding of the human body becomes a hazard to clients."
Gainesville Health & Fitness seeks out individuals certified through ACSM, NASM and NSCA. "Because of the variety of offerings, we will consider candidates with other certifications, but we require that, within 90 days of hire, they are registered to sit for one of the three," Larkin states.
Juan Carlos Santana employs a small stable of professionals and expects that each one will maintain the high standard upon which he built his facility in Boca Raton, Florida, the Institute of Human Performance. Santana requires NSCA-CPT certification, stating, "If an applicant comes in with NASM, ACSM, ACE or AFAA, and they have all the desired traits, I'll hire them conditionally. They'll have six months to sit for the NSCA-CPT. What's important to me is that they obtain a certification from an organization that incorporates a huge body of knowledge in their learning materials, a collective work from a variety of experts in specific, related fields. I find the NSCA maintains a balance between the right body of work and the right support behind that body of work. With 30,000 members, three major conferences and a vast number of state and regional clinics and symposiums, it has served IHP well."
Juan Carlos echoes a common sentiment, "It's important that trainers are certified, but because they're certified doesn't mean they're useful on the floor. It's one factor among many, but it's fair to say that the right certification serves as a strong foundation for career development."
The Questions Remain
Who, if anyone, will establish mandates for this field? Is licensure an inevitable certainty or a misdirected effort? Which third party entities will ultimately lead to a single standard and one indisputable accreditation? How will the emergence of personal trainer degree programs impact the certification arena? Constructive discussion is always a mandate in creating a win for all bases. In order for the career-oriented trainer, the certification agencies, the industry employers and, ultimately, the consumers to find confidence in a career choice still rifled with uncertainties, the dialogue needs to grow louder, the opinions need be heard and the judgments need to be based upon sound information.
Which Is the Best Certification for You?
I wouldn't dare attempt a hierarchy of certifications from best to worst, although the questions asked often use the word "best." The best certification is the one that best serves you, but it might not be the same one a trainer two miles away might find most valuable.
If you aspire to work with a given population, find a certification that lends itself to understanding that particular population and builds its body of work using research specific to the desired end. If you seek employment with a particular health club or fitness organization, inquire as to which certification will best position you for success and growth within the organization.
Todd Durkin summarizes this point well. "Finding a 'match' with 'the right certification' should begin with the search for an organization with a mission and values that align with your own. NASM, as an example,
does a phenomenal job for those seeking a background in corrective exercise. If you gravitate 
toward an athletic clientele, the NSCA aligns with the needs of a strength and conditioning coach. If you're a personal trainer or an aspiring trainer not yet sure of a specialty you may pursue, or if you would categorize your interest as general fitness and weight loss, ACE has a broad scope of information and options."
Here's an unfortunate reality: many aspiring trainers seek out the certifications they find to be the least expensive, the quickest to obtain or having the easiest tests to pass. This is a profession with high stakes, as we're intervening in people's lives and affecting physical outcomes. Easy, quick and cheap are not the right reasons.
Certification is intended to evidence an acquired knowledge, and there isn't a single eight-hour workshop or PDF download that can provide you sufficient knowledge to ensure that you can approach your clients with a promise of safe and effective exercise prescription. Only with proven competence can you justify confidence, and, with both under your belt, rewarding compensation should follow. Study, compare, speak to accomplished professionals, and choose the best course of action for you.
Phil Kaplan is a personal fitness trainer, author and health club owner, and his newest projects, the Be Better Project and the Personal Trainer Business Alliance, promise to build new platforms upon which fitness professionals worldwide can achieve their greatest success. For more information, please visit