I’m not writing this article to bash personal trainers out there. There are a lot who know their craft extremely well and offer incredible training. I have immense respect for anyone who goes above and beyond the minimal requirements to make sure he or she is offering a quality service. I do, however, want to differentiate between personal trainers (certified or not) and strength and conditioning coaches. Let me explain.
Personal training is currently not guided by any standards. I can think of 10+ organizations that offer their own personal training certification. Some of these are very high-quality programs that require months of preparation and background knowledge. Some offer an online course that you can read up on for a few hours and take an open book test and get your certificate in the mail a week or 2 later. Then you can go down to your local commercial gym, show them your piece of paper, and be on your way to training clients. The latter is the path taken by a vast majority of the personal trainers that I see. Now, these trainers can give you a workout. They can make you sweat and maybe even throw up! Maybe you see some fat loss or muscle gain with them, and that’s great! However, are they able to walk you through an assessment that reveals physical limitations or areas of weakness? Can they modify exercises to work around injuries or joint disorders such as osteoarthritis? In most cases, I’d confidently say no. I’ve seen people who live rather unhealthy lives suddenly get interested in exercise, lose some weight over the course of a few months, and suddenly they’re a personal trainer taking clients. They know only what they learned for their own successes and use that as their only guide for training clients. A lot of this can be blamed on the rise of social media; online access has given under qualified people a voice that they probably shouldn’t have, and that’s scary when it comes to exercise.
Now, Let’s talk strength and conditioning. It would be irresponsible for me to ignore the fact that there are still several organizations that certify strength coaches. There will always be competition in that area. And I’m not saying that certifications are the end-all, be-all of athletic performance, either, as experience does have value. However, I’ll review my own experience with getting certified to set an example. Most would consider the “gold standard” certification of
Strength and conditioning to be the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. (NSCA). This is the route that I took when selecting a certification. Why? For one, it’s the most widely recognized by any hiring organization that cares. Everywhere you look for a job in the field, you can bet that this will be a minimum requirement for the position. Second, gaining your CSCS has certain prerequisites, like a bachelor’s degree. The standard for this is currently any bachelor’s degree (which is changing to only a strength coaching-related degree from an accredited college as of 2030). Third, it’s HARD TO GET. It took me 3-4 times starting to study, stopping, starting again, and over a year of dedicated studying before I was able to read/outline/study the entire 500+ page textbook and take my test. The result is me having that piece of paper (and a sticker!!!) that tells people I’m qualified. Rewarding; but still not enough to convince me that anyone who passes this can be a qualified coach.
That leads me into my third point, and what I feel is the most important differentiation between a personal trainer and a strength and conditioning coach. I’ve found over time in the strength and conditioning field that it’s highly intertwined with sports medicine. Many of the top strength coaches in the industry were previously physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, or follow and absorb information from top PTs like a sponge. I love the idea of creating a training environment that helps correct aches, pains, and injuries, while building muscle and gaining strength. It’s not rare to eliminate an issue that a client may assume will be with them for life in a few short weeks/months of intelligently programmed strength training. I’ve had clients show up to me with arthritic knees, herniated disks, low back pain, etc., and after a few weeks of training they tell me that their pain is completely (or mostly) gone. I LOVE that. After all, this industry exists to help people improve their quality and longevity of life. Having a client tell you what you’ve been doing with them is making drastic changes is incredibly rewarding. It is also a good opportunity to remind the client that THEY are the one putting in the work and fixing the problem. I’m just here to guide them. That is an empowering feeling for a client; finding out that they can take control of their life and minimize their chronic pain.
The problem is that, quite frankly, the vast majority of personal trainers don’t have the depth of knowledge to begin making those kinds of changes. It takes years of learning, practicing on yourself, and continuing education to get to a level of professional competence like that. It’s a never-ending learning process, and one that, even after my own 13 years of training, I’m still just beginning to grasp. A good coach will actively pursue furthering his or her education, always trying to learn new techniques, and give clients the best opportunity to improve, and learn. In my opinion, any less effort and self-discipline than that is simply unacceptable. So please, don’t call me a trainer. I’m a coach.
Written By: Jeremiah Rowe, BS, CSCS, CPPS
Lead Personal Trainer, Head Fitness Coach of Case Specific Wellness