Regulation of the Fitness Industry – Necessary?

In the good ol’ USA, all it takes to become a personal trainer is to study for a few weeks and pass an exam, giving someone a certification that labels them as a “certified personal trainer”. The low-barrier of entry, lifestyle, and technically unlimited earning potential make this field an attractive yet saturated market. Unfortunately, it’s popularity and ease-of-entry make the fitness field ripe for incompetence.

Is There a Need for Regulation of the Fitness Industry and Personal Trainers? Not Quite

There have been initiatives in the past few years in the US at the state-level to regulate and license “personal trainers”, “fitness instructors”, etc, as well as bring regulation to the fitness industry as a whole. Some argue that such legislation would establish some level of competence and “weed out” the bad trainers by requiring college degrees and mandating state-exams.

However, an issue lies with these government regulations – one person’s (or certifying body’s, or government’s) idea of “training” drastically differs from another’s.

Take a look at what’s flooded the mainstream fitness market – “functional training”, whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean. Supposedly there are trainers out there who can get you stronger, leaner, taller, and smarter with a new special form of “training secrets”, and they’re supposed to work because they’re “functional”. Examples include rope battling, ultra-tiny kettlebells, squatting on a Swiss ball, and others forms of exercise that are silly and gimmicky. Compare this camp with the long-standing favorite in American history: endurance. It’s no secret that the American military and federal government has had and still has a substantial fondness towards aerobic capacity, as seen in its military fitness tests and governmental exercise guidelines. (Long) (US Federal Government) (Knapick, et. al)

Bosu ball squatAn exercise in futility and ACL-damage.

Most likely, either one or both of these forms of exercise would influence any such legislation, placing a bias in what would be legally allowed in the fitness industry. Imagine this scenario: people who previously trained their athletes using barbell-centric exercises, would now be forced to take a test regarding “functional training” or “endurance” to keep their jobs as coaches, only to be shunned or even prosecuted for continuing their “old, dangerous, ineffective” training methods. The powers at-be would label those coaches as charlatans.

I don’t know about you, but I take it that most legislators don’t know what “training” is, especially when they have money and influence being thrown at them by lobbyists and cronies. So why should Senator Joe Shmoe and his friend, a lobbyist from a biased organization the newly-appointed director of the state’s “Council of Personal Trainers”, tell me that I can no longer teach back squats, but can teach single-legged squats on a Swiss ball instead?

What about those who train and teach in Crossfit, strongman, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, parkour, and other methods of training – what would happen to them? Their livelihood would certainly be crushed.

My take is that the public generally doesn’t understand the “law of unintended consequences”, hence why they see the regulation of the fitness industry as a good thing.

Take heed, readers. Understand who funds this “legislation” – hint: it’s mainly corporate interests. Also, remember that the fitness industry has always been unregulated, and relatively few people have ever been “hurt” by this. Why fix something that isn’t broken?

Becoming a Better-Informed Consumer

The reality is that such legislation has yet to exist, so thankfully trainers and coaches are free to teach as they wish, but it is still up to the potential customers to educate themselves before seeking out a personal trainer.

Thankfully, there are a few criteria that people can follow to help them in their pursuit of a competent fitness professional. They are the following:

  • Education
  • Reputation
  • Appearance

With these three bullet points, anyone should be able to sift through all of the incapable trainers from the capable ones.

Education – The Most Confusing Point

At the very least, a coach or trainer should have a certification as a “personal trainer” or “strength and conditioning coach” – for example, a CPT or CSCS – as well as a CPR/AED certification. The first certification ensures there a bare-minimum knowledge in training, and the latter proves that the trainer can save your life if your heart ever stops beating.

The material that’s covered in a CPT exam varies from organization to organization, and it is even argued whether or not the information tested is particularly useful. Mark Rippetoe famously rescinded his CSCS qualification, supposedly one of the most “prestigious” certifications out there, after having it since it’s creation in 1985. Rippetoe believed that the quality of the information in the NSCA’s CSCS no longer served the best interest of those looking to become or help others become stronger and faster. (Rippetoe)

Rippetoe is not wrong at all.Having acquired a certification myself as well as reading some of the NSCA’s materials, a lot of it is gimmicky or impractical knowledge. However, having a certification proves that the coach or trainer had spent quite some time learning information that would give him at least some skills required to be a competent coach. Make sure, however, when looking at a potential trainer’s credentials, that his or her certification is NCCA-accredited. The NCCA accreditation proves that the certification, the testing procedures, and the information are all legitimate and stringent. There are non-NCCA accreditation certifications that should still be considered valuable, though. Examples include the Starting Strength seminar, Pavel’s seminars and certifications, and other certifications provided by reputable coaches.

Also, a degree in exercise science is another important credential, although not completely necessary. It shows that the trainer or coach has a strong academic background in anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and the like. Plenty of reputable coaches out there have an unrelated bachelor’s degree, or no degree at all. Take that for what it’s worth.

Burning diploma.

Reputation – Keep an Eye Out for This

Ultimately, a trainer’s reputation is the most important aspect when deciding to hire one or not. How many people have he or she worked with? Are the clients happy? Are they in better shape than they were prior? Is this trainer nationally- or world-renown, or a nobody? Doe he or she have a list of favorable client testimonials online?

If a coach or trainer has an amazing reputation, there’s a reason why. It’s because he or she has proved himself to be competent and provide results. The proof is all the people who have worked with him or her.

Ask some friends or family for a recommendation. If there’s a local trainer that’s worth his or her salt, you’ll hear it through the community grapevine.

Appearance – Not That Big of a Deal

If your potential trainer is lean or jacked, chances are that person knows a thing or two about fitness. There’s no denying that. It takes a lot of time to achieve and maintain a respectable level of fitness, and that time teaches a lot of lessons.

But what if this trainer looks out of shape? Should you say “pass” and keep looking? He or she may be utterly incompetent. On the other hand,  he or she may have been a former athlete that has simply experienced injury. There’s no way of knowing, and that’s why appearance isn’t as useful as an indicator of  knowledge or experience. Reputation should be considered here. If there’s a coach who has gotten kids into the NBA, you sure won’t care if he’s fat and has a limp. All that matters is that he can turn your boy into a superstar athlete.

In Closing

In the US, there’s very little regulation in the field of fitness, although it may be better off that way. Still, consumers must be wary of this situation and do some research before hiring a coach or personal trainer. By examining a potential trainer’s education, reputation, and appearance, it becomes very easy to identify the good trainers from the bad. Don’t be that guy in the picture below.

Meme - "I have no idea what I'm doing" - regulation of fitness industry.


1. Long, Ryan. “Why Does the Army Want Me Weak?” Starting Strength. Aasgaard Co. Web.

2. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.” Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. US Federal Government. Web.

3. Knapik, JJ, et. al. “History of United States Army physical fitness and physical readiness training.” U..S. Army Medical Department Journal. 2014: 5-19. PubMed. Web.

4. Rippetoe, Mark. “Mark Rippetoe’s CSCS Resignation”. Crossfit. Web.

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