Angela Corcoran BS, MS, HFI, RCEP, CSCS
Head of Education, The Academy
In 1998, I graduated from the Rutgers University Exercise Science program in New Brunswick, New Jersey as one of very few students in a new major. Initially I thought I would continue my education and find a career as an Occupational Therapist. However, after my senior internship, I realized that this profession was not for me. I was left in the precarious position of having no job and a degree that was largely unheard of.
I decided to fill some time with personal training. Never did I think of personal training as a profession. However, I was surprised to find that my personal training colleagues were better than me at the hands on aspect of training but there was something missing. They were comfortable navigating weights and moving with the flow on the gym floor but were lacking critical knowledge of physiology, anatomy, kinesiology, and special populations. I believe this made their training methods dangerous and potentially fatal. It was at this time that I began to question the personal training industry and its regulation. After all, at this early stage in my career I had both a certification and a college degree and I was uncomfortable on a gym floor! My personal training colleagues had so many certifications with so many different abbreviations.. I was confused. There’s ACE, NASM,ACSM, NSCA, IFPA, NCSF, IFFA, just to name a few. I asked myself; what is the difference between these certifications? And how is this industry regulated?
It took no more than a 10 minute search on the internet to discover that the personal training industry is completely unregulated and unmonitored. Organizations such as IHRSA are huge promoters of “self regulation”. This is completely astounding to me! You have to have a license to be a beautician; to cut someone’s hair. You also have to have a license to perform a manicure or a massage. But you don’t need a license to put a 50 year old person with medical problems through a workout? Think about it. Under the current standards a personal trainer with very limited medical knowledge can take someone with a potentially life threatening illness (like heart disease) and put him or her on a treadmill (essentially performing a stress test) with absolutely no knowledge of potential risk, and absolutely no oversight.
So where does the responsibility lie? It falls on the consumer and the owners of facilities that employ personal trainers. Because of this many gym owners have begun “in house” education programs. I am very familiar with these programs, as I was employed by Equinox Fitness for a long time working on their “in house” program which they call EFTI. I applaud any gym that attempts to create a standard when none exists. However, after years of trying I can tell you that it simply does not work. First of all, the people teaching these programs are typically unqualified. They themselves lack the required knowledge and training. Let alone the skills to teach. So why do these programs exits? Unfortunately, it all comes down to money. It’s expensive to hire qualified teachers with advanced degrees to teach in depth scientific concepts. Second, gyms make more money when trainers are training, not when they are in school. So there’s no incentive for a gym owner to hold back an under qualified trainer when he/she could be training clients. Typically gyms require some kind of national certification within 6 months of employment. However, many trainers that are working are not certified. Many never get their certification or don’t stay current and re-certify. Astonishingly, even trainers that are certified may not be qualified.
So what agency “certifies” a program? The NCCA, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, is ICE’s (Institute for Credentialing Excellence’s) accrediting body and the leading agency on accreditation in the field of personal training. There are hundreds of “certifications” available for individuals who want to become a personal trainer, but only those accredited through the NCCA should be considered (visit http://www.credentialingexcellence.org/). When I was hired as the Head of Education at The Academy, I decided that becoming accredited through NCCA was the next logical and important step after our statelicense. What I discovered was shocking. As a state licensed school we were not eligible. How is that possible? Our educational standard at The Academy far exceeds any at-home study course or program without teachers or hands on practical training. What I discovered, was that in order to be accredited through ICE and NCCA we had to offer our “exam” to anyone who walked through the door. But that was not an option. According to the rules and regulations of the State Education Department, all of our students MUST attend our classes and receive instruction from our teachers. Attending class is a requirement to take the exam. A certification is an accredited exam, it does not ensure practice, only book knowledge. The NCCA, which has oversight through ICE, will not allow you to become accredited unless you allow the general public to just sit for your exam. So you can see our dilemma. As an educational institution we were immediately ineligible even though our standard was much more stringent and thorough. As a licensed school, we must guarantee that our students not only have the knowledge.. but also the hands on practical training. Our NY State and The Commonwealth of Massachusetts licenses strive to ensure that our graduates can work in the field. Virtually guaranteeing that they are not only knowledgeable, but competent. A certification simply means that you passed a test.
Full of disappointment and frustration, I was not about to give up. After numerous attempts to contact NCCA, I received a call from Jim Kendzel; from ICE. Jim was very sympathetic and helpful regarding The Academy’s plight and he actually agreed with me. He invited me to sit on a board aimed at developing a new standard for assessment based certificate programs. The first step was just passed by the American National Standards Institute with ICE, and is available to view at http://www.credentialingexcellence.org/. The Academy has since become “A Proud Member of ICE”. Receiving recognition through this standard is the closest any school can get to an accreditation through NCCA/ICE at this time. But stay tuned, I envision an even higher standard and will continue to work with NCCA to achieve that goal.
So what exactly is recognition? There are a few organizations that offer recognition. One is IACET, or the International Association for Continuing Education and Training. Essentially IACET evaluates all aspects of the learning model and ensures it is valid. They then have a standard model of awarding continuing education units. We have just completed the application process (which was no easy task). The application which I ultimately submitted was approximately 1200 pages long. I am not allowed to share the standards directly with you, but essentially there are 10 standards that evaluate everything from the condition of the learning environment, to teacher qualifications to student examination. A far more rigorous requirement than getting a certificate accredited. Although it was a great challenge, I believe the qualifications they set forth should become the standard for all schools offering personal training education.
Ultimately the field of personal training should be a licensed profession. After years of experience in hiring personal trainers, I can’t believe that the industry is still allowed to exist in the manner that it does. The dangers of allowing unqualified people to prescribe exercise programs to individuals is simply terrifying and could be lethal in some cases. The interest and employment potential in this industry is growing exponentially each year. With the growth of the industry comes growth in the certification boom. This has added a huge degree of confusion for people wanting to become personal trainers.
I feel fortunate to have landed at The Academy. The vision of the school is very simple. We strive to become the model for licensure even though no such model currently exists. The Academy has set the highest standard in personal training education through its educational model, its curriculum, and the employment of top qualified educators in the personal training industry.