Is Personal Training Certification a Scam?

getting started as a personal trainer

No doubt there are lots of people who get frustrated about certification; I’m one of them, as the Director of Certification here at NFPT. I get frustrated because it gets so confusing for anyone who wants to be certified. Others get frustrated because it seems overrated. Well, I’d like to give you a touch of my own insight. Not to sell you on certification, but to talk about what personal trainer certification is, why you need it, who offers a good one and why certification is not a scam.

What is Certification?

First, by definition, a CERTIFICATION is a document that attests to the truth of certain facts.  CERTIFICATION validates the authenticity of something or someone and confirms that some fact or statement is true through the use of documentary evidence. CERTIFICATION is basically the documentation that proves that an individual has the capability of understanding the facts. The two things most relevant when looking at the validity of certification are how the facts, respective of the certification, are derived, and how the facts, respective of the certification, are assessed.

Facts, respective to the industry certification — Where do they come from?

In a nutshell, facts, which relate to personal training, come down to understanding of certain exercise science principles and implementing a fitness program design that is safe and effective. The question is, then, where does this understanding come from and who makes sure that the certification company gets their facts straight.

I’m more inclined to think “scam” if they all just arbitrarily come up with their own thoughts on personal training fact. Generally speaking, the fact comes from you – from the experienced personal trainer and fitness enthusiast.


Let me explain. But, I can only explain from the perspective of an agency with a program that is accredited. I cannot speak for those who are not internally required to work within these same guidelines.

When I say that the facts come from you, I mean that we (the certification agency) perform a task analysis study on a consistent basis and we ask for industry-wide participation. Ultimately, this task study becomes distributed in the form of a survey whereby only a minimum number of respondents and respondent demographics can validate its results. This allows the certification agency to analyze the on-the-job skill set that is required of a personal trainer.

Therefore, though you personally may not have taken one or another task analysis survey, the certification agency cannot randomly make up its own facts for the purpose of their own assessment; this comes from a psychometrically sound sampling which then dictates the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that are assessed.

Assessment of certificate holders — do we really know that they understand the facts?

The certification company does not randomly make up its own idea of what a personal trainer should know to pass its test. That’s something dictated by the industry study. Moreover, the trainer’s KSAs must be demonstrated at some level. This is where personal preference and a lot of other considerations, maybe even debate, can come in.

An actual assessment (or test) is the only sure thing that can substantiate a qualification such as a certification, whether it’s for a personal trainer, a CPA or an electrician. The assessment itself is the core of a certification program. If you’ve never been a part of building, executing, analyzing, managing and improving a real test, then it’s understandable that “scam” may come to mind.

Scam, in the context of certification, makes me think of a random guy posting questions to some quiz engine that you can log-in to and take as many times as you need in order to pass, and then “poof” you’re certified! Or, worse yet, Continuing Education companies call their course a “Certification”, not because they don’t know better, but because it’s a better buzzword.

A correctly developed, psychometrically tested, legally defensible exam is something you can rest assured does indicate that the person who passed it knows at least a baseline, but that is no guarantee that the person is a good trainer. In my experience, clients do not hire a personal trainer just because he/she is certified, and most don’t even bother asking about certification until they’re upset about something.


Let’s take the example of the CPA. I make assumptions that because my accountant is “certified”, I will experience a certain level of bookkeeping satisfaction.  I’ll extend some grace in an error or two, but not for long. Certified does not always mean qualified.


Angie Pattengale is co-owner and chief executive officer of the National Federation of Professional Trainers, where she works behind the scenes on relationship-building, advertising, policies and procedures, test development and delivery, and growing the business. She joined her father, NFPT founder Ron Clark, at the company in 1994.