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ACSM Certification: ACSM Certification Update: Standards and Guidelines for Academic Programs and the New Certification for Personal Trainers

Keteyian, Steven J. Ph.D., FACSM

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: July-August 2004 - Volume 8 - Issue 4 - p 29-30
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In Brief

I work in a building that is part fitness center and part outpatient medical care facility, often referred to as a medical fitness center. Generally, these facilities blend health- and fitness-related services with clinical programs, such as preventive cardiology and athletic training. They are built on the premise that different programs will benefit when common facilities and personnel are shared. Having been in our current building now for more than 7 years, I've come to appreciate the unique and important skills that each discipline working in this building offers everyone interested in taking care of their health. Dietitians, physical therapists, nurses, athletic trainers, exercise physiologists, personal trainers, physicians, and health and fitness instructors have shown me that a variety of services can be effectively provided in a seamless manner-all under the umbrella of sports medicine.


I mention the above because earlier this year ACSM made two important decisions aimed at helping further standardize the qualifications of many of the individuals working in our facility: the exercise physiologist, the health and fitness instructor, and the personal trainer. ACSM's first decision was to be a sponsoring organization of the Committee on Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences (CoAES) as approved by the Commission for the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). For the first time ever, standards and guidelines for undergraduate programs in exercise science and graduate programs in exercise physiology will soon receive formal approval by CAAHEP, which will provide a level of consistency to academic curriculums nationwide, and allow institutions to receive accreditation of their programs by CAAHEP.

Regarding personal trainers, ACSM's next decision was aimed at helping further standardize the qualifications of these individuals by creating a new certification specifically for this group of professionals. As I am sure you are aware, presently the training and certification of personal trainers in both the U.S. and abroad varies greatly. Having said this, you are probably wondering what is it that ACSM can contribute to this somewhat under-defined field called personal training? Additionally, for those of you familiar with prior ACSM policies, you're likely wondering what impact will a non-degreed certification have on ACSM's other certifications that do require an academic degree?

Before addressing these two important questions, it is probably best that I first share with you some of the general demographics associated with personal trainers. Specifically, data from the Department of Labor indicate that in 2003 there were approximately 340,000 personal trainers in the United States. This number is expected to expand to 500,000 by 2010, equating to an annual growth rate of 12,000 to 15,000 new personal trainers entering the work force each year. Additionally, ACSM recently conducted a survey of International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) club owners and operators and found that nearly 50% of the employees working in their facilities interact with members and clients on a daily basis and do so without a formal academic degree. Additionally, 75% of club owners and operators felt that a new personal trainer certification for individuals without degrees, especially one implemented and administered by ACSM, would be viewed as being positive by the health and fitness industry.

My quick read on the above information is that the non-degreed personal trainer has access to and can influence public health and exercise programming at the grass roots level. Specifically, this fitness professional "touches" the masses, helping them better design and implement individualized exercise programs. Using its vast network of scientific and educational volunteers, perhaps the largest in the world, ACSM views this as an opportunity to help guide the delivery of personal training in a manner that will positively influence the practice of exercise at the public health level. More importantly, offering a personal trainer certification is consistent with ACSM's mission as a professional organization.

Relative to the questions raised earlier concerning what can ACSM contribute and what influence will a new non-degreed personal trainer's certification have on other ACSM certifications, please consider the following:

  • ACSM does not view the offering of a non-degreed personal trainer certification as a shift in policy. Rather, it is meant to expand services in a manner that best helps meet both public and market demand, and it will do so in addition to and independent of other certifications (ACSM Health/Fitness Instructor®, ACSM Exercise Specialist®, and ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist®).
  • As mentioned above, a personal trainer certification through ACSM will help the fitness industry meet the growing demand for qualified personal trainers over the next 5 to 10 years. This demand will be met by individuals who are prepared and evaluated using the same evidenced-based approach that ACSM applies to all of its certifications.
  • The degree-requirement that is now part of current ACSM certifications will remain supported and separate from the personal trainer certification. The academic training needed to qualify as an ACSM Health/Fitness Instructor®, ACSM Exercise Specialist®, and ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist® will not be diluted. Instead, these certifications will continue to serve those individuals studying to work with their defined markets. Conversely, the ACSM-certified personal trainer would be trained and evaluated for their ability to work with the masses. An individual working in homes, clubs, and fitness centers, all places where people use exercise in the primary and secondary prevention of disease.

As you might guess, conceptualizing, implementing, and evaluating the new ACSM non-degreed personal trainer certification represents an enormous task. However, I am happy to report that much work has been accomplished relative to making this certification a reality. A diverse working group initially met in Indianapolis, comprised of ACSM leadership, ACSM Health/Fitness Instructors®, employers within the industry, and personal trainers. Their primary objective was to determine if a new personal trainer certification could be deployed and become sustainable without compromising our current certifications and academic initiatives. The next step involved conducting a comprehensive job task analysis for a personal trainer, which was completed by the time you read this article. If all continues to evolve as anticipated, the current plan is to begin offering this certification in December 2004.

So, if you were wondering why the change in focus from what was once our academic or degree-only model to one that now includes a new certification for non-degreed individuals, hopefully you can begin to appreciate that great thought went into making this decision. I encourage you to please keep in mind that ACSM is not offering the personal trainer certification to take the place of or impact any of its existing certifications, but rather to help advance and best educate the largest segment of the fitness professional working with the largest segment of the population: those working as personal trainers.

It remains my belief that in health clubs and medical fitness facilities, personal trainers are an effective and important member of the fitness team, which also includes health/fitness instructors, exercise specialists, and registered clinical exercise physiologists. In such instances, the ACSM Health/Fitness Instructor® might serve as an ongoing resource for the personal trainer, as well as work with special populations. Conversely, the personal trainer is often the staff person primarily responsible to carry out exercise programming for individuals and small groups. It is important that ACSM do all it can to strengthen the preparedness of all people working with the public in a wide variety of health and fitness settings.

As always, I value input on all ACSM certification-related business and welcome your comments relative to how ACSM can best do this in a manner that not only meets your needs but the needs of those people you work with each and any day.

© 2004 American College of Sports Medicine