Low levels of physical activity, like many other lifestyles activities (e.g., smoking), are strongly correlated with coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the USA (3). Lack of physical activity is also associated with asthma, type-2 diabetes, some cancers, impaired psychological status, bone and muscle problems, and decreased life expectancy (4). Despite this well-documented relationship, 37.1% of adults have insufficient physical activity (>10 minutes total per week of moderate or vigorous-intensity lifestyle activities but less than the recommended level of activity) (5). Of those who do adopt an exercise program, it is estimated that 50% will discontinue it within the first 6 months (8), making exercise adherence a critical issue. It is clear that factors related to adherence are complex, but 1 important factor is a client's feeling of support from the activity leader (18).
A recent study evaluating the perspectives of personal trainers (13) reported that clients were more likely to stay with trainers who exhibited the attributes of empathy, listening skills, and motivation skills. This same study suggested that the majority of fitness professionals' practical skills were learned on the job. In addition, McGuire et al. (12) report that important components of clients' satisfaction with their fitness club related to leader social support and leader training and instruction.
Another factor integral to a discussion of the state of personal training is the manager of the facility. The duties of the manager typically include the following: oversight of the orientation programs for new members, purchasing equipment, making deposits, and ultimate responsibility for the health and well-being of customers/clients. One of the most important duties, however, is that of hiring and supervising the personal trainers. This particular responsibility raises the issue of the importance of employing persons who have credentials and/or are certified.
Although there is a mixed response to proposed national and state legislation to standardize the requirements for certification of fitness professionals (9), there is a general consensus that credentialed trainers are critical for the preservation of the health and safety of clients. The requirements for certification vary considerably, ranging from the highly rigorous National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NCSA's) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) to lesser-known certifications such as the Future Fit Certified Personal Trainer in which there are few prerequisites (1). A general list of competencies would include, however, basic knowledge of biomechanics and exercise physiology, exercise prescription, program design, basic first aid, and at least a rudimentary knowledge of nutrition.
Despite this general acknowledgment of necessary qualities, little is known about how these qualities are applied in a public or private facility. In addition, there is a dearth of scholarly inquiry regarding the hiring and performance of the personal trainer from the perspective of the manager. Several theoretical models explain the adoption and maintenance of exercise behavior (11), but only a few studies have examined these factors in an applied exercise setting. This research, therefore, systematically investigates managerial attitudes toward the certification, education, and dispositions of personal trainers in an ecologically valid environment.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The investigation used focus groups and a survey to examine the overarching question, “What qualities are important to be a successful personal trainer?” This research was conducted with managers of for-profit and nonprofit fitness clubs. The investigators used inductive reasoning and interpretive analysis, meaning that themes were drawn from the data without comparing it to a guided theory (7). Global themes, major themes, and subthemes were selected from the transcriptions. Evidence of credibility, reliability, and trustworthiness was provided in several ways. First, 3 different readers were used, bringing their varying perspectives to the group. Furthermore, the data presented represent consensus reached via thorough discussions among individuals (readers) with expertise in personal training, exercise physiology, health behavior, and qualitative research methods. Finally, the investigators sent a 1-page summary to the participants and asked for feedback and clarifications and/or additions they would like to make. The study design was identical to that used previously to examine the current state of personal training from a personal trainer's point of view (13).
Subjects included 11 managers of personal trainers (Mean age = 32 years; range 24-39 years). Of the participants, 90.9% (n = 10) were Caucasian. With respect to gender, 36.4% (n = 4) of the managers were female, and the majority (n = 6) had at least a 4-year college education. Ten of the 11 managers had some type of certification. Also, 27.3% (n = 3) had an NSCA, 18.2% (n = 2) had an Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), and 18.2% (n = 2) had an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certification. The other 3 managers had either an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a YMCA, or an International Fitness Practitioner Association certification. 9.1% (n = 1) of the managers had been managing for <1 year; 36.4% (n = 4) had been managing for 1-3 years; 18.2% (n = 2) had been managing for 4-9 years; and 27.3% (n = 3) had been managing for >10 years. Although 11 participants completed survey data, only 9 volunteered to participate in the focus group sessions.
Volunteers were either personally provided with or mailed a packet including the following: (a) a demographic/survey sheet, including name, address, age, occupation, and education; (b) questions related to certification of trainers; (c) an informed consent form approved by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Internal Review Board committee, explaining that the participants would be video and audiotaped during the focus groups; and (d) a list of the questions that would be probed at the meeting for the participant to reflect on before the meeting. Finally, the surveys were used as a third method for triangulation of the data, in addition to the focus group interview and audiotapes. After collecting all the demographic/survey sheets, participants were contacted via telephone and requested to participate in the focus groups.
Focus groups were recorded using a Marantz audio-recording system and videography (60 Hz). In addition to the informed consent, participants also signed a confidentiality agreement within the group. The confidentiality statement included the investigator's agreement not to disclose names, and the participants' agreement not to disclose or discuss what was said in the interviews with other participants or individuals outside the designated focus group time. Furthermore, anonymity was ensured by removing participants' names on the final transcripts and by replacing real names with aliases. A moderator's guide (19) was used in each of the focus groups. The focus groups lasted approximately 2 hours with an emphasis on each participant getting equal amounts of speaking time (19).
The first author recruited all participants through personal invitation. Volunteers were mailed a packet including (a) a demographic information sheet/survey, including name, address, age, occupation, education, and credentials questions; (b) an informed consent form, explaining that the participants would be video and audiotaped during the focus groups; and (c) a list of the questions that would be discussed for the participant to reflect on before the meeting. These questions were as follows: (a) How do you decide to hire a particular personal trainer? (b) Is certification necessary? Any particular one? (c) How do you determine adequate compensation per trainer? (d) What are the most important qualities a trainer should have? (e) How do you determine if a trainer is effective with a client? and (f) How could personal trainers improve their training?
The focus group audio tapes were transcribed verbatim. The 3 investigators read and re-read each of the 3 transcripts and searched for key phrases emerging from the data. Key phrases were defined as those that occurred at least 5 times within the transcript, as the 3 investigators concurred that this arbitrary number was sufficient to denote a key phrase. The investigators converted the key phrases into codes and then examined the transcripts line by line, inserting the codes where appropriate. After consensus was reached concerning the coding of each line of transcript, the codes were entered into Ethnograph©, a computer program used for qualitative data analysis.
Figure 1 depicts the hierarchical organization of the managers' responses into global, major, and subthemes. The global themes included Selection Rationale and Negative Characteristics. The major themes associated with Selection Rationale included Social Skills, Malleability, Physique/Appearance, and Education. The major theme associated with Negative Characteristics was Consequences. The subthemes for Selection Rationale were Certifications, and subthemes for the Negative Characteristics were Injury and Bad Reputation. The subjects were managers of nonprofit organizations (n = 3) such as the YMCA, and managers of for-profit organizations (n = 4), including several local fitness facilities.
Some themes emerging from the manager group were distinct to the type of organization. For instance, the managers working for for-profit organizations were primarily interested in sales, whereas the managers from the nonprofit organizations were more concerned with the wellness of their clients. Despite these differences, the global themes emerging across both management perspectives were Selection Rationale and Negative Characteristics.
Selection Rationale, a global theme, refers to the qualifications managers look for when hiring a personal trainer. Again, for-profit and nonprofit managers' motivations for hiring were fundamentally different, but the qualities identified by each type of manager were remarkably consistent. These qualities became evident in the following major themes: Social Skills, Malleability, Physique/Appearance, and Education.
Social Skill refers to the ability to interact effectively with a diverse population of clients. When asked which qualities the managers look for when hiring a trainer, 54.5% (n = 6) listed personality, and 45.5% (n = 5) listed credentials. In addition to a trainer's social skills, the managers felt that trainers who were interested in on-the-job training more were more marketable. Malleability is a major theme that emerged as being important to the managers; most felt that they could mold their employees into better trainers if the trainers were willing to learn. One manager commented, “The biggest trait I like to look for is that they're malleable. I like them to be young and not really know what they're doing. I like them to be fresh out of the education program, or maybe [be] a lifelong bodybuilder and just want to be a personal trainer.”
Physique/Appearance was another major theme that emerged but only for the for-profit managers. These managers reported that the trainer's physical appearance is a highly significant factor when hiring. In other words, the for-profit managers believed that the trainer's physical appearance is what attracts clients; the more attractive the body, the more clients are going to want to train with that particular trainer. In fact, one of the for-profit managers stated that he “would not hire an overweight trainer because s/he would not be able to sell her/himself in his gym.” In contrast, one manager at a nonprofit facility indicated that the appearance of the trainer's physique really does not make a difference in her facility. She notes, “‘I’m lucky that [my facility] has a really laid back family atmosphere, so it truly does not matter what the trainer looks like.”
Although the managers agreed that clients evaluate trainers based on their physiques, both for-profit and nonprofit managers indicated that the trainer's personality, knowledge, and skill would overcome the potential obstacle of a less-than-perfect body. Once the client realizes that the trainer is knowledgeable, the physique of the trainer becomes less of a factor. However, it seems that for clients to hire a trainer who has a less-than-fit physique, the trainer either has to have a manager that ‘sells’ him or her to the client, or the client must observe other people who have obtained desired results from that trainer.
Education was the last major theme associated with Selection Rationale for managers. It included the subthemes, College and Certifications (Figure 1). College refers to any type of formal postsecondary education, including a bachelor's degree from a college/university, 2-year associate's degree, or graduate school. Although all but 1 of the managers believed that a 4-year degree is necessary to be a competent trainer, they did not specify a particular major or the field of study. One manager who had been in the industry for 19 years, yet just recently received her bachelor's in exercise and sport science, stated, “I think a degree is important. I really think that if they can sit and be focused for four years…they [can] make great trainers.” Another participant, however, did not agree that a degree is necessary, because of the lack of practical skills he has encountered with interns from a degree program. He remarked, “You're always going to defend the background that you came from. I didn't go to college.”
These comments led to an in-depth discussion of undergraduate exercise science curricula. The consensus was that many students lack practical skills and that such programs need to provide more hands-on experiences. One manager noted, “All exercise science programs…make great exercise scientists, but they don't make personal trainers. I don't know of any ESS [Exercise and Sport Science] program in the country that gives you any practical floor experience or counseling.”
Another manager suggested that internships should be more closely monitored. One manager noted, “What I [wanted] to do [as an intern] is get a client load, and you, as the coordinator, prepare a six person client load for me and I work as a personal trainer for six months Instead, I got coffee, scrubbed floors and washed cars.”
Still another manager, reflecting on his own personal experience, indicated that he does not expect new trainers to have any practical knowledge. “We have students come in-I don't expect them to know how to train, even though they have degrees, ‘cause I feel like I can train them better to be a personal trainer than they’re ever going to learn in school'.”
Thus, it appears the managers' opinions regarding college degrees were mixed. Some of the managers believed that an undergraduate degree is necessary for a base knowledge and for developing the discipline required to earn a college degree. However, they also agreed that typical undergraduate exercise science curricula do not provide the practical experiences needed to become a successful trainer. The discussion of education led to a discussion of certifications, which, as 1 manager mentioned, may give the trainer credibility in the eyes of the public, but does not test their practical skills.
Certifications emerged as a subtheme and included a discussion of the various certification examinations currently available. Survey results indicated that 27.3% (n = 3) preferred their trainers to be NSCA certified, 18.2% (n = 2) preferred ACE, and 18.2% (n = 2) listed AFAA as a preferred certification. Regarding credentials, 63.6% (n = 7) agree that certification was necessary for trainers in their facilities. American College of Sports Medicine was listed by 36.3% (n = 4) as an acceptable certification, and 36.3% (n = 4) listed NSCA as an acceptable certification. The managers agreed that certifications are necessary for liability reasons and also to provide some indication of the presence of core knowledge. However, the managers also agreed that many certifications do not test practical skills and do little except possibly generate profit for the organization from which they come. One manager commented, “I look at it from a liability standpoint, and it's crucial that anybody who's in the facility have…just a basic certification…anything.” In contrast, another manager's facility did not require a certification to hire a trainer because the facility's license covers all employed trainers. Another manager commented, “I'm coming from a facility where we're covered. We're employees, just like working for a plumber-you may not be licensed, but you're OK if you screw up, ‘cause you’re under his license.”
Relative to the most widely recognized and respected certifications, managers identified NSCA, ACSM, the Cooper Institute, and the YMCA certifications. One trainer stated that he and his business partner “…believe that all our trainers [are] certified NSCA, either CPT or CSCS-or leaning in that direction because we want to have a channel open for medical practitioners to filter us clients.” Managers agreed, however, that like college degrees, certification does not guarantee a competent personal trainer.
Finally, it was mentioned that many of these certifications are not necessarily designed to recognize qualified trainers but rather to generate profit for the certifying organization. The managers also agreed that the more recognized and respected certifications provided trainers a certain degree of base knowledge; but again, there is no assurance that the trainer possesses the requisite practical skills.
The last subtheme under Client Loyalty was Licensure. Survey results indicated that 63.6% (n = 7) of the managers agreed that certification was necessary for trainers in their facilities. American College of Sports Medicine was listed by 36.3% (n = 4) as an acceptable certification, and 36.3% (n = 4) listed NSCA as an acceptable certification. When asked which qualities the managers look for when hiring a trainer, 54.5% (n = 6) listed personality, and 45.5% (n = 5) listed credentials. The managers agreed that there should be 1 governing body for personal trainers and that this body should include licensure. Similar to the requirements for athletic training, teaching, counseling, and practicing medicine, the managers indicated that trainers should be required to complete a specific number of hours in a practical setting under the supervision of a mentor before they are permitted to take the certifying examination and/or train clients. This echoes the suggestion of Rupp et al. (16) who recommended that before seeking employment, a trainer should teach classes, attend workshops, and complete a supervised practicum (e.g., internship).
In summary, the majority of the managers indicated that an attractive, fit physique is an important attribute when selecting or hiring new trainers because clients tend gravitate toward trainers with attractive physiques. However, they also indicated that the trainer's social skills keep the client coming back. In addition, the managers also prefer trainers who are malleable, or are willing to learn, because this type of trainer affords the manager more control regarding the development of personal trainers' technique and style. Finally, despite their reservations (e.g., lack of practical experience), managers indicated that a college degree is essential for base knowledge.
The other global theme that emerged from the manager focus group was Negative Characteristics and consisted of attributes that managers do not like to see in personal trainers. These characteristics include the following: arrogance and recommending faulty nutritional information. "One manager remarked, “[Cocky] trainers go through that first 6 months to a year and they're still broke. They haven't built a clientele. They either go through the humility phase and start fitting in, or they find another job.” Negative characteristics also consist of the converse of the attributes noted in Selection Rationale: lack of social skills, rigidity (i.e., not open to new techniques/styles), lack of practical skills or a solid educational background, or, for the for-profit managers, unfit physique appearance.
The managers also identified a number of Consequences that might result from these Negative Characteristics, including Injury and Bad Reputation. The managers' main concern with these consequences was an ultimate loss of business. One noted, “A lot of times, you won't hear the complaint, you just won't see [the client] anymore. Members leave, clients leave, so you don't know why. You develop a reputation of having poor trainers.” When probed about potential lawsuits, however, the managers were hesitant to even discuss it, as it could be potentially injurious for them. They indicated that loss of business for other reasons occurs much more often than lawsuits, so this was their primary concern.
The purpose of the present study was to examine managers' perceptions of the qualities needed to be successful in the fitness industry. To our knowledge, this study is the first to examine the current state of personal training from a manager's perspective. Using focus group methodology, 2 themes emerged: Selection Rationale and Negative Characteristics. Differences in motive were found between for-profit and nonprofit managers with for-profit managers primarily concerned with running a profitable business, and the not-for-profit managers being driven more by wellness of their clientele.
Both the for-profit and not-for-profit managers emphatically emphasized the social skills of the trainers and their willingness to learn while on the job. The following attributes were valued by both sets of managers: sensitivity to a wide range of abilities and a diverse clientele, awareness of clients' moods, and the ability to motivate clients. These findings seem to suggest that the preparation of personal trainers should include units that focus on the development of dispositions necessary to achieve the most success with clients.
Perhaps one of the most striking findings of the present study is the critical role of the trainers' physique. The for-profit managers clearly identified the trainer's physique as a significant factor in the selection and/or hiring process. These managers, driven by the profit motive, even suggested that they would not even hire a personal trainer that appeared unfit or overweight. This finding is not surprising when considered within the context of contemporary cultural norms. Although the managers recognized that the trainer's physique does not necessarily equate with competence, the bottom line is sales in a for-profit facility, and clients are clearly attracted to trainers with fit and sculpted physiques.
Another theme was Education, which was discussed in terms of college and certifications. The managers considered education a priority when hiring the trainers and stated that there are many disreputable certification organizations in business today. They believed that even the more respected certifications (e.g., ACSM, NSCA) do not test all of the pertinent fundamental and applied competencies needed to be a successful trainer (e.g., how to design a program, business management, psychology).
There is little research addressing the importance of certification from the clients' perspective. Certainly, a widespread expectation that trainers would be equipped with some sort of certification would alter the landscape for both profit and nonprofit facilities. The current situation, however, seems to include trainers who are certified and those who are not.
Interestingly, the managers did not mention that increasing the level of skill and requirements needed to practice as a personal trainer would most likely result in increased personal trainer wages. Moreover, only a handful of the managers surveyed stated that degrees and certification were a factor in determining compensation for trainers, indicating that other factors such as re-signing clients, seniority, and receiving a percentage of their gross were much more salient to the managers.
In terms of postsecondary preparation, the managers noted that most college curricula do not include those practical and applied competencies needed to be a successful trainer. In other words, they believe students seeking to make personal training a full-time career should be required to take psychology and business management courses specifically geared toward personal training, and applied courses and internships that focus on designing training programs for diverse clientele.
This discussion of education led to the suggestion of state licensure for personal trainers. The managers suggested licensure was a way to regulate and standardize the personal training industry. They suggested that trainers be required to take college courses for a base knowledge, and to log a certain number of hours under the supervision of a mentor before taking the licensure examination, much like physical therapists and athletic trainers. As the evidence grows supporting exercise as a both a primary and secondary preventive behavior, health care providers may someday refer patients to personal trainers. Additionally, licensure would allow third party billing, allowing personal trainers to be either compensated directly by insurance companies or allow patients to be reimbursed for payment for services. According to the managers, state licensure signifies a way to make more money by receiving referrals from medical practitioners and being able to bill insurance.
According to these managers, there are a number of personal trainers practicing who are not properly trained and/or are unethical and unprofessional in their behavior (e.g. sexual comments, failing to attend to the client, not dedicated to the profession). The main consequences of these incompetent trainers are injuries to the clients and poor public perception regarding the fitness and personal training professionals. If clients are becoming injured, or are experiencing unethical and unprofessional behavior with their personal trainers, it stands to reason that they will not continue with their trainers. In fact, some clients may become so disenchanted with personal training from one experience that they may not decide to give another trainer a chance.
In light of our contemporary litigious culture, it would seem to be in the managers' best interests to be concerned about possible lawsuits, because a single lawsuit could ultimately lead to bankruptcy and/or loss of the business altogether. Interestingly, however, the managers stated that many times the client would simply leave the trainer or the facility without telling the managers why. Although this does not play out in legal ways, it nevertheless results in a loss of business for the facility. Additionally, the managers believe that the clients will voice negative opinions related to the trainer and/or facility, which will cause the business to get a bad reputation, ultimately resulting in an even greater loss of business. Surprisingly, the managers did not mention lawsuits as a possible consequence of incompetent trainers, and when probed, most did not even want to discuss it due to an irrational fear of cursing their businesses. Clearly, competent trainers who are well trained in biomechanics, exercise physiology, athletic training, motor control, and behavior modification certainly decrease the potential for litigation.
Several limitations should be acknowledged: First, qualitative methods were used and therefore, the results cannot be generalized to other populations. Second, although focus groups were used, the sample size was small (n = 11). Third, all qualitative research is dependent on the biases of the authors that analyze the data. Although measures were taken to eliminate bias (the lead author completed a bracketing interview and 3 authors analyzed the data through consensus agreement), it is possible that preconceived beliefs may have influenced the analysis. Despite these limitations, however, the authors believe that the results of the present study contribute to scholarly inquiry and offer some important practical applications for both managers and personal trainers.
First, the authors believe that undergraduate and certification programs should include formal training in the development of interpersonal skills such as active listening, empathic communication, and behavioral strategies to enhance motivation. The findings of the present study are consistent with research has shown that using such techniques will positively influence exercise adherence (2,17,18), and participants in the current study believed clients stayed with trainers who exhibited these skills. Additionally, the managers' perspectives in this study echoed those of personal trainers' in a previous study (13). Indeed, Cress et al. (6) have recently developed best practices regarding behavioral counseling and physical activity in older adults. The authors support formal incorporation of best practices into undergraduate program.
A second suggestion is that undergraduate college curricula in fitness leadership should include practical components with the internship experience, including units in management and the development of interpersonal skills necessary to be a personal trainer. The managers in the present study with a health-related degree felt that college had prepared personal trainers with theory but not enough applicable knowledge. As many of the managers in this study noted, most of their own practical skills were learned on the job.
The managers also suggested that technical training is not sufficient as a prerequisite for hiring personal trainers. The development of communication skills, practice in designing programs, and practical experience with business/facility management would greatly enhance the preparedness of new personal trainers. A management course specifically geared toward these dispositions would be particularly beneficial to trainers who are beginning their careers.
Students who are preparing for a career in personal training should also be aware of industry expectations in terms of appearance. This is especially true in the for-profit sector. Although students who do not necessarily have an ideal physique should not be discouraged from pursuing this career, they should be cognizant of the sentiment of those who will hire them.
A final suggestion to strengthen the current state of personal training is to move toward state licensure. The participants in the present study echo a recurrent theme within the industry regarding multiple certifications and licensure. Currently, there are at least 19 different personal trainer certification organizations (1), and approximately 90 organizations offering fitness certifications (20). With so many organizations having their own criteria for membership and certification as a personal trainer, there has been little regulation or assurance that personal trainers working in the field are qualified. The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, whose mission is “to grow, protect and promote the health and fitness industry…” (10), began an effort in 2002 urging fitness organizations to become accredited from nationally recognized accrediting bodies such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, the Distance Education Training Council, and the American National Standards Institute (20). The NSCA, ACSM, and ACE are a few fitness organizations that have done so. Additionally, bills for state licensure have been proposed in states such as New Jersey, Maryland, and Georgia. If these bills become laws, trainers would be licensed and regulated by a state-appointed board (9).
One nonprofit organization, the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE), has a mission to “ensure to the public that qualified fitness professionals who have successfully passed the National Board examination have achieved the approved level of competency in the health and fitness industry” (14). Founded in 2003, the NBFE solicited input from all of the major fitness certifying bodies regarding the development of national board examinations for various fitness professionals such as personal trainers, group exercise leaders, and medical exercise specialists. Some of the states seeking licensure propose to use the NBFE Personal Trainer Fitness Examination for state licensure purposes. However, the NBFE believes that ultimately, having one national board exam would be in the best interests of a state proposing licensure and for personal trainers who move from one state to another.
In conclusion, Rhodes (15) suggests, “Stellar employees are those who identify with members, build relationships with them, keep their safety in mind at all times and, most importantly, remain stellar because they like their job, and you, as the manager, are doing what it takes to keep them.” The authors believe that results of the present study and the suggestions presented for undergraduate curricula and licensure have the potential to produce stellar personal trainers who enhance the personal training industry. Ultimately, improving the industry has the potential to improve public perception, job security, salaries, exercise adherence, and, perhaps, public health.
We wish to thank all the participants whose time, thoughts, and enthusiasm were invaluable to this study.