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Original Research

The Acquisition and Development of Fitness Trainers' Professional Knowledge

De Lyon, Alexander T.C.; Cushion, Christopher J.

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 5 - p 1407-1422
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182653cc1
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Membership of health and fitness clubs has grown rapidly since the early 1990s (10), along with the number of fitness workers worldwide (4). Paradoxically, growth in the health, fitness, and leisure industries has been accompanied by a significant rise in obesity levels and physical inactivity (25). However, there are significant health and fitness benefits of engaging in regular physical activity (43), and there remains a continued popularity of fitness and gym-based activities (31). Therefore, as health and fitness professionals, fitness trainers (i.e., fitness instructors and personal trainers) provide a link between gym users and the larger fitness and leisure industries; it has become increasingly important to investigate those who are responsible for training and educating within these environments.

Fitness professionals use a personalized approach to assess, motivate, and train clients with regard to their health and fitness needs (27). A crucial part of this role is education; thus, fitness trainers are intimately engaged with knowledge that both includes and extends beyond physical activity domains (15). Gavin, for example, showed that personal trainers often engage in, and take responsibility for, a wide variety of health behaviors that lie beyond the educational boundaries of their role. Moreover, Melton et al. (29,30) highlighted how the fitness trainer's role is both complex and multidimensional in nature; yet, research has, thus far, failed to demonstrate how fitness trainers develop knowledge that accommodates such complexity.

Malek et al. (27) developed the Fitness Instructors Knowledge Assessment to examine the relationships between commonly used indicators of knowledge (training and experience) and “actual” fitness knowledge (27) in 5 areas, including (a) nutrition, (b) health screening, (c) testing protocols, (d) exercise prescription, and (e) general training knowledge regarding special populations. These findings demonstrated that fitness trainers with a bachelor's degree or equivalent in exercise science scored higher in the objective measure of health- and fitness-related knowledge, but neither the number of years of experience working as a fitness trainer nor the number of core courses attended were shown to influence participants' level of knowledge in these areas.

Malek and Coburn (26) later described their study as “arguably the most important piece of research related to personal fitness trainers” (p. 2). However, adopting such an approach to investigating fitness trainers' knowledge not only serves to privilege the isolated impact of those variables whose impact can be measured, it also masks the complexity of knowledge development. To enable advancements in this area, fitness trainers' professional knowledge development needs to be understood within the context in which it takes place. Thus, qualitative interviews provide a useful method for exploring such under examined topics of inquiry, by identifying patterns and themes from the perspectives of the participants themselves (7).

A recent systematic review by Stacey et al. (39) investigated knowledge translation interventions targeting fitness trainers. They defined fitness trainers as “those individuals who provide exercise program design and supervision services to the public” (p. 1). However, nurses, physicians, physiotherapists, teachers, athletic trainers, sport coaches, and strength and conditioning coaches who arguably also fall within this broad definition were excluded. Results demonstrated that fitness trainers obtained information from a wide variety of sources, such as textbooks, networking with colleagues, scientific journals, and mass media. Those with higher education levels relied on more evidence-based sources (e.g., scientific journals) in comparison with fitness trainers with lower education levels, who relied on less credible sources of information (e.g., mass media). However, there remains little understanding of the way in which fitness trainers used such sources within the context of their professional development. Therefore, qualitative research designs offer an important way of understanding fitness trainers' professional knowledge development by moving beyond the simple identification of individual knowledge sources (18). Moreover, the scope of the review by Stacey et al. (39) was limited to just 2 studies (12,19), which met the authors' criteria for inclusion.

Of these, the study by Forsyth et al. (12) was based on questionable conceptual foundations as fitness instructors were defined broadly as “those males or females who provided exercise advice, in any capacity, to individuals within the community” [emphasis added] (p. 157). Therefore, it is unsurprising given the broad definition that these authors concluded that, “… inconsistencies can exist with fitness instructors' knowledge, approaches and preparedness for helping overweight clients” (p. 164). This highlights the need for researchers to clearly define who are fitness professionals and adopt greater rigor in determining future inclusion criteria, as well as the importance of governing bodies such as the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs), to act as frameworks to operationalize fitness training qualifications.

The Register of Exercise Professionals is the independent public register responsible for recognizing the qualifications and expertise of health enhancing exercise instructors in the United Kingdom. Their mission is to ensure that exercise professionals in the United Kingdom are suitably knowledgeable and qualified to help safeguard and promote the health and interests of the people who use their services. Register of Exercise Professionals was a founding member of the International Confederation of Registers of Exercise Professionals and partner of the European Register of Exercise Professionals. These established partnerships developed between registers in over 30 countries devised a worldwide framework of knowledge and competency standards for fitness professionals. However, although there has been a paucity of research investigating the knowledge and skills fitness trainers develop, no research has considered the development of fitness trainers' knowledge within these formal accreditation systems.

Although membership of the register in the United Kingdom remains voluntary, the register has over 29,500 memberships. Consistent with registry bodies in other countries such as New Zealand and Australia, membership to REPs can be achieved through completing 2 types of initial accreditation. Completing either of these pathways signifies that an exercise professional has met minimum prescribed industry standards. One type relates to those that take between 1 and 3 years, mainly in full-time education at further and higher education institutions and may require 6 months work experience before full REPs status can be achieved. The other main set of qualifications are National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) obtained via assessment in the workplace and Related Vocational Qualifications, which involve training courses with assessments that may be undertaken before employment. These qualifications provide direct entry onto the REPs register and often require few, if any, prerequisite qualifications as criteria for entry. However, no research has investigated how the knowledge and skills fitness trainers develop vary between the current REPs accreditation pathways. This is amid concerns that the formal education pathways are failing to adequately prepare fitness trainers with the appropriate knowledge and skills to meet the challenges of “real-world” fitness environments (24).

According to Melton et al. (30), “all one has to do to become a ‘certified’ [fitness] trainer is to pay a fee, [and] take an exam” (p. 884), which is problematic given that many gym users take the basic knowledge and skills of fitness trainers for granted (30). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate how fitness trainers acquired and developed knowledge and perceived this in relation to their professional practice. This process was examined within the context of participants' life history and developmental path within the health and fitness industry.


Experimental Approach to the Problem

In view of the limited understanding of fitness trainers' professional knowledge development, a qualitative interview-based design was selected to answer the study's overreaching question, “How do fitness trainers acquire and develop knowledge and perceived this in relation to their professional practice?” Such a design is suitable when examining topics (a) focused on people's experiences, (b) that involve social processes, such as professional knowledge development, and (c) when researchers do not wish to use standardized measuring instruments that may prevent subjects from providing relevant data (35,41). Qualitative interview-based approaches can also be facilitative in integrating the how and why of dynamic human realities and deepening our understanding of related experiential and contextual influences (21). According to Strean (40), qualitative inductive methodologies and emergent potentialities characteristic of such a design are deemed well suited to gaining insight in areas of research where little is currently firmly established (21).

Patton's (35) guidelines for qualitative interview studies were used to ensure that the study adhered to accepted rigorous design procedures. To be interviewed, subjects were required to hold a REPs accredited initial training qualification and have at least 1 year's experience working as a fitness trainer as their main occupation. A length of 1 year was selected to ensure participants had exceeded the 6 months required to attain full REP status with a degree course in a sport- and exercise-related subject and to ensure that the individuals being interviewed had the experience and knowledge to provide data to allow the research questions to be answered. In terms of the sample size, Sandelowski (36) argued that, “an adequate sample size in qualitative research is one that permits … the deep, case-oriented analysis that … results in a new and richly textured understanding of experience” (p. 183). Consequently, the sample size was appropriate because it enabled the investigators to attribute meaning and context to the themes that were drawn from the data. Because no new themes came from the analysis, it was deemed that both theoretical and data saturation had occurred (35).


Following institutional ethics approval, subjects were selected using purposive stratified sampling (34) to capture any variations between REPs accreditation pathways, to identify common themes relating to fitness trainers acquisition and development of knowledge and ensure that the data gathered were specific to the given research area (35). The sample included 11 fitness trainers (7 men and 4 women) between the ages of 21 and 42 years (mean = 25.6, SD = 6.17) with 1–15 years (mean = 5.3, SD = 4.0) experience working in the fitness industry as a fitness trainer. Subject demographics, conditions of employment, and training details are presented in Table 1.

Table 1
Table 1:
Fitness trainer details.*

Design and Procedure

A semi-structured interview guide was developed for the purpose of this study (Appendix A) to enhance the comprehensiveness of the data (35). This ensured that the data are related to the research question while also enabling the interviewer to explore, probe, and ask questions that elucidate and illuminate topics that arose during the interview (34). The questions were derived from issues identified from studies relating to this area (27,39). Before each interview, demographic information and informed consent was obtained using a brief questionnaire (Appendix B) and informed consent document. Interviews started with a set of general questions pertaining to participants' fitness and occupational backgrounds, to situate their learning and professional development within the context of their life histories. These questions aimed to encourage the participants to talk more openly and descriptively in the presence of the interviewer (35). The interview subsequently addressed how their knowledge was acquired or developed. More specifically, it aimed to identify the sources, situations, and environments in which participants perceived learning to have occurred. The barriers to knowledge development and participants' changes over time were also evaluated and discussed. Open questions (e.g., “what kinds of knowledge have found to be the most important to your role?”) were then followed up with more specific questions (e.g., “how do you feel this knowledge was developed?”) to enable respondents to explore certain aspects with the interviewer in a reflexive manner. As issues arose in the interview situation, these were explored, and interviews continued until saturation point was reached on a particular issue (16), that is, when no new concepts or themes were unearthed. The order of presentation of the questions was adapted, allowing fitness trainers to take the interview in the direction that they considered to be the most appropriate. All interviews were conducted face to face and lasted an average of 80 minutes. Interviews were tape recorded in their entirety and transcribed verbatim, yielding over 180 pages typed single-spaced.

Statistical Analyses

Data were analyzed using guidelines set out by Braun and Clarke (2) using a 6-stage process:

  • As each interview was conducted, it was immediately transcribed verbatim. Each transcript was given back to the fitness trainers to ensure that the transcribed data were a true representation and articulation of the ideas and experiences.
  • Initial patterns of meaning and issues of potential interest were looked for in the data. This involved the production of initial codes from the data. Codes were used to identify a feature of the data (semantic content or latent) and referred to “the most basic segment, or element, of the raw data or information that can be assessed in a meaningful way regarding the phenomenon” [(1); p. 63]. For example, the initial code of “learning through the challenges of everyday work” was identified as a consistently occurring issue within the data.
  • Once all data had been initially coded and collated, analysis was focused on the broader level of themes rather than codes. A theme was used to capture something important about the data in relation to the research question and represent some level of patterned response and meaning within the data set (2). For example, “learning through the challenges of everyday work” was considered to demonstrate a patterned response with the initial codes of “learning through making mistakes” and organized under the broad theme of informal learning.
  • Data within themes were organized so that meaningful, coherent, and identifiable distinctions could be made between themes. For example, the theme of “informal learning” was divided into the subthemes of “learning on the job,” “influence of the (fitness) environment,” “learning from others,” “developing social skills,” “self-directed research,” and “trial and error learning” to create an identifiable distinction from the theme of formal learning. The validity of individual themes in relation to the entire data set was also considered.
  • A thematic map of the data was then developed where themes were defined and refined to the “essence” of what each theme was about (2). For the purposes of this study, the work of Coombs and Ahmed (6) was identified as a useful framework for defining the delimiting criteria for each theme, and a final thematic map was produced (Figure 1).
  • Once a set of fully worked out themes had been developed, the manuscript was produced. Analysis of the data did not involve simply moving from one phase to the next, rather the data were analyzed using a more fluid and dynamic integration of the phases discussed (2).
Figure 1
Figure 1:
Thematic map of the data. REPs = Register of Exercise Professionals; NVQs = National Vocational Qualifications; CPD = Continuous Professional Development.

Validity and Reliability

While acknowledging that various criteria exist for evaluating the quality of qualitative research (22,38,44), this study sought to employ the criteria most appropriate for the research question and emergent data. Specifically, 2 approaches were used to demonstrate validity and reliability (35). First, data-source triangulation involved collecting information from the subjects with different professional qualifications (either NVQ, private, or higher education degree qualifications) and who had worked in the 3 different fitness sectors (public, private, or contract-managed local authority sectors), to contribute to a heterogeneous sample. External validity is indicated to the degree that similar themes emerge across different individuals and sectors (41). Second, a member checking technique was carried out to ensure that the subjects had equal input in analysis and interpretation of results and to ensure accuracy of findings. Subjects were asked to read the transcripts and to confirm their responses during each interview had been accurately represented and interpreted. In addition, 2 subjects were then asked in face-to-face meetings to run through real-world examples of how interpretations from the data fit into their practice as fitness trainers. No changes were made to the thematic map as a result of these meetings. Finally, subjects were sent final copies of the manuscripts to test the credibility of the inquiry report as a whole. All fitness trainers confirmed these results to be representative of how they had developed the professional knowledge for their role.


Results of the thematic analysis are presented with an emphasis on verbatim text, demonstrating not only concepts but also the relationships between the concepts (16). Findings have been organized under 3 higher order themes: formal, nonformal, and informal learning, using the work of Coombs and Ahmed (6). Whereas there are considerable debates and complexities around the use of the terms formal and informal learning, this work has previously been identified as a useful tool for organizing research in learning in sports coaching (32). Although each of these categories is discussed and described separately, they should be conceptualized as “interconnected modes of learning rather than discrete entities” [(32); p. 249].

Formal Learning

Coombs and Ahmed (6) defined formal learning as something that takes place in an “institutionalized, chronologically graded and hierarchically structured educational system” (p. 8). Fitness trainers indicated that formal learning resulted in the acquisition of knowledge, which they considered to be useful for their role. However, they also noted the limitations of the learning that took place during formal education, particularly with regard to its “practical” significance. The theme of formal learning was divided into 3 subthemes: REPs level, perceptions of degree courses, and perception of course assessment methods.

Register of Exercise Professionals Level

Fitness trainers' perceptions of formal education were influenced by the REPs accreditation level of the qualification, whereby, REPs level 3 was perceived to be “a lot better than the level 2.” For example, Paul stated:

“I don't think the Level 2 course really gave me that much … but afterwards that course led me on to the Level 3 Personal Trainer course and that's where I did get a little more in-depth in terms of the knowledge I would need to underpin my work.”

Laura, who had completed REPs level 3 qualifications in both the private and NVQ pathways, expressed that an equivalent level on the REPs register did not equip her with an equal degree of level of knowledge. She described the NVQ structure as “very bitty” and “found it very disjointed.” This indicated a more complex relationship between fitness trainers' acquisition of knowledge during their formal training than those represented by the current REPs accreditation framework.

Unwin et al. (42) suggest that there has been a strong tendency of the United Kingdom policymakers, employers, and the agencies/training providers to conceptualize work-related learning as a linear fixed-time activity, where qualifications act as a proxy for job competence and skills. Although participants in this study considered the REPs education framework to be a reliable measure of fitness instructors' knowledge and competence, this was partly because of their limited respect for courses holding REPs level 2 status. For example, Richard explained: “Level 2 is very much looked over by employers.” So to some extent, fitness trainers perceived their knowledge to be inextricably related to their REPs accreditation level. However, the complexity of this relationship was further enhanced by participants' perceived need to manage their behavior during formal assessments.

Perceptions of Formal Assessment

Fitness trainers described a difference between the way in which they behaved during the practical assessments for their initial training courses and their actual behavior within fitness environments. Three participants used similar “driving-test” analogies to describe the transition from formal education to actual practice. For example, Josh and Edward stated:

“It's similar to your driving test. So your instructor teaches you to pass your test, but then … you make the decisions. It's up to you to take it further and see where you go…” (Josh).

“…It's just like driving really. You learn it all and you pass and you think, okay, well I'm going to go out there and do all these complex programs. But what I found at my first job was what I was writing wasn't suiting the client because it was either too long or too difficult.” (Edward).

Paul raised concerns regarding the behavioral emphasis and structure of the REPs accredited formal education courses; which he described as, “very much, monkey see, monkey do.” He stated:

“So it's a case of we'll show you something, you then have a go at teaching it … So there's no real understanding there … and you may not necessarily agree with the knowledge that they have given you … but you are almost just jumping through hoops just to pass basically, even if you don't agree with it.”

Fitness trainers' perceived need to manage their behaviors during formal training was similar to those described by Chesterfield et al. (5). These authors used Goffman's work on the presentation of the self in everyday life to explain how coaches engaged in forms of “impression management” to create a “front” to meet the expectations of their examiners. According to Goffman (17), the front refers “to that part of the individual's performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the social situation for those who observe performance” (p. 22). The successful creation of a front involves the careful control of one's communicative sources to convince an audience of the appropriateness of behavior while complying with the role that is assumed (20). Indeed, findings from this study suggested that fitness trainers also put on a show for the benefit of their audience, the examiners, irrespective of the sincerity behind the actions, to achieve the goal of passing their initial qualifications and allow them to gain employment within the health and fitness industries.

Perceptions of Degree Courses

The value of degree courses for developing fitness trainers' professional knowledge was an issue of some contention. The majority of participants indicated that the knowledge acquired during degree courses was often too disparate from that needed to perform the fitness trainer role. Heather stated: “the things that I learnt in my degree weren't really useful for working with clients.” However, in contrast, Ash suggested that the knowledge he gained during his degree was “really useful” for helping him to meet his role expectations. Consequently, the perceived value of knowledge developed during degree programs may have been influenced by differences between the educational and work contexts as well as the dispositions of each participant.

Eraut (9) argues that the cultures of higher education and the workplace develop contrasting kinds of knowledge. Fitness trainers associated higher education degree courses with what Eraut calls “theoretical knowledge,” that is, knowledge constructed in the context of either a subject discipline or an applied field (9). Although this form of knowledge can serve to develop new thinking about occupational roles, fitness trainers expressed a need to develop what they regarded as “industry knowledge” (Josh), acquired through experience working in the fitness industry. This type of knowledge is closely aligned with what Eraut terms “general knowledge about the occupation,” including its structure, modes of working, cultural values, and career opportunities. Such knowledge was an important constituent of fitness trainers' learning and development but usually took place beyond formal accreditation. The data, therefore, provides evidence to demonstrate why some fitness employers have expressed concerns that formal education does not equip trainers with the core skills needed for working in the fitness industry (24).

Informal Learning

Coombs and Ahmed (6) conceptualize informal learning as “the lifelong process by which every person acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes, and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment” (p. 8). An important finding from this study was the majority of learning occurred informally, beyond dedicated formal training environments. This finding is consistent with those of previous authors who have examined learning in the context of sport and workplace environments (32). The theme of informal learning was divided into 6 subthemes: learning on the job, influence of the (fitness) environment, learning from others, developing social skills, self-directed research, and trial and error learning.

Learning on the Job

Participants considered learning on the job to be the most important way of developing knowledge for the role of a fitness trainer. For example, Richard stated:

“I think that knowledge is very much work-based learning, if anything … people come off the back of six week PT courses and intense courses or may go to college or uni and do Sports Science for four years … but if you want to do a fitness instructor role, or a PT role, you need to be in the business doing what you need to be doing and learning and getting the experience.”

This is consistent with the work of Melton et al. (29,30) who suggested that the majority of personal trainers' skills are learned on the job. It also reveals a gap between the knowledge needed to work and the knowledge and skills produced during formal education. In this way, fitness trainers considered that learning need not be viewed as something that required time-out from being engaged in productive activity, rather it could arise from the demands and challenges of their everyday work experiences (11).

Participants' perception that most learning occurs on the job is consistent with the conceptualization of learning of Lave and Wenger (23) as part of a situated social activity. This idea moves away from traditional learning theorists who conceptualize the learner as a receptacle of (taught) knowledge and learning as a discrete cognitive process (18). Yet, privileging the learning that takes place on the job over other formal methods of learning creates a number of problems. For example, learning which occurs on the job is largely tacit in nature, and thus, it is difficult to detect or measure (10). Furthermore, becoming a constituent member of an existing culture could accommodate an uncritical acceptance of existing values and practices, which may lead to a cycle of potentially “poor” (unsafe or ineffective) practice (8). Consequently, both formal and informal learning were equally as important for developing professional expertise.

Influence of the Fitness Environment

Fitness trainers suggested that their learning was strongly influenced by their working (fitness) environments. Specifically, participants cited factors such as the other trainers, management, training equipment, and organizational support as key components residing within the environment that influenced their learning. For example, Sarah stated:

“I mean the one [fitness centre] that I'm working at, the people are very narrow-minded—there's no room for anything new, or any sort of progression … And there's no room for different classes, different equipment, anything … I mean you are restricted working at that gym because of the equipment and everything.”

Interestingly, Josh described a past instance in which he had felt restricted by the nature of the environment in which he was working. But having moved to a different company, he was relishing the “challenge” of increased responsibility and “variety.” He stated:

“I mean towards the end of my time at the smaller gym I … wasn't enjoying it as much as I had done in the past. And the step up now has really invigorated me and freshened up my belief that this is definitely what I wanted to do and my belief that this is what I wanted to do when I first started out … at the moment I'm the main full-time instructor or consultant at [names centre] and I'm in charge of the GP Referral Scheme as well … it's been a real turn around for me.”

According to Fuller and Unwin (13,14), all workplaces and learning environments have expansive and restrictive features that influence employees' learning. Participants working within restrictive gym environments offering limited career progressions, narrowness in learning opportunities (e.g., limited tasks, knowledge), and little off-the-job training resulted in a reduced sense of personal and professional development. In contrast, fitness trainers working within more expansive gym environments described a breadth of learning opportunities through increased responsibility (e.g., involvement in GP Referral Schemes and class teaching roles), access to a range of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) courses, the support of their managers (e.g., through encouraging fitness trainers to attend REPs certified refresher personal training courses), and multiple communities of practice inside and outside the workplace (e.g., with managers and other fitness trainers).

Learning From Others

Learning from others represented one of the most prominent and ubiquitous ways in which fitness trainers learned. Participants identified a wide range of networks with whom they engaged, including other fitness trainers, clients, and teaching staff, whereby, each of these networks was considered to be a “useful source of knowledge.” For example, David stated:

“I mean I think it is about picking up knowledge off other people really—so mainly people who I work with … A lot of people who have been through university and college and are kind of doing this on a part-time instructor basis, it is nice getting some of their knowledge as well and speaking to them.”

A number of participants also described how they had learned through observing the behaviors of other trainers. For example, Ash noted:

“I've learnt a lot of new exercises. Just different exercises, for weight loss, and exercises that I can do for my own training programs, and that was just from watching other trainers and picking up tips from them based on what they were doing.”

Engaging within these multiple networks became an important way for fitness trainers to develop and share knowledge. However, while these networks provided valuable forums for sharing ideas, stories, and ways of doing things, they were also somewhat limiting when used as an isolated method of professional knowledge development. For example, applying the ideas gained through speaking to other trainers may result in a superficial or incorrect understanding of a particular phenomenon and further add to a cycle of poor practice (8). Thus, it becomes necessary to consider fitness trainers' informal learning on both a social and individual level.

Developing Social Skills

Participants indicated that experience working in the fitness industry had enabled them to develop knowledge of how to communicate and interact with their clients, or as David put it: “it's the way you put yourself across as an instructor that's important.” Rose also expressed that working as a fitness trainer was “very much a social thing” and added that, “knowing the person is really important because they think that you've got the interest in them.” This finding is consistent with previous research, which highlights the importance of social skills for working as a fitness trainer (24,29,30). In particular, Melton et al. (30) identified motivational skills, empathy, and social skills as being the most important qualities for developing client loyalty.

Lloyd (24) pointed out that an overreliance on social skills may overlook the underpinning knowledge required of the fitness training profession. This issue was exemplified by Sarah, who expressed that she did not want to be perceived as lacking the knowledge to perform her role, and stated “If somebody asks me a question in the gym, I kind of give a vague answer and I don't really know what happens, then I think; oh, I'll Google it.” This provides further evidence of fitness trainers' need to manage the impression they convey to others to maintain their knowledgeable “front” (17). In this way, fitness trainers' “performance” extends beyond their initial training environment, to meet the demands of their new audience (their clients). Yet, such a performance may lead to unsafe or ineffective practice. Consequently, Lloyd (24) argued, “if fitness instructors (and their employers) think that it is more important to smile and be enthusiastic rather than know how to work on a particular muscle group, then the use of the term ‘quality’ in service provision becomes something of a misnomer” (p. 193).

Self-Directed Research

The data revealed that fitness trainers used a variety of self-directed research methods to develop their knowledge and maintain “a good level of service” to their clients. For example, fitness trainers reported using a range of written sources, including; textbooks, fitness magazines, and professional publications with the most common source of self-directed learning being the Internet, because of its accessibility, low cost, and ease of use. However, participants were also wary about the quality of the information accessed via the Internet. For example, Richard stated:

“…there are a lot of tools out there, be it, YouTube, Google, whatever it is, there is a lot of stuff out there that is really really good and anybody can go and research it … I mean anybody can look up a video on YouTube and look up X amount of exercises … [So] you can do as much research as you like, but if you haven't got the knowledge behind it, it doesn't matter.”

Stacey et al. (39) suggested that fitness trainers with lower education levels are more likely to rely on less credible sources of information (e.g., websites) when compared with fitness trainers with higher education levels, who are likely to rely on more evidence-based sources (e.g., scientific journals). However, the present findings showed that fitness trainers with a degree in sport and exercise science also considered the Internet to be one of their most important sources of information. For example, Paul stated: “over the years I have used loads of different websites,” and noted that it was “more a case of how you sift through the crappy information to tell what the good information is.” In this example, Paul demonstrates how the theoretical knowledge gained during his formal education and degree courses may have served to enhance his use of the Internet as a knowledge source. Indeed, much theoretical knowledge remains inert or dormant until it is triggered by specific situations (9).

Trial and Error Learning

Many participants identified trial and error learning as a way of determining “what works best” with respect to their fitness practice. This trial and error process was divided into 2 interrelated types of learning. In the first type, participants would “experiment” with the information they had developed through a variety of sources and then use this information to deliver a service to their clients. This took the form of learning through making mistakes, learning how to manage each aspect of clients' fitness lifestyles (e.g., by focusing on diet or exercise-related goals) and knowing how to meet clients' expectations. In the second form of trial and error learning, participants expressed the need to experience the “feel” of performing a new exercise or training method before including them within their “fitness tool box.” For example, Paul stated:

“… if you are working as a fitness instructor and you are going to get someone else to do exercise, then you have got to know how it feels yourself. So you can relate to that client.”

This supports the idea that in the realm of fitness, the body can provide the dominant way of knowing (28). In this way, the kinesthetic sensations experienced while performing an exercise acted in collaboration with fitness trainers' previous knowledge to create a more holistic knowledge of performing an exercise or training method. Such knowledge would be highly difficult to measure and is likely to remain largely tacit or implicit.

Nonformal Learning

Coombs and Ahmed (6) conceptualized nonformal learning as “any organized, systematic, educational activity carried on outside the framework of the formal system to provide select types of learning to particular subgroups in the population” (p. 8). Fitness trainers are required to demonstrate that they have completed an appropriate number of CPD activities to remain on the REPs Register. However, participants' motivation for attending REPs accredited CPD courses and events was primarily a result of personal interest, as CPD events were identified as potentially rich forms of developing knowledge. In this study, the theme of nonformal learning was divided into 2 subthemes: CPD courses and barriers to CPD courses.

Continuous Professional Development Courses

For the purposes of the study, CPD was identified as all types of professional learning undertaken by fitness trainers beyond the initial point of training. Fitness trainers undertook a large array of CPD qualifications to enhance their professional knowledge. These courses were divided into 2 categories. The first category personal training-related courses/events were those CPD courses/events that aimed to improve the performance-related aspects of fitness training. For example, participants completed courses in strength and conditioning, kettle bells, boxing, speed agility and quickness, and nutrition. The second category was health-related courses, which aimed to develop their specialism in particular health-related issues. For example, participants reported undertaking courses specializing in GP Referral, ante- and postnatal treatment, and lower back injuries.

The wide variety of CPD courses that participants had completed highlighted the multifaceted and constantly evolving nature of fitness trainer roles. Despite acknowledging benefits of CPD courses/events, participants also identified significant barriers that prevented them from attending more courses.

Barriers to Continuous Professional Development Courses

Participants indicated that they would like to attend more CPD courses but were restricted by “financial” and “monetary” constraints. For example, as a self-employed personal trainer, Heather described how she balanced her CPD progression with her business needs:

“I mean lots of the courses are quite expensive … I don't feel I should be spending on courses at the moment … there are lots that I would like to do … I wanted to do courses but didn't have the money, but then you want to gain more knowledge so then you can gain more clients.”

The employed fitness trainers in the study described the key role their organizations and management played with respect to their CPD. For example, David and Sarah stated:

“… with a family and stuff, I can't afford to throw money left right and centre at training. I just can't do it. So that is a big barrier… So they would be more reluctant to send me on that course if I am not going to use it that much here … it would be good to boost my knowledge … But we will see how we go.” (David)

“The manager refuses to put anyone through a course anymore because I don't think that she's got as much funding this year … and [says the managers name] investing? Not likely.” (Sarah).

In contrast to these negative perceptions, Rose described how the financial support of her manager had assisted with her career development. She stated:

“Our gym manager is very good at putting you on courses, so you can keep your REPs points updated … he gives us the options. [He] will send us an email around and say ‘look, there's places left on this, that and the other, is anybody interested in it?' … But, if it wasn't for [says gym managers name] doing that? Then I wouldn't have got that and I wouldn't have got my extra REPs credits there.”

These statements provide further evidence to demonstrate the influence of Fuller and Unwin\x{2019}s (13,14) notion of expansive and restrictive working environments. Fitness trainers expressed a strong desire for self-development through attending more CPD courses and events. However, the career opportunities afforded by external (environmental) influences served to facilitate or limit this development. This supports the “Russian doll” analogy of Unwin et al. (42) to describe how work-based learning becomes a product of complex and interrelated factors occurring on individual, social, and organizational levels.


The purpose of this study was to investigate the acquisition and development of fitness trainers' knowledge and how this is related to their practice as health and exercise professionals. Using the work of Coombs and Ahmed (6) as a conceptual framework, results demonstrated that fitness trainers learned in multiple, complex, and often disparate ways, many of which occurred outside of their formal training environments. Given the complex and often disparate nature of the data, Sfard's (37) metaphors of learning provide a useful lens to further analysis, as metaphors represent “the most primitive, most elusive, and yet amazingly informative objects of analysis” (p. 4).

Sfard's (37) acquisition metaphor, usually associated with traditional approaches to learning and formal education, views learning as an individual activity, where the mind is a container of knowledge and learning is the process of filling that container. The acquisition metaphor provides a partial and somewhat incomplete way of explaining fitness trainers development of knowledge; on one hand, fitness trainers used REPs accreditation level as an indicator of professional competence. On the other hand, codified academic knowledge (9), gained through undertaking degree qualifications, was not considered to be a useful or transferable source of knowledge. This contrasts the findings of Malek et al. (27), who argued that fitness trainers “must have a strong foundation in exercise science” that is “best accomplished through formal education” (p. 23). However, adopting this viewpoint creates a separation between fitness trainers and the context in which they learn and therefore represents a fragmented and inadequate view of learning by assuming an unproblematic transfer between education and work settings (18).

Sfard (37) warned of the “dangers” of relying on just one metaphor of learning and subsequently introduced the participation metaphor alongside her acquisition metaphor. The participation metaphor views learning as a process of participation in various cultural practices and shared learning activities, which is consistent with fitness trainers' accounts of their knowledge development. For example, fitness trainers described the importance of learning from the practices of others and learning on the job as means of informal learning. In these instances, learning was situated within the context of their environment and involved a fluid and dynamic set of relationships and interactions with others, which resulted in a shared sense of meaning and collective understanding (3). Rather than simply applying an acquired “tool box” of knowledge removed from the “containers” of their mind, fitness trainers became a continuant of a more complex and dynamic process, where the focus was on the “knowing” rather than the products or outcomes (i.e., “knowledge”) (33,37).

The additional learning metaphor of Paavola et al. (33), knowledge creation, encompasses both the acquisition and participation metaphors to explain the way in which cognition and knowing are situated within environmental contexts. This is consistent with the themes from the present data, whereby, fitness trainers accumulated knowledge acquired from a variety of sources (e.g., the Internet, books, and formal education) and combined this knowledge with participatory forms of knowing (e.g., gained though observing the behavior of others and being part of an existing fitness culture) to build, create, and construct the knowledge and knowing that guides their behavior and practice. Therefore, fitness trainers' learning became a constantly evolving dynamic process of construction and interaction within a complex social reality.

Paavola et al. (33) suggested that knowledge creation often requires sustained periods of time because it transforms and develops over the course of one's life. Indeed, fitness trainers attributed greater value to the type of knowledge that they had been engaged with for the longest. Those who spent more time working in the fitness industry attributed greater value to industry knowledge and were less likely to acknowledge the benefits of higher education courses. In contrast, fitness trainers with less experience working in the fitness industry, or with degree qualifications in sport- and exercise-related subjects, attributed greater value to theoretical knowledge (9). Consequently, the time spent in each learning environment appeared to be a constituent of the way in which knowledge was acquired, developed, or created (33). A limitation of this study, therefore, was the use of single interviews, which relied on fitness trainers' perceptions of learning and did not consider either tacit or implicit knowledge. Given that interviews alone can only give a partial account of the experience of doing and learning in the context of work (10), there is a need for more longitudinal case study research designs to understand how fitness trainers learn both the science and art of their profession.

In conclusion, if fitness trainers are to be recognized as knowledgeable health and exercise professionals, there is a need to understand how their professional knowledge is developed within the current international formal accreditation system. This study demonstrates a clear disparity between the knowledge accredited fitness trainers acquire during their formal education and the knowledge later used during their professional practice. Consequently, these results extend current knowledge by considering fitness trainers' knowledge development as a dynamic, social, and ongoing endeavor, as opposed to a series of acquisition events. However, given the relatively small and exploratory nature of the study, these findings must be interpreted with some caution, and should, therefore, act to stimulate future research and discussion in an area where little has been firmly established.

Practical Applications

Results from this study suggest that the current formal training and accreditation pathways of the United Kingdomalone do not equip fitness trainers with the appropriate knowledge and skills for their everyday work. Consequently, the work of Fuller and Unwin (13,14) on expansive and restrictive working environments provides a useful framework that may be used to ensure that more valuable learning takes place both during and beyond initial training qualifications. Using this framework, fitness trainers' professional knowledge could be developed by (a) having the opportunity to engage in multiple communities of practice (e.g., with health-care professionals, training providers, and fitness trainers from other health and fitness clubs), (b) adopting a multidimensional approach to the acquisition of expertise through increased responsibility at work (e.g., involvement in GP Referral Schemes and class teaching roles), and (c) having the opportunity to pursue knowledge-based courses and qualifications (e.g., either health-related or personal training-related courses/events) related to the role of fitness trainer. Adopting such an approach would allow fitness trainers to accumulate an effective mix of each type of learning so they can develop both the theoretical and practical knowledge required of their everyday roles.


We wish to thank all the participants whose time, thoughts, and enthusiasm were invaluable to the study.


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Interview Guide


  • Introductory statements (project aim/right to withdrawal)
  • Key definitions and concepts (e.g., knowledge)
  • confidentiality

Background Information

  • How did you get involved in the fitness industry (look for why/career path)?
  • What role did qualifications and education have on your work as a fitness trainer? (Seek perceptions of each training experience)
  • What role did these qualifications play in your knowledge development?
  • What have been your most significant learning experiences?
  • Has your experience of working in the fitness industry changed over time?

What knowledge do you feel you have developed?

  • What knowledge have you gained from your experience as a fitness trainer?
  • What kinds of knowledge have you found to be the most important to your role? (Seek perceptions of how this knowledge was developed)
  • How has this knowledge served to guide your practice as a fitness trainer?

How do you believe this knowledge was developed or acquired?

  • In which situations do you feel you have developed or acquired knowledge?
  • From what sources do you believe you have developed or acquired knowledge?
  • What sources do you currently use to increase your knowledge base (compare preferred to actual sources)?
  • Who has been responsible for the development and acquisition of knowledge (other staff/clients etc.)?
  • Have these factors changed over time?
  • How effective do you believe they have been in relation to your practice?
  • What do you believe are your perceived barriers to your knowledge development?
  • Do you believe there are any gaps in your knowledge?

Gather participant's perceptions of the interview process.

Background Information Questionnaire


fitness instructor; personal trainer; professional development

Copyright © 2013 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.