Careers in fitness: where to get certified?

Q: Dear Mr. Venuto, I am writing to you because I have been thinking about changing careers. I have always been interested in health and fitness. Both of my sisters are nurses, but while I really like helping people and seeing them healthy, I think it would be easier for a person like myself to help people from getting sick rather than dealing with the sickness itself. It seems to me that what you are doing is a great service and greatly improves the quality of life of those whom you help. Do you have any suggestions as to institutions I might contact should I decide to pursue this particular path? I have a strong interest in nutrition, and was wondering if many health clubs hire people for nutrition consultation, and if so, what type of certification/degree would they be looking for.


Mike Harvey

A: Personal training and nutrition consulting are outstanding and rewarding careers to be involved in today and especially for the exact reason you mentioned: You provide a service that improves the quality of other people’s lives and you are being pro-active in helping eliminate one of the root casues of sickness rather than only treating the symptoms.

The demand is enormous and is only going to increase. Memberships at health clubs are at an all time high and more people are starting exercise programs than ever before (maybe because more people are overweight than ever before!) Online coaching, personal training and nutrition consulting is also on the rise. These trends have increased the need for qualified professionals who can help teach people the correct way to eat and train. It also gives people with a passion for health and fitness the opportunity to do what they love while helping others at the same time.

Nothing replaces experience, but getting an education that includes a widely recognized and/or nationally accredited certification would be a good first step towards breaking into the field. If you are really serious, you could consider getting a degree in exercise science or nutrition (B.S. or M.S.), although that is not always necessary.

There at least 300 certification programs offered today, so at first in can seem very difficult to know which one to choose. The fitness certification business is almost completely unregulated and uncontrolled and keep in mind that it IS a business.

For example, anyone could start their own “Personal Trainer Certification Institute.” They would simply write a personal trainer’s manual and a test, charge people $400.00 to enroll and print up some official-looking certificates (suitable for framing!) They could mail you the manual and take-home test, you’d mail the test back, and if you pass – presto! – you’re an “official” certified personal trainer! If they certify 25 people a month, that’s $120,000 a year. If they certify hundreds of people, well, you can do the math. It’s no wonder why there are so many certifications out there. Some of them are even marketed as “schools,” or “institutes” (not just “certifications”) and they charge thousands of dollars for their courses.

The investment in a good personal training or fitness related certification is absolutely worth it, but do your homework before you choose your provider and buyer beware. My advice is to put in the effort and enroll in an internationally recognized and or accredited certification program. There are quite a few excellent programs worth mentioning, and two in particular stand out above the others in my opinion (as well as in the opinion of many others inside the industry):

1. National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA)

The NSCA offers two certification programs: certified personal trainer (NSCA-CPT), and certified strength & conditioning specialist (CSCS). The CPT designation is the certification of choice if you are interested in training a wide variety of people in a commercial health club or home gym setting. The CSCS certification was developed for strength and condititioning coaches (for athletic teams) with an emphasis on weight training and sports conditioning.

The NSCA has two websites; the NSCA home site and the NSCA certification commission:

2. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

The ACSM is the largest and most respected sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. The ACSM offers many different certification programs in both clinical and consumer health and fitness applications. The ACSM certifications for personal trainers are the Health-Fitness Instructor and Health-Fitness Director. The ACSM also offers other certifications in their clinical track, but those are geared more towards cardiac rehab and medical settings. In general, the ACSM is more health, science, medical and clinical in nature as compared to the other organizations. Certification information and test dates are available at the ACSM website:

The ACSM and NSCA are not the most common certifications. The reason is because the tests are very difficult and many people fail the first time around. (This is exactly why they are highly respectable and desirable credentials). The ACSM certification has been around a long time and has always been considered one of the top certifications a health and fitness professional can have.

The NCSA certifications are also highly respected because they too have been around since the mid 80′s and were the first fitness-related credentials to earn accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCAA) based in Washington DC (and one of only two organizations to currently hold this distinction). To gain this honor, an organization must show an ability to develop and administer an exam in a manner that effectively discriminates between qualified and unqualified professionals.

I’m not suggesting that the ACSM and NSCA are the only two trainer certifications worth having – only pointing out that they are definitely two of the top choices, and many of the professionals involved in the academic side of the industry agree. These certifications are difficult to obtain (compared to most others) and potential employers and savvy consumers will be very impressed if you hold these credentials. Here are some other certifications that have earned widespread recognition in the industry that are worth looking into:

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

The ACE personal trainer is widely recognized in the industry and is one of the most popular trainer certification programs in the United States. ACE offers several certifications: Personal trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant or Clinical Exercise Specialist:

International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)

ISSA is a relative newcomer, but growing steadily in size and reputation.The ISSA has a very large list of certification programs to offer and has assembled a very impressive staff and advisory board. Fred Hatfield, Tom Platz, Bill Pearl, Charles Staley, Jim Wright, Sal Arria, and “Doc” Kries are just a few of the ISSA’s distinguished experts. Definitely some very smart and very experienced people that are worth learning from.

American Fitness and Aerobics Association

Since 1983, AFAA has certified over 150,000 instructors worldwide. This is the most popular certification for group fitness (aerobics) instructors, although AFAA also offers a personal trainer certification.

National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

I became increasingly impressed with this organization when I noticed that some of the most successful personal trainers at our health clubs were NASM certified. It seems that the NASM doesn’t just teach exercise science and theory, but also teaches a lot of practical tools that help trainers become successful in their training business while getting great results for their clients. Definitely some programs worth looking into:

Chek Institute

Last but definitely not least is Paul Chek. Paul’s San Diego, California-based Chek Institute offers a wide variety of certification programs that cover an incredibly broad number of disciplines ranging from health and lifestyle coach to certified exercise kinesiologist to “Golf Biomechanic.” Paul’s organization also offers some outstanding continuing education courses as well. The website is:

Most certifications offer the option of studying the course materials at home (books, cassettes, and/or videos), then taking an on-site test. However, I strongly recommend that you take advantage of any workshops offered. The ACSM workshop I took the week prior to the test was one of the most educational experiences of my career. Taking a workshop will also dramatically increase your chances of passing the exams.

Nutrition consulting as a career is a little different and more complicated than the personal training field. There are three major tracks in the nutrition field: Registered dietician (RD), Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS), Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN). Becoming an RD, CNS or CCN is a long, involved process that requires years of education and a lot of forethought before making the decision.

Registered Dietician (R.D.)

RD’s have extensive education including a minimum of a four-year undergraduate degree. Many have masters degrees in nutrition. They must also pass the American Dietetic Association’s fully accredited certification exams. The Commission on dietetic registration is located at:

You can find additional info at the American Dietetic Association (ADA) website.

Although RD’s sometimes work out of health clubs, the majority of them work in hospitals, research centers, private practices, or in the food service industry. Some RD’s also work in sports nutrition (but very few of them work with bodybuilders or fitness competitors.)

Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)

The minimum requirement to become a CCN is an undergraduate degree, with 30 specific core hours in nutrition and science required. An approved internship of 900 hours is also mandatory. Information on CCN’s can be found at:

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)

The Certified Nutrition Specialist credential was founded by the American College of Nutrition in 1993 and offers certification as s CNS through their Certification Board For Nutrition Specialists (CBNS). Eligibility requirements include an advanced degree, professional experience and passing the examination. Prerequisite experience includes 1000 hours of supervised professional experience in nutrition or related activities or 4000 hours of independent experience as a professional nutritionist in a professional setting. The website is:

As you can see, becoming an RD or CCN is a major career decision due to the amount of academic work and internship required.

A fourth, less imposing and less time-consuming option is to obtain one of the relatively new nutrition certifications that are now available. ACE offers a weight management certification and the ISSA offers a sports nutrition certification. Naturally, neither of these hold the academic weight of RD, CNS or CCN.

A relatively new organization called The International Society For Sports Nutrition (ISSN ) looks very promising and exciting. The mision of the ISSN is to be recognized as the leading professional organization in the study and application of sports nutrition. According to their website, “The ISSN is dedicated to promoting and supporting the study, practice, education, research and development of sports nutrition and the sports nutrition profession. All the information disseminated by the ISSN is unbiased and scientifically supported.”

The ISSN now offers a certification program called Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN). Requirements include a 4 year undergraduate degree in exercise science, kinesiology, physical education, nutrition, biology or related field or you have earned the CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist) credential from the National Strength And Conditioning Association. This certification program is ideal for fitness professionals, exercise physiologists, nutritionists, sports nutritionists, health professionals and strength and conditioning professionals. The ISSN Board of Directors, advisory board and faculty is a very impressive list that reads like a who’s who in the world of sports nutrition. I became a member of the ISSN in 2005, I have attended their events and have been very impressed with this new organization.

All personal training certifications include nutrition as part of their curriculum. However, personal trainers are usually advised (or even “warned,”) by their certifying organizations to give only general nutrition guidelines to their clients. They recommend that trainers focus on exercise prescription while leaving the detailed nutrition programs to highly trained nutrition specialists such as RD’s and CCN’s. In most states in the USA, there are laws regulating the qualifications necessary for prescribing individualized nutrition programs.

Personal trainers and strength coaches are often called on to give nutrition advice, and doing so is an important part of their jobs. However, the trainer needs to know when to make a referral to a more qualified nutrition professional. The type of and depth of advice given by a trainer depends on what kind of advice is required (i.e., making nutrition “suggestions” versus prescribing menu plans). It also depends on who the advice if for. For example, are your clients going to be athletes, bodybuilders, the obese, the elderly, young children, pregnant women or kidney patients? This will largely influence the need to refer a client to a registred dietician or clinical nutritionist.

A certified personal trainer, especially one with a degree in exercise science, a nutrition certification (such as CISSN), and with years of practical experience, would be more than qualified to discuss basic nutritional needs for healthy athletes in non-clinical settings. RD’s and CCN’s have the specialized training necessary to prescribe menus and a wider variety of nutritional programs including clinical and medical cases.

The best advice for personal trainers who do nutrition consulting is to always keep in mind the limitations of your expertise and be careful not to overstep the scope of your practice.

Health clubs are almost always looking for good personal trainers – the demand is very high. Many clubs are also starting to include nutrition consulting in their repertoire of services offered. If you are interested in working in a health club as a personal trainer or nutrition consultant, my recommendation would be to invest the time and effort to pursue the best trainer certification you can get (such as the NSCA-CPT). Then look into additional certifications that allow you to specialize in a certain area such as sports training, flexibility, pre-post natal fitness, childrens fitness, fitness for the elderly, etc. as that will make you more marketable by having a specialty.

After that, only you can decide how far you want to take your education. Remember that no degree or certification is a substitute for knowledge gained through experience, so be willing to start at the bottom and apprentice under others to get the experience you need. Finally, be a “sponge” for information. Be voracious! Read, study and learn from others constantly and never stop learning. Good luck.