Unqualified fitness trainers can spell trouble, by suggesting unsafe workout practices that can lead to injuries or other health complications or by recommending risky nutritional supplements.
By MSNBC contributor

With more than 200 personal training certifications available — some of which can be acquired over the Internet — and no industry-wide standards, you may be hard-pressed to tell the well-trained trainers from those with shoddy credentials. But that decision may get easier as industry groups take steps to guide consumers and raise the bar for certification.

Hiring a trainer to help you get started on a fitness regimen — or just stick with the one you have — can be a good investment in your health. Among other benefits, trainers can show you the proper way to use exercise machines or free weights, discuss individualized strategies for firming up, slimming down or meeting another fitness goal, and help you find ways to fit exercise into a busy schedule.

But unqualified trainers can spell trouble, by suggesting unsafe workout practices that can lead to injuries or other health complications or by recommending risky nutritional supplements. At the very least, they may not help you achieve your fitness goals because they simply do not know enough about the human body.

'Alphabet soup'
Unfortunately, just because a trainer is “certified” by a fitness group with a snappy, official-sounding acronym doesn’t mean he or she is necessarily qualified.

“The world of fitness professional certification is an alphabet soup,” says Bill Howland, director of research at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade group that represents nearly 4,000 health clubs around the nation.

“Not all certifications are created equal,” he notes.

And consumers aren’t the only ones who are confused. So are health club managers.

Howland says many of his group’s members have complained that with so many certification programs, it’s difficult to know which trainers are truly qualified and which aren’t, who can safely work with members and who poses a big liability risk.

In response, he says, IHRSA is working with five of the major certifying groups to develop a system in which an independent third party — the National Organization for Competency Assurance — would credential each group, verifying that certification standards are up to par.

Those groups are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).

The ACSM has also taken a big step to ratchet up training. The group, which requires at least an associate’s degree for certification, is working with colleges across the country and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs to develop a standardized curriculum for students planning to pursue careers in the fitness field.

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The goal is to better educate students so they can “sit for the ACSM exam and be prepared” and then go on to work as knowledgeable fitness professionals, says Fred Klinge, general manager of the North Little Rock Athletic Club in North Little Rock, Ark., who is a member of an ACSM certification committee.

Choosing a trainer
Industry insiders hope these new efforts will lead to better qualified trainers and allow consumers to make more informed decisions about who they’re hiring to help them stay in shape.

In the meantime, if you’re shopping for a personal trainer, experts offer the following tips:

Ask about training. Is this individual certified by a nationally recognized group, such as one of those mentioned above? Does he or she have college-level training in exercise science or a related field? (It’s an added plus, though most certifying groups don’t require it.)

Inquire about experience. Passing an exam is one thing, but how much time has the trainer clocked in the gym with clients? Did he or she have to demonstrate practical skills to receive certification? Has this individual worked with other people with goals or issues similar to yours? This is particularly important if you have specific health concerns, such as heart disease, asthma, osteoporosis or injuries.

Check references. Were other clients satisfied? What didn’t they like?

Ask yourself whether this person seems genuinely interested in you. “They shouldn’t approach you from a cookie-cutter mentality,” says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at ACE. A good trainer will ask about your medical history, including past injuries, and goals, and then develop a program tailored specifically for you.

Determine if each candidate’s personality and style suit you. Do you like this person? Are you comfortable with him or her?

Find out what they charge. Rates vary greatly — anywhere from $35 to $100 or more an hour — based on location and the trainer’s experience.

Beware the trainer who tries to diagnose or treat illnesses or injuries or who recommends fad diets or nutritional supplements. See a doctor or registered dietitian.

Don’t automatically judge a book by its cover. Sure, you would expect a personal trainer to work out regularly and look healthy. But bulging biceps or taut thighs don’t always equate to proper know-how.

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