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September 30, 2018

Do Trainers Really Need Certifications?

Annie Miller, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist shares thoughts on whether trainers really need certifications

Does having a certification make you a better trainer?

Certification is a very broad word, covering a lot of possibilities. We must first lay out the fact that not all certifications are created equal. 

Certifications do not equal good coaching; they represent time put in, and knowledge gained. Even that may be generous.  Letters behind a trainer’s name do not ensure optimal application of the certification they received. I hope we can at least agree on that.

Before we get into this…There are A LOT of words on this page, 1,638 to be exact. Read them all to get all sides of the subject. It’s a long one.

Types of Certifications

If you’re a trainer, the C.S.C.S. through the N.S.C.A. is the gold standard. This means to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. The C.S.C.S. requires a four year degree (often in the fields of Exercise and Sport Science, Kinesiology, Biomechanics, or other biology/human science degrees).

It is also the certification required among collegiate strength and performance coaches. It takes months to study for and requires continuing education in order to keep the certification. If a trainer has this certification they are a member of the N.S.C.A. and gain access to their training journal and research.

There are TONS of organizations offering training certifications. C.P.T. may be the most common. C.P.T. simply stands for Certified Personal Trainer. Several organizations offer a C.P.T. of some kind. But none of them come close to the C.S.C.S. That is not to discount trainers who have their C.P.T. It is just to set the C.S.C.S. apart when comparing certifications.

Then you’ve got the USAWL 1 (USA Weightlifting with various levels), Crossfit certifications, and Nutrition certifications. For Nutrition, outside of actually having your Deictics or Nutrition Degree and being a registered dietitian, becoming a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner is the gold standard. This is equivalent to the CSCS of training certs.

In case you didn’t know, anyone can take a weekend test and become a “Nutritionist.” I could claim I’m a freaking nutritionist. So keep an eye out for that. Sounds fancy. It’s not. If you really want nutritional and supplement guidance, look for N.T.P or R.D. (registered dietician).

Again, certifications don’t mean good coaching, but they don’t hurt.

So if certifications don’t make a good coach, what are you supposed to look for as a trainee? To be clear, I think you should get the gold standard if you want to call yourself a strength coach or professional for that matter.

What actually matters?

Let’s face it, MOST trainees don’t know what the letters behind your name mean, if they even noticed them. Trainees look for results and value. They need to trust you before working with you. Just like you as the trainer need to trust a company before you go to their seminar. You’re exchanging values.

Let’s talk about knowledge and value

Knowledge and application of that knowledge are most important. Can you use what you know to provide value and create TRUST and results? That’s what needs to happen.

In my professional opinion, certifications are a great way to say, “I am serious about what I do. I’m a pro. I put in the time to show that on the surface level.” THEN it’s the coaches job to find the best education out there for their profession.

I have my C.S.C.S. It’s the only cert I care to have. It’s the gold standard. That’s why I got it. To be associated with the best Strength and Conditioning Association and getting that cert is WHY I went to college. It was the best path for what I WANTED. It’s not for everyone.

But where do I find my education day to day? Through reading and practicing on my own time.

Follow experts in the field

I tell people like Dr. Sean Pastuch of the Active Life Rx that they need to make their coaching workshops part of the N.S.C.A’s continuing education approved seminars…And then give him a contact for the N.S.C.A. so that he knows I am freaking serious (we have a relationship to where this kind of demand/request was appropriate).

You better believe he sent me a direct message two months ago and said that the Active Life Workshops now provide CEU’s for N.S.C.A. certs.  You already know what CEU seminar I will be attending when I get back in the states. I’ll be flying my ass to wherever Dr. Sean is, because THAT’s who I want to learn from. His team will provide me with the most value I can pass on to my clients. That’s who is providing the best and immediately usable content in the industry.

Do you feel even more confused after that story? That’s warranted. Because this is not a black and white subject.

It’s not a make or break subject.


Certifications matter. In my opinion they don’t all matter. The best ones do.

If you’re looking to get some, I say get the best ones that provide the most knowledge (think long term knowledge and resources). Then educate yourself.

Provide Value.

Above all else, provide value. If you’re a shit trainer, certs won’t do anything for you. Because you’ll be a shit coach no matter what certs you get. Bye Felecia.

If you’re a great coach with a life-long-learner mindset, you’ll make good use of whatever education you invest in – certification related or not.

So I’ve got a verdict.

Education and Certs can help set you apart as an “expert” initially. It’s nice to have some paper under your ass.

I do feel that having my degree in Exercise and Sport Science and being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist has helped people take me seriously and break the mold of being a pretty fitspo on instagram.

It has undoubtedly helped when with working with other professionals in the felid. In my experience, the certs and degree indicate that I am professional and have put in some REAL time to be taken seriously in this field. Which is very important to ME. It may not be to you. And that’s okay.

Some of that could be to justify my time put in. Because if I am being honest, I’d find a way to be taken seriously even if I didn’t have certs. I’m big on being professional and my word and work being respected. I am sure you’ve picked up on that by now.

You don’t NEED certifications.

They help. They provide resources. The gold standards provide some level of immediate credibility. And shit, they’re an accomplishment for YOU to be proud of.

What is more important than certs, day in and day out, is how you’re showing up in this field for your people. What standard are you holding? Are you getting EXPERIENCE and practicing what you preach? Are you establishing credibility beyond your certs and education?

Provide VALUE. I can’t say it enough.

The letters behind your name provide a tone, a first impression or sorts. THEN you have to do something to prove you’re actually an expert. That’s on you. You have to prove that you will make their life better, easier, more joyful, less painful. You have to solve a problem for them.

If you can’t do that, you’ll fail no matter how many certifications you have.

Tough love my friend.

Education beyond certifications

So to help you out, these are some of my FAVORITE books for young coaches or coaches looking for simple, crazy effective programming techniques.

  • Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamieson (heart rate variability training)
  • Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe (the BASICS of the basics of strength training)
  • 531 by Jim Wendler (strength training)
  • ANY Catalyst Athletics Programming books (olympic weightlifting)

I should probably write a book on this subject…someday.

And here are list of people you should be following on Instagram. Not even lying to you, I learn a TON on instagram. In fact it’s where most of my education and inspiration for my clients comes from outside of being an Active Life Coach Member (a yearly investment I make to bring better results and less pain to my one on one clients).

  • @activeliferx (Dr. of chiropractic)
  • @theathletedaily (two ladies writing great daily online articles about the field)
  • @docjenfit (Dr. PT, DPT)
  • @dr.jacob.harden (Dr. of chiropractic)
  • @functionalcoach (Logan Gelbrich – PERFECT EXAMPLE of experience over certs. All his certs are crossfit, and he is a BOSS if I have ever learned from one. Creator of the #HoldTheStandard seminar/movement).
  • @bretcontreras1 (DhD, CSCS and a shit ton of published research)
  • @soheefit (CSCS + masters degree)
  • @moveu_official (two doctors who are hilarious and SO REAL)
  • Also @moveushirtlessdude because I LOVE his personal training segments he does himself.


You see a lot of docs up there, don’t you?…

Like I said, certs DO hold some weight. I’d probably follow these people with or without their “letters” if they were posting what they post. BUT, would they be posting what they post without their base of education? We can’t say.

Ultimately it’s YOUR call as a coach.

You have to make the best decision based on what you want to provide and what you LIKE. That’s precisely why I included Logan Gelbrich in my list. He’s the definition of professional, of being a student, of being an UH-MAZING coach without a related degree or cert (outside of crossfit). He is a student of HUMANS, of the mind and body alike. He is serious AF and I love every second of it. I want to live inside his brain. Too much to ask?

So, you do you. A cert will not make or break your career. So don’t stress too much… Unless of course it’s required for your job. Then you may need to reconsider. 😉

You have a cert? You have questions? Let’s chat! Drop me a line in the comments.

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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