Hop on your favorite social media platform and you’ll find a seemingly endless stream of exercise and workout content from certified personal trainers, exercise enthusiasts, and everyday users pumped to share their personal hot takes.
While these communities can be great resources for surfacing exercise inspiration, motivation, and know-how, it’s important to know who you’re turning to for what info.
Anyone can create a social media profile and start sharing information, says Frances Neric, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in Indianapolis. “But what they’re saying doesn’t have to be scientifically sound.”
Seeking advice from the wrong person can lead you to workouts that are poorly designed, ineffective, or potentially dangerous. So, how can you differentiate who’s legitimate and who’s not? Who should you be turning to for what type of advice?
Here’s what you should know:
What Makes Someone a Certified Personal Trainer?
Unlike some professions (like medicine or dentistry), there’s no one professional society or board that oversees fitness training. Multiple professional societies offer programs to train fitness professionals.
And those seeking training can choose from a fairly wide variety of certificates and credentials from several professional organizations. When vetting an expert you’ll turn to for advice about exercise and working out, Neric suggests checking which organization has certified the personal trainer.
You can check the U.S. Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS) to see if a personal trainer is certified by a National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)–accredited program, which shows that the fitness professional’s certification has met standards set by the industry and comes from a proven safe and effective program, says Neric. (NCCA accredits a range of professions, including nurses and counselors.)
A common fitness certification is “certified personal trainer,” or CPT. Reputable organizations that certify personal trainers include the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), according to USREPS.
Other NCCA-accredited fitness certifications include:
- A certified group fitness instructor, or GFI (from ACE)
- Advanced certification programs (which require more time and training hours), such as a certified clinical exercise physiologist from ACSM (ACSM-EP), a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) from the NSCA, or a certified strength coach (CSC) from the NCSF
While this registry is extensive and easily searchable (in that there are a number of member organizations that are represented here), it’s not comprehensive.
There are other NCCA-accredited organizations that certify personal trainers and group fitness instructors, such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFTP), that aren’t members of the USREPS.
To verify that an individual has been certified by an authoritative fitness training organization, check that the certifying body is NCCA-accredited, Neric says.
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What Advice Should I Be Getting From a Personal Trainer Anyway?
According to the NFPT, a certified personal trainer (or someone with any of the other advanced NCCA-accredited fitness credentials) will be able to:
- Explain basic exercise science and human anatomy
- Develop an exercise regimen with weekly cardio, strength, and flexibility work that’s specific to your needs and goals
- Teach you how to go through the moves safely and effectively with good form
- Provide tips for staying motivated to work out
While a certified personal trainer can talk about basic nutrition, they cannot give you specific nutrition information. If an exercise professional is giving direct advice about what and what not to eat, be on alert, says Neric. This person can share generic information, like what a calorie is, but they should not prescribe a specific diet or eating plan.
For information about what to eat and how to exercise, a registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) can offer diet advice and recommendations for eating and exercise, according to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
RELATED: What to Eat Before and After You Work Out
If you want more specific nutrition advice to optimize training or athletic performance, you may want to look for someone with additional certification, ideally someone who is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD), a credential from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Some accredited exercise certification programs also offer additional specialty programs in nutrition. Individuals with these certifications have additional training in nutrition, but they do not necessarily have the same breadth of education as an RDN.
If you’re looking for someone who can provide both tailored training and nutrition advice, Neric suggests finding someone who is both an RDN and a certified exercise professional. They are harder to find, but they are out there.
What About Credentials in Specialized Workouts, Like Zumba or Pilates?
When it comes to specialized workouts, like Zumba, CrossFit, Pilates, and others, what makes someone an expert varies:
- Zumba Zumba is a trademarked exercise program, and individuals can become a licensed Zumba instructor through Zumba.com. This involves 10 hours of education via on-demand video coursework or a one- or two-day licensing session. No prior fitness experience is necessary.
- CrossFit CrossFit coaches are designated with CrossFit Level 1, 2, 3, or 4 certificates (with Level 4 being the most advanced). For a CrossFit Level 1 certificate, individuals go through two days of classroom instruction plus training sessions and workouts. There are no prerequisites to become a Level 1 coach.
- Yoga The Yoga Alliance is the largest nonprofit yoga-certification organization, and offers certifications for yoga schools (registered yoga school, or RYS) and yoga teachers (registered yoga teacher, or RYT) around the globe. For yoga instructors with an RYT, the number following it (usually 200 or 500) is indicative of how many teacher training hours they have completed through a registered yoga school. RYT-200 indicates that that instructor has 200 training hours from an RYS. An advanced certification is also offered (experienced registered yoga teacher, or E-RYT; also 200 or 500). You can check if a yoga instructor is an RYT via the Yoga Alliance website’s registry of teachers. Another option is becoming a National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) certified yoga instructor, or CYI.
- Pilates The National Pilates Certification Program can certify an individual as a nationally certified pilates teacher (NCPT). Training is at least 450 hours, covers each apparatus used, and requires individuals pass an exam.
- Barre Barre certification can be obtained through several organizations. American Barre Technique, which is considered a continuing education course for certified personal trainers and is available through organizations like ACE and NASM, offers an online barre instructor certification course from levels 1 to 4, with level 4 being the most advanced. Another is the International Ballet Barre Fitness Association, or IBBFA. To qualify for this certification, you need to have a teaching certification as a group fitness, yoga, or Pilates instructor or have passed a prerequisite barre course and then can move on to the certification program, which is a 35-hour online educational program.
RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Yoga
What Exercise Credentials Should I Look for if I Have a Disability or Another Health Concern?
If you have a chronic illness or disability, if you’re pregnant, or you have other special health concerns, you may want to get exercise advice from someone with more expertise about your condition.
If You Have a Chronic Condition
If you have a clinical condition, such as obesity, diabetes, or hypertension, it’s important that your trainer has advanced training beyond a certified personal trainer certification — ideally as an exercise physiologist — so he or she is able to tailor fitness recommendations for your condition, says Lee Stoner, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in exercise physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Dr. Stoner is a fellow of the ACSM and is the director of the Exercise is Medicine program at UNC.)
As an example, the ACSM offers its certified clinical exercise physiologist program (ACSM-EP), which requires advanced education and hands-on training. Individuals pursuing this certification must have a master’s degree in clinical exercise physiology and complete 600 hours of hands-on training, or have a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and complete 1,200 hours of hands-on training.
For this requirement, hands-on training can include developing exercise programs, using electrocardiography (a test that measure the heart’s electrical activity), or working with people who have heart, lung, or neuromuscular disease.
Acccording to Stoner, people with this certification need to have a lot of education. “You need to know the pathways of physiology of these various conditions, how to interpret an electrocardiogram, and how to communicate with the client’s physician,” he says.
If you are on a medication, like insulin to treat diabetes or a beta-blocker for high blood pressure, an exercise physiologist will understand what effect those have on exercise so they can train you in a safe way, Stoner says.
RELATED: Why Being Fit Helps You Manage Chronic Diseases
If You Are Pregnant
If you are looking for information about working out while pregnant, ideally look for a CPT who has taken continuing education courses in prenatal and postnatal fitness, from ACE or another accredited fitness organization. (Some prenatal fitness programs do not require experience to be certified, so make sure the person you’re taking instruction from has their CPT.)
If You’re Looking for Fitness Advice for Seniors
If you’re looking for advice about senior fitness, look for a CPT who is also trained in senior fitness. One example is the NASM Senior Fitness Specialization, which is a continuing education program.
If You Have an Injury
If you are injured, your exercise program should be modified. Ideally, this would be done through input from a physical or occupational therapists, notes ACSM.