Before I begin I need to point out that this post is based on my own experience and as such may be subject to my personal biases. That caveat aside however, I'm in a very good position to comment having spent the best part of 30 years working in the fitness industry and a considerable part of that managing and hiring staff. This has given me a unique insight into what it is to be a fitness professional in the UK, what has become acceptable with regards knowledge and what this means in terms of the education those in the industry receive.
Once upon a time
When I started working at the beginning of the 90's I took a job working in a health club in Notting Hill London. Here the majority of my colleagues were, like me, graduates who'd been at university studying Sports Science or Physical Education. Back then fitness related vocational qualifications were few and far between and those that were available usually involved learning how to prance around to music in leg warmers. Health clubs were in their early days relatively speaking but those that were a little more progressive did employ graduates to man their gyms which gave their members access to trainers with a high level of knowledge and the company's that employed them, the assurance that their staff knew what they were talking about.
Rose tinted specs?
A typical day for me back then would involve going through pre-exercise consultations with new members, re-assessing those that had been training for a while, writing new and updating old exercise programmes and taking members through their newly acquired routines. We were also given the opportunity outside our hours to do some private personal training to earn some extra cash.
We were encouraged, in any down time we may have had to read the literature, which in those pre-internet days meant having a subscription to a university library service that sent you photo copies of whatever papers you were interested in. We had regular meetings in which we shared this knowledge and discussed ideas to improve the gymnasium product. The way this gym was run was perhaps not the norm at time but for a young person new to the industry I couldn't have asked for a better place to work.
A couple of years down the line the company paid for us to take ACSM certifications and a little later if we wanted to, the NSCA CSCS (certified strength & conditioning specialist) exams. The ACSM certifications had long been seen as the gold standard for wannabe health and fitness professionals and their Health Fitness Instructor Certification was not widely available to those in the UK. They were post graduate qualifications with candidates requiring a bachelors degree in exercise science, physical education or an appropriate allied health field to take them. They were what I would call professional qualifications and were not easy to pass. I actually failed my ACSM practical exam the first time I took it! Similar could be said of the NSCA exams. I remember having to send my degree transcript and certificate (the actual cert and not a photo copy!) to the USA before being accepted to take the exam. You could pretty much guarantee that anyone holding either of these certifications knew their stuff and all of my collegues eventually had at least one of them.
It wasn't like this every where however. Before I got the Notting Hill job I spent 9 months working at some of the City of London's top health clubs where I spent the majority of my time sitting behind a desk staring at what was at least outside peak hours, a near empty gym. My colleagues in this case were mostly exercise to music instructors or those that had taken a short weightlifting qualification. This was perhaps the norm at the time but compared with what was to come it was like chalk and cheese.
That was then, this is now
For a relative fledgling industry finding it's feet in the UK you'd expect there to be a number of different approaches vying to become the standard. In the end you'd hope that the best model would win through and the best in this case was surely the one that guaranteed high calibre, motivated professional staff well versed in their area of expertise and with the qualifications to back it up. Unfortunately that wasn't the case and somewhere along the line the fitness profession took the dumbed down route!
I can't put my finger on it exactly but this happened sometime towards the beginning of the century and this was about the time that I entered fitness management and began to hire staff. I began to find it harder and harder to find graduates and by the early 2000s it was more likely I had to hire someone with a 'vocational' qualification instead. I'm not sure why this was the case, perhaps fewer were deciding to study the prerequisite subjects at university or maybe more were entering teaching or coaching but without a doubt the available pool of well qualified candidates was diminishing.
The Rise of the Register
In 2002 the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) was founded in the UK. It was an independent public register for those in the fitness industry which according to it's website;
recognises the qualifications and expertise of health-enhancing exercise instructors in the UK and provides a system of regulation for instructors and trainers to ensure that they meet the health and fitness industry’s agreed National Occupational Standards.
It goes on to say;
REPs provides assurance and confidence to the public and employers that all professionals on the Register are appropriately qualified and have the knowledge, competence and skills to perform their role effectively.
REPs was developed to protect the public from trainers who do not hold appropriate qualifications. As well as protecting the public, REPs was also established to recognise the qualifications and skills of exercise professionals.
Now, this all sounds great and I'm sure that everyone would agree that a national register should be the way forward for any industry wishing to ensure the competency of it's workers and to protect the public from those that aren't qualified. Unfortunately however the Register of Exercise Professionals far from delivers on this bold rhetoric and I would go as far as to say that it completely fails to deliver on some of it's key objectives.
REPs categorizes it's members into 3 levels developed by the sector skills council for 'active leisure and wellbeing'. These 'National Occupational Standards' are supposed to differentiate those with a minimum from those with a higher level of competency. Again this sounds great but unfortunately a lot of the time it doesn't seem to do this at all.
REPS category's start at Level 2 (not sure why it doesn't start at 1?) which is a very basic qualification; something that I would say is akin to a GCSE (a British high school exam for 16 year olds) and is basically the bottom rung of the knowledge ladder.
It then moves to level 3 which is supposed to be the gold standard and is what passes for their professional level of qualification.
Level 4 is a specialist level which offers specific qualifications in specialist areas such as cardiac disease, back pain and antenatal fitness.
What I find extraordinary is that a level 2 certification can be gained in two weeks and a level 3 in a further 4 weeks meaning that starting from nothing you can become a "qualified" personal trainer in as little as 6 weeks!
I also find it strange that if you have a degree in sports science you only get provisional status at Level 3 and have to jump through hoops to prove you have the appropriate knowledge. The same goes if you have a physiotherapy degree and remember these degrees take 3 plus years to complete!
Minimum levels of competency?
Over the years I've done countless interviews for personal training/gym roles (I would say in the hundreds) and my minimum expectation for suitable candidates would be they have at least a basic level of knowledge. You'd expect all those that had reached REPs level 3 would meet this requirement. Unfortunately from my experience this is far from the case. Even though all the candidates I interviewed (other than those that had done degrees) had at least a level 3 certification, a large percentage of them lacked even a basic understanding of health & fitness and were incapable of answering simple questions at interview. How can this be when they'd all passed the same exams?
Training for REPs qualifications is supplied by companies endorsed by REPs whose courses should supposedly provide an appropriate level of education to meet the standards I've described above. I can't speak to the content of the courses or the quality of teaching (although I have my suspicions) but it seems to me that something is amiss. Why is it that a large percentage of REPs level 3 'graduates' are clueless?
My best guess (and I remember this is only my opinion) is that training providers are judged to a certain degree on their pass rates. If a lot of people pass they look good and retain their REPs endorsement. It's in their interests to ensure a large percentage pass the exams as their business is based on selling training courses and they can only do this if they have a REPs endorsement. This is in stark contrast to the ACSM and NSCA who are primarily academic bodies whose prime concern is maintaining high standards and whose certifications as a result have relatively low pass rates (53% in 2016 for the ACSM). I couldn't find any stats for this unfortunately but I'd love to know what the pass rate is for your average REPs level 3 exam. Unlike the ACSM who have a page that breaks down the statistics for their certifications non of the REPs training providers seem to divulge this info. If I was to hazard a guess I'd say it was close to 100% which they ironically don't want to brag about for the reasons I've explained.
The end result of this is in my opinion that a REPs level 3 qualification isn't worth the paper it's written on. I'm not saying that all those that have reached level 3 are useless, in fact a lot are really good and I've given jobs to many, but because there seems to be such differences between REPs graduates who've done the same courses, you simply cant trust the certifications as any guarantee of quality.
Handing them out like confetti
If you award qualifications with no strict examinations you have no easy way of separating those that are good from those that aren't and you end up with a mishmash of professionals that vary considerably in knowledge and ability.
All of this is really bad for consumers as well as those that work in the industry. I personally wouldn't be confident that someone looking for a personal trainer for example could be assured any degree of competency if they used a REPs certification to judge. The same could be said for the staff at your average health club and for those working in the industry the good the bad and the ugly stand shoulder to shoulder waving the same qualifications, which, if you want to differentiate yourself from the competition, is not a good position to be in.
So are todays fitness professionals fit for the job?
It all depends I guess on what job you mean. If it's a simple gym instructors job that involves performing inductions and showing people exercises, then most are fit for the role and in a lot of circumstances this is all that's required. The minute however we venture into the more technical aspects, like for example:
- examining a persons medical history and taking appropriate action when necessary
- talking to someone about nutrition and weight loss
- programming exercise for people with a wide variety of goals
- understanding the implications of exercise on health related issues like high blood pressure, diabetes or osteoporosis
- designing and coaching strength and conditioning programmes for people doing different sports
- working with pregnant or postnatal women
- dealing with people with minor injuries
- working with older or younger individuals
- and being able to explain and talk about any and all of these things and many others in a clear and coherent fashion to anyone who asks..........
..........then the average bod in the industry would struggle.
Fortunately, as I've said the majority of fitness jobs probably don't require such knowledge but a lot should require it (personal training for example) and as far as I'm concerned if those who work in the industry want to be taken seriously and the industry itself is to move forward, then things have to change.
Sadly though that's not likely to happen soon. Vocational qualifications rule and REPs govern the standards so until there's a recognition that health and fitness is a serious profession warranting a more academic approach and that those working in the industry need a higher level of education, we're going to be stuck with a mixed bag of competent and incompetent professionals and with no easy way of telling them apart.
I'm not saying that everyone who works in fitness should have a degree by any means but the industry (by which I mean REPs in the UK) needs to ensure that the knowledge and abilities required to gain the higher levels of certification meet an appropriate high standard and that those who are not up to scratch are not allowed to somehow pass the exams.
This way everyone wins. Those that work in the industry will increase their professional reputation and consumers will be safe in the knowledge that their personal trainers and gym staff are actually fit for the job.