Posted March 3, 2014

Is It More Important for Trainers to Have Education or Experience?

I hear this conversation all the time, whether investment in education is a good idea in the field of strength coaching or personal training. A case could be made for spending years working with people as you attain more information and resources to help the clients you’re working with, and build a basis of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t based on your personal experiences.

There’s also  a case made to having dedicated formal education, which forces you to study, not merely read. Studying forces someone to sit down, dig deep into the information, and not merely memorize it but internalize it. There is also the benefits of standardized testing which dictate that if you don’t know enough or show the right amount of competency in the information presented, you don’t pass.

Experience is a great thing, and having the ability to train yourself and see amazing results is a fantastic bit of social proof needed to show that yes, you do know what you’re talking about and actually walk your talk. Personally, here’s a listing of some of the things my own training has allowed me to learn and to gain some modest level of proficiency in:

  • how sucky chronic low back pain is
  • how to recover from mild injuries, the worst of which being the low back and also multiple ankle sprains
  • decent aptitude in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and olympic lifting
  • kettlebells, foam rolling, bands, and other “accessory” strength tools
  • sport performance (football, basketball)
  • mirin’ myself in the mirror with occasional biceps flexes to get the shadows just right so I looked ultra-shredded. In January.

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However, this is a list of client goals and problems with which I have absolutely no experience with personally, but that I had to get a knowledge base in in order to work with them successfully:

  • post-surgical repairs, osteoarthritis, scoliosis
  • multiple types of cardiac recovery, including a heart transplant patient
  • cancer patients, both post-treatment and peri-treatment
  • paraplegics, spinal chord injuries, and neurodegenerative issues
  • chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, etc
  • distance running (marathons and ultramarathons), professional hockey (I can barely skate), post-partum pelvic floor dysfunctions and prolapse

Understandably, not everyone will want to go to college and spend many years, and also an increasingly large sum of money to get a degree in their desired field, especially when the rate of burn out and desire to switch fields within the first 5 years is pretty high. From my university graduating class (of those I’ve managed to keep up with), I think something like 40% are still working in health and fitness in some way or another. It’s only been 10 years since I graduated, so that’s a very unfortunate number, especially as many of those who did graduate with me probably just finished paying off their student loans.

Conversely, those who attain entry-level certification tend to fare even worse when it comes to longevity in health and fitness. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of trainers over the years, and I’ve found that those with the more entry level types of certification and who don’t pursue more advanced continuing education tend to leave relatively quickly. The low barrier to entry also acts as a low motivational factor to staying, which makes it a good job to get into, but an easy job to get out of, especially as business development tends to start slow and the big payoffs aren’t always there.

Additionally, most entry level certifications tend to not teach you anything salient, with many only requiring the check to clear and a valid pulse to register. Hell, if you really wanted to, you could take your certification online and only pay $69.99 through THIS SITE and be “qualified” to train live bodies. From there just pay 50 bucks for a website to say how awesome your training programs are (you can even get a coveted .guru site to let everyone know you’re the best) and you can make millions of dollars. SEE YOU AT THE SQUAT RACK, BRAH!!

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Of course I’m biased towards the educational aspect of things, having completed a degree and additional certifications to make sure I could work with people in the best ways possible and to increase my available tool box. I’ve also had enough experience to understand what I didn’t know when I started out, and also how limited the understanding of things like anatomy, physiology, and program development knowledge is in most trainers.

That said, I’m all for people wanting to get into personal training for the best reasons of helping those who come to see them, especially if they want to continue to expand their knowledge while working with clients, improving the service they can deliver, and work towards becoming the best trainer they personally can.

What I can’t get behind are those who say experience (specifically, their own experience with training) is sufficient to become a great trainer. If your only knowledge of health and fitness is your own weight loss, figure competition, bodybuilding training, or the sport you played, you’re woefully underprepared to help someone who isn’t in the same category as you. The average 2o year old with only a high school education and one figure competition under their belt has no idea how to work with anyone other than another 20 year old who is competing in their first figure competition without additional knowledge and competency.

This is somewhat akin to someone who has gone through cancer then claim they could be an oncologist. Or, more provocatively, someone who has read a few blog posts on vaccinations claiming to know more about how they work than an immunologist.

Being fit is definitely social proof that you work out and apply what you know, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. This is the main selling point for celebrity diets, where a famous person who has a good body is hired to promote a specific weight loss or fitness program, and also a way that some trainers promote their business. If a trainer works with someone who has a decent or desirable body, they therefore MUST know what they’re doing, right?

No.

imageLikewise, having all the education in the world doesn’t automatically make you great, or even good for that matter. When I graduated and got my first training job, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had to try to figure out why people weren’t motivated to exercise the same way I was, I had to figure out why something that felt awesome for me caused pain for someone else, and had to adjust my thinking a lot away from the types of workouts I enjoyed to something someone else would enjoy, or even do.

I know a lot of people who have masters degrees and PhDs in various aspects of exercise physiology, and some of them are pretty good. There are also those who think things like deadlifts are the worst exercise you could do, and follow surprisingly outdated training methods without much thought. Sure, they can tell you exactly how the use of leptin can create a fat loss promotion and how insulin fluctuations can be utilized to speed muscle development, but they can’t tell you the difference between a diaphragmatic inhalation and a rectus/oblique mashup compensation pattern with someone who has had some pregnancy issues and has low back pain as a result. Sit and reach test everyone, you say? Blow me.

At the end of the day, there is no replacement for education, and specifically for formal education with dedicated studying and testing that requires specific competencies be achieved. There is also no amount of studying that can give the knowledge gleaned from hands-on experience. This is one reason why every. other. profession. requires a period of dedicated study followed by an under-study phase. In medicine that understudy phase is a residency. In law and accounting it’s the articling phase. In the trades it’s the apprentice phase. Apparently it takes more of a process to be able to cook a chocolatey dessert for someone than it takes to help them burn off that chocolatey dessert without killing them or getting them injured.

But let’s say you don’t have easy access to a university, either through geography or economic reasons. You could still look to become certified, and I would aim for the more challenging and widely recognized certifications out there, and probably look to get multiple ones too. From there, many top training facilities offer internship programs where you can learn under the study of someone who knows how to get safe and effective results for their clients. This gives you the opportunity to have someone looking over your shoulder while you learn and help you get better exponentially compared to doing it on your own, plus learn systems that can be more effective than what you would come up with on your own.

From there, live workshops give a great opportunity to learn a lot about a dedicated aspect of health and fitness, depending on the topics chosen. I’ve taught a lot of seminars on Post-Rehab training, which looks at how to work with common injuries and conditions following discharge from a medical professional. There’s also a lot of courses out there for things like max strength, speed, conditioning, and even medical management. I’m attending a 2-day workshop in Edmonton later this month on breathing. Yep, 2 whole days dedicated to a type of breathing and how to use it, because I like to party like that.

There’s no replacement for education. There’s no replacement for experience. There’s definitely drawbacks to relying on only one or the other, and multiple benefits to getting the most of each possible, especially in ways that allow you to utilize them with your clients. I can’t tell you the last time I ran a VO2 max test with a metabolic cart, but I know how to if I ever need to, and the other information from that course has proved valuable for helping a lot of people, so even if the information isn’t immediately apparent, it’s what you do with it that matters.

Lastly, no amount of knowledge or experience will make you successful. There’s absolutely zero guaranteed income in the health and fitness industry, but there’s absolutely no ceiling to what you can earn along the way. This means you have to be willing to actually go out there and work your butt off to make yourself into a business and build your reputation to the point where you can become successful.

From there, constant hustle and self-improvement an help you increase your odds of success, but still much of it comes down to sheer luck and positioning. If you want to be known as the celebrity trainer, you would have to live in New York or Los Angeles. If you want to work with pro sports teams, you won’t do that at a commercial facility, so you would have to apply to places that train pro athletes.

Nothing guarantees success, but success definitely leaves clues. Many of the best trainers I know (and I know a lot of really great trainers) tend to have either a bachelors or masters degree (some with a PhD), have worked as a trainer for over 10-20 years, and continue to sit in the front row of every seminar they attend, and make a point of attending as many seminars and certifications as possible. Very few highly successful trainers have less than a degree, less than 5 years experience with a lot of clients, and attend only one or two seminars a year. or less.