This is an updated post from 2012.
I get the question all of the time. “What certification do you recommend?” There is no easy answer. A certification from a reputable, professional organization can help set you apart when it comes time to find a job. And job postings are exactly where you should start when you are considering which certification to get. The sooner you start looking at job descriptions and requirements, the better. This will begin to give you an idea of the skill set you need to start to develop and the certifications you will need to consider.
One important factor that many people don’t pay attention to is whether or not the organization or certification is accredited. What this means is that an outside accrediting agency will come in and take a look at the organization and determine whether or not the exam measures what is claims to test. Is it valid? Is it reliable? They will scrutinize these things and more. The American Council on Exercise has a nice explanation on accreditation. There are a few national organizations that offer accredited certifications including the American College of Sports Medicine, The American Council on Exercise, and The National Strength and Conditioning Association. There are others but these are the most globally recognized, accepted and respected.
Another thing to consider when looking at professional certifications is what the minimum criteria are for sitting for the exam. If you are a junior in college pursuing a degree in an allied health profession, you don’t want to look at taking a certification exam that only requires you to be 18 years of age. You want to start to look at exams and certifications that require a degree, or nearly completed degree. If you are going to put the time and effort into having that education, you want to use it to set yourself apart from the pack. However, if you are earlier on in your education, it might be worth getting a basic certification that requires less prerequisites so you can begin to work and gain valuable experience. Once it’s time to renew in 2-3 years, you could then look at pursuing a more prestigious certification if that is a goal.
For those of you whom may not be degree seeking and look to pursue a certification as a part-time job in addition to another professional career, your options will be a little bit more limited. There are many organizations that offer all types of certifications. I suggest you look into the exam format (written, practical or combination), the history or the organizations, as well as whether or not they are accredited. Referring back to those job postings and descriptions will help as well because employers will often list what types of certifications they are looking for and from what organizations they prefer.
Cost can be a bit of a barrier to pursuing a certification. They can be pricey, not to mention the continuing education that goes along with them. Consider getting a MEMBERSHIP, which will be more cost-effective and give you a reduced rate on the exam. It can also include price breaks on the exam prep materials. Look at it as an investment in your future. Employers want to know what you can do for them. Carrying that certification shows that you have a minimal competency that will allow you to either teach a class, oversee a client, or otherwise depending on the certification you have obtained.
Networking with professionals and asking them about their certifications is another great way to learn about the differences in all of the options there are out there. They can share with you the pros and cons of their certifications and experience as well as share some insight into exam preparation and what to expect.
The American Council on Exercise has cool tool that allows you to compare different types of personal training certifications. Check out my LINKS page for a list of some potential organizations that offer certifications. It is not comprehensive, just a place to start. You can also start reviewing those job descriptions on my JOBS page.
I would close with a word of warning. Obtaining a certification is not enough. You must, must, must work to build and maintain the practical teaching and coaching skills that go along with any health, fitness, or exercise science certification. As I have asked many students in the past, “Would you want a nurse who has read all the books or has run 1,000 I.V. lines?” Working in the field of exercise science requires practical skills that go far beyond a piece of paper or a textbook. Choose your fieldwork and internship sites wisely to gain as much real-world experience as possible. (That last line sounds like a future blog topic in the making).