Do Certifications Even Matter For Personal Trainers?

Mike, are you certified??

Yes, I am a certified personal trainer.

But guess what: My certification doesn’t mean shit.

And neither does yours. Nor does your trainer’s.

Two Reasons Trainers Get Certified:

  1. to work in a gym
  2. to not get sued

How To Get Certified:

Skim a textbook, register for an exam, and spend two hours mashing buttons in a Prometric center beside a nervous MBA to-be.

You may even have to play dumb at times, like when the certifying body is lagging behind current research, and select multiple choice answers like:

C) Breakfast, to elevate your metabolic rate!

I did not learn one thing from my certification.

Though, I did learn by trying and failing and trying and failing over and over.

In fact, if you derive any meaningful amount of trust from the fact that I am certified, I want you to abandon that life paradigm completely. And I don’t just mean in fitness.

Don’t blindly follow your financial advisor.

Don’t blindly follow the Fox News host.

Don’t blindly follow your parents’ advice.

Evaluate everyone on their merit, not the letters after their name.

Judge them on their work. On their past performance. On their last at-bat.


Remember: EVERY commercial gym trainer has a certification

You have seen trainers do dumb and dangerous things, right?

This is the part where most blogs insert the bosu ball squat image or maybe a lumbar-rounding deadlift meme.

But you aren’t five years old, and this isn’t a picture book. So I will reserve photos only for those times when they sufficiently stroke my ego. Like, the casual, well lit, carb-loaded biceps pump shot pictured above.

Let’s re-focus: if it is widely accepted that trainers at commercial gyms are pretty bad, and it is also accepted that 99% of these trainers are certified, remind me why we value certifications. 

Actually, let me take a few guesses.

And I need you to be super honest with yourself. You might feel the urge to get upset, but try to think objectively.

Okay? Ready?

1) You are jealous that some hot girl on instagram who isn’t certified is making six figures by affiliate marketing her mostly naked body.

Remember, her lack of a certification does not automatically lend credibility to those who are certified.

2) You are defensive about a degree or a qualification YOU may have obtained in the past.

Possibly an advanced training cert that didn’t yield the expected dividends. Or, maybe in a field unrelated to fitness; maybe you worked very hard to get your PhD, so you [overvalue] formal qualifications in general.

While completely understandable, it is important to seek and develop world views grounded in truth rather than those that ease your mind and reinforce past decisions.

3) You’ve been burned by a fitness fraud.

Perhaps you trusted an Herbalife “coach” only to wind up in the middle of a supplement pyramid scheme.

If this is the case, I completely understand your reliance on certifications. But I would still encourage you to continue reading because later we discuss the important factors that actually legitimize a trainer.


“Instagram Trainer”

Instagram: @amandaedell

Full disclosure: this is actually my friend Amanda who is certified and is an awesome trainer. But let’s pretend she is a random woman who got lean for her first show. Instagram: @amandaedell


Well guess what:

I would rather be coached by a first time bikini competitor than a random draw of all CPTs

Yep. I think getting stage ready is a greater accomplishment than getting certified.

The experience offers more relevant knowledge, more appropriate tools, and a deeper understanding behind the psychology of dieting than does passing a computerized test.

But let’s talk about what really matters in a trainer.


Pick One: Heart Or Brains

Yes, of course you want both.

I bet you were just a blast at sleepovers too.

Take the next eight seconds, be less annoying, and just play by the universal rules of hypothetical either/or/would-you-rather games.

We have two trainers:

  • Trainer A: nine different certs and objectively the greatest hypertrophy programmer of all time
  • Trainer B: no cert, has a basic understanding of exercise form, and really wants to help people

Trainers B is better for 98% of the population

Magic programming isn’t what creates results (outside of advanced trainees).

Showing up creates results.

Being consistent creates results.

Working hard creates results.

So if you are a trainer who can make fitness stuff fun, integrate it with real life behaviors like getting lean while drinking alcohol, and be good enough at the technical stuff, you are a going to have greater impact.

And yes, obviously being a world classes programmer and an empathic trainer is ideal. Thanks for playing my silly game 🙂


So You Think Education Is Bullshit?

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 7.08.50 PM

Wait… if I put a bezoar in my naked juice, then will it be healthy?

Slow down there angry reader!

I think education is massively important.

It’s why I have spent thousands of hours reading, observing, and questioning different training and nutrition practices over the last 12 years of my life.

But there is a difference between getting smart and appearing to get smart.

Does that make sense?

You don’t get a pretty plaque for staying up until four o’clock in the morning reading every word on for your entire winter break.

But somehow you become a more legitimate trainer by sleeping through Rick Mayo’s talk, waking up for the hands-on demonstration, ignoring the instructions on how to modify single-leg moves for knee problems, and spending the remainder of your one day seminar aggressively lobbying for your partner Samantha’s phone number.


You get smart because you are hungry and tenacious and a winner and you want it. Not by checking required boxes for “education credits.”

Plus, you don’t need that plaque to show off your fitness intellect.

It will show through your work.

It will show through your client results (like my clients).

So go to seminars, read books, and study your face off; but do it because that material will truly move you in the direction of your goals, not to appease others.


Certified App Developer

Mike… you’re making a macros app?? Are you even certified???

Truth be told, that ten word email prompted this post.

When I read it, I thought: I really wish I had a rant-y article to send this girl.

Actually, my first thing thought was how the hell can you be certified in macro-app development.

But anyway, because I had not yet written this article, I very kindly explained that I was indeed certified but that she probably shouldn’t put too much stock in that.

If not by formal means though, how do you get good?


How You ACTUALLY Become Certified

  • You eat canned tuna in your friend’s basement at age 16.
  • You spend hours caffeinated in the library reading every textbook, article, and forum post you can get your hands on.
  • You take strength training and nutrition courses, but rather than blindly follow, you question everything.

(Bonus: you throw a tantrum in a 400 person lecture because the professor claims walking downstairs is a more effective eccentric move than a negative pull-up. Reminder: letters after your name ain’t shit)

  • You obsess over your own training and nutrition.
  • You get leaner, then stronger, then bigger, then leaner, and repeat over and over.
  • You actually train hundreds of clients in the gym.
  • You accost people smarter than you with questions. Not physically. 
  • You intern for free.
  • You ask clients for feedback: what worked and what didn’t?
  • You read thousands of research summaries, and a handful of actual studies. Because let’s be honest, reading the actual studies is painful.


How To Tell Who IS Legitimate

That is a damn good question.

With so many hucksters and so much deceit, how can someone relatively new to fitness distinguish the good from the bad.

Credentials feel safe. They seem like a good place to start. But you have to remember that if someone is smart enough to build a brand that rips people off, they are also smart enough to pass a CPT exam.

So what should you do?

Trainer Reputation: What Does The Market Say

The market rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.

Look at Amazon book reviews. Pay attention to youtube like-to-dislike ratios, which is a surprisingly good indicator of trainer quality.

Google aggressively.

What Do Others Say About The Trainer?

Do other trainers you respect speak highly of the person in question?

Can you find direct testimonial from clients?

Look for any kind of feedback from sources you trust, including the comments section of a blog, facebook page, or instagram post.

Does The Trainer Speak In Absolutes?

Language is a powerful tool. Speaking authoritatively makes you seem more knowledgeable. The thing is, there are so few instances where words like “always” or “never” make sense.

Instead, look for words like “often” and “generally” which generally signals honesty, experience, and knowledge.

Does the trainer ever admit that “they don’t know” and “it depends?” Because those are the right answers quite often.

If he or she has an answer for everything, be on guard.

Does The Trainer Look Like A Wet Blanket?

Now, being shredded isn’t a prerequisite, but the person in question should look like they have picked up a weight at least one time in their life.

Just one weight. Just once. Is that so much to ask?


Being On TV Doesn’t Mean I’m A Great Trainer

When I was on TV broadcasted to 100,000 people, I got a lot of attention. I received tons of congratulatory messages, including those from guys who made fun of me growing up.

Because people think TV is legitimate. They think TV means you’ve made it.

And that is so far from the truth.

Though, Scot Haney is the man.

Recognition from your parent’s media is no longer a stamp of approval.

Formal qualifications and accolades are largely shields that protect us from the fear that we aren’t good, smart, or qualified enough.

You know what’s more meaningful? Actually helping people, regardless of audience size or medium.

Like this video that got 1% of the views. Or the video I shot on an airplane that only got 668 views but dozens of emails.

Most certifications just don’t carry real weight, especially personal training certifications.

The game is changing, and that’s okay.

You don’t need to kiss ass to get published. You don’t have to walk on eggshells to build an audience. And you don’t need a fancy certification to be a top trainer.

You just have to be good.

If you haven’t picked up The Beginner’s Fitness Guide, that’s a huge mistake. It’s free and it will help you get lean and strong and attractive. Plus you can email me directly after you get it. Right here.

Comments for This Entry

  • Holly Saffie

    I was actually working with a certified trainer at my gym before I came to you. It's how I ended up coming to you. It didn't matter how many times I explained my past history... I ended up blowing out my knee in a class when she pushed too hard. Yes, I should have stopped myself too. I also left because she told me point blank I'd never be able to do pull ups. You know I can bang those out now ;) No paper says it all.

    October 12, 2015 at 5:57 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Mike Author

      Yeah, classes are tricky too because they generally are very rah-rah without a lot of attention to detail.. that really sucks though. You wouldn't know it the way you have dominated the last many months though!

      October 12, 2015 at 7:25 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Angela king

    You have to be the only friend outside of medical friends who know what a bezoar is.

    October 12, 2015 at 7:01 pm | Reply to this comment

  • John Helbling

    Great article! I am helping people left and right via things you've taught, or Roman has taught me. I read like crazy on it too. I've had a handful of people saying since I don't have certs, that I don't know crap, and I know that's crap, but what certs do you need to be "legit"? I want to have something for the legal dept, but know thats all it is. Thanks

    October 13, 2015 at 12:04 am | Reply to this comment

  • abhinav saini

    personal trainer

    October 13, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Carter Good

    Dude this article is… stellar! I have heard some of the arguments you made but this is the first time I have seen a detailed and organized post talking about the importance of qualification and legitimacy. I am so tired of my friends and family buying into stupid crap they hear on Dr. Oz and blindly accepting it as truth. The worst is the juice fast for weight loss (*starts to pull out hair*). Thank you for being real - despite the hundreds of fitness gurus preaching nonsense!

    October 14, 2015 at 8:17 am | Reply to this comment

  • Naomi Walker

    I'm actually studying for my PTCertification and it's funny because I have also felt it really doesn't matter to have a certification. Thank you for this post, it made me open my eyes and realize I can be better ?

    February 3, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Anne

    I have my own Fitness Center and I usually read blogs on fitness regime. I just come across your post. Your post is very organised and you explained well. I really want to share this post with my fitness students. Thanks man for such informative article.

    March 9, 2016 at 12:08 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brian Kiriba

    Hey Its a very informative post and after reading your blog I gained a lot of information about fitness. I am also a fitness freak person and always like to remain fit and healthy. In actually, my wife use to work out alot so that she can become more fit and for that she wear the waist cincher, which actually helped her out. But, I believe that after reading your blog she will feel more motivated. Great blog and really like to read more such informative and interesting blogs/ :-)

    March 25, 2016 at 1:13 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony

    I have read your posts and I like them a lot. What you have said about certified trainers has opened my eyes even more. I am training for a half-marathon and I hired a personal trainer who had a training program for this. When we met. She told me what she was going to do and not just give me the training schedule and fend for myself. Plus show me the proper techniques for certain exercises she had on the program. She only helped me for a month or so with only running once with me. After that Run she went from sending me my training program weekly to a 2 week schedule. Then after that she sent me the rest of the 18 week training program. The proper techniques she said she was suppose to show me never happened. Instead she explained it over a text. Then later on I get another text from her saying she will not be answering her messages and emails until further notice. So in other words it is fend for myself( something she supposedly said she would never do). Such crap. But I do like your honesty and I am glad I joined your newsletter.

    August 3, 2016 at 3:48 am | Reply to this comment

  • DeeDavis

    You mentioned nutrition classes. What are some best nutrition books out there that you recommend?

    March 8, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Reply to this comment

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