Fitness Specialties: Certifications That Set You Apart

A female ATC who specializes in corrective exercise.

The bar of competence for fitness trainers has been raised significantly since certification was first introduced in the 1980s. This was a major step in helping to legitimize personal training as a career and somewhat regulating the profession as well. Today, as more people with degrees and/or health science backgrounds enter into the field, the fitness industry expects more from its professionals than ever before.

What is Fitness Specialization?

To clarify, we’re defining fitness specialization – in broad terms – as anything going beyond the scope of standard personal trainer and group fitness certifications.

Learning to specialize, which is basically a form of continuing education, makes it possible for you to build upon your pre-existing foundations of knowledge and experience.

Earning a specialty certification serves as a means to improve or extend the reach of your services, help standardize the new programs and services you’ll offer, and help qualify you to work with targeted populations.

Specialty Certifications

Going the extra mile to earn a specialty fitness or health-related certification is not just about racking up another credential to complement your cache of knowledge and services. It’s a commitment to your career and should reflect a mindset of being passionate to learn more and excel in areas or populations that interest you most.

IDEA’s 2013 Fitness Programs Trend Report shows the popularity of specialized training and programming in areas including small-group training, older adults, functional training, chronic disease, corrective exercise/rehabilitation, mind/body, health coaching and weight management. If you haven’t already, you may want to consider working towards specialization in at least one of these areas to help meet the demand for these types of services.

Types of Fitness/Exercise Specialties

The following is an attempt to best categorize all the different fitness-related specialty certifications.

We’ve identified six general groups these credentials fall into and compiled a list of specialty certifications offered by major fitness organizations based on this categorization.

  • Athletics/Sport Specific/Human Performance
  • Behavior, Nutrition, Weight Management and Lifestyle
  • Clinical Disease Prevention, Management and Recovery
  • Mind-Body Fitness
  • Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation/Orthopedics/Function
  • Special Populations

For Fitness Professionals

It’s not uncommon for fitness professionals to start out with a conventional certified personal trainer (CPT) certification or group fitness certification – two of the most general, in terms of knowledge and client population, then go on to earn additional certification(s). Often, specialty credentials are pursued to become more qualified in working with a targeted population of their choice, either partially or exclusively, such as people with pre-existing health conditions (clinical) or athletes (sports performance and injury prevention/rehabilitation).

For Healthcare Professionals

The number of healthcare professionals acquiring fitness-related certifications to complement their medical or clinical training is becoming more prevalent. For example, there are registered nurses and registered dietitians that have pursued ACE’s Health Coach certification and athletic trainers and physical therapists who’ve earned NASM’s Performance and Corrective Exercise Specialist certifications.

Also, there are exercise physiologists who have earned ACSM’s Clinical Exercise Physiologist or Cancer Exercise Trainer credentials, or ACE’s Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist.

Prevention and Rehabilitation: Where Fitness and Healthcare Meet

A growing number of healthcare facilities and insurance companies are utilizing alternative providers of preventive wellness and physical rehabilitation, and increasingly, the fitness industry is seen as a solution to this search.

However, to be regarded in the healthcare community as competent and capable of contributing where traditional healthcare leaves off, fitness professionals must be specifically educated in working with people that are at-risk of, recovering from, or have a chronic disease. As a fitness professional, you may be a client’s most frequent or only contact within a health care-related environment.

Succeeding as a Fitness Specialist

While you should consider it a big accomplishment, preparing for and passing your specialty certification exam is definitely not an end unto itself. Now, you have to make a concerted effort to stay up to date and in doing so maintain, or ideally, improve your levels of professional competency and credibility.

Outlined below are three essential components of success you should always be mindful to integrate into your career as a fitness expert.

Be Inspired to Inspire.

Success in the fitness profession requires the right approach. Since the fitness industry is a “people business”, it’s imperative that trainers recognize and portray the skills and mindset needed to provide a high level of service. However they require something more. They need passion and inspirational attitude. Inspirational attitude enables the fitness professional to empower others to become self-motivated.

If you lack motivation how will you be able to put forth the additional effort to specialize, let alone achieve results for your client? By continuously being inspired to achieve your professional goals as well as inspiring your clients to achieve theirs, you’ll be geared up for success as a specialist.

Standardize Your Product.

Ideally, you want to deliver any program or service to your clients in the most effective package as possible. This is accomplished by making sure there is standardization or consistency in the way you train them. Given that new customers in the fitness industry commonly stem from referrals, it’s necessary that trainers deliver an equivalent high quality of service to every single client, day-in and day-out.

As soon as your training services become inconsistent, the expectations and dedication of both core clients and the friends they send your way can start to decline. This is a major risk to the long-term success of any business.

To maintain consistency in your product, whether it is specialized fitness training or health coaching, your operating procedures should be in writing. Furthermore, they must be disclosed and discussed with all of your clients. Training, practice and continuing education take all professionals to the top of their game. It’s no different for the fitness professional.

Continue Your Education.

With the continuum of research that’s carried out on the effects of physical activity, nutrition and other wellness factors on both disease and human performance, working in this environment requires keeping up to date as well as expanding your knowledge on a fairly regular basis. This includes fulfilling your continuing education credit (CEC) requirements year after year and always being cognizant of the latest health and fitness guidelines, trends and other industry developments.

Published Guidelines

It’s good practice to always keep updated on important fitness and health guidelines published by authoritative organizations or agencies.

The American College of Sports Medicine’s cardiovascular exercise recommendation for otherwise healthy adults is just one example.

Their basic exercise prescription, in the 1990s, was a minimum of three exercise sessions per week lasting 20 to 60 minutes, performed at 60 to 90 percent of maximum heart rate. This has evolved into the current recommendation of a weekly accumulation of 150 minutes of moderately-intense activity, minimally, that can be achieved through:

…30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (five days per week) or 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (three days per week).

While a change like this may seem more like a clarification or rewording to some, it’s your professional duty to realize these types of nuances and stay current, especially when it comes to any major fitness guideline revision.

Courses and Industry Conferences

Knowledge acquired through continuing education courses – which you’re probably familiar with or will be eventually – helps to stimulate and revitalize your purpose and passion for being in this field. And just as important, continuing education provides the opportunity to gain necessary knowledge and applied skills required to maintain a recognized and credible certification. There are a bunch of ways to gain CECs (or CEUs as they’re sometimes called), although completing courses, attending live workshops and conferences, and earning additional certifications will usually grant you the highest number of credits.

Acquiring CECs through organizations other than the organization you hold your certification with is in many cases facilitated, however, you always have to make sure the CEC-granting activity you complete will be acknowledged by your certifying organization beforehand. For example, ACSM, NASM and NFPT all accept credits from ACE’s online continuing education courses.

Regarding the various fitness-related conferences and symposiums held all over the world every year, being around like-minded individuals that have experienced success should be a huge inspiration or motivating factor. The information shared first-hand and invaluable contacts made through direct networking are among the most rewarding parts of attending these conferences. Experiencing the sense of community with others who share similar goals and interests almost always cultivates new growth in one way or another.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association’s (IHRSA) International Convention/Trade Show, ACSM’s Health & Fitness Summit/Exposition and IDEA’s World Fitness Convention are among the largest conferences, however there are many smaller niche and regional conferences held throughout the year as well.

Association Membership

Last, but not least, make sure to become an active member in an association that provides quality education to the fitness industry or remember to renew an existing membership.

The benefits of an association membership include the following:

  • Alerts and information on changes in standards and practices resulting from new research
  • Advice on career and business development
  • Training opportunities in leadership, marketing, movement science, etc.
  • Access to networking opportunities

ACSM, NSCA and IDEA Health and Fitness Association are a few excellent choices to consider.

Forming and maintaining an active relationship with one or more industry associations can provide you with many of the necessary resources required to reach that next level of fitness professionalism.