Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Qualifications once the golden rule are now just pieces of paper*


Where have I been? In the fitness wilderness, living on protein shakes, intermittent fasting while perfecting power club Kata's. No, In reality I've been busy & lazy simultaneously, so this is my first real article of 2012. It's been a long time coming, so without further ado, here we go.

Fitness Qualifications

This is about fitness qualifications in the UK, if you live outside the UK I have no idea how it works, but having read quite a few American commentaries on their fitness industry, it seems pretty similar.

In the last year I've seen a lot of CVs and application forms from people applying for fitness instructor jobs, studio instructor roles and more recently apprenticeships (finding an apprentice is no where near as exciting as Alan Sugar and Donald 'this really is my hair' Trump make out).

There are a whole host of qualifications including degree level sports science, and I've seen people with degrees in sports coaching and even degrees in personal training. There are level 2, level 3, level 4 qualifications, NVQs, BTECS and all sorts of names I don't profess to understand. Most vocational fitness qualifications are also recognised by an organisation called the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs, more on this later). There are universities, awarding bodies, Active IQ (whatever that is), private companies, government funded schemes and probably about a million other pathways I don't even know about. In a word, its confusing out there.

So what is the best course to do? What is the best route to take without going bankrupt? And are any of these qualifications worth a damn?

Hard Times

One thing I can say, is the job market must be tough out there, I have received application forms for apprenticeships from people with degrees in sports science and PE (No, they can't do it, they're over qualified) as well as people who have level 2 fitness instructor and level 3 personal trainer qualifications. For another job, a part time fitness instructor there were over 50 application initially, all of which had a recognised qualification. There used to be a time, when you received applications on spec from people with no qualifications, but all of these people had an industry recognised qualification.

This means there are a lot of people applying for a small number of jobs, there are a lot of people with the paper qualifications, and there are a lot of companies churning out people with fitness qualifications.

Certificate = just a piece of paper

As well as seeing all these application forms, I have had the chance to assess the practical skills of candidates with all these different qualifications. And in a word it was disappointing, it didn't matter if they were level 2 or 3 or had a personal training degree, when asked to write an exercise program they were all equal in their lack of imagination. And I don't want to be harsh to the individuals involved, I don't expect people to turn up being fully fledged coaching experts, and after all most were just doing what they had been taught or what they thought was expected of them in a gym setting. It seems, programming hadn't moved on in the 14 years or so since I was first qualified. Regardless, of which imaginary client I gave them, whether it be an old person, a young person, a fit person, unfit, back pain, 99% of the programs were uniform in the template they followed: cardio warm up, static stretching (some rare dynamic stretching), more cardio, some more cardio, machine weights, 3x10, some more cardio, swiss ball crunch and static stretch to follow. Ok, it wasn't 'wrong' as such, but no one thought about doing 5x5, or 10x3 or free weights, or mobility/ activation drills, or not giving the person with back pain crunches. Its not as if this information isn't readily available on the internet or in book form! The average well informed gym user could probably write a better program.

To paraphrase Alwyn Cosgrove, someone comes to us and wants to lose weight, what do we do? Cardio & weights. Someone comes to us and wants to get fit, improve body composition, increase muscle, what do we give them? Cardio & weights. There has to be a bit more specificity, surely?

It also seems practical coaching skills or basic movements really don't feature much in these courses. Asking for a demo of a deadlift, or squat, or press and to coach a client was painful to watch in some cases, it was obviously the first time some of these fitness professional had attempted these movements.

Now there is a school of thought, that says, you can teach the practical skills later and the most important thing is the ability to interact with people. Which is true to a certain extent, but when you do encounter that person with back pain, or someone with real goals it's a good idea to have a vague idea of what to do. Yes, you need to be able to motivate but you also need to have the practical skill and coaching 'eye' to see how someone needs to fix their squat.

Level 2 - write down what you already know

A few people I know recently did their level 3 qualification, but they had to do their level 2 again with the training company they were using. It was following an NVQ model, which as far as I can tell, involves writing down what you already know and what you already do, so you don't have to actually learn anything new, or read anything, you're already doing the job, just write it down and get a qualification. I don't know if this is a uniquely British type of qualification. They also had to answer such questions as what do you do and who do you call in the event of a first aid, what is the procedure after an accident. All useful things to know, but the type of things a company has to tell you anyway on the first day of the job, and doesn't really help you when confronted with the obese guy with a knee injury.

So that's level 2.

Level 3

Level 3 really take it to the next level. A former employee of mine was completing her level 3 qualification last year, when I asked her how the course was going, she looked somewhat disappointed. They had been taught how to do advanced techniques like body part splits, giant sets & tr-sets. As she rightly said, this is not how I train or the women who come to me to get fit, lose weight and 'get toned' want to train. I asked if they had covered anything else like mobility drills, or total body movements, metabolic conditioning, 10x3, EDT. The answer was 'no', the advanced personal trainer course had managed to combine some crazy 'functional training'  and had lifted most of their syllabus from a 1997 issue of Flex magazine.

Level 3 personal training courses use this as a reference, but you don't even get to look at the fitness model centre fold to distract you from the poor information

So again, despite the shear wealth of information out there on training methods, even down to realising that muscle hypertrophy maybe doesn't just occur in the 8-12 rep range, the average fitness qualification will stick with some 'broscience' rather than the evidence.

Level 3 specialist courses

Now you're fully qualified its time to specialise. Exercise/GP referral is one route. I did this course quite a few years ago. The first thing you'll notice on these courses, is that there are very few people from the private sector or self employed personal trainers attending them, nearly everyone works in local authority or leisure trust centres. As these are the only real business's that have exercise referral schemes.

When I attended this course quite a few years ago now, we covered a myriad of conditions. First things first though, we went through the karvonen method of heart rate percentages, then onto working out V02 max percentages, then onto all the medications that people can take that render these heart rate methods inaccurate and worthless, then onto the Borg RPE scale (like an old friend for anyone who has attended any fitness course). Then onto the stages of change, and readiness for change model - which is pretty much useless for anyone working in a gym. And then onto the guidelines for all the conditions, which I can summarise in one line 'do an extended warm up, do some more cardio, do a weights circuit using 8-12 reps following ACSM guidelines, use RPE scale'.

This works fine for your average deconditioned client with anxiety, depression, or hypertension - you can't go wrong if you use common sense. Then you start getting referrals of people with knee replacements, hip replacements and you realise that course wasn't worth a damn. Where was the practical info on how to get people mobile again, to strengthen their hips, get them out of a chair and walking. It wasn't there, you had to go find it yourself.

Again, there is a school of thought, that I have seen quite a few physios subscribe to, that any movement and exercise is equally valid if it gets people moving. Tell that to the cardiac client who can do 40 minutes on the recline bike but still can't get out of a chair without struggling and getting out of breath.

At this point, you start abandoning official fitness courses and go looking elsewhere for the answers.

Level 4 and beyond

I have done two level 4 courses, one for exercise for lower back pain management and one for exercise for stroke.

The back pain was somewhat farcical. The course text was Stuart McGill's book Lower Back Pain Disorders, which I had read before attending the course. It turns out the physio taking the course hadn't read the book. First there was a question paper, where me and my colleague (Nick 'contest ready' Heasman) both had the same question marked 'incorrect' by the physio tutor, in fact we had got the question right (what provides the core with hoop strength? Rectus Abs or transversus? You decide) and the physio was wrong.

Secondly, when demonstrating the bird dog, the physio told us to hollow and pull our abs in, when I asked why we weren't bracing like the course text said, it turns out the tutor hadn't read the text, and gave the usual blah answer that I can't even recall it was so absurd. We then learnt some useful things like, playing bingo (I kid you not, forward flexion intolerant, don't worry a game of bingo will make you feel better) to help people overcome the psycho-social aspects of back pain (tell that to an athlete trying to get on the field or the young mother with kids) and then the usual 'cop out' of its non specific chronic back pain, then any movement should help. To paraphrase Stuart McGill, there is no such thing as non specific back pain, they just haven't investigated it properly.

To add to the farce, it turned out this course wasn't accredited level 4 when we did it, so we then had to go and re-do it, with a case study, practical demo and a heavy emphasis on yellow flags and psychosocial aspects (important, but not the only thing like most of these courses seem to assume). The Active IQ framework for exercise for back pain was the usual - cardio warm up, stretches, pulse raise blah blah. When my colleague pointed out to the assessor you probably wouldn't use this format with a back pain client he agreed.

At this point you may think I was losing faith in the fitness courses.

I also did the exercise for stroke course with later life training. Another level 4 course, this one was all evidence based for stroke. As usual there was only one self employed PT on this course, everyone else worked for local authorities & leisure trusts.

Though this course was comprehensive, the evidence based circuits was literally based on one study. So we had to replicate the circuit used in the study exactly. This is a somewhat problematic approach to evidence based programming, as there is only one source and you are doing things that were done within a limited research setting. If they had drawn on more evidence base and given a template or blue print to follow rather than having to do exactly the same exercises and warm ups and stretches in the same order the course may have been more applicable. Even blending in some clinical wisdom, and common sense with the evidence base may have made the course more practical in the long term.

And it also begs the question, who cares if you are level 4...


The register of exercise professional classifies fitness courses as level 2, 3, and 4 and its members can be level 2,3, or 4.

Again, showing the bias of level 4 courses, to become a level 4 instructor on REPs you need to have reference from your employer and do some online test on the quality assurance referral framework (eh?). Thus they assume you must be employed, you can't be self employed it seems.

And most strikingly, no one cares if you are level 4 REPs, no one will ever ask you if you are level 2, or level 3 or level 4. Not one client ever has asked me if I am a member of REPs or what level I am.

Much like being a level 45 dungeon master, no one cares if you are REPs level 4.

Craig Feldspar level 45 dungeon master: Much like being level 4 REPs, no one cares

Clients don't really care who you did your course with or what level you are. They look at how you behave and how you train people and what results you achieve.

There is a long held belief by many in the fitness industry that REPs is nothing more than a glorified way of training companies getting you to do more courses. I don't think they're in cahoots or its a cartel or anything, but REPs needs the training organisations and the training organisations need REPs. The REPs newsletter and email bulletins contain adverts for courses by training providers.

Fact is, you don't need to be a member of REPs, no one cares, as long as you are insured, belonging to this organisation wont get you any more business.

And the training courses; I was lucky my level 4 courses were paid for by other organisations. If I was paying for them myself I would think long and hard before doing them, if you are genuinely interested in the subject, then do them, but they won't increase your income potential, you might as well do Zumba or British Military Fitness if you want to do that.

What now? Read a book

At this point I can only echo Nick Tumminello's advice, if you want to do a fitness course, do the cheapest and quickest one you can.

Then forget most of what they told you and go and read a book or two and look for good sources of info on the internet, DVDs etc. When I first started back in the dark ages, none of this was available, you had to do courses, now you can learn more in a week than a year of courses.

I get asked all the time, which is the best course to do, and it really doesn't matter, I don't think any of them stand out. I've learnt more from the internet, books, DVDs, research articles. I would say that 99% of what I do now on a daily basis with clients I did NOT learn from a training course.

If you have a qualification, you will probably get an interview - depending on how much effort you put into your application form. But make sure you can demonstrate an exercise, that you can write a decent program. And most importantly, if you want to work for an organisation go and do some research on member retention, customer service and how to talk to people. For some reason, none of the courses out there cover this.

Feudal Japan

These days, getting a fitness qualification is easy, and without getting too political, most qualifications in this country are now easy. There is no real failure rate, there is no gold standard qualification.

Back in the day, in  Japan, there are the famous stories of a student waiting outside a masters house for weeks in the snow before being accepted and then doing years of menial tasks. They had to show real dedication and commitment to the subject and put the time in. Now I'm not advocating this type of medieval training, but we need to raise the standard. It can't be a free for all, with thousands of people getting worthless qualifications.

If we have no faith in the qualifications, nor will the public.

In the meantime, get the piece of paper you need, but then be true to yourself, and spend a life time learning and mastering your subject, you owe it to yourself and your clients.

A picture of Ava Cowan to make us all feel better: now this article is better than Flex magazine and most training courses!

*The title for this blog was stolen from the Billy Bragg song To Have And To Have Not