PT on the Net Research

Choosing Your Education Path


There seems to be a common struggle among many fitness professionals when it comes to the world of fitness education: which school of thought to follow? As if it isn’t enough to have countless certifying agencies from which to choose, we also have numerous “gurus” in the world of continuing education providing us with advanced knowledge and skills needed to keep up and excel in the industry. Whether it is Gary Gray, Gray Cook, Juan Carlos Santana, Mike Boyle, Mark Verstegen, Paul Chek or any other big name practitioner/educator, it appears many fitness professionals allow themselves to become confused by the differences between them. Many feel compelled to “pledge allegiance” to one expert or body of knowledge. But differences in philosophy are often viewed as contradictions in philosophy, leading to debates over who is "right," debates commonly reserved for topics like religion, politics or who the best quarterback in NFL history is.

These debates make it difficult, especially for the novice fitness professional, to know which path to follow. The result often leads to overwhelmed fitness professionals who may become reluctant to practice newfound knowledge. On the other end, it could lead to overly excited students practicing new techniques without fully grasping the concepts. But it doesn’t need to be as difficult as it sometimes appears. This article will help the fitness professional sort through the confusion and provide insight on primary certifications and continuing education and how to choose an appropriate education path with confidence. It will also discuss ways to embrace the various schools of thought and put your mind at ease when sifting through the differences, rather than becoming frustrated with the debates.

In order to prepare us for this educational journey, consider some key elements that will help provide the appropriate direction for learning. There are certainly several questions that could be asked, but for simplicity sake, consider these three questions when choosing your education path:

  1. Who is your audience? It is vital to understand who your audience is or who it will be. This is typically referring to your clientele base, be it your existing clients, the type of clients you would like to attract and/or the type of clients in your work community.
  2. What is your personal background? It is important to take into consideration your education background as well as your own personal exercise and athletic history. If your exercise science education is limited, seeking an advanced certification or continuing education course may result in a "credential" with little ability to follow through effectively. If the fundamentals are not yet established, it is important to establish them first. It is great to explore areas of weakness, but it may be more conducive to build your educational foundation in an area where you feel most comfortable.
  3. What makes sense to you? Combined with your personal background, this question will ensure you are pursuing an area that is realistic for you to grasp. It is easy to be influenced and motivated by a dynamic speaker or piece of scientific literature. However, this may result in implementing information that has been heard before it has a chance to be truly absorbed or understood. The results can be embarrassing and even dangerous to your clients and your career development.

By providing concise answers to these questions, you will be able to prioritize your education options and explore a more appropriate path.

Evaluating Primary Certifications

If we glance over the primary certification agencies, we can observe that each one has its strengths and emphasis in certain areas of exercise science and practical components. One certification may place a heavier focus on cardiovascular conditioning and rehabilitation, while another may focus more on sports and athletic conditioning. Yet another may focus on corrective movement strategies and another on lifestyle habits, client communication and overall wellness. With a little research regarding each certification's strengths and focus, coupled with the above questions, one should be confident in determining which primary certification is personally more appropriate.

Also consider the purpose of a primary certification: to meet the minimum standards of knowledge appropriate to work with a healthy population. By no means are primary certifications designed to encompass all aspects of training expertise. A primary certification is only the beginning of our technical knowledge. It provides us with a language to get started so our future studies and practical experience can be rationalized and developed. The expectations for a primary certification are limited but absolutely necessary. Consider a primary certification as a driver’s license. It provides you with the credentials to drive, but it does not ensure that you will be a good driver. And it certainly doesn’t prepare you for the Grand Prix.

When comparing certifications, keep in mind, if observed closely, the bulk of the material covered for the different primary certifications overlap greatly, and there are far more similarities than there are differences. Yet it is not uncommon to hear arguments over which certification agency is the "best." We like to think we possess the highest standard qualification in the land, so it becomes easy to argue in favor of your personal credentials. But when considering the strengths of each agency in relation to your professional needs and environment, each one may in fact be the "best" for different populations. But considering the majority of the material (research) is shared, it is impossible to say one is "right" while another is "wrong."

Evaluating Continuing Education Providers

The same can be said for many of the leading educators and "gurus" from which we have to choose. Aside from personality and presenting styles, many of these educators share the same research that is derived from their teachings. They all essentially evolved from the same roots. And as each ascended in their respective practice, they explored and created options or “branches” to implement. That doesn’t necessarily make one “branch” better than another. Just different. And it can be equally as functional for specific reasons and populations.

To help set our minds at ease when comparing "gurus," we should recognize one seemingly universal truth: each educator is in the business of helping improve the fitness levels, functional levels, pain levels and overall quality of living for their clients (and ours!). In other words, we are all motivated by similar goals. Another truth is they did not get to where they are without doing their homework and implementing it successfully. Therefore, there is validity found in each approach.

If you have ever been to a large conference with some of the above mentioned educators and/or had the opportunity of observing them gather for a roundtable discussion, you may have expected something of a verbal (or functional) brawl. If so, you were likely disappointed in the lack of drama and verbal fisticuffs. The reason? The experts are typically more alike than they are different. The science and research is vast and young. Therefore, the vastness makes it easy to support each approach with evidence of efficacy. And the newness of our industry allows for flexibility to change as the research expands. The differences do not mean they are contradictions. They are just simply a different way of getting from point A to point B.

Naturally, there will be differences in “proven” research and differences in opinions presented by the experts leading us. And while this can be confusing, it can also be enlightening. If we listen carefully, we should be able to fill our proverbial toolbox with a variety of tools providing us with several different options that may work in various situations. Ironically, we would rather argue about the differences in techniques and call them "contradictions" than we are to observe and discuss the similarities and recognize the potential usefulness of each approach.

Take, for example, some of the many experts who address corrective strategies for movement. We tend to look at the differences as contradictions simply because they use different strategies. Yet, there are fitness education resources that do not address proper movement at all. And somehow we fail to see how that may be the true contradiction in the education of fitness professionals. By addressing proper movement and techniques to teach them, these educators are providing great insight to improve the abilities of our exercising population. So whether one educator focuses on the feet for balance while another focuses on the core and another on stretching and yet another on strengthening, they are all addressing aspects that the industry barely considered just a few short years ago. And perhaps they are all "right."

So how do we sift through all of the material and follow a path suitable for ourselves and, more importantly, our audience? We can start by recognizing that if we want better answers, we should start asking better questions. Rather than asking, “Who is right?” and “Who is wrong?,” we might better serve our careers and our clients by asking, “What’s the difference between them?” This invites an understanding of rationale and comprehension rather than inviting arguments and engaging in possible ego conflicts. Ask yourself the questions introduced in the beginning of this article. If you are studying material that prepares you for your audience, compliments your personal background and makes sense to you, you will likely be satisfying a professional and ethical obligation to the industry. Run with the material, and you will likely provide some benefits for those who hire you. 

Experts at the Basics

There is one more key element to consider before exploring the more advanced levels of training. Each professional in the health and fitness industry has a professional responsibility to master the basics. It is too easy to try to skip steps and jump into advanced training principles, be it sports training, kettlebell training, corrective exercise training or training special populations. There are some fundamental and universal principles that are often forgotten when trying to advance too quickly without mastering the basics. In fact, given the overall health condition of the United States, no fitness professional should feel an obligation to have to move beyond the basics. There are tremendous career opportunities in being a specialist in “the basics.” And no matter how advanced one gets, it should always be tied back to the foundation.

There are several ways to get from one place to another. Certain strategies may be preferable because of personal knowledge, experience, competency, efficiency and comfort level of the practitioner as well as the client. Compare our education world to traveling through a large city. How many modes of transportation can you use to get from one destination to another? There may be trains, buses, cars, bikes, horse and carriages or simply walking. And how many different rationales can you use for each option? Time of day, cost, the weather, knowledge of the route, your energy level, mood, trying to meet somebody, trying to avoid somebody, etc. The bottom line is, each option should be able to get you where you want to go. Technically speaking, they are all “right.” They all have shown levels of efficacy. But most importantly, it is necessary to make sure the rationale leads to the desired result.

As professionals, it is our responsibility to understand the tools that we expect to use and then use them in the appropriate way, at the appropriate moment. It is important that we recognize that each certification and guru is in the business of helping clients progress and reach goals with efficiency and safety. They all have established great levels of success. We can actually learn from all approaches and allow each to inform the other. This supports the belief that education should be far less competitive and far more collaborative. After all, we are all looking for a way to be better for our clients.

Remember, our professional education should not begin and end with a certification or even a degree. Many report that they have learned far more on their own than what their degrees and certifications taught them. But the degrees and certifications make it possible to learn and comprehend more advanced concepts and, perhaps more importantly, convey and practice the rationale effectively.

Still think varying approaches are worthy of debate? Perhaps. But keep it healthy and constructive. The way I see it, I am not a researcher. I didn’t invent the body of knowledge that I use. And I do not own it.

I’d rather wrangle over who the best quarterback in NFL history is.