This post is one for the personal trainers in our audience, or those interested in what their trainers know. There have been changes to the professional development of personal trainers in Australia. We look at what those changes are, and what their impact on the knowledge of your fitness professionals could be.
What is Fitness Australia?
Fitness Australia is a non-profit industry association, which aims to raise professional standards in fitness by offering accreditation, professional development, and advocating for the fitness industry. While there is at least one other organisation offering a similar service, they are considered the peak body for fitness professionals.
More recently, they have also started advocating more generally for Australians to adopt a healthier, more active lifestyle. So we like what they are trying to do!
Why register with Fitness Australia?
Registration with Fitness Australia is voluntary, and costs money, so some fitness professionals don’t bother. But there are some advantages of the expense.
As far as professional registrations go it is cheap, and provides access to cheap insurance for personal trainers. Some employers will insist on registration for their employees. And for small businesses, there are a range of resources available that could be help run a business smoothly.
Other trainers won’t register, however. And self-employed personal trainers may make a decision about whether or not to register.
What are Fitness Australia CECs?
To hold and maintain a registration with Fitness Australia, you need to do more than hold a fitness qualification. You also need to complete a certain amount of professional development during your registration.
Fitness professionals can pick from a range of courses registered with Fitness Australia. Courses are usually created by third parties, who then pay a fee to have their course reviewed and registered. When trainers complete a course, they receive Continuing Education Credits (or CECs).
How many CECs does a personal trainer need?
To maintain their registration, a trainer needs 20 CECs over the two year registration period. This can be a significant financial burden.
And as these courses are prepared and delivered by third parties, the range of courses available may be limited. Some are online, some are not. And many are not available in regional areas.
And have we mentioned the cost? Courses that assess participants attract more CECs than those that don’t, making them better value for money. But, the average cost of attaining these is around $70-80 per point. Trainers can also choose to attend a larger conference (like FILEX), but may also have travel and accommodation costs.
Many fitness professional baulk at spending this sort of money, which is why some choose to not register with Fitness Australia. As mentioned above, the cost of maintaining a registration may be less than other allied health professionals (like physiotherapists or dietitians, for example), but these other professionals tend to have higher earning potential, and more secure careers than the average personal trainer.
There are now more ways to earn CECs
Responding to concerns about the cost and availability of courses, Fitness Australia has made some changes to the ways that personal trainers can gain CECs.
This is important, as we usually assume professional development is an important part of a trainer’s education. Most clients would not be impressed to find out their trainers stop learning as soon as they walk out the door of their training provider, certificate in hand.
As trainers work in the industry for longer, they accumulate these CECs. And we usually assume a trainer becomes more knowledgeable over time, and their services may be worth more.
But be cautious! Research (like that we recently conducted, as well as this, and this) has demonstrated that a trainer’s knowledge is not necessarily improved as a result of their experience. It cannot be assumed that a more experienced trainer is more knowledgeable, and this is a consistent theme in fitness research.
But will these recent changes help solve this problem, or potentially make it worse?
What are the changes to CECs?
What we will present below is a list of the ways personal trainers can now get CECs, along with a comment on each. Some of this flexibility is welcome, while other options we need to be more cautious about.
1) Complete a VET fitness qualification or unit of competency.
This makes total sense. You can receive 5 CECs for each unit that you complete in your registration period, up to 20 for completing a whole qualification. This means someone who gets a higher qualification (e.g. a diploma in fitness) has completed their professional development for this registration period.
Given the cost and time commitment of doing a course, this is appropriate. And aiming for higher level qualifications is something that we have recommended in our research. Personal training requires independent work, learning, and complex decision-making skills, so aiming for higher level qualifications is always great advice for a career fitness professional.
2) Renewing CPR or first aid qualifications.
This needs to be done annually, and is compulsory to maintain registration and insurance. So it makes sense to recognise this in a trainer’s professional development. If things go really bad in a session, you want your trainer to possess these skills, and be confident in them.
3) Completion of a higher education exercise science or related subject
Brilliant. A trainer can receive 15 CECs for every unit completed. If a trainer is studying part time they can complete all their professional development over several years this way. Again, this is something that should be encouraged to raise the standard of fitness professionals.
Not everything in a degree is relevant to personal training, of course. So these units need to be aligned to the scope of practice to gain credit.
As an aside, even a degree in an unrelated area is not worthless. Higher qualifications in any field have been associated with fewer exercise and nutrition misconceptions in the public, and probably won’t hurt a personal trainer’s knowledge either! The higher level research and analysis skills learnt in degrees can be applied in any field to help improve your knowledge. This doesn’t replace strong knowledge in the field, but can definitely complement it.
4) Mentoring students as part of a structured mentorship program
This refers to mentoring fitness students during a work placement. It is a recognition of service to the industry that is usually unpaid. But does it count as professional development? At its best, mentoring can be immensely valuable to both the trainer and the student.
The best way to know if you really understand something is having to teach it to someone else. Take it from someone who teaches for a living! Gaps in your own knowledge are quickly identified, giving you an opportunity to revise. And the student gets valuable guidance on the differences between classroom theory and real world practice.
But at its worst, a student is following a trainer around for a few hours, they may have a quick chat, then get some paperwork signed. It’s not clear from the resources I’ve seen how the quality of this mentoring is assured.
5) Teaching in VET fitness qualifications, higher education, or CEC approved programs
This is really useful for more experienced trainers, who also teach. Teaching in vocational education (like I do) requires not only industry currency, but currency in vocational education. So two sets of qualifications, and two sets of continuing education. As a result, lecturers are often time poor.
And again, good teaching means knowing your content inside out. I can only speak for myself here, but every year the material I teach to students is updated. I also come up with better ways to present information, find useful supplemental resources, and keep track of the changing field on knowledge.
Occasionally I even identify that I’ve been wrong (this has happened at least once in my life), and need to correct my material.
In higher qualifications, this means being at the cutting edge of research, and updating references and lecture material as our understanding of exercise science changes. It benefits the industry to have someone with these skills registered, and active in the industry, if they want to be.
6) Affiliated education
This greatly expands the options for a personal trainer. A trainer can now complete courses registered with another (relevant) organisation, then apply to have this recognised by Fitness Australia. For example, a trainer dealing with older populations might do a course with Exercise and Sport Science Australia (ESSA), the peak body for exercise physiologists, about exercise following joint replacement.
Trainers need to be mindful that this does not expand their scope of practice, but does much to improve their depth of knowledge. It might also help them expand the network of professionals they can talk to.
7) Self-directed learning
Trainers can now earn CECs by reading a) research-based, peer-reviewed journal articles, or b) research-based publications endorsed by the government or a university, or a professional peak body (like a position statement or report). While I understand the appeal of giving personal trainers this degree of flexibility, I have concerns.
This assumes that personal trainers have the skills to properly read a research article. That they fully understand the concept being researched, and the findings. Not only that, they understand how these findings could be applied, or how they should not be.
To properly interpret research you need to understand its limitations, and the statistics, two skills not taught in a Certificate IV. In fact, even in a degree your training in research methods and data analysis is extremely limited.
It also helps to understand the rest of the body of knowledge. Are the authors of this paper representing other research fairly? Do they represent an established position, with clear evidence, or are they presenting a fringe idea? Do they avoid discussing a piece of research that contradicts their own? Are they published in a respected journal? If you aren’t familiar with the field, you won’t know.
This also opens the door for cherry-picking. A trainer could pick an article from an author they already agree with, and claim that as their professional development.
What have they learnt in this case? They’ve strengthened existing misconceptions, and don’t have the academic skills or depth of knowledge to be able to properly critique what they have read.
8) In-house training
Essentially a CEC course, without any of the quality checks that go into getting a course registered. The number of points available here is limited (to 4 in a two year period, and needing a greater volume of training than CEC registered courses), but again the bar has been lowered.
Small studios can hire trainers who will adhere to their training philosophy, then provide training that reinforces any misconceptions or errors in the knowledge of the group. Now we’ve turned professional development into an echo chamber.
It’s possible that, for example, a good personal training manager at a larger studio may organise solid, evidence-based professional development. But how would we know this is the case?
9) Peer observation
This is exactly as it sounds. I can accumulate 3 CECs by watching another trainer. There is nothing stating this trainer needs to have a higher qualification, or what experience they need to possess. You are just watching someone else do their job.
This will be popular with trainers, as on-the-job training has been identified as important in previous research, but as mentioned earlier, this is not associated with more knowledge. Our echo chamber has gotten stronger, reinforcing our misconceptions even more.
What do we think of these changes?
Adding flexibility, and reducing expense, of professional development is a good idea. Anecdotally, trainers have also raised concerns with me about the quality about some of the training they have done. So trying to improve this is not a bad idea.
But a trainer could now get most of their CECs without doing any actual education. For example, to get my 20 CECs to renew my registration I could:
- Observe another trainer in my workplace for 3 hours, with no quality assurance (3 CECs)
- Complete some training in my workplace for 12 hours, with no quality assurance (4 CECs)
- Read four research articles that confirm an opinion I hold (4 CECs)
- Renew my first aid and CPR (5 CECs)
- Mentor some student trainers (4 CECs for a level 2 trainer, or 10 CECs for a level 3 trainer)
What have I learnt in this time? Potentially nothing. I’ve been exposed to no industry expertise other than my colleagues. I’ve read research that has strengthened my misconceptions, making me even more resistant to new information. And I’ve passed those misconceptions on to new personal trainers.
In short, we’ve strengthened an echo chamber, and drawn others into it.
Well done Fitness Australia for trying to tackle this difficult issue. Personal training is a transient industry, with low levels of qualification. So making registration easier to maintain makes sense if you want to keep trainers in the industry.
But they’ve done this at the expense of the quality. Do we want to keep trainers in the industry that find professional development a chore? Or do we want to increase the demand for high quality, well-educated trainers instead?
It’s easy to criticize. How could you do better?
Maybe I can’t! As I said, it’s a difficult issue.
Over time, we should be increasing the standard of education personal trainers receive. This is happening over time anyway in many industries. But let’s not wait years for this to happen, but encourage it now. Given the complex nature of some of the decisions a personal trainer makes, a higher level of qualification should lead to better decision making, as decisions will be better informed. This will lead to improved safety, and maybe even training outcomes, for clients with injury and illness concerns.
Fitness Australia could also produce a wider range of CEC content themselves. These resources can be presented and assessed online, giving trainers more options for high quality training. This could be cheaper for Fitness Australia to produce (without registration fees) than anyone else, and the quality of these courses would be assured.
We should be working to raise standards, not lower them. People often complain at how fitness professionals in general are perceived, and the need to compete with unqualified or unregistered “trainers”, but lowering standards won’t change this perception.
The author has been a member of Fitness Australia since 2008. Fitness Australia provided some in-kind support for the author’s doctoral research, by providing website and social media promotion of a free professional development course for personal trainers. The cost of the author registering as a CEC provider, and registering this course, was paid in full.