Okay, so this is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time! In fact, I nearly did write about it a few months ago when I read an article that was absolutely slaying the “title” [of ‘Master Trainer’] and basically saying that it was a load of bull.
Now, I want to set the record straight. In order to do so, I must give the article its dues – for the most part… they weren’t wrong! See, unfortunately in the Health & Fitness Industry there isn’t a whole lot of regulation when it comes to what you can call yourself (or if you’re a big Gym Chain, then what you can call your Trainers).
The majority of the Industry behemoths out there don their staff with over-stated titles – and it has insidiously seeped its way across several departments, but for now, I’m focusing just on the Fitness Departments out there.
You’ll see several variants on our nametags, so let me give you some examples:
Senior Personal Trainer
Master Personal Trainer
Now, one thing that a lot of consumers don’t realize is what Certifications we as Trainers have to go through to achieve certain levels in the industry. One standardized version – though – looks like this:
[Level 2] Gym Instructor
[Level 3] Personal Trainer
[Level 3 (+)] Exercise Referral Professional
[Level 4] Specialist / Master Personal Trainer
Notice how there are literal “Levels”, and oddly enough, we don’t even start at “Level 1”, for some reason we just jump to “Level 2”… I’ve always felt like this was the Fitness Industry version of ‘Tetraphobia’ (a fear/superstition prevalent in Asia whereby they avoid instances of using the number 4 – linguistically, in many Asian languages this number is similar to the word for “death”, hence why you find elevators that skip the 4th Floor!)… Only we’re avoiding the number 1 in this instance.
Anyways, moving past the random Asian culture lesson and back to the topic at hand. As you’ll see we start off as ‘[Gym] Instructors’, then progress to becoming ‘[Personal] Trainers’… so, Level 2 to Level 3 is where 90% of us start and stop. Barely 10% of Trainers go on to become Exercise Referral Professionals (which I have labelled as ‘Level 3+’ – not quite the official Level, but there are aspects of the course that form the foundations for Level *4*, so it’s more advanced in terms of the depth of expertise you attain).
You might be wondering what on earth an Exercise Referral Professional even is… Well, essentially we’re talking about a Personal Trainer who has undergone advanced education so as to be competent in working with Clients who have more complex health conditions, such as: Osteoporosis, Low Back Pain, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hypercholesterolaemia and other health issues that require a higher level of knowledge so as to prepare appropriate programming for these Clients.
Then you have the proverbial pinnacle: Level 4
For the most part, Level 4 is considered a Specialist Certification. It is akin to when Doctors go on to specialize in fields such as Orthopaedics or Neurosurgery (for example), just more within the scope/confines of what we in the Fitness Industry can expect to be able to work with. Some examples include: Pre/Post Natal Exercise, Diabetes & Obesity (which is MY specialism), Low Back Pain (as its own “niche” of expertise), and a couple of others.
Now, Trainers can obtain Certifications through a number of Awarding Entities that provide the courses, curricula and certification at all levels of the Industry such as: YMCA, NASM, Premier Global (now partnered with NASM), Future Fit, and others.
In some instances, Level 4 in and of itself is considered/labelled as a Master Trainer qualification. In other cases, there is the prerequisite of obtaining a number of Level 4 “certs” in order to then [cumulatively] be considered ‘Master’ level.
So, you can obtain a qualification that adorns you with the title of Master [Personal] Trainer. However, where the Industry muddies the waters is in its handing out of the title as a mark of “seniority” or in being something of a “veteran”.
Okay, so you’ve been a Trainer for 5+ years… Great! Let’s call you a Master Trainer – that should help you gain more Clients, and even charge a higher rate than your peers.
Cynical and sarcastic as this may sound… that’s kind of just what happens in a lot of cases. And personally… I do NOT approve! As someone who worked my a$$ off to get *qualified*, and invested in myself, and has taken pride in learning on a daily basis so as to provide the highest level of service possible to my Clients with a substantial level of expertise to back what I do; no. You don’t get to call yourself a Master Trainer just cuz you’ve been doing this a while. ‘Senior Instructor/Trainer’ – sure! No problem.
But let me just shine the light from another angle for you here…
I’m going to tell you about two totally different “industries” that have VERY similar (almost identical) structure when it comes to ‘titles’ and “hierarchy”.
First, let’s think academically speaking. After all, to become a Trainer (at any level) you must receive a certain amount of *education*. Think about it – take your GCSEs / A-Levels / High School Diploma / Baccalaureate or whatever pre-tertiary level (pre-university level) qualification you want… these can be considered the Academic equivalent (relatively speaking) of the Gym Instructor level.
Then you have the Bachelor’s Degree – this can be considered the equivalent of Level 3 (Personal Trainer). Let’s then say that “Level 3+” [Exercise Referral Professional] is like graduating with Honours (or ‘Summa Cum Laude’ – going off the American system).
Level 4 can then be considered the equivalent of Master’s Degree; again *relative* to the Fitness Industry! (Clearly, there are no Fitness Industry derived qualifications that equate literally to those of the world of Academia – especially when you consider the amount of TIME it takes to get Degrees [versus Fitness qualifications] – so this is just for comparative purposes).
Now, you’re probably wondering: Cool, so what about Doctorate Degrees? What’s the Fitness Industry equivalent to that? Well… derived from and/or provided by the Industry itself… we have no equivalent. That’s where you really do need to go the [pure] Academic route; and so, the literal position could be considered that of a Physiotherapist (Physical Therapist).
The simple fact is this: there is only so big a scope of practice that you can entrust to someone who has obtained qualifications through the Fitness Industry alone. We only go into so much depth. At Level 4, the level of detail could be considered somewhat a “Foundation” level for applying for a Physical Therapy [Degree] program… But even then, generally speaking, you’ll have to have at least obtained a Bachelor’s.
But I want to adjust the lens slightly and consider another point…
Think of university professors – they (at bare minimum) must have a Master’s Degree to even begin teaching at that level. So, you could argue that you need a Master’s Degree to teach at a Bachelor’s level. Well, likewise, in order to train other Personal Trainers, you should have a Specialism or Master title to your name.
And this is really where we get to the main point: a Master Trainer is someone who can actually train OTHER Trainers!! He/she can educate and certify other Trainers/Instructors. So, it’s not necessarily about training Clients at this level. It’s about creating “the Trainers of Tomorrow”!
You may have seen or heard of TRX Master Trainers – guess what… Their job is to train up new TRX Instructors!
Now, you may not have heard of Metafit (although, if you follow my Instagram then you’ll know), but there are VERY few Master Trainers for Metafit across the globe. Despite there being over 10,000 Metafit Instructos in over a dozen countries, there are less than two dozen Master Trainers around the world (and *I* am one of them!). Again, the purpose being that [we] Master Trainers help train new Instructors to the highest possible standards.
Let me now share my other “industry” example with you – and this has NOTHING to do with academia!
Turn your gaze towards the world of Martial Arts…
Again, you have the various ‘levels’ (belts) that you work your way up in order to attain “mastery”, and the pinnacle is the elusive Black Belt! Though, ironically this is just the beginning of a whole new journey! But that’s getting a little more philosophical.
As some of you will know – if you’ve been reading my blog for a while – I lived in South Korea for a while, and during my time there I dedicated as many as 15 hrs per week to both Taekwondo and Hapkido. By the end of my time in Korea, I had obtained my Black Belts in both!
But again – like with academics, there is a proverbial hierarchy that is well established and respected. Your first Black Belt really only allows you to train other students from White Belt upwards, but that stops just before Black Belt – after all, how do you train someone who is either the same level or higher than you?
So, with your ‘1st Dan’ (in some cases, you need ‘2nd Dan’ or second degree Black Belt), you can be considered a Martial Arts Instructor. Only when you attain your fourth degree Black Belt (‘4th Dan’) can you be considered / given the title of: Master. At this point, you can train other Black Belts (from 1st to 3rd). As you progress to 5th and beyond, so too can your students [beyond 3rd].
Therefore, you can see that in various “walks of life” it is widely accepted that in order to be considered a Master (in Academia / Martial Arts / the Fitness world), you must be competent enough to educate and train other Instructors (or in the case of universities – Bachelor-level students).
In my case, I am a Level 4 Specialist in Diabetes & Obesity – this blog started because I was shortlisted to give a talk on Diabetes at a TEDx event (in Folkestone, UK). I am a Master Trainer [for the Pacific Northwest Region] for Metafit and train other Instructors in the Metafit “system”. And I am also a 1st Dan Black Belt in both Taekwondo and Hapkido – so, not quite a Master there, but given that it is more of a hobby (and not my profession), I’m okay with that.
Guys, I hope this has opened your eyes a little to the topic of what a Master Trainer truly is, and honestly, if you train with someone who has that title, you might do well to find out what qualifications they actually have.
Hopefully, this has done its job in separating fact from fiction. As always – and as you know – I always advocate doing your due diligence, whether we’re discussing Supplements, Nutrition, Rest & Recovery or Fitness, you’ve gotta make sure that you put in the work to find out whether what you’re doing/taking is legit. I’ll arm you with the tools, now you gotta use them!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO