Personal Trainers’ Knowledge and Experience: How Closely Are They Related?

The following is a guest article by Dan Jolley.

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One of the popular topics of debate I see among personal trainers online is the value placed on experience and qualifications. Can we rely on a trainer with decades of experience to be more knowledgeable due to this experience? Or is someone with a degree going to be more knowledgeable than someone without one?

Like most complex issues, the answer isn’t black and white. And debates on social media usually don’t reflect this complexity. How we interact with information, and form knowledge, is a massive area of psychological research. So when discussing this issue, “it’s complicated” is a phrase I use a lot!

We already know something about the knowledge of personal trainers based on previous research. In 2002 researchers designed a survey based on the major certification exams in the U.S, covering nutrition, screening and testing, and exercise prescription. The average score in this test was less than 50%, with this score not associated with years of experience. What did lead to better scores was a university qualification (held by about 25% of participants) and receiving certifications from the NSCA or ACSM.

A study in 2015 found similar results. This time the test was based on current exercise prescription guidelines, and the average score was 43%. Again, this was not associated with years of experience, though those with degrees performed better than those without, and those with postgraduate qualifications performed better again.

So it’s clear that a personal trainer’s experience gives us no indication of their knowledge. Just because they’ve been doing something for years, doesn’t mean they’ve learnt anything along the way.

And what about degrees, or other qualifications? Is a more qualified person more knowledgeable? Probably, but the content of the course is only part of the reason for this, as we will discuss below.

In the research I’m reporting today we wanted to look at something a little different. Rather than just the knowledge of trainers, what interested us was what trainers think they know, but don’t.

How is this different?

What we are looking at here is someone’s persistent belief that they are correct, even in the face of accurate information which shows they are wrong. In psychological research this is called a misconception. People can possess misconceptions about any topic – look at the resurgence of the flat Earth concept in the media as a recent, high-profile example.

We can possess misconceptions in exercise too, and these tend to persist in personal trainers and the popular media despite having no basis in evidence. A great example is the idea of “no pain, no gain.” You will hear comments like this from trainers, clients, and in the media all the time, but it’s not accurate. They may be referring to the intensity of their workout, or post-exercise muscle soreness, it doesn’t matter. For most of personal training clients there is plenty of benefit to lower intensities of exercise. And delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a poor indicator of muscle damage, and not related to muscle adaptation.

Why do these misconceptions persist?

Mostly because of the bias that affects us all when processing new information. We tend to form opinions based on early information we are exposed to. If this information is inaccurate, then the opinion we form may also be inaccurate.

Then new information is processed based on how much it agrees with this original opinion! If we don’t agree, we may ignore it, or find ways to diminish its importance. If we agree with it, we usually find it more reliable. This way we reinforce our incorrect opinion, and a misconception forms that may last years.

I’m sure you can see how this happens every day! We may use social media sources, colleagues, friends and family as sources of information, which are all unreliable. Or we use a scientific source, which we misinterpret because we lack the skills to get all the relevant information from the article.

Our research looked at if personal trainers possessed misconceptions about fundamental exercise and nutrition information, which they could then pass on to their clients. Not complex knowledge, but misconceptions of basic healthy eating and exercise programming information. We also wanted to try and identify the sources of these misconceptions. Did they emerge due to poor professional development for example, or did trainers bring them into their qualification?

The Research

First, we found misconceptions that had been identified in previous research. We also spoke with university lecturers in exercise science and nutrition to find out what popular misconceptions they see in their students, and the public, and confirmed that they were, in fact, misconceptions. We then wrote a survey that asked trainers to rate whether a series of 20 statements were correct or not. Ten were based on these misconceptions, while the other ten identified a correct understanding of each topic.

We recruited a group of students starting a personal training course, and surveyed them at the beginning, and the end, of their qualification (66 students completed both surveys). We also surveyed 70 practicing personal trainers in this time.

The survey also asked what sources of exercise and nutrition information they used, and their trust in different sources. What we considered reliable or unreliable was informed by some recent Australian research.

Our Findings

Our first finding was encouraging: the exercise and nutrition knowledge of students improved throughout their course, and they agreed with fewer misconception statements. There was no change in the sources of information students used, though their trust of unreliable sources had decreased.

And our results looking at personal trainers was consistent with the earlier research. In qualified, practicing personal trainers, years of experience was not associated with higher knowledge scores, consistent with the research discussed earlier. In this case trainers had an average of 6 years of experience.

Also, experience wasn’t associated with possessing fewer misconceptions. This we would expect, given the nature of a misconception is that it is persists over time.

But comparing qualified trainers to students is where it gets interesting: the personal trainers surveyed did not score higher in knowledge, or lower in misconceptions, than graduating students! But they were more likely to use reliable sources of information, had higher trust of reliable sources, and lower trust of unreliable sources.

Trust in unreliable sources (such as friends, family, social media, and alternative health practitioners) was associated with more misconceptions. So maybe the sources a trainer uses can tell use more about them than their experience.

What does this mean for a personal trainer?

There are a few important takeaways from this study, and the previous research discussed, for trainers to be aware of.

  1. Choose a certification carefully. We often choose to study fitness because it is a passion, and bring knowledge (and potentially misconceptions) into our study as a result of our independent reading. In Australia there is an industry standard qualification, but in the U.S., this is not the case. Different certifying bodies may offer their own courses, and the quality of these may vary. Choose well, from a reputable source, even if you think you don’t have a lot to learn from your course. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you do learn.
  • The sources of information we choose are important. Using better sources of information leads to fewer misconceptions. But how to choose these sources may only be covered briefly in personal training certifications.

Looking for higher quality sources is time consuming, and they are often harder to read. And most personal trainers don’t possess the skills to critique research well. I see a lot of trainers commenting about research online, but the discussion is often superficial. To fully understand this research, you need to understand the context of the research (i.e., the body of research preceding it), and the methods and statistical analysis used. This is not taught in personal training certifications. In fact, even at university you don’t start getting good at this until you are studying at postgraduate level.

  • Be selective about the professional development you choose. If someone is promoting a course or seminar based on their decades of experience, be cautious. For practical tips and skills they are probably great, but their understanding of complex knowledge may be very different. They may have something valuable to share, but so might someone with the ink still drying on their certificate.

If you are looking for knowledge rather than skills, check for qualifications, and even research experience and peer reviewed publications (in a relevant area). This isn’t a 100% guarantee of good information either, but they have at least been assessed on their knowledge, either in formal exams or as part of peer review, to a high level.

But the big takeaway is…

…develop critical thinking skills. These can be briefly defined as “reasoned reflective thinking.” This includes not only the ability to identify appropriate sources of information, but also the ability to reflect on your own knowledge (or lack of knowledge). A critical thinker reasons their way to a conclusion, resisting the temptation to accept the answer that makes the most intuitive sense, or that matches their preferences.

Other research has demonstrated that improving critical thinking skills reduces the presence of misconceptions. And my own forthcoming research has demonstrated this in personal trainers. The trainer can become more aware of what they don’t know, and when to defer to someone more qualified.

This is something we don’t do enough as personal trainers. Learn from other professions, and be curious. But know the limits of your practice, and when you should be referring your client to someone else to learn more.

To find out more[DJ1] 

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Until now there has been no resource specifically designed to improve critical thinking skills in a fitness context, though many good professionals (like Nick!) discuss the need for these skills regularly. But a resource has been created, and is growing, based on these research findings. It is being updated with discussion of exercise, nutrition, and fitness topics, specifically for personal trainers (and enthusiastic amateurs), with a critical thinking perspective.

To find out more visit https://criticalfitness.com.au. You can also find this, and follow on Facebook, at @CriticalFitnessEdu.

You can also contact Dan directly at [email protected].

Nick’s Upcoming Live Events

In Portland, OR on August 16-17, 2019 teaching at the NSCA Northwest Regional Conference

In Pomona, CA on August 24th, 2019 teaching at the NSCA Southern California State Clinic

In Bangkok, Thailand on October 10-14, 2019 teaching at the Asia Fit Conference.

In Corpus Christi, TX on November 8-9, 2019 at the NSCA Midwest Regional Conference.

In Arizona on Dec 6-7th teaching at the NSCA Rocky Mountain Regional Conference.


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