NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Ever wonder by what authority a personal trainer dares you to attempt that last, grueling pull up, or a group instructor orders that final belly-aching crunch?
The fitness industry uses an alphabet soup of certification organizations to screen and qualify personal trainers and group fitness professionals.
Experts say the best uphold the standards of an accreditation system that also regulates accountants and nurses, while the worst reflect the growing pains of an industry struggling to regulate itself.
"Whenever a trainer makes big news hurting someone, they're usually not certified in a quality manner," said Richard Cotton, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). "It's important that the consumer investigate, ask questions."
One way, Cotton said, is to check whether a trainer's credentials come from an organization accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which was created with government cooperation in 1987 to evaluate certification organizations.
"The fitness field is the newest of all certifications, and it came on at a time when it was profitable to be a certification organization," said Cotton. "You can get a certificate by paying $49.95 to take an online test, but that's not an accredited certificate."
So lax are some online sites offering personal trainer certificates, Cotton said, that one writer successfully "certified" his pet cat.
That's not a small problem for an industry where some 6.5 million Americans used personal trainers in 2009, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
The good news is that increasingly, employers will only hire people from NCCA-accredited programs, according to Todd Galati, who oversees the certification process for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
"Certifications are for the protection of the public," said Galati, ensuring a threshold of knowledge in anatomy, exercise physiology, and basic nutrition.
But accessing a trainer's resume can take more than a mouse click.
"Fitness since 1982 has gone from one to 13 NCCA-regulated organizations," Galati said.
There are also fitness education organizations that have earned third-party accreditation from organizations that accredit education programs.
"There are over 100 organizations offering credentials." Galati said.
Donna Cyrus, national director of group fitness for the Crunch chain of health clubs, said keeping her instructors' accreditation up to date is crucial to the health of a ballooning industry.
"It's a major protector for brands like ours," Cyrus said. "Lawsuits are everywhere. Making sure I have all the accreditations in the log for each individual has saved us," Cyrus said.
Accredited certifications must be updated every two or three years with Continuing Education Credits. (CECs), which Cyrus insists upon, but as gyms franchise overseas, she wishes there was an international standard.
Europe, Asia and Canada have their own systems.
"There should be one world certifier," said Cyrus.
William Coker is regional director of personal training at Crunch, where the personal trainers are ranked in five levels, depending on their certifications, experience and education.
"We have our structure. We have our system," he said. "It's very clean."
But Cotton would like to see a simpler, nationwide system.
"References are great," said Cotton, adding that education, experience and philosophy are also important. "It's not just certification," said Cotton.