Questioning the Certifications of Your Personal Trainer

CrossFit has skyrocketed in popularity the past few years, but its success comes with criticsm and has sparked a debate about who regulates the health and fitness industry.

“It’s been called a cult. It’s been called the ‘crazy people’s’ workout,” said CrossFit athlete Ian Montalvo.

He’s heard all the stigmas, but Montalvo’s commitment to the high-intensity sport runs deep. It was the only thing that worked after a bad motorcycle accident left him inactive and 75 pounds overweight.

“It was just a bit of a mental barrier to get over, from being so physical to being incapable of using any of your physical abilities,” said Montalvo.

Still, he admits he was more injury-prone than ever when he started CrossFit, so in order to lose weight and gain muscle, he had to do it right.

But according to UConn Health’s Doctor Cory Edgar, some of us learn that the hard way. He sees more and more patients getting hurt from CrossFit.

“Shoulder injuries in particular,” said Dr. Edgar. “Injuries that occur from poor mechanics.”

Dr. Edgar adds that if you’re trying to beat the clock while lifting heavy weights, your form is the first thing that will go once you get fatigued. And if your trainer—CrossFit or otherwise—doesn’t correct your technique, your chances of injury increase significantly.

So having a trainer who knows what they’re doing is key. Seems simple enough, right?

The Troubleshooters wanted to find out what it takes to be a personal trainer. As it turns out, it doesn’t take much.

While some states, like Massachusetts, have proposed bills to require certifications for all personal trainers, Washington D.C. is the only U.S. jurisdiction to adopt the law. In Connecticut, someone can become a personal trainer without having any experience or education whatsoever.

“We encourage all of our coaches to keep learning,” said Yankee CrossFit owner Brendan Marolda. “We give them a certain amount of money each year to actually get more certifications.”

Marolda takes a proactive approach. His coaches must have the basic “Level 1” certification through CrossFit plus a six-month internship.

But fitness professionals disagree on how much education is enough.

Wayne Nadeau owns a personal training studio in Newington and says certified trainers usually go through programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. The program gives students material to study, followed by a test.

“It typically takes about eight months,” said Nadeau.

CrossFit, on the other hand, offers different levels of certification. Its Level 1 certificate—which gives you CrossFit designation—also involves a test, but it takes just two days.

“There’s so many things you need to learn about the body and how it functions,” said Nadeau. “To just learn that over, let’s say, 48 hours… I just don’t see how that could happen.”

But Marolda insists the time you spend behind textbooks doesn’t necessarily translate to how successful you’ll be in the gym.

“It’s kind of a field where you know, the weak people weed themselves out,” said Marolda. “If you’re not good at what you do and you don’t try to get better at it, people will quickly see that.”

So if you’re using a trainer, don’t hesitate to ask about his or her certifications or what injuries are common at the gym. Back and shoulder injuries suggest bad form, which might mean the trainer isn't picking up on certain movements.

“People really lose their form when they get tired,” said Dr. Edgar. “And when they’re trying to get out of their envelope of functioning. So showing off usually necessitates injury and I think slow and steady is really the way to go about it.”

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