The Real Purpose of Health and Fitness Certifications

People often critique exam based certifications like the CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) that lack a practical component. Critics say “you just need practical experience” and “it’s just a title”. I think these critics misunderstand the purpose of these certs. Here we’ll look at the purpose of these certs (next time we’ll talk about the limitations).

Exam based certs like the CSCS are a structured, standardized way to learn foundational, didactic knowledge in health and fitness. This serves several crucial roles:

1. Foundational knowledge makes practical experience more valuable

Imagine Jimmy, an aspiring strength and conditioning coach. Jimmy believes all that matters is practical experience. He walks into a gym and says “I want practical experience, can you mentor me?”. The coach says “Great Jimmy, come along and watch. Today my athlete is doing a squat workout; 3 sets of 5 at 80% 1 RM”. Jimmy is quite confused; what’s a squat? , what’s a set?, what’s a rep?, what’s an “RM”? The coach proceeds to define each term and explain basic principles of strength and conditioning…

As we can see without foundational knowledge, the valuable time of a practical experience would be frittered away passing on knowledge that the student could have learned on their own. The practical experience is the time to see foundational knowledge applied, not to learn it.  

2. Foundational knowledge is crucial to understand and apply scientific literature

Similar to practical experience, having foundational knowledge equips you to take advantage of scientific literature in the field. If you are reading a research paper but don’t know basic terms and principles, it would be nearly impossible to understand and apply that research. And with the plethora of health and fitness gurus promoting “cutting edge” workout routines and nutrition supplements, having foundational knowledge and reading research helps you verify claims.

3. Foundational knowledge lets you think for yourself (instead of just copying gurus)

Suppose a coach mostly does “fives” (sets of five) with athletes. Their apprentice who has no knowledge of loading parameters might just assume, “Well, in strength training we do ‘fives”. The apprentice who doesn’t understand the principles that inform that choice has to follow their guru’s advice. That person cannot adapt a training program to different athletes at different times. Ultimately, this person will be unable to modify and create programs.

Foundational knowledge is necessary to optimize practical experiences, use scientific literature, and think for yourself. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Of course, a certification is not the only way to learn and there are certifications that teach low quality information.

Having foundational knowledge in health and fitness doesn’t “make you a coach”, but it does set you up to become one.

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