Training the trainers

As demand for personal trainers continues to grow, Clark College has responded with a program designed to better educate trainers and prepare them for certification.

The two-year fitness trainer program recently wrapped up its third year with its second batch of graduates. Eight students graduated  last year and 12 graduated in June.

Program coordinators hope to build the program to about 25 students per year.

Not a certification program, many graduates go on to take national board certified exams for personal training through the National Strength and Conditioning Assoc. or American College of Sports Medicine.

There are about 100 certification programs out there, most of which are not board certified. In fact, Lisa Borho, fitness trainer program coordinator, said she believes only three – NSCA, ACSM and the National Academy of Sports Medicine – are accredited.

Upon passing the exam, students receive a credential of Certified Personal Trainer.

But others go on to higher careers, such as athletics training or coaching, or they earn higher degrees. One graduate is going on to medical school and others are becoming nutritionists.

So far, the students have been remarkably diverse, Borho said.

“I was expecting a bunch of young jocks, but it hasn’t been like that at all,” she said.

They have ranged from high school students in the Running Start early-admission program to 50-year-olds, and gender has been an even split among a variety of ethnicities. One student was blind.

Some have an interest in fitness but no experience; others have made serious life changes themselves, such as extreme weight loss, and want to help others who are struggling.

The diversity is a blessing, directors said.

Most people looking for personal trainers are in their 40s and don’t necessarily want someone in their 20s telling them how to be healthier.

Personal trainers don’t necessarily have to work in fitness clubs once they become certified, said Lee Brand, Health and Physical Education division chair.

It all depends on how trainers want to market themselves. They can work with clientele in the capacity of retirement homes, community recreation, post-rehabilitation or personal training studios.

In the future, the school would like to offer certificates in particular fields, such as group training or special populations.

“Graduates don’t participate to exclusively become personal trainers, but that is the focus of the course,” Brand said. “Some use the certificate to earn money while they go to school for other things.”

Because the focus isn’t necessarily on certification, it is completely focused on solid education, which program directors said is lacking within the community.

Several years ago, before the formal program, Brand added one PE special topics class to the course list. But there was just too much information to cover in one five-credit class, so he expanded it to two classes. But it was still too much.

“Some clubs only offer their personal trainers a weekend of training,” Borho said. “If after 100 hours of training in two classes our students still weren’t getting it, a weekend certainly isn’t enough. There is some suspect information out there, and we’re trying to raise the bar.”

Coursework includes both theory and practical application courses. The first year focuses on food and health, fitness and biology. The second year offers a wide range of specialty classes, such as exercise prescription, kinesiology, theory and speed, agility and quickness, and each student is required to complete an internship.

In Southwest Washington, certified trainers can make anywhere between $15 and $70 an hour.

The market is changing

The program came about as a direct response to market demands. The need is there for qualified trainers, according to health club directors.

The college considered adding the courses in the early 1990s, but when Health and Physical Education Professor Mike Arnold conducted a local market survey, personal training as a field was not well supported.

Most people weren’t familiar with personal trainers, and there wasn’t adequate demand for jobs, Borho said.

But when the survey was conducted again four years ago, the need had arrived.

The fitness tides are turning. The focus on preventative medicine is on the rise and baby boomers are ready to get fit to ward off aging – “they’re not going to sit around and play bridge and shuffle board when they retire,” Borho said.

The previous fitness philosophy was performance-based, without as many fitness skills. But there has been a push at the federal and local levels to combat obesity and get healthier.

The culture is impacted by television programming such as “The Biggest Loser,” “Work Out” and cable channel Fit TV. Doctors push nutrition and exercise, but people don’t necessarily know how to do it.

That awareness – wanting to live longer and be healthier – is causing a shift in the market, said Kim Lehmann, director of heath and fitness at Waterford at Fairway Village in Vancouver, which exclusively caters to the over-50 population.

Retiring baby boomers are tending to want to be more active than before retirement and Lehmann said the club has had trouble finding qualified personal trainers who have experience with the aging population both on the emotional and physical level.

Waterford is an internship site for the program, and Lehmann said she prefers to work with Clark’s students over those of other programs, and has found that they are motivated, have a high degree of education and are committed to learning.

Two years of education is certainly better than a weekend certification program, and the more education the better, said Adrian Cagegas, director of fitness and wellness at Club Green Meadows in Vancouver, another internship site for the program.

“I appreciate what the college is attempting to do,” he said. “The students are leaving the program with good hands-on experience.”

Baby boomers are looking for a one-on-one experience, and the 50-plus population is where the money is for trainers, Cagegas said.

But demand is high for personal trainers across the board, he added. The sports performance enhancement and weight-loss markets are also hot.

Russ Dyer, owner of downtown Vancouver’s Princeton Athletic Club, said he has had trouble finding qualified personal trainers in the 22 years he’s been in business. He exclusively hires those who are certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, what he calls the most difficult certification to obtain.

If he weren’t looking for highly qualified trainers, however, Dyer said he wouldn’t likely have a problem finding trainers.

“It is way too easy to get certified,” he said. “There is a worker pool, and if I just put an ad out on Craigslist, I’d get a lot of applicants.”

Cagegas said it would be nice if there were a governing body regulating standards for personal trainer certification.

“You don’t want someone uneducated working with you,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

Spotlight on a graduate

Heidi Marshall opened a personal training studio upon graduation

Personal trainer Heidi Marshall had been in the fitness industry in Southwest Washington for nearly a decade when she enrolled in Clark College’s fitness trainer program.

She owned Total Fitness of Battle Ground, ran several community education classes and taught aerobics across Clark County. She was certified by the Aerobics and Fitness Assoc. of America in group training, the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.

Marshall started out in Clark’s nursing program, but missed fitness. She rolled her credits over to the fitness trainer program and graduated in 2006.

“Even though I was in the industry for so long, I learned more in that two years,” Marshall said.

Upon graduation, she obtained certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Assoc. and bought Eastside Athletic in Battle Ground and reopened it as Unlimited Personal Training Studio in Hazel Dell.

Marshall knew the owners, who were looking to move it as fast as possible, and bought the entire business, including the two-year-old equipment, for $15,000.

She now sits on the fitness trainer program advisory board.

As a business owner, Marshall only hires out of the program. She now has two independent trainers and 40 clients in one-on-one and group settings.

“I’ve been in the industry in this area, and the program produces really good trainers,” Marshall said. “There is a lot of anatomy, kinesiology and physiology that you don’t get just getting a certification.”

Marshall sees the need for personal trainers booming as the market is pushing for preventative care.

It is easy to get certified in programs that are not high quality, she added, and estimates that about 20 percent of local trainers are college educated in the fields of fitness, exercise or medicine.

“Most just take a test,” Marshall said. “There are a few people out there who are very book smart. But if I’m hiring a trainer, I want someone with at least a two-year degree. I tell my trainers right off the bat that I’m looking for that qualification.”

Within the next year, Marshall is looking to grow community-wide and expand her studio into a larger location.

She started Workout Without Walls, a group class that meets in a park so members don’t have to pay for a gym membership and aren’t confined to a gym. She also does a “Big Loser Workout” that has been highly successful.

And the most she’s ever paid for exercise shoes is $150.

Heidi’s Top 10 Tips for New Trainers:

1.    Know your stuff

2.    Get insurance

3.    Stay certified

4.    bull;Do continuing education courses

5.    Have a business plan

6.    Know how to market yourself

7.    Network

8.    bull;Learn all avenues of fitness – one-on-one, group classes, special populations and so on

9.    Think outside the box

10.   Don’t burn your bridges


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