Directions toward a career in fitness – part 3
To RD or not RD – that is the question
This actually never was a question for me. I decided to major in nutrition with the intention of remaining a personal trainer. I knew a good handful of independent trainers without a degree who were making at least double the per-hour rate that most RDs made, so my frame of reference was quite different from the typical dietetics student. I figured that since ALL trainers dish out nutritional advice (and are frequently asked for nutritional advice), a nutrition degree would be the perfect way to strengthen my competitive edge in this department.
As far as I knew, I was the only undergrad dietetics student in my class without the intention to become an RD. My professors wondered what on Earth I was gonna do with my life, obviously unaware of personal training as a bona fide career. To be fair, in the early 1990’s, very few who even heard of it thought of personal training as a real job. Luckily, I never gave a damn about whether a job was real by conventional standards, as long as it paid decently for doing something that truly interested me.
I want to make it clear that for anyone with the intention of working in a clinical setting, or anything non-entrepreneurial in the realm of nutritional counseling, becoming an RD is almost essential. Employers tend to seek out the RD credential because it instantly weeds out most of the wackos and quacks. If you plan on working in a clinical facility based on mainstream medicine, there’s no question you’ll need to be an RD. Since I don’t fit any of those molds, being without the RD credential was never a limitation. I’m self-employed, working with the healthy to athletic population referred to me mainly by trainers and existing clientele. The scant minority of my clients come from doctor referrals.
Take note that California is more lenient than other states in terms of the legal repercussions of practicing medical nutrition therapy as a non-RD. But again, that’s not what I do, so I’m exempt from that concern. For further reading about nutrition credentials, Stephen Barrett has covered it here and here. For more information about becoming an RD, the American Dietetic Association has it laid out here, with an FAQ page here.
My take on sports nutrition certifications
On the subject of boosting credibility, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has targeted trainers and coaches for the promotion of their sports nutrition certification (update: the ISSN now has a certification available for those without a 4-year degree). The reason I’m reiterating the ISSN’s certification is because it’s perhaps the first certification developed by individuals who have published a significant amount of peer-reviewed primary research in the area of sports nutrition. The ISSN also has its own scientific journal dedicated to sports nutrition-related research.
There are other sports nutrition certifications out there, but their name-credibility and admission requirements are pretty low. An exception to this is the Comission on Dietetic Registration’s certification in sports dietetics (info here), for which being an RD is a prerequisite. For the record, I don’t hold any nutrition certifications, but I also am n0t gunning for acceptance by an employer or larger organization, nor do I place a lot of value in stringing letters after my name. Maintaining a sports nutrition certification is a great way to keep knowledge current, but in my case, writing AARR each month takes care of that in excess.
My take on personal training certifications
As far as personal training certifications go, the most marketable ones in my opinion are offered by the “big 3” organizations: the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The American Council on Exercise (ACE) trails a bit behind the aforementioned in terms of prestige, but is still considered one of the frontrunners.
Though these certifications are likely to have similar quality of learning material, the Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification by the NSCA has the most marketability among sports and fitness circles. A close second would be the Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) by NASM. The reason for the CSCS’s marketable edge over these is the stricter admission requirement of a 4-year degree. Also, the PES is relatively new, whereas the CSCS has been around for a while and has racked up an extensive list of highly respected recipients. ACSM certification is generally perceived as more clinically oriented, and has thus not been as popular in sports and fitness circles as the rest.
One more certification I want to add here is the Resistance Training Specialist (RTS) developed by Tom Purvis, who formerly headed NASM but decided to start his own program and kick things up several notches. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the RTS program is the most in-depth training certification available, particularly in terms of applied biomechanics. It’s expensive, has multiple modules, and requires travel, so it’s not nearly as popular as the others. As such, it’s not as well known. This can potentially hinder its marketability to employers who are not highly informed about the available certification programs.
The initial allure and subsequent utility of an MS
Upon completing my undergrad degree in dietetics, my colleagues all filed off to internships en route to becoming RDs. Having the desire to stay competitive with them prompted my pursuit of a master’s degree in nutrition, despite my intention to remain a personal trainer. In an unplanned twist of events, this led me to switch my focus away from training. As I pounded through the degree, I gained a keen interest in the researching, writing, counseling, and teaching aspects of nutrition. It was also during this period that I began spending a lot of time online, discussing topics on fitness and bodybuilding message boards. Getting in epic debates (and winning them consistently) is what caught the attention of the forces that led to my writing career. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Having both the undergrad and graduate nutrition degrees under my belt, I saw a clear lack of sports nutrition education in the dietetics curriculum. So, I decided to teach RDs how to become better sports nutritionists. Since RDs need to receive continuing education units in order to maintain their credential, I knew I could fulfill a niche here. In addition to putting together and promoting my own courses (which was more expense than it was worth), I was invited to speak at various dietetics conferences, including a few biggies at California State University at Northridge, University of Calilfornia at Irvine and the heavily guarded FDA headquarters. Without an MS in nutrition, I would not have been given these opportunities to provide continuing education to RDs. I’ll also speculate that the combination of my training certifications with the advanced nutrition degree was marketable for lecturing to conservative dietetics audiences about the integration of nutrition and exercise.
Having built a good reputation in the fitness and dietetics communities, I was invited to speak in the corporate wellness context to the upper management of companies such as the Pfizer and Tesco. Although these speaking gigs only happen a few times per year, they pay $1000-2000 for less than 2 hours of lecture. It has crossed my mind to actively pursue a career in corporate wellness presentations because of the high pay per unit of time. However, I’d rather keep speaking engagements as occasional events rather than having a lifestyle involving a lot of dressing up and a hectic travel schedule. Sorry folks, but I’m very happy at home at the computer, close to my family, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt.
Writing, speaking, & research: the final frontier (for me)?
At some point back in 2006, Lyle McDonald told me that with all the knowledge I had, I needed to write a book. After some deliberating, I decided to go for it, and Girth Control was completed in early 2007. In a very ironic twist, Lyle’s mentioning of a factual mistake I made in the book (which was corrected immediately) gave me the impetus to start my research review. My aim was to create a vehicle that forced me to stay entrenched in the current research to a ridiculous degree. I will say with zero reservation that AARR is the project I’m most passionate about. It allows me to combine scientific research findings with ongoing client experience for the benefit of other fitness practitioners and serious enthusiasts. If that sounds too much like a gratuitous plug, consider it a dead-honest one.
As I mentioned earlier, I had many prodigious debates online that caught the attention of people who ended up facilitating my writing career. Alwyn Cosgrove gets credit for alerting features editor Adam Campbell about my writing mojo, and the next thing I knew, Adam offered me a regular spot in Men’s Health magazine, as well as a position as their nutrition research consultant. This led to a friendship (bro-ship?) between me and fitness editor Adam Bornstein. I’m currently writing an article for Men’s Health on fat loss supplements, and the cool thing about Men’s Health is that they don’t have any supplement sponsors that they cater to or tiptoe around when it comes to product critiques. The big print magazines pay anywhere from fifty cents to a dollar per word. Men’s Health can afford to pay the latter, since they’re the largest men’s magazine in the world.
Online article writing was another unplanned avenue that surfaced. Lou Schuler invited me to write for tmuscle.com (which then was called t-nation.com), resulting in A Musclehead’s Guide to Alcohol. In related news, my dealings with Tmuscle went south in an amusing chain of events which I’ve described here. Lou is no longer with Tmuscle, but is probably on better terms with them than I am. I’m still involved with online article writing, currently working on my third article for wannabebig.com (which is done now, here it is). My latest writing milestone was making it into the peer-reviewed literature by co-authoring a nutrient timing review with the very gracious & wise Brad Schoenfeld.
Speaking of Brad, an avenue that recently opened up for me was writing peer-reviewed scientific literature. Brad and I have co-authored the #1 most viewed article in the history of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN), full text here. I subsequently co-authored a meta-analysis on protein timing with Brad Schoenfeld and James Krieger, full text here.
I would encourage those with a knack for writing to start by seeking contributorship to online magazines since the chances of publication aren’t as remote as they are in print mags. Clearly, there’s a demand for good content to draw site traffic. Maintaining scientific integrity might be a challenge with companies that aggressively hype marginally supported products, but legitimate alternatives are out there. Online outfits pay $250-500 per article depending on word length and notoriety of the author. This isn’t enough to pay your kids’ college tuition, but it’s great exposure, and also a good medium for observing the public’s non-vested critique of your material.
Speaking at conferences and continuing education events has also become a major part of my career. I’m now a regular presenter in conferences by the NSCA, the Fitness Summit, and the AAUKC. This has forced me to bring up my game of direct communication with diverse audiences all over the world. The ongoing interaction with the full range of health & fitness professionals is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding.
In case anyone’s interested…
Earning statistics of dietitians:
Earning statistics of trainers:
That’s a wrap!
Well, it looks like we’ve reached the end of this opus. Future writing projects are in the works, and I’ll alert you to them as they materialize. Your best course of action is to get familiar with your options (many of which I provided in this series), and match your career choice with your strengths and interests. Yes, I know that’s easier said than done. Feel free to review the elements I’ve discussed, and I’ll try to address your questions the best I can. [back to part 1]
PS – here’s a related related article you might like: [Credentials Vs. the Fitness Industry]