Paper Credentials Vs. The Fitness Industry
Is the fitness industry unique?
The fitness industry appears to be unique in its ability to facilitate career success despite a lack of what I call paper credentials (letters after your name). Before I go on with this, it might be a good idea to set some operational definitions for fitness industry & career success. The latter term is highly subjective, so let’s just define it as the ability to make a decent living. I’m not necessarily talking about getting filthy-rich, but at least being able to comfortably cover your independent living expenses without needing a night-job where dollar bills are waved at you.
Next, let’s define the fitness industry itself. Let’s just figure this encompasses any field related to improving the body composition or physical performance of the healthy population through diet and/or exercise programming. This section is titled as a question because this is the only industry I’ve been professionally involved with. I don’t have any first-hand experience in other industries, so the uniqueness of this aspect of the fitness world is mainly an assumptive observation I’ve made.
So, here’s the point. It seems to me that paper credentials are not nearly as crucial for success in the fitness field as they are for success in other fields. This is especially the case with entrepreneurs – particularly those whose business is primarily internet-based. I’m not aware of any formal research on this topic, but I would venture to guess that the fitness realm has a large proportion of entrepreneurs. This demographic obviously has little concern for employer acceptance, so their main entrance requirement into practice is a big set of cojones. Also, a knack for effective marketing is often what separates the highly successful fitness entrepreneurs from the average ones.
The good & the bad about such an open industry
Fitness industry credentialing is largely based on certification. This allows people to take more focused and efficient routes toward adeptness in their chosen skill set. Anyone who has a college degree related to nutrition or exercise is well-aware of the battery of irrelevant, time-wasting, life-bleeding courses (in addition to the relevant ones) required to get the degree. There are several instances where I’ve heard people attest to learning more in their 3-day certifications than in their 4-year degree. This is kind of sad, but it’s true. Furthermore, in the fitness field, personal trainers can get hired almost anywhere, as long as they’re certified.
The good thing about certifications is that they cut right to the relevant information, and omit the trivial courses common in college curriculums. This is good in the sense that plenty of industrious people with advanced degrees in unrelated fields have made a rapid switch over to the fitness field due to its low entrance hurdles. Thankfully for many folks contemplating a late career change, the fitness field is free of the traditional entrance barriers of other professions. But of course, there’s a dark side.
The fitness industry is famous for being chock-full of quacks and charlatans. There are heaps of people running their mouths online and off, pontificating about this nutrient or that, this way of training or that — without having learned the physiological basis for such recommendations or protocols. The fact that this field has so many wackos makes it difficult for the consumer to discern whose material is scientifically based, and whose material is a lot of hot air. This is the unfortunate side of the picture, but it’s also part of my point — you can be devoid of scientific knowledge (or you can create your own brand of pseudoscience), and still become successful in the fitness industry.
A little about entrepreneurship versus employment
Again, if you plan on approaching a large company for employment, degrees can not only help, but in many cases are required for being remotely considered for the job. Degrees can also help facilitate an easier climb up the corporate ladder, and allow higher pay rates. However, entrepreneurship is a different animal, especially in the fitness industry. In many cases, a great physique will get you more clients and/or customers than having a string of letters after your name. Aside from a miniscule minority, clients truly don’t care what certifications trainers have. They just want to know if your clientele gets results, and that you actually care about them enough to show up for appointments.
Entrepreneurship in the writing vein is a whole other topic that could easily warrant its own post, but here’s what I’ve learned. The people who give up their hard-earned money for fitness information products do not do so on the basis of how many advanced degrees the author has. Now, this may be different in the realm of medical information for diseased populations, but for the healthy population aiming to either look or perform better, there seems to be a different set of prerequisites in the eyes of the clients & customers. Case in point – how many of you reading this blog give a rat’s ass about my degrees? I didn’t think so.
Just a few examples
Perhaps the best way to illustrate my perspective of this topic is by providing a few real-world examples of entrepreneurs whose material I’ve followed at some point (or still follow). The common thread among them is their success despite their non-reliance on paper credentials.
- Let’s begin with the late Dan Duchaine. He’s written a number of books, but is perhaps most famous for Body Opus. Dan is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant guys to ever utter a word about nutrition & other related topics, and pretty much no one really gives a hoot what he studied formally. A little-known fact is that his college degree is in theater arts.
- Another guy who made a huge mark without a string of degrees after his name is best-selling author (Body for Life) & former owner of EAS, Bill Phillips. In contrast to Dan’s somewhat ‘underground’ celebrity status, Bill has reached obscene levels of commercial success. He has no health or fitness-related college degree that I know of. While I’ve never gained any innovative nutritional knowledge by reading Bill’s material, he’s a fascinating and inspiring study in achieving a tremendous scale of success with the lay audience.
- I mention Lyle McDonald quite regularly because a) for roughly the past decade, he’s been one of the most influential guys in the industry, and b) he and I have a similar market niche. Although our business models differ slightly, we share the same fundamental science/research-obsessed approach that’s tempered with field experience. Lyle fits the present topic perfectly because he’s another guy without a string of advanced degrees and certifications (after his undergrad degree in exercise physiology, he got bored of the snail-pace of college). Nevertheless, anyone who’s familiar with his work knows that a stack of degrees would be a humorous underrepresentation of his actual knowledge.
- Martin Berkhan is best known for his scientific approach to intermittent fasting. Martin is unique among this list because he doesn’t have a book out. However, has one of the most impressive collections of client success stories you’ll ever come across. His own transformation is particularly amazing. When he does put out a book, there’s no question that it will accelerate his already rapid career ascent. Once again, Martin does not rely upon his academic credentials to assert his credibility, and nonetheless has a backlog of clients waiting to work with him, and a legion of followers waiting for his book to be completed. I don’t even know what his exact degree is (nor do I really care), but I do know that he’s one of the very few people whose work I bother to read with genuine interest.
- Tom Venuto is best known for authoring the e-book Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. He also has an Avery-published book available through major retailers called The Body Fat Solution. On a side-note, this is probably the most scientifically sound weight loss book to ever hit the shelves of mainstream book stores. Tom has parlayed his physique and vast client experience – along with his genuine diligence in gathering the facts – to create a prodigious level of success. His formal education boils down to an undergrad degree in exercise science and a couple of training certifications. But does anyone really care about what Tom’s formal education is? I know I don’t – but maybe that’s just me. What matters is that he strives to balance his personal experiences with what’s been demonstrated in scientific research. Speaking of research, both Tom Venuto & Martin Berkhan are currently subscribed to my research review, and have maintained their subscriptions since the publication’s initial release in early 2008.
- Anthony Colpo is best known for his book, The Great Cholesterol Con. For those unfamiliar with his work, a good introduction is this peer-reviewed article on the cholesterol controversy published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Of equally high quality is this response to a critical letter to the editor regarding his paper. Anthony’s sharp reasoning ability and firm grasp of a wide range of fitness-related topics put him squarely on my short list of excellent reading material, despite the lack ‘flexing’ of letters after his name.
There are plenty more examples worth discussing (Alwyn Cosgrove [correction: I was just informed that Alwyn indeed has a master's degree in exercise science, but the fact that I was unaware of this speaks toward my point that he doesn't necessarily use it to tout his expertise], Jamie Hale, Leigh Peele, JC Deen, & the list goes on), but this piece is already running too long. Let me stress that this was not meant to be an anti-college article, nor was it meant to indiscriminately rail against advanced formal education. There obviously are brilliant & successful folks in the fitness industry who have advanced degrees (James Krieger, Emma-Leigh Synnott, and Layne Norton immediately come to mind). However, my point stands that becoming successful in the fitness industry – especially as an entrepreneur – is not critically hinged upon paper credentials.
I’ll end off by mentioning what I feel is one of the most effective training grounds for fitness entrepreneurship: being an employee. For anyone thinking of creating a successful business, spend some time first as an employee – even if it’s for a limited but long enough stint to get a feel for what consistently produces results. This way, you’ll be able to minimize your risks & use your corporate experience toward more smoothly navigating your own company. Here’s a short list of certifying bodies that I feel are worth the investment for those seeking to get a foot in the door:
- National Strength & Conditioning Association
- National Academy of Sports Medicine
- American College of Sports Medicine
- International Society of Sports Nutrition
- Update: the ISSN has a sports nutrition certification for those without a 4-year degree.
BREAKING NEWS: David Miklas just created more video brilliance (here).