Understanding NCCA Accredited Group Fitness Certifications

Understand the importance of selecting an NCCA accredited group fitness certification exam as a group fitness instructor.

Not all group fitness certifications are created equal. Understand the importance of selecting an NCCA accredited group fitness certification exam as a group fitness instructor.

Understanding NCCA Accreditation

If you have no idea what it means to ask if a group fitness certification is NCCA accredited, you’re not alone. While NCCA (the National Commission for Certifying Agencies ) is the ‘top dog’ for ensuring credibility amongst fitness certifications, many new (and old) in the industry have no idea what this means. This article will give you an inside look at NCCA Accreditation and explain why it’s super important for us as group fitness professionals.

Is that certification accredited?

This seems like a logical and straight-forward question. However, in the world of fitness, it’s not! In fact, it’s only been the past decade that any fitness certification has held a level of accreditation or been required to meet a certain level of standards.

Yes, that’s right. People can teach group fitness without a certification or with a certification that is held to no specific set of standards.

While this may not sound like a big deal on the surface, the reality is that in we CAN (and do) hurt people in the world of group fitness. We have a professional responsibility to ensure that everyone is getting a safe and effective workout, which is why obtaining an accredited certification is super important.

What is accreditation?

Essentially accreditation means that the certification upholds and meets a specific level of standards of excellence. Through accreditation the certification must prove that it’s focused on quality, validity, and reliability of the program – including  competency-based assessments, and the ability to differentiate individuals who are qualified to practice in a given profession.

At this time, fitness certifications are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

According to the NCCA website, “in 1977, in cooperation with the federal government, the National Commission for Health Certifying Agencies (NCHCA) was formed  to develop standards of excellence for voluntary certification programs in healthcare. In 1989 the name was changed to the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) to accommodate all professions and industries.” (about NCCA)

They are an independent, non-biased, non-government based agency that sets the standard for professional certification programs. NCCA accredited certification exams are seen across a wide-range of industries, not just fitness (in fact, there are currently 315 NCCA accredited programs from over 130 different organizations).

Accreditation is a long process that ensures programs “follow health, welfare, and safety standards to provide quality programs for the public” (NCCA link). As an unbiased agency they review the curriculum of exams, establish professional standard guidelines, and ensures the test administration and scoring is fair and unbiased.

Additionally, through a peer review process, they ensure….

    1. there is a fair and unbiased exam process
    2. the exam measures a minimum level of competency for the test taker
    3. a high level of competency for the practitioner
    4. the certifying agency provides high levels of support and education to their certified professionals

Long story short, NCCA certifications have higher standards and ensure the company is providing adequate levels of professional resources and support once instructors are certified.

How do you know if a course is NCCA accredited?

Most of the time NCCA accredited certifications will proudly display the badge showcasing their high level of credentials. But in the event you can’t find it, head over to the NCCA Accredited Certification Programs Search Portal and search for the company you’re  interested in learning more about.

We’ll fill you in on a secret though…currently only 3 companies have NCCA Accredited Group Fitness Certifications (there are more in the personal training and Pilates space).

Picking an NCCA Accredited Primary Group Fitness Certification

Yup, you read that right above. Currently of the 1,000+ courses available in the group fitness space, only 3 primary group fitness certifications hold the high level of standards of NCCA accreditation.

It’s true…not all primary group fitness certification exams are created equal.

We’ve done our research and found there are a total of 12 primary group fitness certifications. Which means that only 1/4 of primary group fit certs are actually holding themselves to high standards of quality education. The certifications that meet the standards are:

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

The ACE Group Fitness Instructor Certification will give you the knowledge to design and teach any class better, lead all fitness levels more effectively, and deliver experiences your participants will never forget.

Athletics & Fitness Association of America (AFAA) 

AFAA’s Primary Group Exercise Certification is designed to equip those seeking to become certified as group exercise instructors with the competencies needed to design safe and effective group exercise programming for the general healthy population.

National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA) 

Created for those interested primarily in leading exercise in a group setting, NETA’s Group Exercise Instructor Certification is one of only three in America that have earned NCCA accreditation. Our curriculum is continuously updated to keep you on the cutting edge of the fitness industry, promote safe and effective teaching strategies, and help you develop the critical skills required to become an effective group exercise instructor.

Do your research and get certified!

So while you can go out and get a certification super easily online, you aren’t doing yourself, or your participants, any favor by short-changing your education and going for what’s quick and easy. Take the time to get a quality primary group fitness certification before you dive into any specialty program.

One Step Deeper – USREPS

The U.S. Registry of Exercise Professionals is an online registry of certified fitness professionals. It gives consumers a central location to identify and discover fitness professionals in the U.S. who hold NCCA Accredited fitness certifications.

The registry is however based on organizations that wish to list their professionals. Currently, for group fitness professionals, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is the only organization that lists certified group fitness instructors in the registry.

We believe in the mission of USREPS, but know they still have a long way to go before ensuring all NCCA accredited certified professionals are listed as part of the registry.

Questions you may ask

“How do I pick between ACE, AFAA, and NETA?”

Great question! Since all three organizations offer high quality primary group fitness certifications, this can be a tough decision. Which company you opt to go through is your choice; we simply encourage you to do your research and make the choice that seems right for you. A few things to consider when making a choice between the big 3 group fitness certifications:

  • What is the quality of the educational materials they provide?
    • Is the entire certification online or do you have the option to take a live course?
    • Is there a group fitness specific manual?
    • Who wrote the materials?
    • How are the materials delivered? (digital, hard-copy, combination?)
    • How often do they update their manuals and resources?
  • What resources do they provide to help you study for the exam?
    • Do they have a workbooks?
    • Do they include practice tests?
    • Are their support groups (Facebook or other)?
  • What support do they have for instructors once you’re certified?
    • Do they offer continuing education courses regularly?
    • Do they have a combination of live and online courses?
    • Do they offer discounts or other benefits for certified professionals?
  • How do you maintain your certification? (NCCA standards require that instructors maintain their certification through continuing education requirements, but each company does this differently.)
    • How many continuing education credits are needed for each recertification cycle?
    • How often do you need continuing education credits*?
    • How can you obtain CECs?

*Currently ACE provides the most continuing education opportunities and most conferences and other certifications provide ACE continuing education credits as part of their event. Often ACE is considered the top pick as their educational standards are high and other organizations are approved CEC providers.

“I only want to teach cycle/barre/Zumba (etc.) why do I need to worry about a primary group fitness certification?”

This is a super common question, and one that we totally understand you wondering.

Many people get into group fitness instruction simply out of loving a certain format and only have the desire to lead classes in those formats. And this is awesome. It’s great that more people want to teach and inspire people through group workouts.

HOWEVER, the challenge with most of these specialty program certificates/certifications is that they typically don’t do a lot to education you on the foundations of exercise science, anatomy, movement, or technique. They focus specifically on the demands of that workout experience, and leave the instructor with little knowledge of what to do for unique situations.

Think of it like this:

    • Doctors go to medical school to learn the foundations of all that there is to being a doctor. And after years of schooling they have the basic skills to work as a primary care doctor.
    • But many doctors want to specialize in cardiology or orthopedics, so they continue their schooling and education in a way that ensures they can work in that specialty. They can’t jump straight into the specialty though without first going through the foundations.

And for us in the group fitness space, this is how you should look at your primary group fitness certification versus your specialty  program trainings.

    • First gain a foundation of knowledge by passing an NCCA accredited group fitness certification. Then once you know the basics, look at the other areas of specialty you can go into.

Sadly, these days most people don’t follow that path…instead they bypass the foundations and jump into the specialty – which leaves more and more participants at risk for injury or poorly designed workout experiences because instructors can’t explain basic anatomy and exercise science principles.

“I want to teach Yoga or Pilates, do I need a primary group fitness certification?”

Yoga and Pilates have established themselves as separate from the group fitness space. In fact, both specialties have established their own credentialing organization and sets of standards.

Yoga is regulated by Yoga Alliance. The minimum standards for Registered Yoga Teachers is a 200-hour teacher training program.

Pilates is regulated by Pilates Method Alliance. Interestingly enough, PMA has also established itself as an NCCA Accredited organization and holds their instructors to very high standards of educational quality. The minimum standards for a comprehensively trained Certified Pilates Instructor is 450-hours of teacher training.

If you are interested in going down this route, do your research into the programs that are best for you and your needs. Just remember, the standards are high for a reason, don’t try to short-change this education either.

Final Thoughts

Teaching group fitness comes is a rewarding experience. But before you step foot onto the stage and take on the responsibility of teaching a safe and effective class, make sure you understand the science behind what you’re doing. Just like you don’t want to a plumber to work on your car, you don’t want to be the group fitness instructor who doesn’t really know what they’re doing.

Be safe. Be effective. Be purposeful. Be certified. But most importantly….


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