Fitness Instructors What They Know and What They Don't Know

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This article was edited and updated on November 7, 2015.

A Fictional Conversation

Fitness class Participant: The doctor says I need a knee replacement. What can I do for my knee?

Fitness Instructor: Oh, there’s lots of things we can do to help that. I’ll look up some exercises for you and give them to you next week.

Participant: Do you think I can avoid surgery?

Instructor: Oh, sure. Let’s work on it together.

Although this conversation is fictional (thank heavens), I have heard about too many conversations similar to it, mostly from participants. While your fitness instructor most certainly has training, class participants should understand that that training is clearly focused on fitness issues. Before you ask questions of your fitness instructor, it’s a good idea to know what they do and do not learn in their training.

What do Fitness Instructors know?

The answer to that question first depends on where they live. Each province in Canada has different regulations for fitness instructors, and there are different requirements for yoga, Pilates, tai chi, NIA, and other types of fitness. I will only be discussing here the training required for group fitness instructors in British Columbia.

If you want to become a group fitness instructor in BC, you must first complete a course — Fitness Theory — and then earn 80% or better on the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association (BCRPA) Fitness Theory Exam. 2 This exam is considered “very tough” and applicants must receive an 80% or better to move on to the next phase of their training. Fitness Theory covers such topics as the names, placements and actions of muscles and bones, biomechanics, general fitness principles, the cardiorespiratory system, and exercise injury prevention.

Once the applicant has successfully completed the Fitness Theory Exam, they can move on to complete their work in one of several groups: Group Fitness, Aquatic Fitness, Yoga Fitness or Weight Training Speciality. The Group Fitness Course teaches a great deal about how to actually teach a fitness class, everything from choreography tips in cardio to weight-lifting tips during the strength portion of the class.

Next, the applicant must successfully complete a basic CPR and First Aid course and then go on to complete a practicum, working under the tutelage of an experienced instructor. The practicum includes observation, actual teaching, and feedback from the instructor. I taught a total of 8 hours while being observed by a qualified instructor.

At the end of the practicum, the wannabe fitness instructor must be evaluated by a qualified instructor. This is called being ICEed, ICE standing for Instructor Competency Evaluation.

Following the practicum and the ICE process, some instructors go on to further training. For instance, I went on to get special training in “Third Age” (a fitness term for working with older adults). In 2015, the BCRPA changed this designation to "Older Adult." It is not uncommon for fitness instructors to choose a second interest and get extra training in that area, or go on to be personal trainers.

The BCRPA renews certification to instructors every two years. Within that two years, there are some minimum requirements to maintain certification:

Is a fitness instructor qualified to answer medical questions?

The short answer: No.

That doesn’t mean that fitness instructors don’t have a basic knowledge of anatomy and they certainly know something about bones and muscles. If they have kept up their training, they may have specialized in one particular area and learned a little more. But...they are not medical doctors, and you should never consider them as such. Nor should fitness instructors ever lead a participant to think that they are experts in anatomy and health issues. A fitness instructor should always ask: “Have you seen your doctor about this?”

Are there any questions a fitness instructor can answer?

Of course! They are knowledgeable about many fitness related topics, such as:

Obviously, you can ask your fitness instructor questions. But he/she is not your doctor, your dentist, or your pharmacist. Obviously, some are better trained and more knowledgeable than others. So ask your questions, and a good fitness instructor will tell you if he or she is qualified and knowledgeable to give you an answer.

For more information about fitness instructor training in Canada and British Columbia, see the Canadian Fitness Education Services or the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association websites.

See also:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. The BCRPA is considered one of the best fitness training organizations in Canada.