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There are presently no established national standards or laws about qualifications to be a personal trainer. As a result, people who work in health and fitness clubs have a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds. There are "personal trainers" with no formal courses in physical education, exercise science or other related university degrees. If they want to be a certified personal trainer, there are online, mail-order certificates that require only payment to obtain a certificate to put on the wall. Some of these "certifying agencies" do not require an examination to test the knowledge of the applicants.

At the other extreme, there are personal trainers who have advanced degrees and higher, more specialized levels of certification. Their certificates require attendance at courses or workshops lasting several days, followed by a rigorous examination that tests their knowledge and their ability to apply that knowledge to clients with special health problems.

There would be few problems if the personal trainers with no courses and a mail-order certificate handled only young, healthy men and women who can do just about any kind of exercise program and if the personal trainers with advanced knowledge and credentials worked with older, less healthy men and women whose exercise programs need knowledge about what to do, what not to do and how to do it. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

I have been involved in several cases where the plaintiff was an older person who was injured because the personal trainer did not know what to do or did it improperly. In one case, the personal trainer had almost no formal education and was not adequately supervised. In another case, the personal trainer had a fair amount of experience and was certified by an accredited organization but asked the client to do exercises that were inappropriate for a man his age and with his health problems.

In both cases, lack of knowledge or how to use it were major factors in their liability and the ultimate decision in favor of the plaintiffs. Obviously, knowledge is important, especially when working with people with special health problems. However, remember that having a certificate or diploma does not mean you will be a good personal trainer, only that you had the knowledge and fulfilled the requirements to get that piece of paper.

So, what can be done to minimize liability? Here are some general guidelines.

  1. If you have not already done so, take some courses at a local college or university or attend workshops offered by accredited organizations.
  2. Obtain personal trainer certification from an accredited organization. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies lists a number of organizations with health, fitness and/or other clinical exercise certifications. While there is a large variation in the requirements of each (with the American College of Sports Medicine and American
  3. Council on Exercise being the most rigorous), personal trainers should be certified by one of the following:
    a. Academy of Applied Personal Training Education
    b. ACTION Certification
    c. American College of Sports Medicine
    d. American Council on Exercise
    e. Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association
    f. Cooper Institute
    g. National Academy of Sports Medicine
    h. National Council for Certified Personal Trainers
    i. National Council on Strength and Fitness
    j. National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association
    k. National Exercise Trainers Association
    l. National Federation of Professional Trainers
    m. National Strength and Conditioning Association
    n. Pilates Method Alliance

    Also, if you begin to work with special populations (for example, people at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease or those with health problems or disabilities), then you should get the appropriate knowledge and level of certification to work with them.

  4. Stay up-to-date with the information and knowledge in your profession so that you can know and properly apply current guidelines. This includes reading professional journals, reading position statements by different organizations, as well as attending courses, workshops, and professional and scientific meetings. Going to these meetings will give you continuing education credits that are needed to maintain your certification.
  5. Obtain and maintain certification for CPR, first aid and the use of AEDs.
  6. Before admitting clients to your program, some health screening (for example, the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire or PAR-Q) is desirable.
  7. If applicable, ask your clients to obtain medical clearance.
  8. Fitness assessments are useful because they give you information about how the client is now and help you prescribe exercise programs that are more specific to a client's needs and interests. As well, repeating the assessments after the client has been exercising allows you to see if the program was effective and allows you to update the prescription.
  9. Use appropriate informed consent forms for all relevant services.
  10. Related to this, instruct clients about what you are asking them to do and how it may affect or be affected by any limitations relative to their capacity to exercise.
  11. Document that you have done the services requested. I once worked with attorneys on a case where a poorly trained and unsupervised trainer tested the plaintiff who was injured in spite of telling the defendant that he was in pain. The personal trainer wrote down only the final results of the tests, not how he obtained those values. Since it was not possible to know how the results were obtained and there was some question whether he knew what he was doing, the plaintiff's case was strengthened. When asked later on, he did not remember what he had done, only that he "followed the protocol he was taught".
  12. Do not diagnose an injury or a medical condition. When appropriate, refer clients to more qualified health and medical professionals. Examples include physicians, physical therapists, dietitians, and psychologists. Knowing when to refer is as important as to whom you should refer a client. When done appropriately, this may increase your credibility with other professionals and reduce your liability because you worked within your level of knowledge and responsibility.
  13. Develop emergency response plans and rehearse them regularly.
  14. Report any incidents and do a follow-up to see what happened.
  15. Maintain equipment and inspect facilities on a regular basis.

One of the main responsibilities of the personal trainer is to prescribe exercise for clients with a wide range of age, fitness and health status. The general principles for prescribing exercise are basically the same for all, except that programs may have to be modified because of the restrictions caused by the normal effects of age or by clinical problems, diseases or disabilities. Generally speaking, the longer clients have been sedentary and the more limitations and restrictions they have, the higher the number of modifications that should be made. The best way to reduce one's liability is to understand when and how to make these modifications. This implies knowledge and experience. Personal trainers who have neither should work only with young, healthy clients until they have acquired both.

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James Skinner, PhD specializes in the field of Exercise Physiology and is a Professor Emeritus, Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University. A former president of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), he is one of five investigators of the HERITAGE Family Study on the role of genetics in the response of cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors after training. He received the 2014 ACSM Honor Award, the highest award in his field. In 2011, he received the Doctor Honoris Causa from Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary.

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