If you are a personal trainer -or want to be a personal trainer -This will be one of the most important educational reviews you will ever read.
What are the legal issues a personal trainer needs to think about? Whether you’re a newly minted personal trainer just getting their feet wet in the industry or an experienced fitness professional boasting years in the trenches, you should always be aware of possibly facing litigation one day. Fitness professionals are too often engrossed in generating revenue streams such as attracting new clients and then there’s the growing trend of trying to create passive income through publications, products, and delivering seminars. So what usually gets neglected? The legal stuff and those types of things. You know like court and insurance and all that fun stuff. The same stuff that personal trainers barely give any attention yet could easily end their careers. But there are some things you can do to safeguard yourself long before the possibility of litigation surfaces.
Personal Trainer Education
In 2001, Susan Guthrie, a 42-year-old Atlanta woman, signed up for personal training sessions, with the hopes of getting back into shape so she could resume playing tennis, as she did when she was younger. The manager of the gym paired her with Ray Crouser, a tennis instructor, and according to Crouser, held a personal training certification through the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). According to an article published by (Crouser, 2006) on protraineronline.com, Crouser admittedly had no formal education; however, he was considering pursuing it in the future.
Why does his certification and/or education or lack thereof serve relevance? Well, if he had more education, Susan Guthrie wouldn’t have spent the time following her first two workouts with Crouser, clinging on for her life.
Guthrie was on life support and received dialysis treatments for a week due to exertional rhabdomyolysis , a condition characterized by the breakdown of muscle tissue in the blood (Patel, Gyamfi, & Torres, 2009). The blood binding protein, myoglobin, enters the kidneys, which attempt to filter the clumps of muscle tissue, or protein, but often times become so overloaded they shut down. Susan Guthrie had suffered acute renal failure.
Could this have been avoided? Absolutely. But, Crouser, a novice personal trainer, prescribed the same workouts he had used for his advanced clients, exclaiming that he uses the same routine for everyone (“Woman Says Personal Trainer Put Her in Hospital,” 2007).
Susan Guthrie was a novice trainee, who had no business performing a high-volume, intense, ass-beating of sorts with seemingly little rhyme or reason. Not only were these two workouts counterproductive, they were, in Guthrie’s case, deleterious to health – she almost died!
Had Crouser been more versed in exercise physiology, the concepts of proper loading, rest to work ratios, and the individualization of programming would likely have been employed, therefore, decreasing the chances of Guthrie sustaining any injury or illness as a result of her workouts with Crouser.
According to the Business of Personal Training, a book published by exercise physiologist Scott Roberts, “personal trainers should have earned at least a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology, nutrition, physical education, or [in] a related field” (Roberts, 1999, p. 17). Education doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a person will be a better trainer, but they’ll likely be more attuned to things such as exercise prescription and the resulting acute and chronic adaptations, whether they be good, or as in Guthrie’s case: bad.
Alternatively, a prospective fitness professional who lacks a college education or who holds an unrelated degree, should consider obtaining a certification through a reputable organization, which will be discussed later.
Personal Training Certifications
In lieu of a formal education, or preferably in addition to one, personal training certification is essential. Certifications that are recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agency, or NCCA (http://credentialingexcellence.org), hold the most legitimacy in the eyes of employers, clients, and make obtaining liability insurance much easier.
Holding a certification that is recognized by the NCCA makes you more legally defensible, due to the rigorous requirements that must be met in order to be eligible to take the exam and subsequently maintain the certification.
Among the most reputable and recognized certifying organizations are the
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
- American Council on Exercise (ACE)
- National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
In order to sit for each of their personal training exams, the candidate must be at least 18 years old and hold a valid CPR and AED certification. Again, these requirements represent the bare minimums for eligibility to take the exams – what isn’t included is the lengthy preparation that each certification test entails.
Put it this way, none of these exams can be taken cold with the expectation of passing them. They are often considered challenging for someone with an exercise science background!
Each of the organizations offer higher level certifications, which require a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in a health or exercise related field, such as the Health and Fitness Specialist (HFS), offered through the ACSM. The ACSM also offers two certifications that require documented practicum hours in a clinical setting. These certs are:
- Clinical Exercise Specialist (CES) and the
- Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP)
The ACSM and ACE (http://www.acefitness.org) offer specialty certifications for those fitness professionals working or intending to work with the elderly and diseased populations.
For more info on ACE read How to Prepare for the ACE Personal Trainer Test by Scott Fishkind
Certifications offered through NASM (http://www.nasm.org), such as the Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) and Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) and the NSCA (http://nsca-lift.org), such as the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), are more geared towards training athletic populations and emphasize functional anatomy, exercise technique, and the concept of periodization within their teachings.
For more info on NASM read How I passed the NASM test by Heather Dziczek
Does holding any of these fitness certifications make you a better trainer? The answer is “no”. However, in order to maintain the certifications, you must report continuing education hours within a specified reporting period.
Continuing education usually includes attending workshops, seminars, taking exercise science or health-related college coursework, and regularly completing online assessments and practice quizzes. Additionally, your CPR/AED certification must stay current otherwise your certification will lapse.
Personal Training Experience
This is a critical component which is overlooked by many health club managers and clients. Most personal trainers out there lack experience working with people, as in the case of Ray Crouser, who had only been working as a personal trainer for one year when his workouts nearly killed Ms. Guthrie. According to (Roberts, 1999, p.17), “aspiring personal trainers should seek out local fitness facilities that are willing to let you observe their classes, or even train you. “
You really have to work from the ground up. Here are 5 ways to gain experience:
- Intern at your local health club
- Volunteer at a local health club
- Attend conferences on personal training
- Pick the brain of more experienced trainers
- Ask more experienced trainers if they’ll mentor you
There is nothing more problematic in this industry than someone who passes a certification test and hits the ground running the next day
Read this shocking real life story of a personal trainer on her very first day as a personal trainer. This stuff happens all the time in gyms.
You have to remember that your knowledge is really still in its infancy. You only passed a test! Remember, knowledge is the product of education AND experience.
Personal Trainer Liability Insurance
You’re a fool if you don't have it. If you’re an independent contractor, getting liability insurance should be a no-brainer. Even if you’re an employee of the health club or gym that you train clients in, you should seriously consider it, because you still may not be fully covered, if at all!
According to Sean Riley, a lawyer and personal trainer, “employees of health clubs are only covered under their employer’s general liability insurance” (Riley, 2005, para. 2).
General liability insurance typically covers the premises and all equipment and the claims which include losses due to slippery showers, faulty exercise equipment, worn flooring surfaces, [and bacterial infections contracted due to unsanitary conditions] (Riley, 2005, para. 2).
General liability insurance deals with the working environment, not the scope of employment. Unless you’re a gym owner, or manager, you have no control over the working environment (Riley, 2005, para. 4), but as a personal trainer you have control over what you were hopefully certified and educated to do: prescribe exercise, demonstrate exercises, and design training programs.
This is where the need for professional liability insurance comes into play. Professional liability insurance is similar to malpractice insurance for physicians and attorneys (Riley, 2005, para. 5), essentially protecting you from conduct known as professional negligence (Riley, 2005, para. 5), which the court found Ray Crouser of doing.
As a result of the judgment, Crouser had to pay the defendant money for damages (Guthrie v. Crouser, 2003). Claims can originate from improper warm-ups, equipment failure and its improper maintenance, [equipment misuse], slip and fall accidents, even if they were caused by one member bumping into another (Riley, 2005, para. 8), and in Crouser’s case, causing injury or illness. This can include preexisting injuries or illnesses that may be known or unknown to the trainer, citing the eggshell plaintiff theory (Renka, 2007).
For more info, read this basic personal trainer mistake and you will see how often stuff like this happens.
Professional liability insurance is relatively easy to obtain. Organizations such as ACSM, ACE, and the NSCA, offer its certified professionals and members the resources to apply for and purchase liability insurance. Additionally, discounts are extended to the members of the organizations. You may purchase insurance through a private insurance company. Rates and premiums depend upon the amount that you’re covered for.
There are some exclusions, however. Professional liability insurance usually does not cover claims such as criminal acts, misconduct, and misrepresentation (Riley, 2005, para. 5). In (Guthrie v. Crouser, 2003) the defendant represented himself as a certified personal trainer, however, his certification at the time of Guthrie’s injuries had lapsed, meaning if he had professional liability insurance then, it likely would’ve not covered Crouser’s professional negligence. Riley also stated that insurance policies are primarily limited to negligence cases, which are based on carelessness, not deliberate intention.
Unless you’re on a Reality TV show, you can’t get away without common sense. Getting inebriated and triggering a fracas at the local tavern or standing firm to your belief that Chicken of the Sea is from “sea chickens”, not tuna are things that we as TV viewers get a kick out of.
Clients who paid loads of cash, entrusting you with their fitness and health goals, won’t appreciate you making a Reality TV-caliber gaffe with what’s essentially their lives.
Fitness professionals need to practice within their professional scope. We hear all too often about personal trainers providing nutritional counseling. You don’t know how many times I’ve heard “my trainer said you should eat this…”.
Okay, is your personal trainer also a registered dietician? If not, they should not be doling off recommendations, especially if they’re not qualified to do so. Recommendations can sometimes prove harmful, even fatal, and if you’re operating outside of your professional scope, you’ll be on the hook for any judgments against you that may result.
Courts found the employee AND the commercial health club that employed them, responsible for the death of one of their clients.
Anne Marie Capati, 37, and a sufferer of high blood pressure was instructed to ingest a list of nutritional supplements suggested by her trainer to combat fatigue and accelerate her weight loss efforts (Pristin, 1999, para. 2).
Among the supplements, was a product called, Thermadrene, which contained 20mg of ephedra and 80 mg of caffeine per serving (Reents, 2007, para. 7). Literature suggests that those suffering from high blood pressure should abstain from ergogenic aids, such as ephedrine and caffeine (Magkos & Kavouras, 2004). The result? Ms. Capati died from a brain hemorrhage (Reents, 2007, para. 7) and the health club had $320 million lawsuit levied against it (Capati v. Crunch Fitness International, 1999).
Though fitness professionals are commonly asked questions regarding nutrition, they should not design diets and suggest nutritional supplements; instead, they should refer their client to their physician or a registered dietician for advice and perhaps a full assessment.
For honest supplement reviews, see SupplementClarity.com
Personal trainers are also asked questions regarding injury treatment and prevention. Though personal trainers may knowingly or unknowingly utilize modalities used by physical therapists, they are not licensed to practice physical therapy. A competent personal trainer will know when to refer to a physical therapist and may eventually bridge the gap between rehabilitating injury and training for fitness and/or improved performance.
In response to the flurry of litigation in recent years, states such as Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey have made a push for uniform licensure of personal trainers (National Board of Fitness Examiners, 2008). Requiring licensure atop formal education and accredited certifications, will weed out a lot of the riffraff that’s in our profession. Long gone will be the online certifications, which only require a credit card number and an address to mail it to. Lawsuits will dwindle and our profession will actually have some legitimacy!
Just think, if licensure is required for us to practice as fitness professionals, we may get a piece of healthcare pie, as we may be able to bill for our services, similar to ancillary professions such as athletic training and holistic services (i.e. acupuncture and massage therapy). Until then, I’ll just do what I can and I suggest other fitness professionals do to stay ahead: pursue more education, gain as much experience as you can, and keep active liability insurance!
Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is a Philadelphia-area healthcare support professional and personal trainer, he holds an M.S. in Exercise Science and has nearly a decade of personal training experience. Presently, he is employed as a Fitness Specialist with the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Recreation and also trains clients Broad Street Fitness in Philadelphia, PA. He is also pursuing a MBA with a concentration in Healthcare Administration, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. More of his articles can be found on elitefts.com, joshstrength.com, and beyondstrengthperformance.com.
References available on request
What do you think?
ray crouser says
your facts on ray crouser were wrong. even though the founder of issa tried to throw me under the bus, the only fault that was found on my part was not keeping the training records, which i gave to the client because she would not be training with me on a regular basis and i thought anyone she would work with in the future might like to have her past experience on record.
the condition she came down with was horrible, but all the qualified experts said that the condition was unforseeable and unfortunate but this condition may have been at least exacerbated and possibly caused by the prescription and nonprescription medications that i was not informed of even though i did a client info list that asked these questions as well as an interview sheet. i hate it that this happened. i did not train people to make money,i suffered a catastrophic accident in 1995 and my personal fitness was the difference between life and death for me . i wanted to help people to gain personal power through fitness and healthful living and i succeeded in very many cases.
i did not turn over this client list because i did not want these terrific people drug into this witch hunt. i lost this judgment on record but let me just fill in some facts that the writers of these articles either neglected to mention out of ignorance or because they had their own axe to grind
i was sued for over three hundred thousand dollars. the jury awarded her sixty………..not sixty thousand, but sixty dollars. the cost of the two training sessions which if she had asked me i would have gladly returned. instead it cost me over one hundred thousand to defend myself from this frivolous suit driven by greedy lawyers .
my sincere apologies go out to the client i never wanted this to happen but even more apologies go out to the other clients i had to abandon when i was driven from the business. but don’t cry for me Argentina i am now retired and living my dream life in west Virginia
Joe Cannon says
Ray, I appreciate you taking the time to write and share your side of the story. As I mentioned in my review of rhabdomyolysis that certain medications can raise the risk. That said I am quite suprised by the jury verdict given the severity of rhabdo.
Question. How did ISSA through you under the bus? If you can elaborate on this I would appreciate it as it would give me greater insights into what happened. Also, Did the ISSA certification or ISSA study materials cover rhabdomyolysis? Again, Im just curious.
To be brief when the incident happened I called issa tech support talked to fred hatfields daughter disa got freds cell number and told him exactly what happened when it was fresh in my mind he told me he didnt think I had anything to worry about.
five years later he is testifying against me I do understand that maybe her lawyer was threatening to bring issa into the suit but damn how bout a phone call? my number is still the same.
Rhabdo was not covered in the textbook study materials or seminar I had heard of this but associated it with marathon runners and triathletes.
what I did with her was mostly a demonstration of proper form then taking her through a set or two light. as far as putting her through the same workouts I used for advanced athletes that is absurd that was the claim her lawyer made and if I did not correct him on it it was because the entire trial seemed like a witch-hunt and I was out of my element.
the only reason I am even talking about this is in the hope that it will help other trainers. Cover your ass and keep your paperwork
Joe Cannon says
Ray, just wondering, are you the same person who left comments on my review of rhabdomyolysis :
Someone else (“Larry” he called himself) was a trainer who recently left a comment there about accidentally causing rhabdo.
I’m really sorry this happened to you. is the court case still going on?
I have never went by the name Larry. She was awarded sixty dollars.
Yolanda Bowles says
Another great article….just to give you an update I am still doing well and maintaining my daily exercise and eating habits. It has been a while now and I saw my doctor the beginning of this year…He said keep up the good work!
Joe Cannon says
Yolanda, thats fantastic!!! 🙂
I agree the fitness related degree along with the certification is important. Neither the NCCA website or the article mention two very common personal training certifications – AAAI and WITS. The club where I train, and those like it, hires trainers with both these certifications. With per session rates paying not much more than minimum wage, why would a trainer with a degree and NCCA recognized certifications work at those wages?
James Moss says
I’m not talking value, I’m legal issues.
CPA’s are not certified, they are licensed. Attorneys, engineers, architects all must pass a state license. There is no way that you can compare any certification to a licensed CPA.
I’m not devaluing CSCS, HFS, or RCEP, they just are not equal or close. One requires 4 years of college and 2 years of work experience and passing a national exam.
From a legal point of view look at the difference. The time and money for a license versus certification.
Again, I’m not saying that CSCS, HFS, or RCEP is bad. I am saying that if I had to defend someone I would much rather have someone with a degree on the witness stand than a certification. Nothing more.
Joe Giandonato says
Also scan the classifieds for open strength coach / fitness specialist / exercise physiologist positions on indeed.com, juju.com, simplyhired.com, bluefishjobs.com or the NCAA online job market site – they will require a certification in conjunction with a formal education, not to mention experience.
Joe Giandonato says
I feel that certification has tremendous value in any profession, especially one that isn’t as regulated than say, law. Certifications from the NSCA, ACSM, and NASM, which require at least a bachelor’s degree, serve as our industry’s gold standard. A CSCS, HFS, or RCEP in the fitness industry is analogous to a CPA in the accounting profession.
While CPAs are issued by the states, you don’t need one to be an accountant. I know many people who are accountants, but aren’t a CPA. Passing the CPA exam, or any exam for that matter, means that you possess a level of competency that should make you more qualified and knowledgeable than someone who hasn’t. Just say if you’re filing a tax return who would you rather assist you? A college kid working part-time at HR Block, someone with an accounting degree, or someone who has an accounting degree who is also a CPA? I’d hope you’d answer the CPA.
The same goes for someone seeking the services of a personal trainer. Hmmm…would I choose the person who took a six hour course and passed a test, someone with a bachelor’s or graduate degree, or someone with the formal education and a higher level certification? On paper, I’d take the person with the education and certification(s) if I was a prospective client or gym owner/manager. They’d atleast be among the first people I’d interview.
Joe Cannon MS CSCS NSCA-CPT says
Of that we are in total agreement. There is a big difference between a certified personal trainer and a qualified personal trainer. Where the fitness certification helps is by focusing the knowledge to better equip the person for the real world. Many college textbooks just give the facts but dont show how to apply those facts.
In the case of personal training, if the college professor has not been a personal trainer this can result in poor real world performance by the student. Personal training certs and textbooks tend to me more focused and that has value.
As an attorney, if you had a client who was injured by a college educated personal trainer who had no fitness certification, wouldn’t you use that fact to help win over the jury and hence the win case?
James Moss says
No doubt anyone with or without a degree can do it wrong. That was not where I was going. You quote a case like certification had value in a legal case. Comparing the value of a witness with a certification or a degree from an accredited college I want the degree every time. I can attack certification, the process and the person certifying you. That is difficult to do with a degree.
The most important thing is go get a good education. Don’t worry about whether or not you are certified. I see too many people selling certification rather than teaching. There is a big difference.
Joe Cannon says
All major fitness certifications have qualified instruction from people who have college degrees. I can speak personally about that myself since I am one of those people. I hear what you are saying and there are unscrupulous agencies out there but I have personally witnessed college educated people without fitness certifications doing things incorrectly. A college degree in fitness where the emphasis is not in real life application of the science is less important in the real world. Any gym owner who has been around the block will tell you the same thing.
James Moss says
For $5 I’ll certify you in anything you want. Certification is not backed by anyone, has no curriculum, has no review has no one saying it is good bad or indifferent. Anyone can certify in anything. A college degree has been approved by the group of colleges who have accredited the school, sometimes by the state and is monitored by other colleges. A degree has value in court, certification has a little but it what is really important who what you learned and from whom.
Joe Cannon says
That’s interesting. I’d be interested in hearing more about this – especially the part that was “laughable”. The court cases brought up are those I remember reading about. They did happen. While a court/jury may see a college degree as having great value – and it does – I can tell you that in my MS degree (which is in exercise science), they basically prepared me for medical school and not to be a personal trainer. I think both are needed.
Joe Giandonato says
Thanks for the feedback! Would you care to elaborate on which statements are unsupported by law and would you care to include what you found laughable?
James Moss says
I found several of your statements to be unsupported by the law and one of them was plain laughable. No certification will ever beat formal education in a court of law.