Selecting a Fitness Trainer Who Understands Your Disability


Neuro/Adaptive Exercise and Performance Consultant

My goal with this first column is to help all of you out there who have looked, or are looking, for a personal trainer to help you with your health, fitness, or performance goals, only to be disappointed by the experience. Hopefully, by the end of this article you will have a better understanding of how to go about choosing the right person to help you.

Selecting a personal trainer can be a difficult process, but it may be especially challenging to those with a disability. Not only do you face the same issues that anyone else may experience, such as conflicting personalities, goals, etc., but you also have the added problem of finding someone who understands your specific needs. Unfortunately, the majority of personal trainers in the commercial fitness market do not have any experience with people with a disability, especially when it comes to being in a wheelchair.

Trainers may be hesitant to ask specifics about your injury or condition by not wanting to offend. You must be willing to be frank about your capabilities and goals. Let the trainer know if you have a specific issue which he/she needs to be aware of, such as an SCI who is susceptible to autonomic dysreflexia. Also make the trainer aware that you are not a “fragile flower” who will break if touched…

Recently I spoke with Anna Q, with a T-10 incomplete spinal cord injury, who has been looking for a personal trainer. “The trainer said he would be afraid to hurt me or injure me. He went on to say that many of ‘you people’ have arthritis and soft bone issues. He did not want to work with me.” This point can be one of the most frustrating for those with a disability—trainers assuming that you are weak or prone to injury just because you are in a chair. While it is true that being in a wheelchair can lead to osteoporosis of the pelvis and lower extremities, it is not always a given and many times depends on the injury or disease.

I will give you some questions to ask, and why each one is an important part of your search for that “perfect” trainer.


  • Does the trainer have experience with disabilities? Your particular disability?
  • Does the trainer have a college/university degree?
  • Does the trainer have a Personal Training Certification? Which one(s)?
  • Does the trainer have a Specialty Certification? Which one(s)?
  • Does the trainer have professional liability coverage?


Experience is probably the most important attribute for a trainer to have when working with someone who has a disability. Training able bodied clients, and even elite athletes, can be taught through courses and books. The basics of training disabled clients can be taught as well, however it is the nuances between and within each disability that often can only be learned through experience. For example, a trainer needs to know when spasticity or tone can be beneficial and when it is a hindrance. You may want tone in the abdominals of a T5-6 spinal cord injury if you are trying to work on upper body strength and stability while in a high kneeling or standing position. This tone could then be a hindrance if you are trying to work on trunk rotation.

Academic Degree

A degree in exercise physiology, kinesiology, exercise science, or similar major would be the second most important attribute a trainer could have. This type of education will give the trainer the background necessary to design and adapt the program to your goals and progress. A trainer with a degree will have taken courses in biomechanics, kinesiology, physiology, biology, and many others. Depending on the emphasis of the degree (for example, athletic training or pre-physical therapy) some trainers may have more of a science based background than others. This background may allow the trainer to better understand the unique needs of the particular disability.


There are a number of personal trainer certifying organizations within the United States, however only a few offer certifications that are accredited through the NCCA (National Commission for Certifying Agencies).

The NCCA standards require demonstration of a valid and reliable process for development, implementation, maintenance, and governance of certification programs. NCCA uses a rigorous peer review process to establish accreditation standards; evaluate compliance with the standards; recognize organizations/programs which demonstrate compliance; and serve as a resource on quality certification.” —

There are two organizations in particular that I would consider to be the top of the line when it comes to education on disabilities.

These are:

  • ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
  • NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)

Both of these organizations offer certifications specific to working with clients with disabilities, and these certifications require that you either have at least Bachelor’s degree or a previous NCCA accredited certification; and both require ongoing, continuing education to maintain the certification. You can search for a certified trainer on their websites, and are able to filter using various criteria including location and specialty. These organizations are also part of USREPS (United States Registry of Exercise Professionals) which advocates for exercise professionals and keeps an updated registry of professionals’ certification status.

Liability Insurance

This is a very important aspect that is often overlooked. If you work with a trainer through a major fitness chain, you can be assured that their trainers are covered. However, smaller gyms and trainers who work on their own may not have coverage (I can’t imagine doing this, but it does happen).

Wrapping it up…

Finding the right trainer can be a challenge and there are a lot of areas that I did not touch on—a trainer should have good listening skills, focus on you for the entire time, track your workouts and progress, complete an evaluation before beginning, etc. I may get to these in a future column, but for now I think I have hit the most important points to get you started. I hope this helps you on your journey to finding better health and wellness.

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ericHarness 150x150 - Selecting a Fitness Trainer Who Understands Your Disability

Eric Harness CSCS

With a strong background in athletic training and sports performance combined with 15+ years extensive experience training those with neurological and physical disabilities, Eric brings a unique perspective to the adaptive performance and neuro recovery fields.

After graduating from San Diego State University with a BSc in Kinesiology, he became an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and started San Diego Sports Training where he excelled at improving the strength and performance of high school, college, and Olympic athletes.

In 1999, Eric co-founded the first spinal cord injury recovery center in Southern California and served as their Director of Research and Development for 13 years. In that time period he spent over 20,000 hours working hands on with physically challenged clients to increase their functional capacity. His clientele included not only spinal cord injuries, but stroke, TBI, multiple sclerosis, amputee, and ALS. He has worked with major hospitals and universities on several grant funded research projects examining the effects of exercise on individuals with spinal cord injury. These projects have led to multiple authored and co-authored publications in peer-reviewed journals. As a leader in this field, he has been invited to speak and present at many major medical conferences, hospitals, and industry events.

Eric continues to partner with the leaders in the rehabilitation field on research projects and equipment design as he advances his work in neuro recovery and takes adaptive performance to the next level.

His Curriculum Vitae can be downloaded here.

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