How to Adapt Your Personal Training Space for People With Disabilities

PFT Director: Prepare your facility and staff for a special niche.

You spend a lot of time and effort marketing your personal training services to members who need customized programming, but you may be missing a much-needed niche—and your competitors may be missing it too.

Understanding This Audience

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 54 million Americans (1 in every 5) have some sort of disability (U.S. Census Bureau 2008). While disabilities differ in severity, more-independent disabled persons would benefit greatly from the services of a personal trainer. With some general knowledge, a few tweaks to your training floor and a little patience and innovation, you may be able to corner this market in your area and make a difference in peoples’ lives.

Whether you have your own studio or use a designated space for personal training in your gym, make sure you comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Be aware, however, that sometimes even the minimum ADA requirements may not give people with disabilities—especially those in wheelchairs—space to maneuver comfortably. Combine a too-tight space with inaccessible gym equipment and uneducated staff, and your potential new member will be heading for the door. Get your staff and personal training space ready so that you can welcome all clients.

Training Your Staff

Very few personal training certifications delve into exercise programming for people with disabilities. Usually, the certifications that address the topic only brush the surface. There’s a wide range of disabilities and neurological diseases, with different severities, and each disabled person has particular needs and limitations. So coming up with a general program is impossible—and undesirable. As with any specialized training, often the best way to learn is kinesthetically.

Working with people who have disabilities requires knowledge of clinical anatomy; knowledge of some of the more common diseases, injuries and medical conditions; and knowledge of general medical terminology. If you want to enhance the experience of disabled clients, communicate using terminology that is relevant to their individual situations. (This will also enable you to speak more confidently with your clients’ physicians and therapists, if necessary.) For example, when working with a client who has a spinal cord injury, you should know whether that person has a “complete” injury or an “incomplete” injury. Find out where on the spinal cord the injury occurred, and familiarize yourself with what nerves and muscles that area innervates. You may also want to ask a qualified professional for the person’s American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Impairment Scale classification. Read more about the scale at http://asia-spinalinjury.org/education/n_index.php.

Understanding Your Client’s Goals

Clients with disabilities will likely have the same or similar goals as apparently healthy people. They’ll want to increase their strength and flexibility, lose weight and improve their cardiorespiratory endurance. Their reasons, however, may be more specific than those of the able-bodied clients at your facility.

For example, clients with disabilities may want to build strength so they can transfer in and out of a wheelchair more easily. Another goal may be to increase flexibility so they can dress themselves. During an initial appointment, ask clients to be as specific as possible about the abilities they want to improve. While getting stronger will be important in general, focusing on specific movements will play a big part in their success. They might want to improve flexibility, not only for mobility purposes, but also to decrease muscle spasms and reduce pain. Improved cardiorespiratory function may make it possible to perform at work or to transfer into a wheelchair. When designing a program, include exercises that address customized goals.

Adapting and Equipping Your Training Space

You don't need to buy lots of specialized equipment to train individuals with disabilities. Since much of your exercise programming will be intended to improve function, traditional “functional” training equipment works best. Exercise tubing with handles, placed at various heights, can replace most standard weight machines. For stronger clients who require more resistance, use a machine with movable arms, such as the Keiser® Functional Trainer or the FreeMotion™ Dual Cable Cross. For someone in a wheelchair, a machine with multiple anchor heights—like the Vortex® Core Sport Trainer—provides easy access and allows for strengthening in all three planes of motion. Your healthy population may appreciate these devices as well.

Invest in a plinth table or mat table for doing prone and supine exercises; this is especially helpful for people who may not be mobile enough to get up and down from the floor comfortably. This platform provides a convenient stretching location and lets those in wheelchairs transfer to a place where they can perform exercises they might not be able to do otherwise. It also offers space to move around freely while changing into or out of workout clothes. Along with the mat table, provide a basic plastic or wooden slide board, so clients can slide out of their chairs and onto the table.

Following is a partial list of equipment specifically suited for working with people who have disabilities.

  • Parallel bars provide stability for people who need help walking. The bars create a secure environment for improving balance. If space/footprint is an issue at your facility, there are brands that can be folded up when not in use.
  • An upper-body ergometer (arm bike) allows people with limited lower-extremity function to get a good cardiorespiratory workout. It’s also a valuable tool to help rehabilitate clients with range-of-motion issues in the shoulders.
  • Dumbbells with handles are useful for people with limited use of their hands. The “capital D” shape allows users to slip their fingers and hands through to perform exercises without much gripping action. Another nice tool is a set of hand weights and/or wrist weights that can be strapped on during exercise, eliminating any concern over grip strength.
  • A 3-foot-long dowel is good for important range-of-motion exercises.
  • Boxing gear—including gloves, target mitts and a punching bag—can help clients improve their cardiovascular health, upper-extremity range of motion, shoulder strength, hand–eye coordination, core strength and balance.

Welcoming New Clients

As you would do with any specialized market, think about places the target audience frequents in daily life, what they read and with whom they speak. Rather than marketing directly to potential new clients, contact physical therapy clinics, physicians' offices and specialized organizations to make those locations aware of your ability to serve clients with disabilities. Provide these businesses with your cards and brochures. Offer to write an article for a newsletter. Give a presentation on the importance of exercise for people with various disabilities; bring equipment to the talk and demonstrate how exercise and equipment can be modified for individual needs and limitations. These efforts will not only get you in front of your target market, but also open up networking avenues for future referrals.

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Wes Norris

IDEA Author/Presenter
Wes Norris, CSCS, is the founder of Rehab Strong, a company that works with individuals with disabil... more less

American College of Sports Medicine. 2009. ACSM’s Exercise Management for Persons with Chronic Diseases and Disabilities.Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.



National Center on Physical Activity and Disability. http://ncpad.org.



U.S. Census Bureau. 2008. Americans with Disabilities: 2005. www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p70-117.pdf; retrieved May 3, 2012.



July 2012

© 2012 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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