Boot Camp for the Special-Needs Client

This client has overcome significant struggle to become the best he can be.

By Ryan Halvorson
May 26, 2011

Client: Chris
Personal Trainer: Laurel Blackburn, owner, Boot Camp Fitness and Training <
Location: Tallahassee, Florida

Inspiring the Inspirer. Laurel Blackburn, owner of Boot Camp Fitness and Training, first observed her future client, Chris, while coaching Special Olympics Track & Field. “He wasn’t much of a runner, but I was amazed and inspired by his efforts,” Blackburn recalls. “He always pushed himself to run faster.”

According to Blackburn, Chris was also eager to see others succeed. “What struck me is that no matter if he won or lost, ran fast or slow, he was always cheering on and encouraging others. He often gave motivational speeches to the other athletes at the end of practice.”

Finding Fitness. About 10 years ago, Chris—who has Down syndrome—weighed 317 pounds. Within a short period of time, both his father and grandfather passed away and his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Chris decided to change his life,” Blackburn says. “He made a promise that he would go from 317 pounds to 180 pounds.”

Chris took small steps at first; eliminated soda and unhealthy snacks from his diet; and started walking. “He became obsessed with The Biggest Loser television program and began eating even healthier and working out like the contestants do,” Blackburn says.

Learning the Ropes. Blackburn first met Chris during her own solo workouts. “I used to go to the track early to get in a quick workout for myself. Chris also arrived early, and then he started joining me before his track practice.” During their time together, Chris learned that Laurel, his new fitness mentor, also taught boot camps, and Chris was eager to join. “Initially, I was scared and nervous about having him in boot camp.” Blackburn was concerned that she might not be able to adequately communicate exercise cues to him, especially while leading a group. “I also wasn’t sure if he could hang with the group, and I was afraid he would become discouraged.”

Blackburn pushed past her fears and solved the problem by enlisting the help of everyone around Chris. “The other trainers, clients and I made sure Chris understood and performed all exercises correctly,” Blackburn says. “We spent plenty of one-on-one time with him and gave simple corrections and lots of encouragement, and that was pretty much all he needed.”

Understanding Disabilities. “When training clients with a disability, whether intellectual or developmental, it is imperative that you obtain medical releases and are comfortable working with the clients,” Blackburn advises. “Not all disabilities are the same. Some clients will be higher functioning, while some will be more challenging.” Blackburn suggests inviting the parents and caretakers to observe workouts. “Ultimately they know better how to communicate with the clients and can show you the best way to motivate them.” She also cautions that this type of client will likely be using a variety of medications that can affect heart rate, blood pressure, hydration and performance. Work closely with each parent, caretaker and physican to prevent negative reactions, she says.

“Some clients can be distracted easily, so it’s best to keep workouts fun and short or take breaks often,” Blackburn advises. “Make sure they hydrate, because many clients with intellectual or developmental disabilities don’t think to drink water during the workout.”

Moving Forward. Chris now weighs 216 pounds. “This past year, Chris competed and placed in track and field, swimming and powerlifting,” Blackburn says. “He also began ‘training’ other people with Down syndrome, helping them with the exercises and healthy eating ideas he learns at boot camp.”

“I love working out, I love boot camp, I love Lauren and I love all the people,” Chris says with a smile. “My favorite parts of the workouts are when we hit the tires with sledgehammers and use kettlebells.” What’s in store for his future? “I want to become a personal trainer!” he exclaims.

Getting Involved. “Even if you don’t take on a person with disabilities in your fitness program, I encourage you to get involved with your local Special Olympics program,” Blackburn urges. “I promise you will be inspired and humbled, and your life will never be the same.”

Calling All Trainers

Do you have a client who has overcome the odds to achieve new heights in health and fitness? Send your story to [email protected] and you and your client may be featured in an upcoming issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.


Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

Leave a Comment

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.