·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


Legal and Ethical Issues for Personal Trainers

— August 27, 2021

Being prepared helps minimize the risk and potential damage should a claim be brought against you. 

Some personal trainers are unaware of or overlook the liabilities they could face running a fitness training business. When a client brings a lawsuit against you, it could ruin you financially. Compensation from lawsuits against personal trainers can reach staggering amounts, some hitting $1 million or more! How can you protect yourself? 

Why risk management as a personal trainer is important

Personal trainers are open to a high level of risk when it comes to negligence lawsuits. Should a client injure themselves under your instruction or misinterpret how you physically interacted with them while demonstrating a technique, they could file a lawsuit against you. 

Not only are lawsuits costly and time-consuming, but they can also damage your reputation. And the success of your fitness training business depends on your reputation. 

A plaintiff could win a case even if their claim is false or invalid. Even if you do win the case, the legal fees alone could amount to hundreds of thousands. That’s why it’s important to minimize your risk and protect yourself against financial loss. 

How can personal trainers protect themselves

While there’s no way to eliminate all risk, there are measures you can take to minimize the risk of a lawsuit. 

1. Get certified 

In the U.S. the fitness training industry isn’t strictly regulated. Some states require registration but most do not. Some personal trainers are certified and others are not. If you are not certified, this could count against you in a lawsuit. 

Getting a certification from one of the top fitness training institutions such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) validates your skills.

Most gyms and fitness studios also prefer hiring certified personal trainers. Many of these studios have liability waivers and insurance in place that protect the business and the personal trainers they employ.

2. Take out liability insurance

If you work for yourself, having liability insurance is a must. It protects you from a potential financial loss should a claim be brought against you. There are two types of liability insurance personal trainers should have:

  • Professional liability insurance, also called malpractice insurance or errors and omissions insurance. Professional liability insurance covers negligence (or accusations of negligence) that results in damage or injury to a client directly caused by your services or advice.
  • General liability insurance covers damage or injury suffered while on your property. For example, a client slips and falls on a wet floor or is injured while using training equipment.

3. Perform a health and fitness screening 

Before you start a training program with a client, assess their level of fitness and physical limitations. Complete a health screening questionnaire, noting any health conditions and medication they are taking. 

Failing to do so can be disastrous. If the client is injured or suffers a medical incident such as a heart attack or stroke during or after a training session, you may be held liable. If they die, you could face a wrongful death lawsuit. 

4. Don’t train a client without informed consent 

Even if you have conducted a pre-program screening and the client appears in good health, anything can go wrong without warning. To protect yourself, have clients sign a release form or liability waiver. 

This document intends to make the client aware of the risks they may be exposed to and, should they consent to this in writing, you will not be held liable in the event of injury, illness or death. 

5. Provide training on the correct use of exercise equipment

Gym equipment. Image via Flickr/uesr:Skngov. (CCA_BY-2.0).

When you begin your training program, provide thorough training on the correct use of exercise equipment and tools. Improper use of equipment can easily result in injuries. Do this each time you introduce a new exercise technique or training equipment. Keep a close eye on the client so that you can correct them immediately if they are using it incorrectly. 

6. Keep detailed client records 

When it comes to the law, without evidence it’s hard to prove your case. That’s why it’s important to keep records of all client training programs. 

Records should include:

  • Observations on training progress.
  • Physical difficulties experienced such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fainting, or pain. 
  • Injuries sustained during or outside of training sessions. A client may have sprained their ankle hiking and still pitch up for a training session. Make a note if you decided to cancel the session or focused on an upper body workout to prevent placing further strain on the ankle injury. 
  • New medications and changes to diet and vitamin supplements.
  • Any caution or advice you gave the client that they did not follow. 

7. Privacy

Personal trainers have access to a client’s personal, health, and medical information. While not subjected to the same client-confidentiality law as medical and legal professionals, most personal trainer associations include a privacy clause in their code of ethics. 

Make sure client records are stored securely and always maintain confidentiality. Be careful what you post on social media. Never post a client’s photo or personal information without their permission. 

Legal concerns for online trainers

While online training may sound less complicated, it still carries risk. Because you are not able to supervise clients in person, it may increase the risk of client injuries. 

You are also likely to work with clients across different states. If you are registered as a personal trainer in your state and the laws governing fitness training differ in another state, it could create a legal risk. 

What steps can you take to mitigate risk? 

  • Place written disclaimers on your website, blogs, videos and any other online content. 
  • Have clients sign an electronic contract or waiver. 
  • Check if your insurance covers claims from online clients. 

Ethical concerns for personal trainers

Every personal trainer should establish their own code of conduct. These four principles should be the foundation upon which your business ethics are built. 

  1. Don’t lie or exaggerate your skills, experience or qualifications. 
  2. Don’t make unsubstantiated claims or promise unrealistic results. 
  3. Don’t use false or altered ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos in advertising material.
  4. Always behave in a professional manner — do not become overly familiar or flirt with clients. Be particularly careful if you train private clients in their homes. 

There are no guarantees that you’ll never face a lawsuit over the course of your career as a personal trainer. Being prepared helps minimize the risk and potential damage should a claim be brought against you. 

Join the conversation!