A SWOT Analysis of the Scope of Practice for Personal Trainers

by Dan Mikeska
Personal Training Quarterly January 2014
Vol 2, Issue 1


Optimize quality of care and mitigate potential litigation in your personal training practice through a clear understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of personal training.

Risk management is the “process of making and carrying out decisions that will minimize the adverse effects of accidental losses upon an organization”. Accidental loss can be in the form of income or property, and often results from negligence. In a gym or health club, poorly maintained property, malfunctioning equipment, or a breach of duty by personnel can result in a negligence lawsuit. One such breach of duty in a gym or health club that is commonly found is when a personal trainer works outside their scope of practice, which can be defined by their level of experience and education. Therefore, having a clear understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) from offering personal training services needs to be considered in order to optimize the quality of care and to mitigate potential litigation.


As an example, Acme Fitness has a 50,000 square foot fitness facility boasting close to 5,000 members. The facility has free weights, selectorized machines, and plate-loaded machines, as well as a large selection of cardiovascular equipment that includes treadmills, elliptical machines, stair climbers, and stepmills. The gym is staffed by a number of full-time sales representatives whose primary responsibility is to sell memberships and services. There is also a fitness director who oversees a number of staff trainers. The fitness director’s salary is based, in part, on revenue generated by the personal training department.

To continue the example, Mr. Smith is 46 years old, works at a sedentary job, and has not exercised regularly since college football. He is overweight, has residual knee pain from football, and eats most of his meals on the fly. Mr. Smith knows he needs to start exercising and eating better. He joins a gym and is immediately sold on the benefits of hiring a personal trainer. The membership sales representative recommends one of the best trainers at the gym. However, that recommendation is usually based on sales instead of professional credentials or experience.

Depending on this trainer’s experience and credentials, if nutritional advice is given, if treatment for injury or disease is recommended, or if behavioral counseling or therapy is offered, then the trainer may be working outside their scope of practice. This would make the trainer and facility a target for a negligence lawsuit.

By offering personal training services, it is implied that a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) has the knowledge, skills, and ability to provide a safe workout. It is assumed that a CPT accepts the responsibility associated with exposing a client to the stress of exercise without causing injury. Therefore, the client expects that the CPT will have an understanding of exercise science and exercise progression. To qualify for a basic personal training certification, a candidate is usually required to be 18 years of age or older, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and be CPR certified. With a basic personal training certification, a CPT may implement an exercise program for an apparently healthy individual or one who has a physician’s approval to exercise.

Close to 70% of the population in the United States are overweight, and it is estimated that the prevalence of chronic joint symptoms (CJS) in adults is close to 33%. There are many individuals inflicted by being obese or overweight, suffering from CJS, and having co-morbidities such as diabetes, heart disease, and musculoskeletal dysfunction. Because of the sheer amount of people who have these medical conditions, CPTs who hold a low-level certification are ineligible to work with a large portion of the population.

The scope of practice refers to the specific boundaries, based on knowledge and skills, in which a professional can work. In a 2009 American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) survey, it was concluded that, although many CPTs work with apparently healthy individuals, a large percentage of CPTs work with individuals who have heart disease, diabetes, are obese, or are in need of behavioral counseling—all of which are outside the scope of practice for a CPT. Table 1 identifies the differences of the scope of practice between a CPT and other health professionals in which the boundaries may be blurred.  

This article originally appeared in Personal Training Quarterly (PTQ)—a quarterly publication for NSCA Members designed specifically for the personal trainer. Discover easy-to-read, research-based articles that take your training knowledge further with Nutrition, Programming, and Personal Business Development columns in each quarterly, electronic issue. Read more articles from PTQ »

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Dan Mikeska is the owner of Fairfax Fitness and Self-Defense in Chantilly, VA. In addition to a Master of Science degree in Human Movement from A.T. S...

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