Experience & Education

The Importance of Training in Improving Safety

By Joe Bush

The 2016 ACSM Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends Report is out, and while the headlines usually focus on exercise methods and equipment and gadgets, the most important trends are buried at Nos. 5 and 6.

The emphasis on educated, certified and experienced fitness professionals is fifth and personal training is sixth, as chosen by a survey field comprised of 25 percent part- or full-time personal trainers. The reason for their lofty status in the 10th-year report supervised by Walt Thompson is not so much their use privately and by businesses, but the rising oversight of the quality of their training.

It's not safe to use fitness professionals who are not educated or experienced, and the movement against quacky certifications is trending, Thompson said. Washington, D.C., is the furthest along in municipalities recognizing the need for regulation of those who make money teaching people to be fit, while there are new organizations that are accrediting certifications for some layer of trust and vetting.

Safety is crucial within facilities as well, with a specialized category for climbing gyms.

"What frightens me the most is there is no regulation of the fitness trainer industry, really no regulation in the health fitness industry," said Thompson, associate dean of graduate studies and research in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University. "You and I by the end of this conversation can get online, pay our money and be certified by half a dozen personal trainer organizations, but it would be meaningless.

"There's no experience, there's no education, and by this afternoon you and I could open up a storefront anywhere in the country and call ourselves personal trainers."

It's a battle being waged among fitness companies employing those with credentials that may end up being useless, insurance companies and legislators, and it's only just begun. Will each municipality pass its own standard? Each state? Will it become national law? Thompson's concern is the safety of consumers; their health and their money can be compromised by phony and shoddy training and certifications.

Injury, untoward behavior and snake-oil cash grabs are all threats to those who are merely trying to better their well-being. As of now, there is no penalty for operating a fitness business without proper credentials.

"The biggest danger is anybody can do it at any time without any regulation," Thompson said. "I've gone into gyms where they've called their trainers 'exercise physiologists,' which is as bad or worse than calling yourself a personal trainer without any kind of education and experience. But that's what they're doing because there's no regulation against it.

"They hire a bunch of exercise physiologists who may or may not have a college degree."

Government at any level is beginning to move on the issue. D.C. passed a law requiring a board of physical therapists to craft regulations, which were to be reviewed then made into law, but it's run into opposition from those who feel therapists are not a neutral party because personal trainers are their competition.

Just as crucially, accreditation organizations have recently attracted notice and membership as well. Thompson says they are a good place to start when judging the background of fitness professionals. Are their certifications legitimate?

The Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREP) has formed the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS), a list of all fitness professionals certified by organizations that have a third-party accreditation with the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Institutions, companies and organizations in the business of teaching fitness professionals can be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), and, in turn, the NCCA.

Thompson says examples of NCCA-accredited certification bodies include the American Council on Exercise (ACE), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and The Cooper Institute.

Current exercise certifications of member organizations listed in USREPS include Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Group Fitness Instructor, Certified Pilates Teacher, Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist, Exercise Specialist, Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.

CREP's mission is, according to its website, "to secure recognition of registered exercise professionals for their distinct roles in medical, health, fitness and sports performance fields." CREP uses USREPS to advocate for industry standards and advise legislators, and help professionals travel with their universally accepted and respected certifications.

When asked how he would hypothetically filter fitness professionals for the purpose of training a family member, Thompson lists three requirements his expertise drives him to value: education institution, education degree, and experience.

"If I was to refer somebody for my son or daughter they would have to have an exercise science undergraduate degree, they would be certified by one of those NCCA-accredited organizations and they would have to have a pretty good bit of experience, and the experience would be the kind of exercise program I was referring my family member to," Thompson said. "For my dad, for example, I'd want to have somebody who had some experience working with older folks. If it was my grandson, I'd want somebody who had worked with children, or if he was interested in baseball, then sport-specific activities like baseball."

Climbing gyms require sport-specific training and oversight, and their surge in popularity over the past decade moves the safety aspect of the disciplines of wall climbing and bouldering into the light. The Climbing Business Journal reported climbing gym openings grew 10 percent in 2013 and 9 percent in 2014; at the end of 2014, CBJ reported 353 commercial climbing facilities in the United States and projected a 12 percent growth opening for 2015.

Dan Jeanette, member services coordinator of the Climbing Wall Association, said his organization's Climbing Wall Instructor Certification program is 5 years old and has been used by more than 100 certification providers to educate over 1,100 climbing instructors. He says the goals of the program include:

  • To increase the level of professionalism in indoor climbing.
  • To improve the level of consistency and competency in indoor climbing technical instruction.
  • To define a consistent standard of care for climbing instructors in the following areas: client orientation and instruction; teaching general climbing skills including movement; teaching proper belaying techniques; teaching proper leading techniques; teaching proper equipment care and use; proper facility use, care and inspection; emergency procedures.
  • To evaluate the technical skills of climbing instructors.
  • To provide candidates with guidance for further professional development.
  • To provide a means of promoting consistency and quality assurance in climbing instruction for the benefit of the public.

The program is also offered by the Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA).

"In general the philosophy of safety in the commercial climbing industry is an application of practical risk management within the facility," Jeanette said. "Climbing, even in an indoor setting, is an inherently dangerous activity. No amount of precaution or planning can totally eliminate the risks associated. We, as an industry, work very hard to emphasize and inform customers of this fact, and, in general, to eliminate the 'safe' wording from our messaging."


Bouldering—climbing without safety lines or harnesses but with extra floor padding—is covered by the certification program, Jeanette said. That's important because it is very different from climbing using ropes, whether with help or solo (auto-belay).

"Bouldering presents unique risks to the climber," Jeanette said. "Every fall in bouldering is a ground fall and presents a risk of injury to the climber and those in the bouldering area. Climbers have been injured stepping, jumping or falling off of boulder problems, sometimes badly. There are a special set of considerations that need to be taken into account when bouldering is an option within a facility."

He said one of the elements of the instructor program is an emphasis on delivering a proper bouldering orientation prior to allowing a client to climb in that area of the facility. The orientation may contain, but is not limited to: the purpose, positioning and limitations of pads; clearing the landing area of equipment and other hazards; the purpose of spotting and spotting demonstration; demonstrating how to attempt to fall without injury; maintaining an awareness of the surrounding activity; and personal responsibility for risk taking and safety.

Jeanette said that just as bouldering's falls provide much of that discipline's danger, auto-belay climbers are most prone to injury from falling after forgetting to clip the rope to their harnesses. He cites one company's solution to the oversight.

The top corner of the product's triangular blue flag with the message "Clip In" clips to the rope when it's not in use, so climbers have to unclip it from the flag to clip it to their harnesses. At the same time, the other two corners are bolted to the bottom of the wall. If the clip is not unclipped from the flag, the flag is in the way of the climbers' first foothold. When it is used properly, the flag falls forward to reveal a yellow side with the message that says "Climber Above."

"In general, the track record for maintaining appropriate risk management within our industry remains good," said Jeanette.

Though regular workout facilities and climbing gyms have many differences, they share many operating procedures, some involving safety of their members that are not related to body movement or assistance from instructors.

The one thing that makes all the difference is providing adequate, continuous and effective staff training.

For instance, floors must be kept dry to prevent slippage; signs must be posted with usage warnings; instructions must accompany equipment; equipment must be kept in good working order. The training of facility staff in maintaining a safe environment for themselves and users of the facility must not be overlooked, said Neal Pire, Medical Wellness Implementation Specialist at Holy Name Medical Center's HNH Fitness in Oradell, N.J.

"It all depends on the facility manager's attention to pertinent details," Pire said. "It is one thing to follow local code, ADA, OSHA and other industry standards and guidelines. It is another—and most important—to live the standards on a day-to-day basis, and this makes thorough staff recruitment, training and management a paramount requirement."

The ACSM publishes health/fitness facility standards and guidelines, now in its fourth edition. The ACSM gathered consensus of experts in academic, medical, and health and fitness fields to help operators and owners. It covers pre-activity screening, orientation, education and supervision; risk management and emergency procedures; professional staff and independent contractors; facility design and construction; facility equipment; operational practices; and signage.

"The one thing that makes all the difference is providing adequate, continuous and effective staff training," Pires said. "Ultimately, it is your frontline employees that need to ensure safety in the workout environment. That can be as simple as picking up a piece of paper or wiping up a puddle of water that might cause a member to slip and fall, or wiping down the naugahyde on a machine with an anti-bacterial agent so that a member with a scratch on their skin who makes contact with an otherwise dirty surface does not end up with an infection or making sure that equipment is working properly so that users do not experience accidents when using them."

Pires said the problems don't begin with neglect as much as priority placement. Facility operations have many moving parts.

"This is where many facilities drop the ball," he said. "Their training focuses a lot on sales leadership and business operations and is devoid of or simply weak in hospitality and risk management. Every company should have a mission statement or core values document that includes a focus on the safety and well-being of its members and customers. Then they should take it a step further by developing and nurturing a company culture that embodies these philosophies."

Thompson said an emphasis on one kind of safety can easily blend into another.

"Accidents are going to happen. The most you can do is decrease the likelihood," he said. "Overexertion is another problem we often encounter in gyms. If there's people walking around the floor and they know what they're doing and they see someone trying to bench press 250 pounds but they weigh 110, there's a teaching moment there. The problem is the person walking around the floor probably doesn't have the right education or certification or experience to make that correction."

And thus, the circle is complete.



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