It doesn’t matter how meticulous you are with your clients’ form or how careful you are with your programming; chances are, at some point during your personal training career you will be working with a client who has sustained an injury.
Depending on how you look at the situation, injured clients can present new challenges. After all, they’ve hired you to help them achieve results, which will likely be stalled during the recovery process! However, injuries can be reframed into learning opportunities for both the trainer and the client. They can be an excellent lesson in patience for clients who are quick to find a work-around. Also, they can give trainers an opportunity to get creative with their training methodologies.
With the correct tools, a growth-oriented mindset, and an awareness of your options and limitations within your scope of practice, you can help your clients navigate their injuries safely and effectively so they can get back to doing the activities they love.
What to Do When a Client Gets Injured During a Training Session
This goes without saying, but it’s your responsibility as the personal trainer to ensure your clients are practicing moves that are appropriate for their bodies and fitness level. It’s also your responsibility to ensure each exercise is performed safely. Using proper assessment tools when starting with a new client and paying close attention to form (rather than getting distracted by what’s going on around you in the gym) can help alleviate injuries that stem from practicing incorrect technique.
But what happens when your clients’ form looks great and yet an injury still arises? A “pinch”, a “pull”, a “strain”, a “tweak”—these are terms your clients may use to describe a sensation we don’t want them feeling while performing any exercise.
Tell Them to Stop, Then Seek First Aid
Regardless of whether the injury seems minor or major, the most important thing to do is to get your client to stop performing the exercise. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may need to find a safe place for them to sit down while you call for extra help. This is where it’s important to remember all the steps you learned in your first aid course!
If your client doesn’t require immediate medical attention, use your judgment to determine the best course of action. Remember your scope of practice. Do not try to diagnose the injury if it’s not within your scope to do so. Ideally, you will have a list of physiotherapists and bodyworkers you trust to refer your client for a proper diagnosis. When suggesting the referral to your client, it’s important to emphasize the reason behind needing an outside professional’s opinion. Let them know the quicker the injury is diagnosed and the rehabilitation plan started, the less likely they are to experience on-going pain and discomfort.
If There’s Pain, Don’t Train
A rule I have adopted within my own practice is if there’s pain, don’t train. It’s a rule I emphasize at the beginning of a client relationship so they understand why we don’t “push through” when something hurts. Or, when I cut a workout short due to a sensation that seems like a red flag. Consider creating your own philosophy around pain and injuries during a workout. Let your clients know as soon as they begin working with you so there is no hesitation if an injury arises.
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How to Navigate Injuries that Happen Outside Your Training Sessions
Whether you work with general population clients, weekend warriors, or high-level athletes, you’ve probably found yourself in a situation where a client who was fine on Monday comes hobbling into their session on Wednesday with no advance notice about what happened.
In an ideal world, our clients would let us know as soon as they sprained their ankle while tripping off a sidewalk. Or they aggravated an old back injury while picking up their kid. Or perhaps they slept funny and woke up with a sore neck. But in reality, our clients are busy and giving us a heads up about these things is not always their top priority.
So what’s a personal trainer to do?
Communicate and Get Creative with New Workout Programs
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, remember your scope of practice! Are they experiencing an injury that’s had a proper diagnosis? Are you familiar with how to support their bodies while they recover?
If the answer to the above questions is “yes” and they’ve been cleared to exercise, get creative. Don’t hesitate to communicate your thought process to your clients. For example, if somebody has a sprained ankle, provide upper body exercises they can perform while sitting. Ideally, these will be in one place. If somebody is recovering from a sore back, they may find supine and quadruped core exercises more comfortable than planks or rotational moves. Take your understanding of the human body and your clients’ condition, and use that knowledge to select exercises that are suitable for their current situation.
You may also want to ask your client if you can speak with the doctor or practitioner who diagnosed their injury. I have always found that when I’m able to work in conjunction with another professional, my clients recover more quickly. It’s important to be respectful of the other practitioners’ time, and understand that a quick email or some notes jotted down on a piece of paper may be all you get.
How to Address the Mental and Emotional Components of Injuries
Injuries rarely affect only the physical body. For clients who are heavily invested in their sports, or thrive off an active lifestyle, an injury can seem defeating. There will be negative thoughts such as, “Will I ever get back to my sport?” and “Will I lose all my fitness?”
Validate Their Feelings
When your clients express these feelings, validate them. Be empathetic; if you’ve ever experienced an injury yourself, share what that was like with them. Then, without making promises you can’t keep, try to help them see the reality of the current situation. Remind them that any lost fitness can always be regained. Help them see that this is a great opportunity to focus on strengthening other areas. For example, their cardiovascular fitness or their flexibility.
The human body is complex and our clients live dynamic, unpredictable lives which makes the complete prevention of injuries challenging. However, by properly assessing clients when they begin working with you and selecting the appropriate exercises for their unique bodies, you can minimize the risk of injury. If one does arise, by employing the tips mentioned above, you can help alleviate the long-term damage that may occur. It can also help your clients successfully manage the recovery process.