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Notice: The NSCA website is scheduled to undergo system maintenance from 12:00 AM - 2:30 AM EST. During this time, there may be short service interruptions across the site and some parts of the site may not be accessible. We apologize for any inconvenience while we work to improve the website experience and security.

Becoming a Special Populations Personal Trainer

by Cindy Kugler, MS, CSCS, CSPS
Career Series June 2017


In this career series article, developing personal training skills to train special populations is discussed; it includes starting out as a novice through the expert level.

Due to many factors, primarily characterized by the increase in non-communicable diseases and healthcare costs that need to be contained, we are now in a healthcare revolution. A National Strength and Conditioning Association-Certified Personal Trainer® (NSCA-CPT®), with a focus in special populations, will be seen as a healthcare extender, providing collaboration between healthcare providers and the needs of those with temporary and chronic diseases or conditions.

It will be necessary for personal trainers to develop attributes that prepare them to work with special populations effectively and safely, in addition to the public and healthcare systems. The NSCA has stated that the Certified Special Populations Specialist® (CSPS®) certification encompasses what it entails to be competent in working with these clients.

The NSCA states, “CSPSs are fitness professionals who, using an individualized approach, assess, motivate, educate, and train special population clients of all ages, regarding their health and fitness needs, preventively, and in collaboration with healthcare professionals. Special populations include those with chronic and temporary health conditions. CSPSs design safe and effective exercise programs, provide guidance to help clients achieve their personal health/fitness goals, and recognize and respond to emergency situations. Recognizing their own areas of expertise, CSPSs receive referrals from and refer clients to other healthcare providers as appropriate.”

To become truly competent at the highest level working with special populations it takes time, planning, and a lifelong education in advancing through several stages of professional development (see Figure 1). The keys to professional development beyond initial training also include integration of management/operations and leadership. As an aspiring personal trainer, the evolution of becoming an expert/advanced practice in working with special populations takes multiple steps.

Kugler Career Trajectory

Initially, the novice to beginner personal trainer starts with obtaining basic knowledge, skills, and abilities. By obtaining an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science, the base sciences of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and exercise physiology will be learned in conjunction with the fundamentals of exercise programming/prescription and exercise techniques. At this stage of development, the novice trainer gains experience primarily with healthy populations through lab opportunities, internships, shadow/clinical experiences, and personal experiences.

At the novice to beginner stages, the trainer should be looking to obtain an accredited entry-level certification such as the NSCA-CPT. Also, becoming a member of the NSCA will allow for ongoing access to the most current and useful information, as well as tools for education and professional development.


The next stage of advancement is to become a competent personal trainer working with a broader population base. This usually takes place over the next one to three years of a professional’s career development. Advancement involves expanding their knowledge-base to include more in-depth pathophysiology by earning a Master’s degree in Exercise Science, as well as gaining continued experience from internships/observations in club, corporate, private studio, and rehabilitation settings. Attending conferences, workshops, and acquiring in-depth information from the experts in the field can greatly enhance continued growth.

Additionally, a competent trainer should become skilled in advanced assessment, risk assessment, coaching and behavior change, advanced and varied exercise techniques, and exercise prescription/guidelines for special populations.

Coaching and behavior change knowledge and skills are very valuable in increasing success as a personal trainer. Understanding the psychology of chronic illness and utilizing those skills to increase a client’s long-term success is important. Developing strengths in being able to read clients so that the best methods, equipment, and progression are used will lead to better individualization, increased client outcomes, and satisfaction. Knowledge and practice in the stages of change and motivational interviewing allow personal trainers to move beyond being a cheerleader and exercise routine creator.

Instead, personal trainers lead their clients toward lifelong health. Paying attention to the details of your clients’ programs, asking yourself why you developed each step of the program and keeping the big picture in mind at the same time are characteristics that need to be developed and mastered. The skills of exercise programming are the basis of client results. The skills of relationship building to keep clients coming back is the basis of client success and personal trainer growth, both professionally and financially.


A specialization may begin to develop that is dependent upon the personal trainer’s experiences, opportunities, knowledge, interests, and work settings. Specialization may occur in areas that include orthopedic conditions, cardiac, pulmonary, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, age groups, pregnancy, or any combination. The more experienced competent trainer will continue to improve their knowledge and skill to become a proficient trainer by obtaining an advanced certification (e.g., CSPS) that not only validates their competencies, but also assures the public of the quality the trainer can provide. Continued membership and increased attendance and involvement in state/regional and national organizations will also assist in career development.

Now that a strong base in career development has been formed, over the next three to five years continued development toward the stage of proficient and then to expert/advance practice can become the focus. Becoming an expert/advance practice trainer includes refining knowledge and skills in business acumen, special populations, working with people, coaching, behavior change, and leadership. Staying current in guidelines, techniques and pathophysiology is a lifelong developmental practice. Longevity and professional development in a personal training career requires lifelong learning, while keeping interested and energized in the type of clients with which you are working.


As an expert/advanced practice professional, business skills and operational/management skills should be included in career development. These skills will be beneficial in understanding the needs and growth of the business you work for, as well as in managing your own personal training business. Operation/management skills include budgeting, capital expenditures, costing out services and programs, staffing skills, training/orientation, human resource knowledge, interviewing and understanding marketing concepts that promote your strengths and/or the facility strengths.

Access resources and utilize forms to track business processes and expenditures.

Gaining these skills occurs not only through experiences, but may also be enhanced through additional education via online courses, community colleges, business certificate programs and/or degree programs. Additionally, you must have knowledge and awareness of liability aspects. Keeping abreast of the latest guidelines for facility safety, emergency preparation, exercise guidelines and technique, public health, and specific conditions organizations not only increases effective programming of clients but decreases chances of legal complications.

As an expert/advanced practice trainer you may also choose to become a specialist in education leading seminars or continuing education workshops. Working as an educator of other trainers that deal with special populations will require enhanced skills that include working with large groups, education programming, group dynamics, and curriculum development. Using your expertise in special populations in operations/management, or as an education specialist, will assist in creating additional qualified professionals.

Alternative industry opportunities for personal trainers that specialize in special populations include corporate wellness, clinical research coordinator, medical industry representatives, and clinical engineers. The knowledge-base in working with special populations fits well with the various health issues found among employees. Additional specific experiences and education needed in corporate wellness may include areas of health risk analysis, employee needs analysis, and business aspects, such as budgeting.

Clinical research coordinators and engineers can work in private clinics, for pharmaceutical corporations, or device companies. These positions coordinate or support research studies by collection, compilation, documentation, and analysis of the research data; or support those doing the above with training.

Future Development

Identifying and seeking opportunities to develop your skills is important in advancing your practice. Asking your supervisor, and knowing the mission of the organization you are working for, will assist in your growth. Developing skills and submitting program proposals that meet the needs of the organization increases your opportunities for promotion and/or leadership. Other opportunities may exist in special populations by increasing awareness of strategic initiatives of the local health department, physician practices, medical center specialties, or nationally. If other opportunities you discover meet your interests and expertise, creating programming to assist in meeting those needs serves to increase your practice and visibility.

Successful personal trainers are willing to take on jobs and tasks that are needed. They go above and beyond the basic job description, seek out and find opportunities to help clients, the organization they work for, and the community they live in.

When working with other entities developing knowledge about their functions, learning to speak their language will be important in presenting your ideas and programming to gain their support and recommendation. Becoming involved in community committees and utilizing networking opportunities and skills also increases exposure. Seeking out shadow experiences in physician offices and with management in medical centers aids in a better understanding of their workings and will assist in understanding their challenges and how a personal trainer can best work with them. In working with other entities, communicating results and outcomes will be important. Obtaining knowledge in how, when, and in what method they prefer to receive feedback will be needed. When working with physicians, sending status reports and communicating in an agreed upon frequency, method, and manner will need to be developed.

Create a Progress and Goal Identification sheet to assess the patient’s/client’s risk factors and communicate back to the healthcare professional with an SBAR (Situation, Background, Assessment and Recommendation) form or chart. Providing information that is beneficial, readily accessed, and easily read will ensure and increase confidence in your knowledge, skills, abilities, and increase referrals. Create a form to gather personal training feedback from clients. Obtaining client satisfaction results are also beneficial in overall outcome reporting and marketing.

Other aspects of leadership as an expert trainer include increased involvement in state, regional, and national organizations through presentations and involvement in committees to enhance the field of exercise, fitness, and wellness. Ongoing mentoring and networking through work or organizational opportunities will assist in meeting your professional goals and in advancing your career, while also assisting less experienced trainers in reaching their goals. This may also include being active in your community by submitting articles to local newspapers, business journals, radio, and TV appearances.

When looking at personal training of special populations as a career choice, there are several avenues to advance and develop a career. Whether choosing to work with clients at risk for chronic disease, assisting those in decreasing morbidity and mortality for those with existing conditions, and/or assisting those in decreasing unnecessary health events, many opportunities exist for the evolving special population personal trainer. Working with special populations presents opportunities for specialization that can secure advancement, longevity, and enjoyment in your chosen profession. As the aging population increases, special population needs expand, and healthcare changes are made, the need for qualified and certified professionals will continue to grow. With the large amount of opportunities that currently exist, now is the time to take the initiative to plan for your future..

About the author

Cindy M. Kugler, MS, CSPS,*D, CSCS,*D

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Cindy Kugler is currently employed by the Bryan Health System in Lincoln, NE. She has worked as an exercise specialist for cardiac/pulmonary rehabilit ...

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