How to Become a Medical Exercise Specialist

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Personal trainers are not just for those looking to drop a few pounds or add speed to their next triathlon. In fact, a number of personal trainers focus their careers on medical exercise, which may include helping their clients return to their pre-injury physical condition or helping them achieve a level of physical fitness despite physical impairments or deficiencies.

What is the Difference between Physical Therapy and Medical Exercise?

Although it may first appear that physical therapy and medical exercise are one in the same, they are actually separate areas of specialty that have distinct purposes. Physical therapy is rehabilitative in nature and is completed under the care of a physical therapist or athletic trainer.

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The strength and conditioning aspect, which often occurs following the completion of a rehabilitation program, involves an exercise program that is tailored to a specific medical condition or physical deficiency; thus the term medical exercise.

Personal trainers specializing in medical exercise do not and cannot provide the services of licensed physical therapists, athletic trainers, or chiropractors. Instead, they offer comprehensive physical fitness programs that include:

  • Endurance training
  • Resistance training
  • Flexibility training

Medical exercise may be broken down into one of two categories:

Rehabilitation Conditioning

The goal of rehabilitation conditioning is to restore a client’s level of physical fitness to their pre-injury or pre-disease state.

An example of a client who would benefit from rehabilitation conditioning through a personal training program is an athlete with a torn ACL. Upon the completion of post-surgery physical therapy, the client will need to train to regain lost strength, speed, endurance, speed, etc., which is accomplished through a rehabilitation conditioning program.

Clients recovering from an extended illness or any condition that took them away from their regular physical fitness routine and resulted in a loss of muscle strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility are ideal candidates for rehabilitation conditioning.

Therapeutic Exercise/Exercise Therapy

Therapeutic exercise is best defined as a program of physical fitness that is prescribed to correct impairment, improve a physical function, or maintain a state of well-being. If you are a personal trainer specializing in therapeutic exercise, you will seek to accomplish one or more of the following goals:

  • Enable ambulation
  • Improve circulation
  • Improve coordination and balance
  • Improve exercise performance and endurance
  • Improve muscle strength
  • Improve respiratory capacity
  • Loosen contracted muscles and tendons
  • Mobilize joints
  • Promote relaxation
  • Reduce rigidity

Regardless of the client, the goal of a therapeutic personal training program is the same: to achieve an optimal level of physical fitness by the end of the training period. Therapeutic training is also designed to alleviate symptoms that are associated with specific conditions or ailments.

Clients who would benefit from a therapeutic exercise program include those with:

  • Arthritis
  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Metabolic diseases
  • Disorders that affect balance and/or coordination
  • Chronic joint or muscle pain
  • COPD/emphysema/asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Scoliosis
  • Parkinson’s Disease


Types of Exercises for Rehabilitation Conditioning and Therapeutic Exercise

Although medical exercises, and your personal training program, will vary based on your client’s individual needs, physical limitations, and exercise goals, most clients will benefit from exercises such as:

  • Stretching exercises
  • Free weight exercises
  • Resistance band exercises
  • Pilates exercises
  • Yoga exercises
  • Aquatic exercises
  • Body weight exercises
  • Foam roller exercises
  • Plyometric exercises
  • Resistance machine exercises


Setting Goals for Medical Exercise Personal Training Programs

Medical exercise always involves a number of steps:

  • Assessing your client’s present level of function based on a number of tests, assessments, and functional activities
  • Receiving written approval from their physician to begin an exercise regimen
  • Establishing both short- and long-term goals
  • Developing and overseeing an exercise treatment plan
  • Reassessing the program and adjusting the program’s components as needed

One of the most important aspects of a medical exercise personal training program, behind safety, is setting goals. Every training program should have a number of goals, both short- and long-term that are:

  • Specific and measurable: Allow your clients to easily discern if gains are made
  • Positive: Ensure that your clients know what to do and what do avoid so as to guide positive behaviour
  • Challenging but realistic: Do not set overly difficult goals that may affect the safety of your clients or decrease their self-confidence.
  • Personalized: You must ensure that the personal training program is specific to your clients’ needs.
  • Monitored and evaluated: You must assess and modify goals based on progress and provide feedback regarding your assessment and modification
  • Linked to life goals: The goals in a medical exercise personal training program should always be in line with life goals.


How to Become a Personal Trainer Specializing in Medical Exercise

Before you can begin working as a physical fitness expert in the personal training field, it is wise to complete an educational program focused on personal training.

You may complete a personal training program at the associate or bachelor degree level or a related degree program, such as exercise science, exercise physiology, kinesiology, and health and fitness.

These programs are designed to examine the relationship between exercise and the human body. As such, a degree program in personal training or a related field consists of a number of overlapping disciplines, including:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biomechanics
  • Exercise nutrition
  • Exercise physiology
  • Growth and development
  • Measurement and evaluation

These programs provide a blend of classroom instruction and practical experience, thereby allowing you to apply your acquired knowledge in a real-world setting.

In addition to a degree program, many personal trainers choose to complete a professional certification program related to medical exercise, therapeutic exercise, and rehabilitation conditioning:

  • Certified Professional Trainers Network, Post-Rehabilitation Conditioning Specialist
  • National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association, Functional Training Specialist
  • The Cooper Institute, Corrective Exercises Certificate Program
  • International Sports and Fitness Trainers Association, Rehab Fitness Specialist
  • American Academy of Health and Fitness, Exercise Management of Chronic Diseases and Disabilities for All Ages

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