AMPUTEE FITNESS – How to Find an Adaptive Fitness Coach

Written by Trevor Bunch

The decision to join a gym and work toward improving your physical fitness and well-being is often not an easy one to arrive at. For whatever reason, we as humans have a strong tendency to “get in our own way” when it comes to matters of doing what’s best for oneself. I’ve been coaching people (with a focus on those with limb loss, limb difference and other adaptations) for over ten years now and witnessed all stages of this journey – giving yourself permission to move forward and become the best you can be is a challenge. Having a physical difference can definitely make things seem even more difficult at times. Most of the time, I train in person at a gym, but I also consult and write training and nutrition programs for people over the internet, as well as virtually coaching by way of video. By the way, I’m also a double above knee amputee!

A personal fitness coach/trainer can facilitate a safe environment and build an effective training program to help you reach your goals. Whether you want to work on balance, build strength, or lose weight, training with a certified fitness coach will also enhance your accountability and provide that extra “push” when you need it. Most personal trainers have the know-how to help able-bodied individuals reach their goals. However, as amputees, it’s important that we be particularly selective with whom we entrust our fitness. Having experienced life as both a fitness coach and an amputee, in addition to having coached many individuals with limb loss and limb difference, I want to shed some light on the special considerations that should be given to selecting a coach who can effectively help you reach your fitness goals while giving the needed attention to your limb loss.

Your first order of business when considering a trainer is to ensure that your potential coach is certified and/or holds a degree in a field like Exercise Science or Kinesiology. Holding a certification or degree doesn’t necessarily make a trainer any more qualified to specifically help an individual with amputation, but it does mean that trainer has taken the time to acquire an advanced level of knowledge pertaining to the human body, movement, and nutrition. Too often, I’ve seen people calling themselves “personal trainers” or “fitness coaches” without any credentialing – just because they’re in shape and people ask them for advice doesn’t mean they’re capable of coaching, especially not someone who has limb loss/limb difference. NASM, NSCA, and ACSM are all certifications held by myself and trainers I highly respect, though there are many others available. These days, there are additional specializations available to coaches that better prepare them to work with individuals with adaptations, including amputation/limb difference. One of these is the Adaptive & Inclusive Trainer (AIT) certification available through Adaptive Training. This is a certification I have completed and currently hold, and I can vouch that it’s a pretty solid introduction to training people with disabilities. ACSM and NCHPAD have also collaborated on a Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer course, which would be another certification to look for in your search for a qualified professional. (Each of these organizations has websites that allow you to seek out coaches who hold their certifications within your area, as well!)

Bottom line: “Your trainer should have some letters after their name.”

Beyond finding out if your trainer is certified or holds a degree, inquire as to what their experience is with special populations. Special populations include individuals with an amputation but can also include other physical ailments like spina bifida, cerebral palsy, or other spinal cord injuries (as well as more common special populations like diabetes and hypertension). Having experience with amputees or limb different individuals is obviously a plus, but let’s face it – we’re not the most common demographic. If your trainer does have some successful experience in helping people within special populations reach their goals, this goes to show that they are capable of going the extra mile to create a safe and effective training plan while lending consideration to an individual’s potential limitations.

If your potential trainer or coach doesn’t have relevant experience training individuals with limb loss/limb difference or other special populations, that may not necessarily disqualify them from becoming your coach, but you should at the very least ensure they have a plan that you feel confident in. Once they have your full medical history (not just regarding your amputation, but any other conditions or injuries you have), ask them what they would plan for you as far as a workout goes, what a typical week of training may look like, and how they would work to facilitate progress and help ensure you were reaching your goals. Your prospective trainer should have clear answers to these questions. In addition, your potential coach should express a clear understanding of the capabilities, limitations, and movement differences that are encountered with prosthetics (or any other assistive devices you may use). Our job as coaches is to keep workouts safe while providing the motivation and accountability to help you continue moving towards your goals.

Trainers are a special variety of people. We want to help everyone, and sometimes we (honestly) get in over our heads due to excitement at the possibility of helping a member of a special population. Personally speaking, I’ve witnessed many instances (and, in my career’s formative years, was guilty myself) of trainers taking on clients with medical issues or health concerns beyond what the trainer was capable of properly handling. This often results in a negative experience for the client – anywhere from simply a bad workout to not getting the results they wanted, all the way up to further injury. A quality fitness coach will acknowledge when they’re not well-suited to help a prospective client and will refer out to a different coach or another professional. Your health is an important investment and finding a personal trainer or coach will serve to enhance your returns – as long as they’re the right fit for you!