- Fitness professionals may use appropriate touch with clients to improve form, technique, or understand body awareness.
- Guidelines for appropriate professional touch include getting permission first and explaining where and why, which helps to communicate with clients.
- Informed consent forms should have a statement about appropriate contact during exercise and physical activity.
- Setting appropriate professional boundaries is important for all clients.
Personal trainers, yoga instructors, and group fitness instructors work closely with clients to help them meet their health and fitness goals. Sometimes during exercise or physical activity, this requires a fitness professional to touch a client. It might be to correct form, correct technique during a yoga pose, to take vital signs, or to give encouragement.
Getting consent before touching a client is very important for anyone involved in a profession where touch is involved. Touch and consent forms and guidelines can be useful for clients to inform them and ensure that they are comfortable with your touch to improve form, technique, or other reasons related to their exercise program.
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When Is Touch Necessary?
Touch is used in fitness as a way to provide feedback, cue, or improve a movement or activity. It can also be used to help a client with body awareness. The following are reasons why a fitness professional may use a professional touch with one of their clients or members:
- Correct form while doing an exercise.
- Assist with spotting during an exercise.
- Help a client understand the muscle or muscles where they should feel the effort during an exercise or stretch.
- Correct form or technique during a yoga pose.
- Give encouragement during physical activity (high-five, fist bump).
- Take vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate).
- Take biometric measurements (waist circumference or skinfold measurements).
- Complete fitness assessments.
Appropriate touch can help clients improve form and technique, improve and understand body mechanics, understand musculature, or improve stability. While touch is not absolutely necessary, it can enhance instruction.
High-fives and fist bumps are not necessary for exercise instruction but do provide encouragement. These are not necessary but better body language can help develop a rapport with clients and keep them feeling motivated.
Why Is This an Issue?
Hopefully, when a fitness professional physically touches a client, they do so in a respectful manner and only when necessary during physical activity. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. You have read and heard about many examples of inappropriate touch by professionals who crossed the line, like health care providers, educators, and many others.
This is an area that is not completely black and white, there are gray areas of what is appropriate. There are also cultural differences where physical touch is uncomfortable and not preferred.
Some clients may have various other reasons why they may not want to be touched. They could have a compromised immune system due to a health condition and prefer not to touch someone for fear of spreading germs. Whatever the reason may be, you should respect their wishes and act professionally in all cases.
As a fitness professional, you should use good judgment and set and respect personal boundaries with your clients. This being said, it is your client’s word against your word if any allegations about inappropriate touch were to come about.
It is very important to have liability insurance that covers sexual harassment and sexual assault. This will not protect you from a lawsuit brought by a client, but it will help protect you against financial devastation, bankruptcy, or losing your business as a result of a lawsuit.
Here’s a scenario: Let’s say a client has developed romantic feelings for you but you are unaware of these feelings. They decide to reveal their feelings to you, but you do not reciprocate those romantic feelings and wish to strictly have a professional personal training relationship with your client. They may retaliate, make some outlandish allegations, and accuse you of inappropriately touching them during physical activity.
Does this sound outlandish? Yeah, maybe it does. But this is a realistic scenario and illustrates why liability insurance is so important.
Touch and Consent Forms
All clients should complete an informed consent form before beginning a physical activity program. The informed consent form should have a statement that physical touch may be necessary to correct form, technique, or to help a client understand musculature.
An example statement from the American College of Sports Medicine informed consent form states: “I also understand that during the performance of my personal fitness training program physical touching and positioning of my body may be necessary to assess my muscular and bodily reactions to specific exercises, as well as to ensure that I am using proper technique and body alignment. I expressly consent to the physical contact for the stated reasons above.”
Pre-participation forms, like the informed consent, PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire), participant medical history, and participant information will not protect you against a lawsuit brought by a client that involves negligence, but it does protect you in the case of an accident. It also informs the client of the risks that may occur as a result of participation in exercise and physical activity.
One way to ensure that all forms are compiled prior to your client’s first training session is to send them along electronically (similarly to how some medical practices allow new patients to fill out forms online prior to their first appointment). The fitness business management software provided by Exercise.com allows trainers to send PDFs and links to eForms directly to clients to fill out and send back. This omits the need for bulky client files and allows you to devote more time to training your clients on their first visit versus spending time filling out forms.
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Touch and Consent Guidelines
Before touching a client, you should ask for permission, explain where you are touching them, and explain why you are touching them. Do not assume that they will be ok with touch or they will know where and why you are touching them.
Ask a client before beginning their sessions if they are comfortable with you touching them to correct form or posture, for spotting during an exercise, to correct technique, or in any other way directly related to their physical activity program or workout. This is giving you consent or permission. This should be done before beginning your sessions because a client may not be comfortable speaking up at the moment or speaking up if they feel as though you are too touchy.
For a new client, it’s always a good idea to ask them again during the first exercise session if it is ok for you to touch them during an exercise to correct form or technique. Make sure you get their permission before you do make any contact.
For group exercise or yoga classes that may require touch, you may choose to ask the class to close their eyes and raise their hand if they prefer not to be touched. You can make note of those with their hands in the air. Some instructors may also use a “flip” card as a way for the instructor to know if the exerciser prefers no touch.
When you do make physical contact with a client during an exercise, yoga pose, or movement, tell them exactly where you are going to touch them and why. For example, “I am going to touch you in the middle of the back to point to exactly where you should be squeezing to feel this movement” or “I am going to spot you during this exercise which means I may touch your upper arms.”
When you do touch a client, do so with the flat of your hand, not your fingertips. Make your pressure firm, try to avoid a delicate or gentle touch. Do not touch a client underneath any clothing items.
If you sense that a client is uncomfortable with your touch or they tell you so, discontinue touching them.
Unless you have additional certification or specializations, personal trainers, yoga instructors, and group exercise instructors should not be massaging or using any type of therapeutic touch. It’s important to stay within the parameters of your certification.
The Bottom Line
As a personal trainer or another fitness professional, it is important to have clear personal and professional boundaries. Touch can be a very intimate and personal gesture, so you must use good judgment with all clients. Ensure that clients have completed informed consent before beginning a physical activity program with you.
Ask for consent and give an explanation on where and why before you physically touch a client during exercise or physical activity. Make sure to have a personal liability insurance policy to cover your business and/or financial future in the case of a legal matter.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
– What if I am not comfortable at all with touching clients?
Personal training, yoga, and group fitness tend to be hands-on professions. However. If this is the case, you should rely on verbal cues, verbal instruction, and visual demonstrations to help ensure that clients have proper form and technique.
– What do I do if I feel like a client is flirting with me or is interested in me in a romantic way?
It is best to end the professional relationship with a client if you think they are flirting with you or have romantic feelings for you. You can refer them to another trainer or instructor to avoid any allegations and to avoid inappropriate behavior that crosses beyond professional boundaries.
-How can I remember which clients do not wish to be touched?
It is important to figure out a system that works for you. If you are a personal trainer, you should note this in your file and refer to it before you meet with the client to refresh your memory. For group exercise instructors or yoga instructors, asking for a show of hands (with eyes closed) or using flip-cards are methods you can use.
Ready to see how Exercise.com can help you grow and manage your fitness business? Schedule your free demo today.
Melissa Morris is a professor by day and a part-time writer for Exercise.com. Melissa has a BS and MS in exercise science and an EdD in educational leadership. She teaches nutrition and applied kinesiology at the University of Tampa and has worked in health education, fitness, and nutrition for 15 years. In her free time, Melissa loves to workout at Orangetheory fitness and run 5K and 10K races.