Friday, 7 September 2018

Published Friday, September 07, 2018 with 6 comments

Training People with Special Needs

It was just a regular day for Varun Rattan, Head Trainer at one the leading gym chains in the country. Varun was to meet a new client. When he met her, he learned that she was living with lupus. Because of her lupus she had multiple disorders like hypo-thyroid, rheumatoid arthritis (palindromic), degenerative cervical, migraine, cough induced asthma, nerve malfunction and almost no muscle strength.

Varun, not sure of the course he would take, but determined to help, took on the challenge. He knew it wasn’t going to be an easy trek, and it wasn’t. Varun started with rehabilitation training. Each day was a new day with new challenges. Good days and bad days were bit too frequent. Muscle stiffness, pains, fatigue, tenderness would occur without any pre-symptoms or suggestive reason.

Varun started reading up and leaning about her condition and the challenges she faced. Every day he would take cues from the way her body responded to simple mobility exercises he started the training with. “You cannot have a plan laid on a paper. While training people with special needs, you need to think out of the box, because each day may demand a different set of training variables. The physiological, metabolic, social, affective, and perceptual characteristics are unique to each special-needs client, with a different orientation every day and you might have to rethink your goals every single day”, says Varun.

It’s not an extraordinary situation, although it does require extraordinary efforts. As per statistics published by US Census Bureau – nearly one in every five people in US have a disability. Lupus (one or other forms of it) alone affects about 1.5 million Americans (GfK Roper (2012). Lupus Awareness Survey for the Lupus Foundation of America). And then there are conditions like Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), aspergers, amputees, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Intellectual Disability, Spina Bifida, mechanical disorders, stroke victims, traumatic brain injuries, recovery from terminal illnesses, and the list can go on.

There are several physical, cognitive and psychosocial challenges a person may be dealing with. For practical reasons, it may not be possible for a fitness trainer to be thorough with all conditions. Even being well versed with a handful would be difficult since each condition can have distinct manifestation for each person. It’s important for a trainer to understand that while training people with special needs, he needs to work beyond helping build physical strength. In most cases, fitness trainer doubles up as a life coach who motivates and helps strengthen a host of emotional attributes, like optimism, perseverance, determination, discipline and much, much more helping relieve stress and build self-esteem. “While for able bodied clients, sense of achievement is the motivation, for people with special needs the journey is more important”, says Varun, the ACE certified trainer who has worked with several special-needs clients. “You need to get into their mind and body to understand how do the two work individually, and together. You must get into behavioral and personal insights to get cues”, he adds.

Although, there are several professional organizations that offer specialized trainings to equip trainers with apt knowledge to work with people with special needs. There are purpose-built training accreditations like NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) Certified Special Populations Specialist® (CSPS®), NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) Certified Personal Trainer, AFPA (American Fitness Professionals & Associates) Personal Trainer for Special Populations Certification, ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) Specialty Certifications, and more. These certifications help trainers get an insight into understanding a variety of training variables including (but not limited to) maximal aerobic potential, anaerobic capability, mechanical regulation and economy of movement, exercise recovery, cardiovascular response, muscle strength, immune response, morphological adaptations, detraining, metabolic responses, thermal regulation etc. and how to identify the need of and appertain each of these variables.

Physical training per se requires a very high degree of engagement; physical training for people with special needs yearns for an even higher commitment, one needs to be more of a trainer. Working with special needs population can be extremely challenging and demanding. But at the same time, it can be profoundly rewarding.  To quote the inspiration of this article, Varun Rattan, - “…it’s not a job, it’s a calling. It’s like connecting you with your purpose, your raison d'ĂȘtre, something that gratifies your soul”.



  1. I know this guy personally. He eat, breathes and sleeps fitness. I am his biggest fan.

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