PXL 20230313 114234112 scaled e1682500396714

Personal Training for Disabilities

Train Body Smart and the Disability Community

From starting from a couple personal training clients with disabilities, our work in the disability community has snowballed to a large portion of our workload, and those hours are some of the most fun and rewarding we can have as personal trainers. We are passionate about facilitating effective training, which is fun and safe for everyone, no matter what limitations stand in the way.

As well as specialising in personal training for disabilities, Train Body Smart is a partner of the Halow Project, who have been providing vital services and hosting activities for young people with learning disabilities through since 2006. We have had the pleasure of leading the healthy living fitness sessions for the Halow ‘Building Futures’ program since 2020. 


“I believe a well-structured exercise regime can truly rejuvenate a person’s quality of life. Dedicating a small part of the day towards improving strength, mobility, or cardiovascular fitness goes a long way towards being robust to the injury setbacks, boosting daily energy, and staying out of the doctor’s office. We can all take ownership of our own health.”

Rupert Quiney MSc, Founder of Train Body Smart LTD

Why is Training Important for Individuals with Disabilities?

It’s well known within current research that improving physical strength and cardiovascular fitness are vital for optimising long term health. That applies to everyone, including those with a disability.

In fact, we believe the benefits of training for individuals with a disability can be even more profound in comparison to the general population, as it can provide an important tool to overcoming obstacles that directly affect their quality of life.

For example, improving strength by 5-10% could be what is needed for someone with a physical disability to walk unassisted or alleviate chronic pain.

Personal Training for Special Needs Individuals

Personal training for an individual with a learning disability allows them a safe and controlled environment to challenge themself physically with supervision. Special populations can be particularly prone to movement or posture deficiencies, which can be exacerbated if a special needs client has difficulty verbalising day to day feelings of pain and discomfort. Having a professional to focus on how they move and coach them through corrective exercises can be vital for helping them maintain good health. 

Additionally, we have seen personal training positively affect special needs clients across various lifestyle related skills including:

  • Communication - through receiving coaching cues and giving feedback.
  • Cognitive skills - like counting reps and sets or calculating load.
  • Goal setting - by developing plans of action.
  • Interpersonal relationships - through interactions between them and the trainer.
  • Time reading/management - when exercising for a specific duration.
  • Diary Planning – when encouraged to book sessions independently.
  • Spatial Awareness and Organisation – by managing equipment and space in a gym.

Applying Strength and Conditioning to Special Populations

A young person with a disability doing a goblet squat

At Train Body Smart, our approach is to simplify strength training to focus on improving the six foundational movement patterns; the squat, lunge, hip hinge, push, pull, and carry/core stability, as it is believed by many that these are the essential patterns needed to improve functionality and athleticism. 

When training those with physical disabilities, our approach is to find the correct exercise progression or regression that is safe for them. This will allow them to get stronger in the specific movement pattern and over time will lead to them progressing to more difficult exercises in the future.

When personal training for special needs clients, a regression may be applied to simplify an exercise to something that is simpler to understand and perform. 

A great example of a regression for both scenarios is using a box squat instead of a goblet squat:

  • Reduced ranged of motion is forgiving for those that lack strength/mobility to squat well
  • Simplifies coaching cues to “sit down and stand up”.

Disability Client Case Studies

Michael Nixon

I have had the pleasure of training with Mikey for over six years. Over that time frame he has continued to impress me with his trainability, enthusiasm, and his willingness to try new exercise no matter how challenging they are. Mikey is a true example of why having a disability doesn’t have limit athletic ability. 

About Michael

His learning disability means he has limitations in skills such as foundational maths, an example being when I challenge him to work out how much a loaded barbell weighs if the bar is 20kg and it has a blue plate (20kg) on each side. He generally will struggle to find the answer through calculation (20kg bar + two 20kg plates = 60kg), although from remembering our previous conversations he now associates blue plates on the bar with it weighing 60kg.

Despite what limitations Mikey has, he has learned to perform complex barbell movements like front squats, back squats, trap bar and Romanian deadlifts to good level. We are currently working towards a bodyweight bench press, while he can already squat more than his bodyweight for multiple repetitions and has trap bar deadlift double his body weight. These are feats of strength that most gym goers are unable to achieve.

What coaching lessons have I learned from working with Mikey?

When I was undertaking my BSc, I remember our lecturer asking us if a Personal Trainer should consider training with a client during their session. The general message from the group was no, because it takes focus away from the client and may be unprofessional. However, I started joining in with Mikey’s sessions mainly because he kept daring me to beat him and whatever lift he was doing. I soon realised that it was an extremely effective way for Mikey to be coached.

Not only was it fun and engaging for Mikey, but I realised he would get to just watch and copy how I would perform the given lift with much greater frequency then if I’d just demonstrate the exercise once and say the usual verbal cues. Individuals with learning disabilities can often struggle listening to verbal directions and applying them to practical actions. By participating in the session, it was much easier for Mikey to pick up finer nuances of the movements that I would do, of which I wouldn’t even thought to coach him. Experiences like this have enhanced my abilities as a coach because the situation has had to be adapted away from the norm to achieve the desired result.

Annabel Inskip

Annabel and I have been training together since 2018. She loves performing arts, so does lots of acting, dancing and singing as part of her education, while also a keen participant of outdoor activities like skiing, horse riding, and walking the dogs with her family. When first assessing Annabel, it was clear that she had limitations in strength and flexibility which were impeding her functionality. Annabel had a strong internal rotation bias of her hips causing her to walk pigeon toed. Much of the focus of our training has been towards addressing these issues, but also teaching her the basics of the general strength movements. 

About Annabel

Now as a coach, Annabel definitely keeps you on your toes. I still remember the first time I was demonstrating the warm-up exercises, when I turned around to watch her do it she was gone. Perplexed for about two seconds until I heard giggling from behind a pillar, I realised she had decided to just start a game of hide and seek in the gym without telling me. We’ve had about a million thumb war and rock paper scissor battles, both normally result in a victory for Annabel. Her latest game is to spontaneously trap me in a bear hug me and yell “Jiu Jitsu!”, grappling me until I can manage to wriggle myself free. Its normally quite comical for the other gym goes to spectate.

Annabel’s learning disability means she finds it difficult to keep her focus on a given task, such as monotonous hip strengthening exercises. Despite this, she has learned so much from the activities we have done in the gym. As of late, we have started training as a group with her housemates Archie and Charlotte. Having grown her confidence being in a gym, she’s become somewhat of a leader for the groups and assistant coach to me. Annabel leads warm-ups, demonstrates some of the lifts and is great at encouraging the others. As her trainer, this is hugely validating because it shows how far she is physically because of the training, but also with her confidence and her enthusiasm towards the gym. It’s somewhere she feels comfortable and enjoys being, as a young person with a learning disability that is striving for improve her independence every day, the skills she has learned regarding exercise and the gym environment will greatly contribute to her lifestyle and long-term health.

What coaching lessons have I learned from working with Annabel?

Clearly, Annabel responds well to fun activities. If its not fun and engaging she is more likely to get distracted and lose focus. By keeping our sessions fun and engaging she has continued training for over four years, associating exercise as something she enjoys rather than something she must tolerate for health.

We have had to make sure we get the necessary work done, but training with Annabel has taught me to be creative and adaptable to keep things interesting. For example, we often count reps in silly voices or using different (or made up) languages. We may incorporate supersets where I choose the main lift (e.g. box squats) and she chooses the accessory movement (e.g. med-ball slams), increasing her accountability within the session structure. Having learned to coach creatively through working with Annabel, I have been able to utilise this skill to great success when training others in the disability community, young athletes, and sports teams. My coaching abilities and the opportunities I have as a trainer today would not be the same without working with her.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.