Many people have heard me rant about personal trainer insurance and the professional association I created called Recomp. But few people know that it was all in response to being sued myself and having my insurer refuse to cover me. I went through an absolute hell that I would not wish on anyone. So here is the full story so you can hopefully avoid the mistakes I made.
How I Got Sued
The short version is that a client tore a small rotator cuff muscle while warming up on bench press with one of my staff. The tear was a full rupture requiring surgery and several weeks in a sling, preventing him from performing his duties as a company director. So the client did suffer ‘damages’ while under the care of my company and therefore I (ie my company) was was liable; liable for more money than I had or could borrow. But that is why my company was fully insured for strength coaching. Or so I thought.
As the client themselves acknowledged, the injury was just unforeseeable bad luck. Neither he nor the coach had done anything dangerous, irresponsible or obviously risky. He was a former powerlifter, so he was an extremely low risk candidate for the exercise. The weight was not excessive because they were still only warming up. But having done everything right and absolutely minimised every risk does not matter when it comes to professional liability.
How the Insurer Screwed Me
Months after the claim had been assessed – and I assumed dealt with – the insurer wrote to say “Sorry. We are not covering you”. I felt sick to my stomach.
The Company’s justification for reneging was utterly stupefying. A professor had given them a ‘verbal’ expert opinion. Apparently, if my staff had possessed the appropriate Fitness qualifications then they would know they were not qualified to engage in Strength Coaching. But because my staff were qualified as a Strength Coaches, and the service the customer purchased was Strength Coaching, and my business was insured for Strength Coaching, we could not be covered for the injury sustained during a Strength Coaching session.
Confused? So was I.
As infuriatingly irrational as that cowardly response was – you would think that professors who sell ‘expert opinions’ online would have the confidence and integrity to do so in writing – I later learned it was true; sort of.
The Problem with My Insurance; and Probably Yours
I knew ‘fitness professionals’ are not qualified or insured to train clients with heavy weights. That was why my business was explicitly not fitness; it was 100% strength coaching. Unfortunately I did not understand that Strength Coaches cannot give heavy weights to normal humans; that is, to ‘non-athletes’.
Rational, reasonable people would recognise that an ‘athlete’ is nothing more than a normal human who plays a silly game with other normal humans. But that is not how insurers, doctors and lawyers see things. To them, athletes are a different species to “gen pop”; ie “general population”; civilians; plebs; serfs; useless eaters etc
Insurers, doctors and lawyers recognise that every sport is a risk of injury and, therefore, ‘athletes’ are required to risk injury for their sport. So it is perfectly acceptable to risk catastrophic injury or illness in order to compete, for example, for a 50c participation trophy in a local, amateur, walking competition. But it is grotesquely irresponsible to undertake the exact same training for your own personal reasons.
Until recently, this absurd philosophy has not had much opportunity for articulation, let alone application. If somebody hurts themselves in private, training for a sport that they have no intention of competing in, that is on them. If a civilian hires a sports coach and gets injured, the coaches insurance will cover them because the sole purpose of that coaches service is training for a sport.
But hiring a coach for weight training is different. There is a legitimate question of exactly what the goal of the weight training is? If a geriatric cripple needs weight training for rehabilitation, that is a job for some type of medical therapist; an elite-level sports strength coach is not qualified to help. But, similarly, if an elite athlete needs to double their strength, they need a strength coach; a Physiotherapist is not qualified to help.
But what if a regular, “healthy” person wants a Coach to teach them to train to grow some muscle and lose some fat – bodybuilding – just for the personal satisfaction? Well, that is not allowed. That is the Bermuda Triangle of professional practice. It is the proverbial ‘no man’s land’; the valley of death for any professional. Nobody is qualified to do it.
Giving bodybuilding coaching to non-athletes does not fall into the ‘scope of practice’ of any profession, and directly contradicts the scope of practice of Fitness Professionals. It does not matter that the practice is taking place in virtually every gym, by almost every Personal Trainer in the country. It does not matter that there are dozens of private courses taking place everyday, teaching how to coach bodybuilding to non-athletes. It does not matter that 25 years ago it was a normal function for every lowly gym instructor. The practice does not fit the ‘scope of practice’ of any profession. Therefore, it is not covered by any professional insurance product. This is not my opinion; this is the basis for how I got screwed by my insurer.
I knew ‘fitness professionals’ are not qualified or insured to train clients with heavy weights. I did not understand that Strength Coaches cannot give heavy weights to ‘non-athletes’.
How I Fought Back
I will not go into all that I did to fight the insurer directly. Suffice to say I was lucky that I knew a lot of good people in the Australian strength, bodybuilding and fitness communities. So 2 years later – sleepless, nerve-wracking, age-accelerated and eye-watering expensive years – I was still standing and the insurance company exited the fitness/strength-coaching insurance business altogether. The insurance staff who wrote my policy had resigned. Soon after that the company was swallowed by another company and the brand abandoned entirely. More importantly, the client was made whole, my staff kept their jobs and my clients continued to be serviced.
But there was a far more important battle. I needed to find a legitimate insurance product so that this could never happen again; not to me or to anyone else in the body recomposition/bodybuilding industry.
I realised that it was not enough to find an insurer to say they would cover coaching non-athletes with heavy weights; somebody had to define the official ‘scope of practice’ upon which an insurance product could be custom made. So I did it. I created Recomp: the professional association for body recomposition coaches in Australia, and the scope of practice for coaching non-athletes (and athletes) with heavy weights.
There were three major motivations in creating Recomp. One was to establish a valid insurance product for my own business. The second reason was to shine a light on the corrupt scumbags at Fitness Australia who were ultimately responsible for creating this absurd paradoxical situation with coaching non-athletes; and also because they actively deceived gyms, RTOs and Personal Trainers into believing they were covered for coaching non-athletes (along with many other deceptions).
The third reason that I created Recomp was so other coaches would not get screwed like I had been. It was an issue of mutual benefit. The policy I needed for myself was exactly the policy that hundreds of other coaches needed. But the Recomp insurance policy needed as many coaches as possible signed up to give it strength for everyone, including myself. More members also meant a better price for everyone.
To this day, joining Recomp is the only way a Personal Trainer or Strength Coach in Australia can get onto a policy that will properly cover them for giving heavy weight training coaching to non-athletes (and athletes). The policy also covers the prescription of sports nutrition to non-athletes, and athletes, by Recomp Coaches who pass 3 simple assessments to become Recomp Certified. (Interestingly, sports nutrition falls into the same Bermuda Triangle of professional practice as coaching. Just do not tell all the Coaches signed up with SNA).
A few years after I was sued I read that claims against Personal Trainers had increased by more than 1000%. Claims are continuing to increase in size, frequency and unreasonableness (like this one) and coaches are not covered. Fitness Professional (PT) insurance remains dirt cheap – around $10/mth – despite inflation and radical increases in claims, because it does not cover anything. This is not hypothetical or an opinion. It is real. I was sued and the insurer refused to pay. Spread the word and take the time to look into the details. Insurance relies on ignorance and the details matter. Take it from someone who knows.