One Push-up too Many – the Risks of Training the Out-of-Shape

April 07, 2011

Katharine M. Nohr, Esq.
Nohr Sports Risk Management, LLC

Considering the growing trend of obesity, even amongst young people, sports and recreation programs will continue to be faced with training and offering services to the out-of-shape individual. To what extent is a duty owed to protect someone who has not worked out for a long time against the risks inherent in starting up a physical fitness program? Very recently, a California appellate court addressed this issue in Rostai v. Neste Enterprises, 138 Cal.App.4th 326 (2006)

What is the duty owed to protect someone who has not worked out for a long time?

The facts of this case are as follows. Defendant Shoultz was a physical trainer who pays Gold’s Gym a fee in order to train his clients in their gym. One day, when Shoultz was shopping at the Plaintiff’s furniture store, Plaintiff noticed Shoultz’s physique and told him that he wanted to look buff and physically fit like him. Shoultz told Plaintiff that he was a physical trainer and offered to train Plaintiff at Gold’s Gym, to which Plaintiff agreed. The 46 year old Plaintiff was 5’10” tall, weighing 228 lbs, did not exercise, but felt that his work provided him with some exercise.

Under Shoultz’s direction, Plaintiff’s first work-out started with 12 to 13 minutes on a treadmill at a pace of 3 to 4 miles per hour. Plaintiff was then instructed to lift weights on an incline bench—1 set of 10 repetitions of 40 lbs. overhead. After the Plaintiff performed the second set of 10 reps at a slightly heavier weight, he asked Shoultz if he could take a break. Shoultz told Plaintiff, “later”, and instructed him to perform 10 push-ups. After complying, Plaintiff again requested a break, to which Shoultz replied, “don’t be a pussy. First give me ten sit-ups.” After completing the sit-ups, Shoultz told Plaintiff to again lift weights on the incline bench, this time increasing the weight and tempo. Plaintiff did 4 or 5 repetitions and then stopped, telling Shoultz that he could not do anymore. Without taking a break, Shoultz instructed Plaintiff to lie on a mat and lift both legs. Plaintiff completed one leg lift before stopping. Shoultz then pushed Plaintiff’s legs towards Plaintiff’s head 10 to 12 times. Plaintiff began having chest pain towards the end of this exercise, but did not tell Shoultz. He told Shoultz that “he was out of breath, couldn’t breathe, and needed some water.” At that point, the work-out stopped. Plaintiff felt that he could not continue and he poured water on his head and lay down on the floor. He was experiencing extreme pain. After about 5 minutes, the plaintiff said, “Call 911, I think I’m having a heart attack.”

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Gold’s Gym and against Shoultz, alleging that Shoultz was negligent and such negligence was the proximate cause of his heart attack. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant owed him a duty to investigate his health history and current physical condition and cardiac risk factors. Plaintiff contended that Gold’s Gym was vicariously liable for the acts of Shoultz. Defendants took the position that Plaintiff assumed the risk and so his claim was barred. A lower court ruled in favor of Shoultz and Gold’s Gym and the California appellate court agreed with the lower court’s decision. The Court concluded that primary assumption of risk was a complete defense to the action against Shoultz and that Gold’s Gym had no duty to protect the Plaintiff against the inherent risks of personal training. The appellate court concluded as follows:

…injury resulting from the physical stress of working out at a gym with a personal trainer, even an injury as serious as a heart attack, is a risk inherent in that activity. Therefore, Gold’s Gym did not have a duty to protect plaintiff from such an injury by monitoring his physical response during his fitness training session. Because neither defendant Shoultz nor defendant Gold’s Gym owed a duty of due care to plaintiff to eliminate the risk of physical injury inherent in the activity of working out with a personal fitness trainer, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor in this case.

Even though this case resulted in a favorable decision for the Defendants, the incident was costly in that a gym member was seriously injured and litigation costs were incurred. The following steps could be taken by the trainer and gym in the future to avoid similar problems.

What steps should be taken by the trainer and the gym to avoid similar problems in the future?

  1. Have the member sign a waiver when beginning training with the gym, which informs the member of the inherent risks of undergoing a physical training program.
  2. Have the out-of-shape member seek a physician’s clearance before proceeding with the physical training program.
  3. Allow only certified trainers from reputable organizations provide training.
  4. Start the out-of-shape member with a very light program with short duration and then gradually increase the intensity and duration of the program over time.
  5. Listen carefully to the member during the course of physical training, allowing sufficient rest and hydration.
  6. Adjust the training program in accordance with the member’s ability.
  7. Question the member about his or her complaints in order to determine whether to proceed or stop training.
  8. Invite the member to provide the trainer with feedback of his physical status during the work out.
  9. Maintain the equipment in your gym in safe and working order.
  10. Have an AED available for use in the event of a heart attack.
  11. Have a telephone available in order to summon emergency medical services promptly.
  12. Have personnel that are trained in CPR, first aid and AED use available at all times.
For more information on our Online Courses,
contact us now!