This excerpt is part of Entrepreneur.com's Second-Quarter Startup Kit which explores the fundamentals of starting up in a wide range of industries.

In Start Your Own Personal Training Business, the staff at Entrepreneur Press and writer Ciree Linsenman explain how you can get started as in the personal training industry. From choosing your niche to developing your skills, this guide offers step-by-step instructions to help you create a business that answers the health and fitness needs of your customers. In this edited excerpt, the authors explain why you need liability and what legal forms you should have your clients sign.

In our intensely litigious society, no business owner can afford to ignore liability issues. What is the extent of your liability if a client is injured while under your supervision? Your defense will depend on a number of issues, including whether you're adequately trained and certified for the activity involved; the adequacy of your pre-program screening and testing; whether or not the client signed an informed consent, release and assumption of the risk consent form; and whether or not your instructions and advice were within acceptable ranges based on the client’s physical condition and circumstances.

Another area of risk is that of nutrition and supplement counseling. One of the key concerns in these situations is the unauthorized practice of medicine or other licensed healthcare disciplines. Unless you're well-trained and certified, this could be dangerous territory. “It’s important to not go out of your scope of practice,” says Tony Ordas, former director of certification for the American Council on Exercise. If you aren't a registered dietitians, Ordas says, you shouldn’t be recommending, supplying or prescribing nutritional supplements.

Educating your clients on knowing how hard to push themselves could also influence decisions you’ll make on how much liability insurance to purchase. Once you become a certified trainer, work with your certification company to determine how much insurance you’ll need.

Trainer Tyrone Minor advises other trainers to educate their clients about what's trivial irritation and what may be more serious signals. “Sometimes clients feel tightness in their bodies and don’t communicate it to you because they're too busy wanting to please you--to work hard for you. So you may be making decisions based on a different perception of how they're feeling. Had you known they felt this tightness, you wouldn’t have had them perform in the same way. That’s one way injuries can occur. Even though clients don’t want to let you down, you can teach them the difference between a red flag and simple soreness.”

Release Forms and Liability Waivers

Certainly you can keep as much paper information as you want on file, but there are several documents that are absolutely essential. You should have on file an informed consent, release, and assumption of the risk form signed by the client; a physician release form; and a fitness assessment, in addition to any other critical client records.

Informed consent, release and assumption of risk. This form states that the client is agreeing to participate in exercise testing and the training program that's developed as a result, and includes a release and assumption of the risk. You should have a client’s written consent before putting them through any procedure. In general, the following elements are required for a valid form (it’s a good idea to have an attorney review this and other client forms):

  • The person must be over 18 and otherwise legally capable of giving consent. For clients under 18, you need the signature of a parent or guardian.
  • A statement that the client fully understands all the risks and benefits associated with the procedure and/or program, and a release.
  • A statement that the consent is given freely and voluntarily, and not under duress or a misrepresentation of facts.

Such a form should only be signed after a discussion of all the risks and benefits of a procedure or program. Give the client a chance to ask questions, and be sure you’ve answered all questions completely and to their satisfaction. If appropriate, make additional notes on the form to document any issues that may be raised at a later time. Give the client a copy of the signed form, and keep the original in your files.

Of her consent and release form, trainer Jennifer Brilliant says, “When I ask someone to read it, I say, ‘You’re in charge of what feels right and doesn’t feel right. If something doesn’t feel right, we don’t have to push through it. We’ll figure out something else.’ I invite them to be in charge of making choices for themselves. I also tell them that I have lots of ideas, and if one doesn’t work, we’ll find some other way to achieve the results they want.”

Physician consent/clearance. You should insist on medical clearance for any client considered high risk and, in some cases, for clients who are considered moderate risk. You can assess risk levels by reviewing their health history, medical screening and exercise history forms. If you feel a physician’s clearance is necessary for a particular client, you should request it--and it should be reviewed and updated periodically.

Fitness assessment. No one should begin an exercise program without first being sure they're physically able to participate in the program without injury or harm. It would be foolhardy of a personal trainer to allow any client to begin exercising without first doing a fitness assessment and health screening.

By screening your clients using the suggested forms, you’ll be able to determine if they can safely embark on an exercise program. You’ll also be able to determine their current level of fitness as well as their goals, which will help you to develop an appropriate program. The initial assessment should be repeated periodically as a monitoring and progress tool, as well as a way to motivate your clients.

Client records. In addition to the critical documents we’ve discussed, you’ll need to maintain a wide range of important information on each client. You should maintain detailed documentation on all actions, observations, program prescriptions and discussions with clients. Be sure to record any special instructions given to clients, any warnings or limitations conveyed, progress notes, details of instruction (and instances in which you had to do repeat instruction) of techniques, equipment use or other concerns and information on any injuries, including details of first aid that had to be administered as a result of an injury.