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Mimic Unpredictable Scenarios with an Evolving Case Study

To help future fitness pros flex their mental muscle, this instructor devised four-round case studies of clients whose needs are always changing.


Elizabeth K. Sambach, PhD

Adjunct Professor of Exercise Science, Mesa Community College

EdD candidate in Health Professions, MS in Kinesiology and Exercise Science, BS in Physical Education/Exercise Science

Everyone has heard of love at first sight: It comes as a delightful surprise that upends your world, but in a good way. In 2013, Elizabeth “Liz” Sambach, EdD, exercise science professor at Mesa Community College (MCC) in Arizona, discovered that the concept can also apply to teaching.

After graduating from college in 2006, Sambach initially worked as a certified personal trainer, certified strength and conditioning coach, and licensed massage therapist in the MCC fitness center. She then began working with the school’s college soccer and volleyball teams to develop evidence-based training programs for the athletes. Eventually, one of the faculty members (now the department chair) asked Sambach if she would teach a class. “It was an exercise science class designed to help students create strength training programs and practice coaching/teaching, taking each other through the programs,” Sambach explains. Held at night, the course objective was to prepare students to teach workouts in group and individual settings.

“A week before the first class, I woke up in a panic,” Sambach says. “I wouldn’t be talking to one client, I’d be in front of a roomful of students. I knew nothing about teaching. What is a syllabus? What do I put in it? I was excited but terrified.”

She asked another instructor for help with the basic format and with assembling learning materials. Still, she says, she walked into class feeling as if she were on a blind date.

“If most new teachers start at zero, I felt I was starting at negative-five,” she says. “But the feeling that I had after the class—how do I even describe it? I knew this is what I am supposed to do. I love helping and working with students.”

Challenge: Widespread myths about diet and exercise

As Sambach settled into teaching, she quickly identified a common misperception among her students: They believed that the same workout routines and nutrition guidelines will work for everyone. “They struggle with having to critically think and problem-solve for themselves,” she says. “They want me to tell them the answer. When it comes to exercise, many [students] came in thinking there is just one answer. And there’s not.”

Sambach also worried that social media was setting her students up with unrealistic—and ultimately unhealthy—exercise expectations.

“I see students following so-called fitness experts who have no degrees and no experience other than looking great when they pose for selfies for their million Facebook or Instagram followers,” she says. “The danger is that students assume these people must know what they’re talking about, but sometimes they’re selling a product such as an unregulated supplement, or they’re just providing incorrect information. They aren’t necessarily providing any technical or scientific information.” This not only is unprofessional, it is dangerous: Exercise science is just that, a science. Creating programming based upon research studies is essential to ensure the efficacy of workouts and the safety of the clients who will be performing them.

Sambach set out to change her students’ assumptions on diet and exercise so that they can have a positive, healthy impact on their future clients.

Innovation: A structured plan for problem-solving on the fly

Sambach realized that the best solution was straightforward: In addition to showing her students to how to research the facts and then apply them, she needed to help them understand why evidence-based programming matters.

“Exercise is often taught by spotlighting general best practices,” Sambach explains. “But [fitness professionals] also need to learn to take into account the client’s body type, age, sex, physical conditions, risk factors, injuries, genetic history, individual chemistry, and goals.”

Her innovation involves creating a project that teaches exercise students why, when, and how they should modify exercise plans for each individual. To do that, she presents students with hypothetical “case study” clients. These clients not only have different needs from one another but their needs change as the semester progresses, just as they would in real life.


“We explore how to assess different individuals and their fitness levels, why individualized programs make scientific sense, how to create activities and exercises tailor-made for clients, and ways to reassess programs as client needs change.”

— Elizabeth Sambach, EdD

Course: EXS 132 Cardiovascular Fitness: Physiological Principles and Training Techniques

Frequency: Two 85-minute class meetings per week

Class size: 12–25

Course description: Covers principles and techniques of aerobic training and the application of these to the development of aerobic training programs. Includes instructional techniques and safety, and stresses injury prevention.

See resources shared by Elizabeth Sambach, EdD

See materials

Lesson: Exercise case studies: One size does not fit all

For her case studies project, Sambach uses information that students learn throughout the course of the semester. By the time the project is finished, they will have taken four hypothetical personal-training clients from first meeting all the way through baseline assessments (fitness tests to determine current fitness levels), the creation of comprehensive workout programs (based on those assessments and exercise science), and reassessments.

“One [client] is an average individual in good health who would be easy to train, and one is in OK health and average shape,” Sambach explains. “But one or two are people who may be more challenging, usually because of an injury or illness. By showing my students a variety of examples, I give them a realistic feel for what different clients need.”

Here is a look at how Sambach programs her students for fitness-programming success.

Create a clear progression

For each hypothetical case, Sambach has the students take clients through four distinct assessment rounds:

Round 1: Initial Assessment. Students are provided with information about each client, including two key tools for fitness pros: the PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) and the Personal Training Client Questionnaire (which includes such information as health history and lifestyle).

Using the information provided, they are asked to determine and write down goals and risk factors, then determine whether a doctor’s clearance is needed or whether medications may impact the client’s abilities.

Round 2: Client Assessment Decision. Based on the Initial Assessment, students determine which cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) assessment is appropriate for the client, and why. They will also identify the proper warm-up and cooldown for that CRF assessment and note the signs, symptoms, and compensations to watch for when the client performs it.

Round 3: Initial Program Creation. Based on the results of Round 1 and 2, the student will develop a monthlong CRF program for each individual, using the FITT principle (which identifies the frequency, intensity, time, and type of each exercise). Here, they must also factor in goals (health, fitness, sports performance) and assessments for injuries.

Round 4: Retest and Second Program. Based on the results of Round 3, students now reassess the client and revise the program as indicated by progress, injuries, and changing client goals. By then, Sambach and the class have discussed in detail any potential problems she can foresee with their plans, as well as how to handle barriers to exercise.

Provide a template for class (and beyond)

Students are provided Word document templates for each of the four rounds, which they fill out and submit to her for grading. The structure helps provide consistency for the class and adds to the feeling of a clear progression from one round to the next.

Sambach’s templates are useful beyond class, as well: Several former students have told her that they refer back to the assignment and the templates in their everyday work.

Offer a chance to grow

During the students’ work on the case studies, the hypothetical clients “progress,” with Sambach adding more and more detail for each client as each round progresses.

Similarly, at the end of the semester, she provides her real students with an opportunity to grow and improve their case study responses: Once all four rounds of the four case studies have been submitted, Sambach grades them and returns them with her comments and suggestions. Students then have an opportunity to revise their work before they submit a final, complete portfolio.


When Sambach first used this approach, her students were not 100% on board. “I think they were used to the ‘lecture, test, repeat’ approach to school,” Sambach says. “They wanted me to just tell them the answers.”

But after they had a chance to learn from Sambach’s feedback and submit revisions to their portfolios, Sambach says they understood why she teaches using the case study method.

“They see how it mirrors real-life experiences that they will have with personal training clients,” she says. “They’ve started having fun with it.”

What is more, Sambach says she has observed their problem-solving skills starting to develop, as they learn to collaborate and rely less on her for solutions. “As they [complete the scenarios] in groups,” she says, “I would watch them say to each other, ‘OK, what is our first step?’”

Student feedback

Recently, two of Sambach’s former students contacted her after they had graduated and started working as personal trainers.

“Both told me they kept this assignment and continue to refer back to it, not for the answers but to follow the thought process and organization,” she says. “I’m glad they have tools and a step-by-step structure for tailoring different plans for different types of people.”

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