SRU’s training program gets personal for students and clients


A professor working with a student personal trainer

From left, Deborah Whitfield, a Slippery Rock University professor of computer science, receives instruction from her personal trainer, Anthony Mancini, a senior exercise science major, as part of the Rock Personal Training Program.

April 22, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — As a computer science professor at Slippery Rock University, Deborah Whitfield speaks in the 1s and 0s of binary code, but when it comes to exercising, her body only computes a zero.

"Exercise used to be a foreign, and probably, four-letter word to me," said Whitfield with a smile. She underwent knee surgery in 1985 for a floating patella and for years struggled to gain the strength and confidence to work out.

That all changed in 2016 when she signed up for the Rock Personal Training Program, a service at SRU where exercise science students in the Senior Synthesis course provide one-to-one fitness instruction to students, University employees and community members.

"When I first started six semesters ago, I could not even jog and I just wanted to get stronger," said Whitfield, who was told by health care professionals that she would never be able to jog after her surgery. "I've had massive cardio improvements and now I can jog six laps."

Participants in the program are paired with an exercise science student for one semester and receive two hours of personal training per week, one hour as part of the students' three-hour weekly class, and another hour at an agreed upon time. Clients pay $75 per semester and must be members of the Aebersold Recreation Center, where the training sessions take place.

Similar personal training programs can cost $50-$100 per hour. The SRU program's $75 fee provides buy-in on the client's part and improves the likelihood that they will commit to the semester. The fees are shared between the ARC and the RPTP.

"I don't know any other program in the country like it," said Patricia Pierce, professor of exercise and rehabilitative science, who founded RPTP in 2003 after recognizing a mutual need. The ARC needed personal trainers and exercise science students needed a relevant, practical experience prior to their internships. "This is their first experience with a client where they have to solve a lot of real-life problems."

A record-number 88 students served as trainers during the 2018 fall semester. There are 48 trainers this semester from three sections of the class taught by exercise and rehabilitative sciences professors Jeffrey Lynn, Joy Urda and Steve Verba.

RPTP participants have included a variety of clients, ranging from a 15-year-old high school cross-country runner to a 97-year-old whose goal was just to be able to walk around the track. Students, who assess a clients' fitness and conduct baseline tests at the start of each semester, have encountered various client-related health issues including diabetes, pulmonary diseases and even brain tumors. Occasionally a client's physician will be consulted before the start of the program.

"We are not presented with detailed client health assessments (prior to the semester), so it gives us an opportunity to do our research," said Anthony Mancini, a senior exercise science major from Coraopolis. He used closed-chain kinetic exercises for Whitfield by having her use suspension training traps called TRX to help stabilize her leg muscles and improve her balance. "There is a science behind what we do. We cater every program to that person and modify it for the client's needs."

As Whitfield's trainer this semester, Mancini has helped her reach her goals. Previously, Whitfield's goals included jogging one lap or being able to hold a 15-pound baby without her back aching. This semester she wanted to hold a yoga maneuver called "tree pose," that requires a strong quad muscle to support her problematic knee, all while balancing on one leg with her opposite leg bent in a figure-four position. She reached that goal within six weeks.

"Deb is an ideal client because she pushes herself to the limit," Mancini said. "It's something special to see where (our clients) start from and what they end up. It's gratifying to be able to say we had a big part in that. It's 50/50, though; I can show her the door, but she has to open it and go through and do that work. It's exciting and special to be part of this program."

"Behavior change has become a big part of our profession and helping the client set their own goals and figuring out their motivation is a big part of (the students' experiences)," Pierce said. "There's a lot more coaching that goes on. When we first started the program it was all about taking blood pressure and telling clients what theirs was and what it should be and that they needed to exercise three days a week for (a certain amount of) minutes. Now, the students have to work with the clients to figure out what they can and should do and that behavior change is an important part."

Goals for clients have included weight loss or performance objectives, or both, as was the case for John Snyder, SRU associate director of the career education and development, who was one of the program's first and most successful participants. Through his program participation, he lost 30 pounds and continues to run 5K and 10K races.

Relationship building and communication are important parts of program, especially for the students.

"You have that human element that you don't get from class," said Sarah Allen, a senior exercise science major from Saegertown. "You have to use all the knowledge that you've gathered throughout the program and apply it to real-world situations. That was the most challenging and rewarding aspect, to be able to do this on my own and be put in charge of a client."

Students never know who they might be assigned as a client. It could even be the president of the University. SRU President Bill Behre was matched this year with a former RPTR student, Matt McCann, a graduate student majoring in physical therapy from Beaver Falls.

Although he doesn't consider himself a "workout guy," Behre trains once a week in the ARC, receiving instruction from McCann.

"What better way to learn about our programs, our students and their experiences than by being personally involved?," Behre said. "This is another way for me to get my finger on the pulse of the student experience, get into the campus community, have conversations with and learn about others ... and it's good for my health, as well."

The benefits of the program go well beyond the two hours of one-on-one interaction per week.

"The program has stuck with me through the years," said Snyder, who participated from 2004-13 and still knows the names of all his former trainers and their current professions, some of whom are working as physical therapists and at YMCAs. "I still incorporate what I learned about exercise, diet, goal-setting and general wellness into my daily routine. The program has helped me to stay on the wellness path."

"I look forward to my sessions. I'm at the point where even between the semesters, when I don't have a trainer, I'll work out three times per week," Whitfield said. "Exercise is a regular part of my life now."

For more information about the exercise science program at SRU, click here. For information about signing up as a client, contact Ryan Stack, assistant director for wellness and the Russell Wright Fitness Center, Campus Recreation, at: or 724.738.2924.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |