What Are the AFAA 5 Questions™ and Why Do They Matter?

Consider these queries a required mental warm-up when designing or updating your workout programs.

by Laura A. Gladwin, MS


    One of the most important responsibilities of the group exercise instructor is to perform the proper “standard of care” in our delivery of services (Herbert, 2010). In fact, using “pre-activity screening devices” can help fitness professionals reduce their exposure to legal liabilities (Herbert 2016). For group exercise instruction, class participants bring a variety of fitness levels, unique characteristics and personal goals. These variables can substantiate the need for a more conservative approach when creating program designs—focusing on the risk-to-benefit factor for each exercise. In other words, prior to implementation of each exercise in a group program, you should assess three major areas: safety, effectiveness and appropriateness.

    An excellent evaluation tool that has withstood the test of time is the AFAA 5 Questions™. This instructional tool was created in the late 1980s when AFAA entered the global market. At that time, it became imperative for AFAA certification specialists to be able to connect-—in a clear and concise manner—with participants who came from a variety of cultures and spoke different languages. According to Master Trainer and former AFAA board member Linda Shelton, the questions provided an easy-to-understand method for specialists to encourage attendees in their classes to determine on their own whether a particular exercise was considered safe, effective and appropriate for their own use. They can also be used to help the fitness professional create modifications for those participants who need them. (See “Modify Like a Pro” for additional guidance about adapting exercises appropriately.) The questions are as follows (AFAA 2010).

The AFAA 5 Questions

1. What is the purpose of the exercise?
    Consider: muscular strength or endurance, cardiorespiratory conditioning, flexibility, warm-up or activity preparation, skill development and stress reduction

2. Are you doing that effectively?
    Consider: proper range, speed and body position against gravity

3. Does the exercise create any safety concerns?
    Consider: potential stress areas (e.g., lower back, knees, wrists, neck), environmental concerns or movement control

4. Can you maintain proper alignment and form for the duration of the exercise?
    Consider: form, alignment and stabilization

5. For whom is the exercise appropriate or inappropriate?
    Consider: risk-to-benefit ratio; whether the participant is at a beginner, intermediate or advanced level of fitness; and any limitations reported by the participant

Asked and Answered

    So how do fitness professionals apply the AFAA 5 Questions? Let’s take a look at three types of exercises as examples.

5 Q’s & the Quadruped

    This exercise is used in both a group setting and in personal training to work on core stabilization and promote balance. As one refers to the AFAA 5 Questions, the quadruped passes questions 1 and 2 with flying colors, but can it pass 3, 4 and 5? That depends upon the participant. Those who would benefit from a different exercise choice include participants with knee or wrist problems, weak core muscles causing loss of form, and/or difficulty effectively modifying the exercise. An effective modification might be to use a stability ball that is appropriately sized and placed under the torso so as to maintain the upper body in a parallel position in relation to the floor. This may allow some participants to achieve the goal of the exercise.

5 Q’s & the Grapevine

    The grapevine is a common exercise used in a variety of low-impact cardio fitness classes. This exercise certainly passes question 1 and, if appropriate speed is used, it potentially passes question 2. However, when it comes to questions 3 and 4, there is a need to pause and evaluate. In a group fitness class, would the grapevine, with its cross-behind step during execution, be appropriate for an individual whose balance may be compromised by a knee injury, a recent hip replacement, or an ankle injury? Can this exercise be modified (question 5) to accommodate this participant? Yes, by changing the cross-behind to a step-together, it can pass questions 3 and 4. By providing a modification cue before demonstrating the grapevine, the group instructor will allow participants to continue exercising effectively and safely while the other class participants execute the grapevine move.

5 Q’s & High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

    How would the newest workout trend, based on the Tabata method, stand up to the AFAA 5 Questions? According to Kathy Stevens, educational director for the Evolution Fitness Conference at The FitExpo, some movements would not pass numbers 3 and 4 for certain participants. “But then again, there will be athletic participants that will find those moves exactly what they need to serve the purpose of questions 1 and 2,” she says. “Thus, the beauty of the AFAA 5 Questions is in its ability to quickly reinforce what we intuitively know but sometimes overlook.”

Fundamentals That Stand the Test of Time

    Three decades after they were created, the AFAA 5 Questions are still being used by fitness professionals around the world. This valuable evaluation tool has assisted both group exercise instructors and personal trainers during their creation of program designs. It has helped to ensure that the risk-to-benefit factor has been analyzed prior to conducting a class or one-on-one training session. By implementing the AFAA 5 Questions as part of the initial steps in program design development, fitness professionals can demonstrate that proper care has been taken to ensure safety, effectiveness and appropriateness when working with their clients.

Who’s Asking?

    The AFAA 5 Questions were developed in the 1980s, but they’re every bit as relevant today. Who is using them? The following are testimonials from renowned fitness professionals representing both group fitness instructors and personal trainers.

“The AFAA 5 Questions make complex exercise science and evaluation principles user-friendly. It has always amazed me that one simple tool could cover so much so eloquently. In many cases this AFAA tool, along with the exercise continuum, allows certified group instructors and personal trainerstm to broaden and clarify the way they approach old and new exercise trends.”

--Kathy Stevens, Educational Director for the Evolution Fitness Conference at The FitExpo

    “The AFAA 5 Questions changed my professional and personal life when I met them 20 years ago. In five steps, these questions teach anyone how to evaluate a purpose, thought, mission, or action, and give tools to everyone to answer questions intelligently. These questions have gotten me out of tight spots during my career. I will carry them—in some evolved way—in my heart, with every interaction, with every client and company.”
--Lawrence Biscontini, MA, AFAA Certification Specialist, and creator of the new YouTube versions of the AFAA 5 Questions

    “Back in the ’90s, I served as an expert witness in a lawsuit against a celebrity, a trainer and a cosmetic company who produced an exercise video for consumers. I taught the AFAA 5 Questions to the jury and used them to make a case against inappropriate exercises presented within the video. [The AFAA 5 Questions] have been invaluable in my fitness career, and I’ve surely used them thousands of times. This evaluation tool has been in all three editions of the textbook I co-authored with Carol Kennedy-Armbruster (Methods of Group Exercise Instruction). This text is currently used at over 80 universities in the U.S. and is a best-seller around the world. [The AFAA 5 Questions] constitute a powerful tool for exercise analysis—the best tool I’ve seen.”
--Mary Yoke, co-author Methods of Group Exercise Instruction (Human Kinetics 2014)
Strengthen Your Safety Muscles

    The AFAA 5 Questions are so important to exercise-safety that they’re highlighted in Part 1 of the 4-part AFAA Essential Injury Prevention series of courses. As a fitness professional, you know that a healthy, injury-free participant is a happy and participating participant. When your class members are injured, it hurts not only them but your business and potentially your reputation. That’s why this bundle of programs is worth far more than the 16 CEUs you’ll earn upon completion. By providing you with the tools to assess individuals’ movement patterns, identify common imbalances and create appropriate modifications, this series will help you provide a more personalized approach to your group exercise class members.

AFAA Essential Injury Prevention (Bundle): Course Description

    These classes are based in the science of human movement, including functional anatomy and biomechanics, particularly as they relate to injury prevention. By having a strong understanding of these principles, group instructors can create outcome-based classes that will provide a better movement experience for their participants as well as themselves. Instructors will learn to assess clients’ injuries and imbalances so they can provide appropriate modifications, all of which may help class members avoid new injuries and aggravation of existing problems and rehab after injury or surgery.
• Learn more about classifications and terminology of injuries, including stages of inflammation and repair.
• Identify common movement system impairments and misalignments in the upper and lower body, as well as the spine, and basic injury prevention strategies.
• Understand how to make minor adjustments to the flow and progression of your class for participants with impairments.
• Discover specific recommendations for the most common group formats—cycle, resistance/strength training, cardio/HIIT, boot camp, dance, aqua and mind-body—as well as how to adapt what you’ve learned to a different modality.
Learn more:


AFAA (Aerobics and Fitness Association of America). 2010. Fitness : Theory & Practice Sherman Oaks, CA: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

AFAA (Aerobics and Fitness Association of America ). 2010. Personal Fitness Training: Theory & Practice Sherman Oaks, CA: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

Herbert, D.L. Recent verdict against personal trainer—lessons to be learned. CPH Associates: Avoiding Liability Blog. Accessed Oct 17, 2016. www.cphins.com.

Herbert, D.L. 2010. Law and exercise. In L.A. Gladwin (Ed.), Fitness: Theory & Practice (467–88). Sherman Oaks, CA: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

Kennedy-Armbruster, C. & Yoke, M.M. 2014. Methods of Group Exercise Instruction. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Meet our experts

AFM-author-Gladwin Laura Gladwin, MS, CPT, CGF, MAFP, received her BS in physical education from Michigan State University, and her master’s in physical education, emphasis in exercise physiology and sports medicine, from California State University, Fullerton.

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more