Personal Training vs. Health Coaching: What’s the Difference?

All certified personal trainers have a coaching-type role but not all health coaches are certified personal trainers. Depending on your certifying agency and/or governing body, the roles of personal trainer and health coach may be defined differently. These two roles can also vary by place of employment. Let’s take a closer look in how these roles overlap and how they diverge.

Health Coaching

Certified health coaches have a unique scope of practice that includes expertise in behavior change, stress management, and habit development. Simply stated, this professional uses an evidence-based approach to bridge the gap between the client’s current or existing lifestyle habits and those habits that the client hopes to modify or establish.

A health coach is not necessarily a personal trainer, but it is possible for health coaching professionals to hold multiple certifications and, thus, widen their scope of practice. If a health coach is not also a certified personal trainer or does not possess an educational background in an exercise science-related field, it is common for these individuals to refer their clients to another professional who can more specifically help them with physical fitness goals.

Where You Can Find Health Coaches

As this field is growing in dynamic fashion, health coaches are often employed in a variety of settings both public and private. It is common to find these professionals in hospitals, clinics, schools, medical centers, corporations, spas and resorts, educational institutions, other companies — both nonprofit and for profit as well as state and federal-level organizations.

When it was first developed, this field typically worked with clients in a face-to-face setting or in a telephonic format. When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, many pivoted to an online coaching format — which is still on the rise even after a downturn in the pandemic. Health coaching professionals were able to expand their reach across the globe or their native country as well as reduce their overhead as they soon found there was no need to rent a physical office environment. The convenience of “hopping online” to coach a client and move easily between sessions was soon realized. Consequently, many coaches chose to remain as virtual professionals. Some offer a hybrid model as well — it just depends on the comfort level of the coach and who they choose to serve as clients.

Personal Trainers

In contrast, personal trainers are certified professionals who possess the knowledge, skills, abilities, and training to design safe and effective exercise programs using an evidence-based approach. Traditionally, personal trainers have focused on just that — the exercise component and the intended physical goals of their clients. As the field has grown and developed, it is more common to see certified personal trainers using coaching-based skills (such as motivational interviewing) and placing a greater emphasis on total lifestyle versus just what happens inside the gym or studio. Similarly, not all personal trainers are certified health coaches, but many have elected to achieve that credential to bridge the gap between their exercise science expertise and behavior change theories and models to better serve their clients.

Where You Can Find Personal Trainers

Personal trainers are typically employed in sports arenas, fitness centers and studios, recreation centers, outpatient physical therapy clinics, apartment complexes/condos, golf clubs, athletic facilities, cruise liners and resorts. It’s possible to find personal trainers and health coaches in the same space, but not consistently. Health coaching is becoming more and more popular in clinical and medical settings.

As with health coaching, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many professionals to turn to virtual personal training and group fitness. Like online health coaching, this trend is also on the rise and provides a great opportunity for personal trainers to expand their previously limited borders.

The Bottom Line

Though both health coaches and personal trainers have a vested interest in helping those they serve achieve optimal wellness, they do have different functions and different scopes of practice. If you are a personal trainer, you may find that health coaching is the missing link in your business. Likewise, if you are a health coach, you may find that obtaining a personal training certification can boost your business and bottom line. Explore both. Consider how each option might help you grow professionally and personally.

Originally published on the Fitness Education Online Website.

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Erin Dollison Nitschke

Passionate college educator, writer, and health and fitness professional. I am an NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist, ACE Health Coach, & Pn1.