The differences between a personal trainer, exercise physiologist and strength & conditioning coach
Throughout Australia, America and parts of Europe the answer to this question is well established and properly regulated by governmental departments and relevant organisations i.e. ESSA and medicare – Australia. Throughout Asia however, there is a general consensus that these professions perform the same role, which is entirely false and quite dangerous. It is important to be clear on the differences between them so that sports clubs, fitness centres, coaches, hospitals and community members hiring these individuals know what to expect, get what they pay for, and more importantly, ensure high safety standards.
Personal Trainers – have a role to play within their local community in terms of motivating individuals or groups to exercise, teaching how to perform exercises with correct technique, designing basic strength / fat loss programs, and conducting basic fitness testing. Trainers can obtain a qualification with a 6-8 weeks course or 1 year diploma that enables a basic understanding of anatomy, physiology and exercise prescription. Although I have seen many ‘freelance’ trainers with no qualifications at all, the trainers that are qualified serve a good purpose to the local fitness community. Personal trainers are not qualified to work with elite athletes or people with medium to serious health complications.
Exercise physiologists – are required to have a 3-4 year University degree in sports science as an absolute minimum, although most elite sporting organisations and hospitals require a master’s degree as well. With the larger amount of study, they have a detailed understanding of the human body and its acute and chronic responses to exercise. They can do what a personal trainer can do, but much more. They are trained in managing people with chronic medical conditions and musculoskeletal injuries, as well as helping elite athletes and sports teams to improve performance. Those who hire an exercise physiologist in the relevant regulated countries mentioned above are entitled to medical rebates.
Strength and Conditioning Coaches – are just as qualified as exercise physiologists, however specialise in working with elite athletes and sporting teams. Their objective is to improve the athlete’s performance and reduce the risk of injuries, essentially keeping them in best possible shape for their particular sport. Duties include long term periodised athletic development programs, nutritional programs, conditioning and energy system development, strength, power, size, agility, speed, recovery and regeneration program and implementation.
It is important to note that an exercise physiologist or strength coach’s line of work requires them to be evidence based. This means their recommendations, programs and prescriptions must be based on proven studies that are peer reviewed, valid and reliable (usually found in medical or sports science journals). Elite coaches, doctors and other sports science professionals working alongside them will constantly check that this is the case to ensure the results are obtained effectively and safely. Unfortunately, the commercial side of the fitness industry allows a high portion of personal trainers and even some ‘forgetful’ exercise physiologists to incorporate a trend or fad based approach to helping people achieve their fitness outcomes. This method provides a lot of ‘entertainment’, however, very little science, poor results and higher chance of injury. I advise to not only check the qualifications of your fitness professional, but see if they remain up to date with the latest research before hiring them.
Brett R. Taylor (BAPsc, Msc)
Strength & Conditioning Coach
Sports Authority of Thailand