Abbreviations are intended to make our lives easier when, in fact, they can sometimes confuse us even further. This commonly occurs while discussing the roles of personal trainers and physical therapists, both frequently referred to as “PTs.” To add to the confusion, both professionals are valued members of the health, wellness, and fitness communities—with some overlapping skills and abilities.
What is the actual difference between a personal trainer and physical therapist, and how can you determine which fitness professional is right for you? Let’s delve in deeper to understand the role of each profession, and you can review the summary of each professional’s purpose, intended populations, education, cost, accessibility, and specialties to help you decide which one is best suited for your particular needs.
The Role of a Personal Trainer
The role of a certified personal trainer is to act as a trained professional who is knowledgeable about specific health and wellness goals, such as weight management, gaining muscular strength, increasing flexibility, or improving cardiovascular endurance. He or she may work one-on-one or in a group setting to deliver personalized care that is tailored to meet the needs of each individual.
Some personal trainers may be specialized in specific areas such as human/athletic performance, post-rehabilitation wellness goals, and special populations (like pediatrics or seniors).
The Role of a Physical Therapist
The role of a physical therapist is to act as a licensed healthcare professional with extensive knowledge about the human body and how illness, injury, or disease can negatively affect and impair the body’s movements. Physical therapists can be found in any healthcare setting along the recovery spectrum, from hospitals to outpatient facilities to schools.
Some physical therapists choose to specialize in a particular system of the body including cardiopulmonary, orthopedics, neuro, or women’s health physical therapy.
Fitness Professional Overview
|To train relatively healthy individuals reach their individual fitness goals
|To rehabilitate individuals who have suffered from a change in movement due to illness, injury, or disease
|Training and certification through a credentialing body like ACE, ACSM, or ISSA
Post-graduate degree plus state-issued licensure
|Typically charge an hourly rate and may not be covered by insurance companies
|Can usually be covered under insurance plans
|Can be found through online searches, friends/family, or other professionals
|May require a referral from physician if direct access is not available (varies by state and country)
|Athletics/human performance, weight management, disease prevention, orthopedics, special populations, yoga/pilates
|Cardiopulmonary, neuro, ortho, pediatrics, sports, vestibular, women’s health
While there are some similarities between both fitness professionals, there are many differences that can help you to decide between the two. If you are a relatively healthy individual and can exercise without difficulty, then a certified personal trainer may be best suited for your needs. However, if you have a complicated medical history/condition or have difficulty safely performing physical activity, then seeing a physical therapist may be your best option.
The bottom line
As with any industry, there are some ways to tell when you have found the right trainer or therapist. Check his/her credentials, level of experience/expertise, and confirm costs before you begin working with either fitness professional. Here is a great article by Daniel on The Top 10 Things to Consider When Choosing a Personal Trainer that highlights more tips on selecting the right trainer.
Still have questions on how to choose the right fitness professional to meet your health and wellness goals? Ask us below, and we can share our recommendations. While we cannot provide medical advice through this platform, we can help you to identify the best resource for you.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist