Physical Therapist vs. Personal Trainer: What’s the Difference?

The physical therapist and the personal trainer are often seen within the same spectrum of healthcare and fitness.

However, in reality, they are vastly different professions.

Understanding these differences helps you choose the right path for your physical health, fitness goals, or even career.

In this article, we’ll explore both roles. We’ll explore their educational background, responsibilities, work environments, and more from professional and potential client perspectives.

What Is a Physical Therapist and What Do They Do?

A physical therapist (PT) is a licensed healthcare professional who assesses, diagnoses, and helps injured or ill people improve movement and manage pain.1

They evaluate and treat various medical conditions and impairments that affect the human body, including:

  • Bones and muscles
  • Heart and lungs
  • Brain and nervous system
  • Skin

Education and Licensing Requirements

To practice as a physical therapist, you must first earn a doctor of physical therapy degree from a physical therapist education program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education and pass a state licensure exam.

It’s an extensive education that takes around three years to complete, including classroom, lab, and clinical studies.

Completing a doctorate of physical therapy degree program equips a physical therapist with extensive knowledge of the human body and the musculoskeletal system.

Collaboration with Other Professionals

Physical therapists work closely with doctors, surgeons, and other healthcare professionals to provide a multi-faceted approach to patient care.

Many PTs integrate holistic medicine into their practice by looking at more than a static snapshot of a patient’s physical health. It means considering outside factors like diet, stress, and overall lifestyle.

Practice Settings and Techniques

A physical therapist often practices in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and rehabilitation centers.

They employ various modalities to enhance patients’ daily activities, quality of life, and overall physical health.2

Some examples include:

  • Electrical stimulation
  • Biofeedback
  • Laser therapy
  • Thermotherapy
  • Mechanical traction
  • Cryotherapy
  • Ultrasound
  • Massage

Role in Treatment and Recovery

Physical therapy helps restore and improve functionality, range of motion, and mobility. It is beneficial in many chronic diseases, musculoskeletal injuries, surgical procedures, and other health conditions. PT can reduce the need for surgery and prescription medication.

A customized PT treatment plan may include specific exercises tailored to individual needs, joint mobilization, massage therapy, and other methods to alleviate pain and improve mobility.

Physical therapists play an essential role in preventative care. They educate patients on proper techniques to avoid future injuries or worsen old injuries.

Collaboration with Assistants

In addition to their standard practice, physical therapists often collaborate with physical therapist assistants, who assist in executing treatment plans.3

The teamwork ensures that patients receive consistent and personalized care. catering to their specific needs, whether recovering from a surgical procedure or seeking relief from chronic ailments.

A physical therapist assistant is required to have an associate’s degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. It is one of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the US.4 5

Specializations in Physical Therapy

Physical therapists can go beyond the basic skills of their profession and specialize in a particular type of practice.

For example, PTs may focus on senior fitness, working with older adults to maintain muscle strength, flexibility, and an active lifestyle.

Others might specialize in orthopedic physical therapy, treating musculoskeletal injuries like fractures, strains, or arthritis.

Specializing requires years of experience, training, and sometimes additional certification. It allows PTs to offer expert care to a specific group of patients.

Physical Therapy in Athletic Recovery

Physical therapists also play a vital role in treating athletic injuries.

They bridge the gap between medical treatment and fitness levels suitable for regular physical activity, exercise, and athletic performance.

Some PTs work closely with athletic and post-physical therapy trainers to ensure a smooth transition for athletes recovering from injuries. This cooperation enables an athlete to return to their old routine as quickly as possible.

Referrals and Timely Intervention

The outcome of many injuries and physical ailments depends on starting physical therapy as soon as possible, and referrals can take too long for optimal results.

PTs with extensive experience in rehabilitation programs can significantly impact a patient’s recovery process, from regaining lost functionality to improving their overall quality of life.

In most states, physical therapists have “direct access” to patients. That means you can see a PT without needing a physician’s referral.

This accessibility can be critical in offering timely intervention, especially in cases requiring immediate attention.

However, it is always a good idea to contact your insurance company first, as some require a referral to pay.

Financial Aspects and Job Outlook

In terms of financial aspects, physical therapists often enjoy higher salaries than other healthcare professions, thanks to their unique skill set and educational background.

The U.S. News & World Report ranked physical therapist as the #6 overall best job based on median salary, unemployment rate, stress levels, 10-year growth prospects, and other factors.6

In summary, physical therapists play a multifaceted role in healthcare. They have extensive knowledge of how the body performs physical movements and bring specialized skills to address a broad spectrum of physical needs, often collaborating with other medical professionals,

Their ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent injuries and medical problems puts them at the forefront of enhancing the quality of life for their patients.

Physical therapists are vital in healthcare, whether working on rehabilitation, preventative care, or specialized treatments, guiding patients towards a healthier, more active life.

What Is a Personal Trainer and What Do They Do?

A personal trainer is a certified fitness professional responsible for helping individuals achieve their fitness goals: weight loss, muscle strength, or enhancing athletic performance.

personal trainer with clitent athlete

Unlike physical therapists who cater to rehabilitation or recovery from medical issues or surgery, personal trainers primarily work with healthy individuals or those who aspire to get in better shape.

Education and Certification

Becoming a certified personal trainer often starts with earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or a related field.

A degree is not a requirement, though.

There are no official higher education requirements for personal trainers. You don’t need to complete any doctoral programs.

Still, the foundational knowledge provided by a degree in exercise science, physical education, or sports medicine benefits both the personal trainer and future clients.

Along with academic qualifications, personal trainers usually obtain a personal training certification from recognized organizations such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

These certifications ensure that the trainer has extensive knowledge of human anatomy, proper technique, exercise programming, and first aid, among other vital skills.

Again, no law says you must be certified to call yourself a personal trainer or do personal training. However, you’ll likely find getting hired without a certification challenging, and insurance companies might not provide you with a policy without one.

Personalized Approach to Fitness

Personal trainers create individualized workout programs tailored to their client’s specific needs and fitness levels.

They offer guidance, motivation, and expertise, ensuring clients stay on the right track and progress in their fitness journey.

These programs may involve strength training, corrective exercise to fix imbalances, group exercise classes, and nutritional guidance. However, they do not aim to treat medical conditions.

Personal Training Beyond the Workout Routine

The role of a personal trainer extends beyond designing a workout routine.

A personal trainer is an educator, teaching clients the proper technique to avoid injuries and make the most of their training sessions.

They may work with post-physical therapy trainers, guiding clients safely back into regular exercise routines after recovery from an injury.

Beyond the focus on athletic performance and body composition, the preventative care of a personal trainer helps clients lead an active lifestyle while minimizing the risk of injury or preventing old injuries from resurfacing.

Engagement and Lifestyle Coaching

A significant part of a personal trainer’s job is keeping clients engaged and motivated.

Personal trainers offer continual support, track progress, and adjust training programs as needed.

They also provide lifestyle coaching to promote overall health, including nutrition guidance, sleep, stress management, and more.

Collaboration and Work Environments

Personal trainers often collaborate with other fitness professionals, like athletic trainers and massage therapists, to provide a comprehensive fitness program.

They may work in gyms, fitness centers, private health clubs or offer online training sessions.

Many personal trainers’ work environments are dynamic, catering to various fitness levels and goals. Their clients range from beginners to professional athletes, in different places, from the gym floor to interactive fitness apps.

Personal Training Specializations

Specializations within personal training, such as senior fitness and corrective exercise, allow trainers to cater to diverse populations.

For instance, trainers specializing in senior fitness focus on maintaining muscle mass, flexibility, and functional abilities in older adults.

Those specializing in corrective exercise might work closely with healthcare professionals to ensure proper care for clients recovering from injuries or preventing an old injury from flaring up.

Other personal trainers target clients interested in improving performance and body composition, from general fitness enthusiasts to athletes and bodybuilders.

Impact on Community Health

Personal trainers also play a role in community health, promoting regular exercise and preventative care.

In a world where chronic diseases, many at least partly caused by physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle, are prevalent, their emphasis on physical fitness contributes to better overall health and quality of life.

Opportunities for Growth

The personal training profession offers various opportunities for growth and development.

  • Some personal trainers transition into management roles within gyms or health clubs, overseeing other trainers, developing programs, and managing the facility.
  • Personal trainers with an entrepreneurial spirit can open their own training studio or start an online fitness business.
  • Larger businesses often employ personal trainers to create and manage employee wellness programs. Personal training as part of corporate healthcare can provide a more predictable income.
  • Online coaching is a growing field in the fitness industry. It allows you to reach clients worldwide through online platforms and apps like StrengthLog Coach. Online personal training can be more lucrative than on the gym floor.

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Personal trainers help people achieve their fitness goals, lead healthy lives, and improve their overall well-being.

They teach proper exercise techniques, customize workout programs, and help improve their clients’ body composition, motivation, and mindset.

Whether working with a beginner looking to embark on a fitness journey or an athlete aiming for peak performance, personal trainers offer insights, support, and direction in pursuing physical fitness and health.

Online Personal Training

Online personal training is convenient and flexible.

Through a virtual platform, it allows clients access to customized workout plans and nutritional guidance tailored to their specific needs and abilities.

For the personal trainer, benefits include reaching a broader client base without the limitation of geographical location and working with more clients without overlap in scheduling.

This option enables real-time communication with a certified trainer, providing support, motivation, and personalized adjustments. It can include video demonstrations, live sessions, and tracking tools to monitor progress.

How to Be a Great Personal Trainer: StrengthLog Coach programs & workouts.
StrengthLog Coach allows you to write workouts and training programs for your clients in an app they’ll love to use.

It can be more cost effective for both the trainer and the client. It also allows the client to train from the comfort of their home or any preferred location.

However, the virtual nature of online training means a lack of hands-on guidance found in a traditional gym setting.

Read more:

>> 13 Pros and Cons of Online Personal Training

Physical Therapist vs. Personal Trainer: Differences and Similarities

Both physical therapists and personal trainers are professionals committed to improving physical health.

However, their roles, responsibilities, and targeted populations differ significantly.

Scope of Practice

One of the most pronounced differences lies in the scope of practice.

  • Physical therapists are healthcare professionals specializing in medical conditions. That includes rehabilitation and improving the quality of life for those with chronic diseases or musculoskeletal injuries.
  • They may apply manual therapy, electrical stimulation, and therapeutic exercises to restore range of motion and functionality.
  • The role of a physical therapist may also involve collaboration with physical therapist assistants, other medical professionals, and private organizations to ensure comprehensive care.

On the other hand, personal trainers are fitness professionals working with healthy individuals or those with health challenges. They focus on enhancing quality of life, improving physical fitness and performance, and promoting health behavior changes.

  • A personal trainer’s primary concern is promoting physical fitness, weight loss when needed, muscle strength, and an active lifestyle. 
  • Personal trainers may collaborate with athletic trainers, massage therapists, and sometimes medical professionals for specialized care like corrective exercise. However, their main clientele consists of individuals looking to achieve fitness goals rather than those recovering from significant health conditions.

Educational Requirements

Educational requirements for these two professions vary considerably.

  • Physical therapists must earn a doctorate degree in physical therapy and pass the national physical therapy examination. Continuous education courses and state board regulations further define their practice.
  • Although not required, personal trainers may have a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or a related field. A personal training certification from reputable organizations is also technically not needed, but often a necessity in practice to find work.

Personal training emphasizes exercise programming, proper technique, and understanding individual fitness needs rather than medical treatment.

Work Environments and Populations Served

Another key difference is the work environment of the two professions.

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists often work in outpatient clinics, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers, treating patients with medical conditions, surgical procedures, and specific physical impairments.

physical therapy in hospital

Their interventions aim to improve daily activities and quality of life and prevent further deterioration in the case of chronic conditions.

Persoinal Trainers

Personal trainers, on the other hand, primarily work in gyms, fitness centers, or private studios.

Their clients are often healthy individuals seeking weight loss, muscle mass gain, or enhanced athletic performance. The focus is on reaching fitness goals rather than dealing with medical conditions.

Financial Aspects

Financial considerations, such as higher salaries for physical therapists due to their extensive educational background and specialized skills, further distinguish the professions.

Physical therapists made a median salary of $97,960 in 2022, while the average salary of a personal trainer was $50,170.7 8

Personal trainers’ incomes might vary depending on experience, certifications, and the specific services offered. Great personal trainers with long experience of working with elite athletes command a much higher salary than someone freshly certified.

Collaborative Roles

In terms of similarities, both professions strive for the well-being of their clients.

In a perfect world, physical therapists and personal trainers collaborate to provide seamless care.

  • Physical therapists help individuals overcome medical limitations.
  • Personal trainers maintain or elevate physical fitness, emphasizing regular exercise and preventative care.

Also, both fields offer various specializations such as orthopedics, senior fitness, and more, allowing practitioners to cater to diverse populations.

The key differences and similarities between physical therapists and personal trainers help identify the best option for specific health or fitness needs.

From educational background to the scope of practice, both professions cater to different aspects of physical well-being.

Physical therapists focus on medical care, rehabilitation, and improving the overall quality of life, while personal trainers emphasize achieving fitness goals and maintaining an active lifestyle.

Together, they form a comprehensive network of professionals dedicated to enhancing physical health and well-being, each playing a vital role in helping people live healthier lives.

How to Choose Between a Physical Therapist and Personal Trainer

The choice between a physical therapist and a personal trainer hinges on individual needs, medical conditions, fitness goals, and overall health.

Assessing Your Needs

Here’s what you should consider when choosing between a physical therapist and a personal trainer.

Medical Conditions and Rehabilitation

If you’re dealing with a medical condition, chronic diseases, injuries to your muscles or bones, or recovering from a surgical procedure, a licensed physical therapist is likely the way to go.

With a doctor of physical therapy degree, extensive knowledge of the human body, and experience in treating specific ailments, PTs can provide a customized treatment plan. This plan may include manual therapy, electrical stimulation, joint mobilization, and therapeutic exercises aimed at improving your range of motion, daily activities, and quality of life.

Fitness Goals and Healthy Lifestyle

A certified personal trainer is likely the best fit if you’re a healthy individual looking to achieve fitness goals like losing weight, building muscle mass, or enhancing athletic performance.

An exercise trainer can design a personal training program catering to your needs and fitness levels.

Personal trainers provide guidance on proper technique, exercise programming, and motivation to keep you focused and making progress. They can also offer specialized programs such as senior fitness or corrective exercise, aligning with your unique goals.

What to Look For in a Physical Therapist and Personal Trainer

Physical Therapist

Unless referred to a specific PT by your doctor, look for a licensed physical therapist with a doctorate and relevant experience in your medical condition.

PTs often work in outpatient clinics or rehabilitation centers and collaborate with other healthcare professionals.

Check their specializations, years of experience, and patient reviews to ensure they match your needs.

Personal Trainer

Seek a certified personal trainer with credentials from a recognized organization like ISSA, ACE, or NASM.

Evaluate their education in exercise science or a related field, and ensure they have the expertise to guide your fitness journey.

A good personal trainer will assess your fitness levels, provide a workout program tailored to you, and support your progress toward better shape and overall health.

Read more: 

>> How to Be a Great Personal Trainer

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Collaboration and Transition

In some cases, you might require a combination of both physical therapy and personal training.

If transitioning from a medical rehabilitation program into regular exercise, a collaboration between your physical therapist and a personal trainer can make it a seamless process.

The PT can provide specific exercises and guidelines for the personal trainer, ensuring the workout routine aligns with your recovery and long-term fitness plan.

Cost and Accessibility

Unfortunately, money can be a limiting factor in fitness and physical therapy.

Consider the financial aspects, including insurance coverage, if you require physical therapy.

  • Physical therapists might command higher salaries and charge accordingly, but the investment in your health could be invaluable.
  • Personal training sessions might vary in cost depending on the trainer’s experience, expertise, certifications, and training programs offered.

Assess what fits your budget while meeting your quality of life and fitness needs.

Choosing between a physical therapist and a personal trainer comes down to assessing your specific situation, whether it’s a medical need, rehabilitation, fitness goal, or an active lifestyle aspiration.

Take the time to research the educational background, training sessions, and scope of practice. Look carefully at what each professional offers to make an informed decision that fits your needs.

Whether it’s a PT guiding you through a complex medical recovery or a dedicated personal trainer steering you towards your fitness goals, selecting the right professional is a critical step towards improved physical health and well-being.

Also, consult with medical professionals if you have any underlying health conditions. That way, you ensure you choose the option that most effectively supports your path toward wellness.

Final Words

Physical therapists and personal trainers cater to varied physical needs.

While physical therapists focus on rehabilitation and treating injuries, personal trainers work with individuals to achieve fitness goals and maintain an active lifestyle.

Selecting the right professional is essential for all clients and patients, whether recovering from a surgical procedure, seeking relief from chronic ailments, or simply embarking on a workout program to stay fit.

Both physical therapists and personal trainers play vital roles in improving the physical well-being of their clients. Their collaboration creates an ideal blend of medical care and fitness training to promote an active, healthy life for all.

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  1. Occupational Outlook Handbook – Physical Therapists.
  2. PM&R Knowledge NOW: Therapeutic Modalities
  3. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides.
  4. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides.
  5. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Fastest Growing Occupations.
  6. US.News: 100 Best Jobs
  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physical Therapists.
  8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Exercise Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors.
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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas is a certified nutrition coach with over three decades of training experience. He has followed and reported on the research fields of exercise, nutrition, and health for almost as long and is a specialist in metabolic health and nutrition coaching for athletes. Read more about Andreas and StrengthLog by clicking here.