Athletic Trainers vs. Personal Trainers: What’s The Difference?

By Alex Hoffmann on September, 8 2021
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Alex Hoffmann

Dr. Alex Hoffmann is the President of the College of Exercise Science. He earned a doctorate in Sports Management from the United States Sports Academy, a master's degree in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton, and a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Central College. Prior to his career in academia, Dr. Hoffmann worked as Master Fitness Trainer course instructor for the United States Army, and as a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer, and nutritionist.

Have you ever noticed those people on the sidelines of collegiate and professional sports competitions who run out on the field to help an injured athlete? They're the same ones who can be seen handing out ice packs, tapping an athlete before a game, and generally tending to any injuries team members might have. They are athletic trainers. They offer different professional services than personal trainers. They serve a much different population, have a different job description, and require a much different education than personal trainers. Let's dig into the differences between a certified athletic trainer and a certified personal trainer.

Athletic Trainers vs. Personal Trainers: What’s The Difference?

 

Personal Trainers

A personal trainer is concerned with the overall fitness of their clients. First and foremost, they ensure that proper exercise technique is used. They follow proper protocols for warm ups and cool downs. They understand how to manipulate training variables to help clients achieve improved cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and safe range of motion without overtraining.

Fitness trainers lead by example. They coach clients through exercise routines. They offer practical guidance in nutrition to positively influence clients to make healthy food choices. Perhaps most importantly, personal training professionals educate and motivate clients to achieve their desired fitness goals through sound exercise science principles.

Personal trainers work with varied populations including: senior citizens, youth and young adults, corporate workers, skilled trades people, weekend warriors, and athletes. How are athletic trainers (ATs) different?

 

Athletic Trainers

Athletic trainers are primarily focused on injury prevention and physical therapy. However, when on the sidelines, they offer emergency care and therapeutic intervention.

Athletic trainers work with athletes exclusively.

Their scope of work is primarily physical therapy, not exercise science. They treat both acute and chronic injuries for the injured athlete under their care. Personal trainers, on the other hand, cannot legally treat injuries.  

 

Is An Athletic Trainer the Same As A Personal Trainer?

Both athletic trainers and personal trainers have training in the areas of anatomy and physiology. They’re both exercise science professionals with a broad understanding of exercise physiology and the benefits of physical fitness. The biggest distinctions between a certified athletic trainer and a certified personal trainer are their areas of expertise and application.

 

Athletic Trainers Education

Here is the short list of undergraduate courses required to earn your bachelor's degree as an athletic trainer.

  • Anatomy
  • Exercise physiology
  • Trigonometry
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Kinesiology
  • First aid
  • Orthopedic assessment
  • Therapeutic modalities
  • Therapeutic rehabilitation

To get a job as an athletic trainer, the bachelor’s degree must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Trainer Certification

 

How Long Does it Take to Become an Athletic Trainer?

It typically takes students four years to earn a bachelor's degree in exercise science. But, if you want to be competitive, plan on earning your master's degree in sports medicine. At least 70% of all ATs have their master's degree. That will tack on an additional two years of training, totaling about six years of athletic training education.

Students invest countless practicum and internship hours in their field. A typical semester includes classroom time, studying, lab work, and time spent serving sports teams on and off the field. 

You might be thinking, "wow, that's a lot of work! Do athletic trainers need to go to medical school?” No. In fact, even if you went to medical school, you wouldn't be prepared for work as an athletic trainer because many of the necessary skill sets can only be learned through doing the work. 

 

Personal Trainers Education

Do personal trainers need a college degree? No. You do not need a college education to earn an exercise science certification and start training clients. There are, however, a few requirements you must meet if you want to become a certified trainer:

  1. Must be 18 years old.
  2. Must be CPR/AED certified.
  3. Must have a high school diploma.

To keep certification, the personal fitness trainer must meet continuing education requirements. These vary depending on the certifying body.

 

How Long Does it Take to Become a Personal Trainer?

An individual can become a personal trainer as fast as it takes them to consume the coursework, successfully pass a certification test, and find a gym to train clients. This may take just a couple of weeks for some.

Previous generations used to place much more value in certifications. Unfortunately, the personal training industry is still under-regulated. Buyers today want to see certifications and a relevant background and education. To become a reputable and successful fitness coach, it's best to earn an exercise science degree from an accredited school.

Our curriculum for personal trainers includes six individual personal training certification courses. Complete your associate's degree in just two years and earn personal training certifications as you learn with these courses:

  • Certified Fitness Trainer
  • Medical terminology
  • Professional Nutrition Coach
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Specialist in Strength and Conditioning
  • English composition
  • Specialist in Group Fitness
  • College math
  • Corrective Exercise Specialist
  • General psychology
  • Youth Fitness Trainer
  • Intro to sociology
  • Specialist in Exercise Therapy
  • Effective communication
  • Bodybuilding Specialist
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Interpersonal relations

Can Personal Trainers Train Athletes?

Yes! Qualified personal trainers can practically train anyone that walks, runs, or wheels through the door. That said, elite athletes -- those playing at the semi- or professional levels -- will likely choose a certified athletic trainer specific to their sport and needs. That doesn’t mean you won’t get your shot training someone at the elite level. It just means you’ll have to earn that opportunity through hard work and dedication.

 

How To Become A Personal Trainer For Athletes

This is a common question without a clear cut answer. There are many paths to achieving this goal. Of course, an athletic training education will give you the foundation you need. Experience and a background in sports will leverage your education and give you credibility.

If you have an education and qualified background, reach out to people in the sport you want to work with. Ask to watch from the sidelines during practice and games. Volunteer to train junior players. Offer value to the people and the sport and you'll get noticed.

If you are brand new to fitness, it's best to train individuals who generally need more physical activity. Seniors and youth often present challenges similar to those in athletes. From chronic injuries in seniors to poor form in youth, you'll come across many of the same issues found in athletes.

 

Athletic Trainer vs. Personal Trainer Salary

The average annual salary for a personal trainer is $36,000. The average annual salary for an athletic trainer is $49,000. Personal trainers can work in the gym, on a cruise ship, at a private studio, in their home, at local parks, or in clients' homes. Athletic trainers are limited to the fields and arenas their teams play in. They may also find themselves on the road quite often for travel games.

Personal trainers may need to provide their own liability insurance, owners insurance, and other benefits. An athletic trainer will receive those benefits from their employers.

Keep in mind that we live in a digital age. Online personal training is gaining steam and has become a popular option for many. You could find a very successful career as an online personal trainer.

When it comes to athletic trainers vs. personal trainers, you’ll find there are more opportunities for personal trainers. Athletic trainers are limited to sports, whereas fitness coaches can work with clients from young to old. If you’re someone who enjoys learning, people, and constantly strives to be your best, then becoming a personal trainer could be just what you’ve been looking for

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Alex Hoffmann

Dr. Alex Hoffmann is the President of the College of Exercise Science. He earned a doctorate in Sports Management from the United States Sports Academy, a master's degree in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton, and a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Central College. Prior to his career in academia, Dr. Hoffmann worked as Master Fitness Trainer course instructor for the United States Army, and as a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer, and nutritionist.

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