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The Difference Between a Personal Trainer and a Fitness Professional

The field of personal training has changed dramatically over the past decade. I remember when I started with Life Time in October of 2001. At that time, if someone was interested in personal training, we offered one-on-one sessions or Boot Camp. To help clients optimize their program, we also offered a very basic, blue Polar heart rate monitor. How the times have changed! Today, we have a variety of programs, devices, metabolic testing, lab testing, nutritional supplements and more to help personalize and optimize a client's program.

As new programs, products and devices have become available, to provide clients with the best service, personal trainers have had to grow beyond exercise experts. Unfortunately, many “gyms” today still provide personal training services similar to what was available 10 years ago. This outdated approach to fitness is unfortunate because people spend significant amounts of money to have a trainer help them reach their goals. When personal trainers focus only on exercise, it's rarely enough for people to really see a life-changing transformation. 

A fitness professional has evolved beyond working with clients just on their exercise. If you’ve worked with a trainer in the past, are working with one now or considering working with one, understand what you should be looking for so you can make the best decision with who you’re going to invest in. The following six points will help you identify whether the individual you’re considering working with is just a personal trainer, or a fitness professional. As you'll see, there is quite a difference between the two, even though in most cases, both types of professionals still carry the title "Personal Trainer."

1. Fitness professionals are adamant about lab testing

More than any of the other the tools and resources we have today (that we didn’t 10 years ago), lab testing is the one I wish would have been available. It's possible to do everything right in terms of exercise and nutrition and still not see the results you’re hoping for. Your metabolism can be a tricky thing. Without determining your internal health, you won’t know if you’re going to be able to change your external appearance.

When most people think of lab testing, they think of blood sugar and cholesterol. There’s much more to an individual’s metabolism than just lipids and glucose. Thyroid, testosterone, estrogen and other hormones affect the ability to properly manage weight. Lipid profiles help you understand the cardiovascular risk you’re starting with. Markers of inflammation can be warning signs to not overstress your body as you begin a new exercise program. Lab testing can be done through your doctor or you can order lab work yourself at Life Time. A fitness professional demands clients start with such testing at the beginning of the program. Life Time's Premium Longevity & Vitality lab package was designed to provide adults with a complete view of their internal health. Members can order it at their club. The best part is once the results come back, they get a thorough lab review with a Life Time Registered Dietitian (RD). Instead of discussing only levels that are way out of range, an RD is able to help identify nutrition, exercise and lifestyle changes to optimize individual's metabolic chemistry. Fitness professionals who don't stress the importance of this type of lab testing can't be focused on the overall health of their clients. 

2. Fitness professionals use tools and devices to enhance their programs

A variety of tools and devices exist today that can help to optimize your exercise program as well as provide feedback to your fitness professional. A heart rate monitor is one of the most commonly used devices available today. Most personal trainers have their clients use monitors. If they don’t, steer clear, because they’re really behind the times. Training by heart rate is a major key to success with cardiovascular health and fitness.

A good fitness professional will take heart rate training to a different level with his or her clients. Exercise metabolic rate assessments, or EMRs (called CardioPoints at Life Time) help define the specific heart rates you should train at for your goals. A heart rate monitor can’t do that by itself. It may provide some generic zones, but that’s not good enough for a fitness professional. Instead, a fitness professional has clients complete the metabolic assessments and then he or she customizes the settings in the heart rate monitor based on the assessment results. They also understand the value of a variety of different monitors so they can steer you in the best direction for your needs and budget. 

3. Fitness professionals coach on lifestyle as much as exercise

Your lifestyle can help or hinder the results you’re looking for from your training program. In fact, your training program should be modified based on your lifestyle. Fitness professionals pay attention to how much sleep their clients get as well as what type of stress they’re under, and modify training programs to complement their clients’ lifestyles.

How much sleep did you get last night? Did you feel rested when you woke up? How was your day at work? These and other questions are regularly asked by a fitness professional. Without knowing what’s going on in your life outside your workouts, he or she won’t know to modify your training program. By knowing the answers to these questions, a fitness professional modifies the workout on any given day based on what's going on in a client's life outside the fitness center. In addition, a fitness professional uses his or her coaching skills to help you improve your lifestyle choices. 

4. Fitness professionals are sticklers about nutrition

Fitness professionals must be sources of credible, quality nutrition and supplement information and must also know when nutrition support goes beyond their level or expertise. They may direct clients to a good registered dietitian with a strong background in health and fitness. I’m always amazed when I talk to people who have worked with personal trainers who never discussed nutrition. To me, it’s nothing more than laziness that a personal trainer wouldn’t spend time on nutrition with his or her clients. A true fitness professional understands how much of a priority nutrition and nutritional supplements are to optimal health.

5. Fitness professionals set the example

Some personal trainers come from an athletic background and are lucky enough to look good while eating a lousy diet. They think they can get by without sleep and are haphazard with their workouts. Fitness professionals understand the example they must set. They know they must live a healthy life if they’re going to be examples for their clients. Unfortunately, there are still personal trainers out there who eat fast food, drink to excess and don’t make exercise a priority. I would never hire personal trainers or dietitians for jobs if they didn’t live the life themselves. Don't judget a fitness professional by how he or she looks alone. Ask questions about their own fitness program, nutrition habits and lifestyle before you invest in a training program. If it's not an example of what you should be striving for, the individual might not be the best fit for you.

6. Fitness professionals never stop learning

The first three years of college, I focused on an exercise physiology degree. I changed to pre-med biology after my junior year. After four years of college, I thought I learned a lot. However, textbooks are rarely up to date, especially in fields like exercise, nutrition and metabolism, where we’re learning new things each day. Fitness professionals stay on top of the latest literature and studies, go to seminars, follow other experts online and find ways to expand their knowledge. It’s the only way they can remain experts in their field. If you're considering working with someone, ask him or her what he or she has learned in the past few months? What books have they read? What seminars have they attended? The more they learn, the more value they bring to you as a client. 


Investing in personal training requires a financial commitment. The quality of personal trainers across the country and from facility to facility varies dramatically. While you should expect personal trainers at Life Time to be examples of fitness professionals as described above, that may not be the case elsewhere. Your personal trainer should do far more than take you through a workout and count reps. It should go without saying that a fitness professional is an expert with program design and exercise technique, but today, that is just a basic expectation. Many people’s lives have been changed through time spent with their fitness professional. If you’re looking at working with one, consider the points above. If they don’t meet these criteria, keep looking. If they do, know that the experience can be life-changing. Investing with the right person is worth every penny the day you wake up and see a whole new you in the mirror.

Post thoughts, questions or comments below.

Written by Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (9)

This is a really important distinction and well stated. When I started my journey for transformation, I talked to several trainers and was pretty disenchanted with what they told me (including that I needed to quit my job to reach my goal - what??). It wasn't until I found a true fitness professional at LTF that every thing changed. Results: 160 lbs lost in 18 months with his help and with the utilization of all of LTF's services including the blood work, cortisol tests, metabolic tests, nutrition services with Cindi Lockhart, and, of course, working with Bruce Cooper - the very best trainer and true fitness professional that you all have. From day 1, Bruce helped me start cleaning up my diet through advice of what to be eating, enduring my questions about anatomy (why and what body part are we working on with this movement?), supplements, strength training, and definition of a cardio program monitored by my garmin HRM that is very specialized for where I am in my athletic development. Oh, and he makes fitness and healthy way of life fun -- probably the biggest benefit of all.

When I speak to others about my journey and all of the parts that are included in the LTF program and the assistance/guidance that Bruce has provided, most are amazed that you can get all of these services in one place. Additionally I've been very pleased that there is collaboration between the LTF professionals as well when blood work shows changes, or if an injury occurs. I feel like there is a team of fitness professionals focused on my agenda and helping me to reach my goal of optimum health. I haven't even thought about the 'cost' -- to me the benefit of the LTF programs and fitness professionals completely outweighs any dollar cost. I am alive, happy, have a new way of living life ... and have an entirely new body to learn to live in and love.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermichele martin

I am really disappointed to see you say that trainers that don't have their clients use HR monitors should be steered clear of. I whole heartedly disagree.....I think before putting anyone on a metabolic cart and a variety of expensive lab tests, why not assess how they are moving or breathing. Breathing is number one but I have yet to know one trainer who looks at breathing patterns....Correcting breathing patterns will be huge in anyones metabolism..... The FMS (Functional Movement Screen) is a better and cheaper way to get people to their health goals.....How do I know by sticking someone who has been pretty inactive on a treadmill is feeding a dysfunctional movement pattern?? Many people that use heart rate monitors are so addicted to the # of calories burned.....I think heart rate variability is a much better indicator for trainers to look at. I know many trainers/fitness professionals that don't use heart rate monitors, use the FMS and get outstanding results with their clients. I consider these individuals in the top 1% of trainers....I would not steer clear of the likes of Gray Cook, developer of the FMS.

I feel one of the most imortant step trainers can comply with is setting the example. If you are not doing the things you are preaching your clients to do, how can you have any credibility as a fitness professional? Members are always watching you! They watch you work out, see what you are eating in the cafe, and see if you take your supplements.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBob Holper

I confer with what linda's comment about movement as a first priority, as someone who assess movement as a starting point to set up proper program design. If, someone does not move well their cortisol levels can be elavated do to the execise stress and not moving well and the bodys survial extinct kicks in. When you have somebody moving better and their not reaching their goals ,yes, we need to know whats going on in the inside. At LT there should be no reason for someone to fail at their goal with what is available. Number six is in my opinion the most important asset for the fitness professional

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrenegade

How are they both similar? I'll never be able to afford either one.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Linda: Your comments make a lot of sense, in the in context of a training session, proper movement, range of motion and exercise technique should be a top priority. Though that isn't the case with many personal trainers, it definitely could have been a #7 on the list (not that that's the order of importance). That said, outside of the training sessions, people will do some kind of activity and though they might take several weeks to see improvements in their gait, most clients/members aren't going to wait that long to start increasing the intensity of their exercise. Especially as a new member at a fitness center, they want to get in and use it on a regular basis. A fitness professional must provide the right kind of coaching to correct breathing and movement patterns as you suggest, but they must also set up their client for success in the workouts their doing on their own. That's why we feel heart rate training is so critical. It ensures individuals are not training at an intensity where they're increasing stress hormones, and the heart rate monitor provides accountability and feedback to the fitness professional ensuring a client is not training too hard or for too long. Thanks for commenting. You brought up another important difference between a personal trainer and a fitness professional.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

What a bunch of BS. Very rarely have I seen the professionalism outlined in this article put into use by the PT's at lifetime. Trainers at Lifetime are never giving 100% attention to their clients during a session (I have seem so many times trainers glued into their smart-phone while a client executes a movement in poor form), they seem more concerned with reaching their demanding sales goal, they act as if they are still 19 and in a fraternity/sorority, many of them are clearly on steroids...the list can go on and on. To top it off, you can get better nutritional information from a "Dummies" book than from their so call nutritional expert. The supplements sold at Lifetime are overpriced for the quality. The bottom line is...the best personal trainers do not work at Lifetime, they have their own studio or work with someone who has their own.

April 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Johnson

When I first read this article several months ago it was like a check list, check, check, check. Working with a "Fitness Professional" for the past year has involved many of these concepts. Even so I respect and find interesting the diverse commentary. Its a process and what motivates each of us to succeed in achieving our objectives is different. As with any large organization, some individuals or programs are destined to be All Stars, others are not, and the labeling is subjective to our own needs. I view my experiences as input to my process, some have worked others have not. What I do know is that working through the process with PT Ryan Maxwell at WBL has helped me positively redirect my life toward healthier living habits. Fortunately I was lucky to be connected with an All Star from the beginning. His attention to my overall program, together and on my own, is both professional and personal. He cares about his clients and the results speak for themselves.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPamila McDonald

Very valuable post. This article will help us in our <personal trainers business in Singapore. Some helpful insights and information we can use. Thanks a lot!

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Heirs

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