The Difference Between a Personal Trainer and a Fitness Professional
Saturday, January 28, 2012
LifeTime WeightLoss in Exercise, Tom Nikkola, What makes a good personal trainer, personal training

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 This outdated approach to fitness is unfortunate because people spend significant amounts of money to have a trainer help them reach their goals.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.

Article originally appeared on LifeTime WeightLoss (
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