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Whether you’re a personal trainer already or thinking of jumping into this career, it’s important to understand all the related jobs and roles. As a trainer, you can also be a coach, but are you limited as to what you can coach?
A health coach is a different career from personal training, but there are areas of overlap. Get to know the differences, what they have in common, and why you might want to consider being both.
The roles these health and fitness professionals play are surprisingly different. Yes, they overlap, and one person can be both, but there are crucial differences. First, a couple of definitions:
Personal trainer. A certified personal trainer is a fitness professional who works with clients to achieve fitness-related goals. They design workouts, teach and correct form, lead training sessions, assess fitness measures, and make adjustments to training as needed.
Health coach. A health coach works with clients to reach physical health goals. They help clients set goals, make healthy lifestyle and diet changes, and find the motivation to achieve their goals. They provide education, motivation, and strategies and act as guides and cheerleaders for clients on health journeys.
These two professions have a lot in common. They both require expertise in health and fitness. They involve working with and educating clients, helping them meet goals. Both require a passion for wellness, a willingness to keep learning, and an ability to work with people and provide motivation and inspiration. There are also important differences:
Personal training is strictly about fitness, even if the client has personal goals for getting healthier or losing weight. A skilled trainer creates workouts and instructs clients in how to exercise effectively and with proper form.
Health coaching has a wider scope. It involves many aspects of physical health, including fitness and weight, nutrition and diet, stress management, sleep hygiene, time management, and lifestyle habits like drinking and smoking.
It’s important to note here that the scope of practice for a health coach does have limits. A health coach does not have the same certification as a dietician or medical professional. They cannot recommend a specific diet or attempt to treat a medical condition (nor can personal trainers).
Health coaching is a relatively new career. Learn more about the specific duties of a health coach here.
Coaching goes above and beyond training. You can work out with a trainer once or twice per week with no other goal than to work out once or twice a week. A health and fitness coach is more involved in a client’s long-term changes and progress.
Both trainers and health coaches have some variety and choice in where they work. However, the vast majority of personal trainers operate out of gyms. You may have a little flexibility with a home gym, going to a client, or training outside.
Health coaches, on the other hand, don’t necessarily meet clients in the gym. They might, if working on fitness on a particular day. Otherwise, they work with clients in a home or rented office, in public places, outdoors, or virtually.
In both roles, the professional provides services to meet the needs of the client but in different ways. A trainer leads the workout, telling the client what to do and guiding form and movements.
A health coach takes a more client-led approach. They turn more control over to the client, acting more as a guide or mentor. They offer guidance and motivation but encourage clients to make more decisions themselves: how and when to work out, meals and snacks, stress management strategies, and scheduling activities.
Neither health coaches nor personal trainers need to have a certification, license, or specific education to legally use these titles. No states have requirements in place for these professions.
This doesn’t mean that you can have a successful career without education and credentials, of course. To be a trainer, you’ll find most gyms require that you hold a certification. As a health coach, clients may not take you on without a credential.
While both careers require certification for the best results, the programs are not the same. A personal trainer certification is separate from a health coach certification. They may have some similar courses, but the skills and core competencies are mostly different.
Both of these careers can be rewarding and lucrative, but you may be better suited to one over the other.
Both careers have many benefits in common. They both allow you to monetize a passion for health and fitness. They involve working with and helping people, which can be so rewarding.
Some of the pros of health coaching are that you get to know clients in greater depth. It can be so meaningful to follow one client through their journey to better health and celebrate the wins with them. You also have a bit more flexibility to work virtually and to freelance.
Personal training as a career is growing rapidly. Qualified, certified trainers should have no problem finding a job wherever in almost any location. Training is also a great career if you love being in the gym. If you never want to leave it, this could be the career for you.
Personal training is not quite as flexible as health coaching. You typically need to be with your client, usually in a gym, to do your job. Or even if you’re an online trainer, your client needs access to space and equipment for their workout. Another potential con is that you have to be active, even on days you feel tired.
On the other hand, a con of health coaching may be that there is less stability. It’s still a new career and finding employment may not always be easy. If you don’t want to start your own business, finding work can be challenging.
You’ll see a lot of different terms for professionals in the health and fitness industry. Some have different meanings, while others are essentially alternative names for the same role. Some people use terms interchangeably and others recognize unique differences.
Here are a couple more professions you may encounter in the industry and what they mean:
Wellness coach. This is very similar to a health coach. A wellness coach works with clients to help them achieve health and wellness goals. The main difference is that wellness has a more holistic focus. It usually includes not just physical health but also mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Life coach. Some people might think these roles are similar, but there are some major differences when considering health coach vs life coach. Life coaching focuses more on a person's personal and professional goals related to their sense of purpose and passion. Coaching sessions might be geared more toward career and finances, parenting, and relationships. However, lifestyle coaching, wellness coaching, and health coaching may overlap in their goals to help clients build healthy habits with diet and exercise.
Fitness coach. There are subtle differences between a personal trainer and a fitness coach. The difference comes down to trainer vs. coach. A coach focuses more on long-term goals and helping clients reach them. A trainer can be a coach, and in fact, all trainers should aspire to this role to get better results for clients.
Fitness trainer. The term fitness trainer isn’t used as often as personal trainer, but it is essentially the same thing.
If you’re a personal trainer, you may have read the description of a coach thinking it sounds a lot like you already. The best trainers do more than just lead people through workouts. They become coaches, providing exercise, goal-setting, motivation, and accountability.
Maybe you already act as a coach, so why not add health coach to your list of services. A health coach certification allows you to expand client offerings with confidence. Many people are looking for more than just a workout. They want accountability and help making significant lifestyle changes.
As more people recognize that wellness is more than just fitness, they will increasingly demand someone who can meet all health needs. Consider becoming a health coach and a personal trainer to better serve your clients.
If being a health coach sounds like your dream career, check out the ISSA’s Certified Health Coach program. Complete it online and learn everything you need to get started.
ISSA's Health Coach certification is for personal trainers and other health professionals who want to help clients overcome physical and mental health barriers to achieve their optimal wellness.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Fitness Trainers and Instructors, at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/fitness-trainers-and-instructors.htm (visited September 08, 2022).