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Wellness Coach vs Personal Trainer – What’s the Difference?

Reading Time: 5 minutes 58 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2021-12-14T00:00:00-05:00


When you think of a coach, you probably think of someone who works with a sports team. Maybe you remember your high school basketball or cross country coach. They planned your workouts and practices, strategized for games, gave pep talks, and if good at their job, led you and your teammates to perform at your best.

Coaching is no longer just for athletes and sports teams. Individuals increasingly hire life coaches, health coaches, and health and wellness coaches. If you’re a fitness professional, or thinking of getting into the industry, it’s important to know this career trend, what it means, and if it’s right for you. A wellness coach and a personal trainer is not the same thing.

Differences Between a Wellness Coach and a Personal Trainer

While they overlap to some degree, there are some significant differences between these two positions. Personal training is more focused on fitness, weight, and body composition goals. Wellness coaching or health coaching is broader and includes developing more healthy lifestyle habits in general.

What Does a Personal Trainer Do?

The roles and duties of a personal trainer can vary to some degree, but generally they include:

  • Meeting with new clients to do initial fitness assessments

  • Discussing fitness and weight goals

  • Planning workouts to meet those goals

  • Demonstrating exercises, form, and technique

  • Watching clients to ensure they use proper form

  • Providing motivation for workouts

  • Assigning additional workouts for outside of sessions

  • Monitoring progress toward goals and adjusting workouts as you go

  • Educating clients about fitness, health, and exercise

  • Leading group fitness classes

In other words, a personal trainer is someone who helps their clients workout and meet fitness-related goals. Sometimes this means losing weight, but goals can range from adding muscle mass to getting stronger, to beating a personal best in a 5K race.

Make sure you understand the scope of practice for personal training before starting a career, especially in regard to nutrition.

What Does a Wellness Coach Do?

You may hear this term used interchangeably with health coach or even life coach. Wellness coaches have a broader role in helping clients meet their goals. They provide motivation, education, and guidance for making long-term lifestyle changes for all areas of wellness, not just fitness.

Like personal trainers, they listen to their clients to help develop goals. Unlike personal training goals, these can be broad enough to include fitness and weight goals as well as targets related to diet, nutrition, overall physical health, and even mental health.

Health, wellness, or life coaching is a more holistic approach. The coach looks at more aspects of a client’s life, from what they eat and how active they are to how they manage stress and how things like work or family contributes to or detracts from health and wellness.

Working with a coach is like a collaboration. The health coach and client work together to set goals, identify strengths and weaknesses, and plan strategies to make lifestyle changes for better health.

Wellness Coaching Puts the Focus on Behavioral Changes

One of the most important aspects of wellness coaching is the emphasis on behavioral change. The goal of working with a coach is not simply to achieve a number on the scale or to develop a healthy eating plan. It is to make lasting changes to develop healthier habits for a lifetime of greater wellness.

This means that there is an element of coaching related to psychology, but don’t expect to be a therapist. As with personal training, there is a scope of practice for a wellness coach, and it does not include genuine therapy.

Coaches do, however, use some elements of therapy and psychology to help clients change problematic behaviors and develop new habits. This is one of the most important aspects of coaching. The job of a wellness coach is to help clients change how they treat their minds and bodies.

Wellness Coach vs Personal Trainer – Workplace

Another important distinction between these two professionals is where they work. Both are careers well suited to freelancing and small businesses. In either role, you can be entrepreneurial, starting up your own business, networking to get clients, and working out of rented gym space, your home, or even online.

Those that work for companies or as employees tend to separate into different settings. The majority of employed personal trainers work in gyms. Employers of health and wellness coaches are more varied: gyms, spas, health resorts and corporate wellness centers, hospitals and medical centers, and even companies that provide coaching as a benefit to employees.

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Wellness Coach vs Personal Trainer – What’s the Difference?, Personal Trainer and Client

Certification for Personal Training and Wellness Coaching

Neither of these professions are regulated to the extent that you must have a certification. On the other hand, clients are much more likely to hire a certified coach or trainer. Getting clients on your roster isn’t the only reason to get certified. For both careers, certification plays an important role:

  • Programs for certification help standardize the industry.

  • Certification holds individuals accountable to standards.

  • It brings professionalism and respect to the industry.

  • Certification programs invite accrediting agencies to hold them accountable.

  • Certification provides individuals with the fundamentals they need to help clients and build successful careers.

  • Certification program makes trainers and coaches lifelong learners, which benefits clients.

Trainers and coaches have big responsibilities when it comes to their clients. Inaccurate or even bad information puts their health and wellness at risk. It can even lead to serious injuries. Certification is a guard against this and provides up-and-coming professionals with the knowledge they need to provide valuable, safe services to clients.

Personal training certification courses are relatively easy to find. They have been around for years. Look for programs with accreditation by a reputable agency.

For coaching certification, look to many of the same schools that offer personal training programs. These schools are increasingly including wellness, health, or health and wellness coaching as part of their offerings.

You can also find coaching programs at some universities and community colleges. These are not necessarily four-year degree programs. They are more often shorter and may confer a certificate or diploma rather than a degree.

Wellness Coach vs Personal Trainer – Which Should I Be?

Take a look at some of the pros and cons of each of these careers as you consider your future and scope out certification programs.

The Benefits of Working as a Personal Trainer

There are so many benefits of a career in personal training, from staying fit to helping others get fit. In this career, you have flexibility to work how you want, including being an employee at a gym or an entrepreneur. You can make it a traditional job or build your own hours and pay rate.

It’s incredibly rewarding to work with people toward their goals. Most trainers are passionate about fitness and find enjoyment in helping others be more active. This is a focused career for anyone who loves exercise and fitness more than anything else.

The Pros and Cons of Wellness or Health Coaching

A wellness coach plays a similar role to a fitness trainer. If you enjoy working with people to help them make positive changes, you’ll get a similar sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as a coach.

On the other hand, if fitness and exercise are your passions, you won’t be working on them as a coach. Your focus will be more on guiding clients to do their workouts rather than planning the sessions for them.

As with personal training, health coaching allows for a lot of career flexibility. You can find employment with a gym or company. You can also branch out on your own, starting a small coaching business.

Why Not Both?

With so much overlap, it’s easy to see that you can be both a wellness coach and a personal trainer. If you’re already a trainer, consider adding a health coach certification. It will give you more to offer clients and a new income stream.

The distinctions between a wellness coach and a personal trainer are important. If you want to work as one or the other, or both, you need to understand the scope of practice, duties, and expectations. You also need a certification. A certification program for either is a great place to start your career.

ISSA’s Certified Personal Trainer program is the best way to launch a career in fitness and wellness. You’ll be ready to start working as a personal trainer right away and have the foundation necessary to become a health coach.

Take the next step and get your Health Coach certification with ISSA. Help clients overcome physical and mental health barriers to achieve their optimal wellness.

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Health Coach

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.

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