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Personal Training vs. Strength and Conditioning: What’s the Difference? [UPDATED]

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What is Personal Training?

By definition, a personal trainer is a fitness professional that provides individualized exercise programming and client instruction.   

They motivate clients by helping them set goals and provide feedback and accountability to clients. Trainers also measure their client’s strengths and weaknesses with fitness assessments.

These fitness assessments may also be performed before, during, and after an exercise program to measure their client’s improvements in physical fitness. They may also educate their clients in many other aspects of wellness besides exercise, including general health and nutrition guidelines.

Qualified personal trainers recognize their own areas of expertise. If a trainer suspects that one of his or her clients has a medical condition that could prevent the client from safe participation in an exercise program, they must refer the client to the proper health professional and trainer who specializes in clients with previous injuries.  

Creating Fitness Programs for Clients

The scope of practice for a personal trainer is to enhance the components of fitness for the general, healthy population.

Proper exercise instruction and direction may result in improved body composition, physical performance, heart condition, and health outcomes.

The decision to hire a personal trainer may be related to a perceived ability to facilitate these factors through proper direction and instruction or factors related to motivation and adherence.

A personal trainer pays close attention to the client’s exercise form, workout routine, and nutrition plan. Some Personal trainers earn additional certification in nutrition and motivation.

Few studies have investigated personal training for men, but personal training in women has been shown to improve exercise behavior patterns, improve perceptual benefit-to-concern ratio for exercise (decisional balance), and increase confidence. Personal training results in higher strength, higher workout intensities, and higher perceived exertion during exercise in women. 

The profession is not restricted by the venue, and personal trainers may work in fitness facilities, in their homes, in client homes, over live video, or outdoors. Almost all personal trainers and group exercise instructors work in physical fitness facilities, health clubs, and fitness centers located in the amusement and recreation industry or civic and social organizations.

Personal trainers may specialize in a certain training type, training philosophy, performance type, exercise modality, or client population.

In general, most personal trainers develop exercise recommendations or plans for aerobic exercise, resistance exercise, and flexibility training.

With aerobic exercise prescription, personal trainers determine the type of exercise, duration of exercise, and frequency of exercise.

For resistance exercise prescription, the type of exercise, total session volume, rest period, frequency, and intensity are determined.

Personal trainers may also be involved in the prescription of stretching routines or other approaches.

Strength and Conditioning Coaches

A strength and conditioning coach is a fitness professional who uses exercise prescription specifically to improve performance in athletic competition and also help athletes with injury prevention and proper mechanics within their sports performances.

Strength and conditioning coaches typically work with sports teams (most tend to be employed by higher education institutions and professional athletic teams) but may also work with individuals.

The majority of professional strength and conditioning coaches have a minimum of an undergraduate degree is a field related to exercise science.

While some strength and conditioning coaches may specialize in a certain sports team, type of performance, training type, or training philosophy, many at the collegiate level must work with any team to which they are assigned.

Creating Strength and Conditioning Programs

In general, most strength and conditioning coaches develop exercise prescription plans that specifically modulate energy system (conditioning), resistance, and flexibility training to suit the metabolic and physical demands of the sport in question.

With aerobic exercise prescription, strength and conditioning coaches determine the type of exercise, duration of exercise, frequency, and duration.

For resistance exercise prescription, once a detailed needs analysis is performed, acute program variables (choice of exercise, the order of exercise, volume, intensity, rest periods, the speed of movement) are constructed into cycles to be varied over time (chronic program manipulations or periodization). This plan is constantly monitored (i.e., periodic testing to determine if the program is appropriate) which determines the correct individualization of the program design.

They may also be involved in the prescription of stretching routines or other approaches. Nutrition and medical consultation are not within their scope of practice and training qualifications.

In the past, coaches may have led the strength and conditioning efforts of a team or left the team to their own training.

Research has demonstrated that not only does training improve performance but that incorrect training (e.g., distance running, a slow-twitch muscle fiber activity, in football athletes with fast-twitch characteristics) can cause decrements to performance.

Using techniques such as plyometrics in some high-power athletes and sports-specific movements in others, strength coaches may improve physical function and athletic performance.

Formal strength training is considered a relatively new event with performance enhancement for sports and activities of daily living.

Getting Started with a Personal Training Career

Check out what it takes to start a career in personal fitness training. This is your most affordable and fastest way to become a highly qualified personal trainer.

There is always something exciting about earning a new training or coaching certification and applying that new knowledge of how you train your clients. This also helps you hit the reset button.

NESTA and Spencer Institute coaching programs are open to anyone with a desire to learn and help others. There are no prerequisites.

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