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The Differences Between Physical Therapists and Personal Trainers?

An injury can come in the form of a bump, bruise, break, sprain, strain, or worse, but no matter what word you use to describe it, one you’d never choose is “fun.” All of us, from competitive athletes to weekend golfers, amateur gardeners to grandparents, have been bitten by the injury bug at some point in our lives. Fortunately, most minor injuries require little more than an ice pack and some extended rest — but there will always be times when that simply doesn’t cut it and a more tactical approach is needed.

For most people, the two specialists that most often come to mind in these scenarios are physical therapists and personal trainers. But what many don’t realize is that these two types of professionals have vastly different educational backgrounds, skill sets, and purposes. Here’s a quick look at some key differences between physical therapists and personal trainers.

Educational Requirements Differ Greatly Between the Two Professions

The amount and level of education required to become a physical therapist are the most significant differences between it and the personal trainer field. To start, let’s explore what type of schooling it takes to become a physical therapist.

Physical therapists must first obtain a bachelor’s degree with a course load heavy in math and sciences, including anatomy and physiology. In addition, undergraduate students must complete observation hours in a variety of clinical settings as part of the graduate school application process. Following successful completion of their bachelor’s degree, students must gain acceptance into a Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree program from a licensed university. Upon completing that program, students must sit for and pass board exams to gain a license to practice in their state of residence.

Becoming a personal trainer is far less stringent and structured. While many personal trainers do have a college degree — usually in a health and human performance-related field — it’s not a requirement. What is required, however, is the successful completion of a certification program and written exam. It’s important to note that these exams are facilitated by private organizations and are not offered in partnership with any state or national regulatory agency.

That’s not to say that personal trainers aren’t knowledgeable about the human body, but what personal trainers know can and does vary by the person due to the profession’s lack of educational standards. Interestingly, many personal trainers opt to become specialists in specific disciplines, like senior fitness, youth fitness, bodybuilding, corrective exercise, or group exercise.

When You Should See a Physical Therapist

The time to see a physical therapist is when you’re experiencing movement limitations and pain or anticipating one or both of those symptoms occurring or worsening. At the start of the relationship, the physical therapist will meet with new patients to discuss what they are experiencing and hope to accomplish through treatment. This evaluation may even include the patient recreating the types of movements that are limited or cause pain in order to get a better understanding of exactly what’s happening.

Because they are so proficient and skilled at diagnosing and addressing injuries, physical therapists are adept at creating a treatment plan that features a variety of modalities tailored to the patient’s needs. Those plans often include modalities like exercise and stretching, a deep heating treatment called ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and joint mobilization, with patients visiting as frequently as two or three times per week.

As mentioned above, physical therapists can also do preventive care. One example of how preventive care with a physical therapist might work is addressing the onset of nagging pain in the low back. By developing a specific treatment plan with a physical therapist, the patient can tackle the pain before it worsens to where it impacts their daily life or surgery is required.

Speaking of surgery, physical therapists can also provide prehabilitation services — or treatments that help a patient prepare for a procedure. The goal of these programs is to focus on the patient’s strength, fitness, and/or flexibility levels to aid in recovery and improve surgical outcomes.

When You Should See a Personal Trainer

Though they do differ from those that a physical therapist might provide, what a personal trainer can offer someone can certainly be valuable and beneficial toward reaching optimal health. A personal trainer’s goal is to help someone in need of a comprehensive strength or cardio-based exercise regimen. The most common reasons why someone might seek out a personal trainer for their expertise include a desire to lose weight, run faster, get stronger, improve specific athletic performance, or become more flexible.

To start, the personal trainer will likely have you perform a series of tests to arrive at a baseline for your physical fitness levels. This baseline will be used to not only identify areas that are ripe for improvement but to reflect on throughout your fitness journey and to measure progress. A personal trainer can’t diagnose an injury or develop a treatment plan in the way that a physical therapist can. That means that if you have an injury or are experiencing pain, you should not see a personal trainer unless you’ve been cleared by a physician to do so.

In a perfect world, physical therapists and personal trainers would work together

Despite their differences, the one thing both physical therapists and personal trainers have in common is a desire to help people. That’s why it’s possible for both professionals to work together in an effort to achieve the best possible outcomes for the patient. Once the physical therapist has helped the patient reduce or eliminate any pain or movement limitations, the personal trainer can take over, guiding the patient on their health journey toward peak physical fitness.

Athletic Physical Therapy Can Help You Overcome Your Injury

No matter your age or ailment, the team at Athletic Physical Therapy can develop a customized treatment plan to help you get on the road to recovery. We use a wide range of active treatments to help rehabilitate the body, increasing patients’ strength and coordination. Interested in learning more about what we can do for you?

Contact us today.