Physical Therapist, Personal Trainer or Both?

When you decide that it is time to start an exercise program and are considering help from a professional, it is important to first consider who the right person is to help you accomplish your fitness or weight loss goals. Often people consider a personal trainer first and do not think that a physical therapist can help them to get on track with their health but Physical Therapists (PT’s) are considered movement specialists! Physical Therapists are better known for providing rehabilitation after surgery, a car accident, sports injury or work injury but did you know that Physical Therapists have the expertise to promote health and wellness? By working with your Physical Therapist before pain appears you can prevent injuries and the need for medical and rehabilitative services! “Physical therapists play a unique role in society in prevention, wellness, fitness, health promotion, and management of disease and disability by serving as a dynamic bridge between health and health services delivery for individuals and populations” (1). In California, Physical Therapy services for the purpose of promoting and maintaining health, wellness and fitness have been available since 2005 (2).

So how do I know if I should choose a Physical Therapist rather then a personal trainer?Physical Therapists entering the profession today earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and many students complete a four-year degree in a science related field prior to entering the doctoral program. Some examples of courses included in the curriculum include biomechanics, kinesiology, neurobiology, musculoskeletal disorders, pharmacology and clinical imaging. The doctoral programs train Physical Therapists to have the ability to screen for medical disorders of the body systems and refer to the appropriate medical provider when indicated.   This also means that a patient can go directly to a Physical Therapist for an evaluation and treatment. Physical Therapists are licensed by the state board in which they plan to practice after the requirements for licensure are completed. In the state of CA, thirty hours of continuing education is required for re-licensure every two years.

There are no requirements or certifications needed to work as a personal trainer however, many employers do require a four year degree in an exercise related field and some require a certification by an agency accredited by the NCCA (National Commission on Certifying Agencies). The certification process offered most often involves a self-study program and a certification exam. To maintain the certification, twenty hours of continuing education is required every two years. Specialty areas of certification are offered to personal trainers who decide to specialize in areas such as fitness nutrition, weight management, senior fitness, orthopedic exercise (3).

Personal trainers have skills and expertise in developing exercise programs to build muscle and strength and/or to help their clients reduce weight through exercise. They are not trained to recognize a dysfunction through observation of movement or assessment of movement. They cannot determine what exercises will correct or improve a movement dysfunction. Personal Trainers should have the ability to teach and train exercise and observe their clients performing exercises to be sure that the form and technique are correct to avoid injury. Not all personal trainers have the ability and skills to recognize when a person is compensating for an area of weakness or dysfunction in the body or if a person is not activating the correct musculature during an exercise. If you are having difficulty or pain when performing exercises with your trainer this may be when you consider a Physical Therapist. The Physical Therapist will evaluate the area of the body that you are having pain or limitation in and make recommendations as to what exercises to focus on and what exercises to avoid. When you are ready to go back to working with the personal trainer your Physical Therapist can also communicate to your trainer what is best for you to work on and what to avoid when you are discharged from Physical Therapy.

What if I have pain during or after your exercise session with a personal trainer?

First of all, pain is very different than muscle fatigue or muscle soreness when you are working your body during an exercise program designed to improve your level of fitness. To see changes you have to push your body to work and sometimes this may be beyond your comfort level. Pain is different. Pain means there is a problem. Pain means there is potentially a movement dysfunction somewhere in your body. This could simply be that you have an underlying weakness from an old injury or that your joints are not aligned optimally to handle the force of the weight you are putting on your body. If your pain is severe it could even mean something more serious. This is when you should choose a Physical Therapist. A good personal trainer will listen and acknowledge these problems and recognize the need to advise their client to seek a consultation from a physical therapist or their medical doctor. Physical Therapists can work with you and your personal trainer to identify and correct a problem to enable you to exercise without pain and reach your fitness goals.

In summary, Physical Therapists offer expertise beyond rehabilitating an injury and play a role in elevating a person’s level of health and fitness and preventing. Personal trainers provide a service that is well recognized and beneficial to the community. It is my hope that personal trainers recognize their role and limitations when working with their clients and that all personal trainers will act responsibly and with the best interest of their clients first. “I know what my scope is and I want good people on my team who can help my clients” (Anthony Sawh, personal trainer-Strong Made Simple ( No matter what area of expertise we have in the health and wellness world we all share one common goal: to do the best we can in the work that we do to help people to move better and to live better!


  1., American Physical Therapy Association, 9/2/16,
  2. Donald Chu, PhD., PT,, Department of Consumer Affairs Physical Therapy Board of California, March 2005,
  3., American Council on Exercise,
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