Personal trainers vs. physical therapists: 6 key differences

In need of treatment but don’t know whether to see a personal trainer or a physical therapist? Knowing the difference between a personal trainer and a physical therapist is important, because it can help you get the care that best fits your needs.

Physical therapists — unlike personal trainers — are licensed to treat specific kinds of injuries. Some physical therapists may focus on orthopedics. Orthopedics focuses on treating musculoskeletal injuries, such as chronic neck and back injuries. An orthopedics-trained physical therapist can treat many types of pain. Researchers have found that physical therapy can reduce chronic low back pain. If you have back pain, seeing a physical therapist may better fit your needs than a personal trainer.

6 key differences between personal trainers and physical therapists

Here are six key differences between personal trainers and physical therapists:

  • Main goal — Unlike physical therapists, personal trainers set fitness objectives. Fitness objectives may include losing 10 pounds. Physical therapists can treat an injury or illness. For example, a physical therapist may treat a pulled neck muscle. Their goal during this treatment may be to loosen tight neck muscles and strengthen the muscles that support your neck muscles. A physical therapist could use therapeutic exercises for muscle strength and mobility for a pulled neck muscle.
  • Education — Personal trainers need a certification. Physical therapists need a doctorate degree and a state license. Every two years, physical therapists need to renew their license. To do so, they must often complete a certain amount of continuing education hours beforehand. A physical therapist may also specialize in areas such as women’s health or sports.
  • Cost — Insurance plans may cover the cost of physical therapy, but not of a personal trainer.
  • Accessibility — Unlike personal trainers, physical therapists may require a referral from a physician. However, since January 1, 2015, each U.S. state has laws that allow you to have direct access to treatment from physical therapists. However, each state’s direct access laws are slightly different. For instance, some of them require your physical therapist to notify your primary care doctor after a certain length of time. 

The benefit of having direct access to physical therapy is that you can receive treatment from a physical therapist quickly. This faster treatment can reduce your pain and recovery time. Another benefit of direct access physical therapy is that it may reduce your need for pain medications. This is significant because some medications can have negative side effects.

  • Areas of focus— Personal trainers may focus on things like yoga, weight control and athletic performance. Physical therapists focus on specializations that can help treat and prevent musculoskeletal injuries. These specializations may include orthopedics, women’s health, sports injuries and neurological disorders.
  • Components of a session — Personal trainers focus on observing a person’s workout. During this observation period, personal trainers can record a person’s fitness information. This information may include strength, flexibility and body measurements. Personal trainers can use this information to design a personalized exercise plan for you. Physical therapists can discuss how an injury or chronic condition impacts daily activities. They can also look at, discuss and update a person’s medical history. Physical therapists can then use this information to design a personalized treatment plan. Such a plan could focus on goals like reducing your pain and helping prevent future injuries.

4 benefits of PT for musculoskeletal injuries and chronic conditions

Chronic pain may last anywhere from several weeks to several years. This means that chronic pain can make it difficult for you to complete your daily activities.

Here are four benefits of going to physical therapy for musculoskeletal injuries and chronic conditions:

  • Can customize your treatment — Physical therapists have a doctorate; they received thorough training in diagnosing the root of your pain and designing personalized treatment plans. For example, let’s say you hunch your shoulders while looking at your laptop. Your physical therapist can conduct an evaluation to determine which of your muscles are tight from sitting in this position all day. They can then use this information to pick the physical therapy techniques that can best loosen up your affected muscles and improve your posture.
  • Can reduce the cost of your health care — If you choose to see a physical therapist directly, you can avoid the cost of an appointment with a physician, thereby reducing the overall cost of your health care. Reduced health care costs may reduce your stress level as you work toward recovery or increased well-being.
  • Can reduce your reliance on medication — Physical therapists will work to help reduce your pain in your PT sessions. As a result, you may need to take less or even no pain medication. This could save you money, reduce your exposure to medication side effects and help reduce your risk of prescription medication addiction.
  • Can offer you therapeutic exercises — One type of therapeutic exercise is balance and coordination exercises that can help improve the quality of your life. These exercises focus on the muscular and skeletal systems that help coordinate your arms, legs, hands and feet. Coordination between these areas helps you complete daily activities like standing up, walking, sitting down and brushing your teeth. 

Another type of therapeutic exercise is resistance and endurance exercises. In resistance and endurance exercises, physical therapists can help improve your muscle strength. This is important because your muscle strength influences both your balance and bone health. Also, physical therapists can shape resistance and endurance exercises around knee, neck, or back pain. For example, if you bend down to look at your phone regularly, you may have back pain. This back pain may be a result of weak muscles in your back. If your back muscles are too weak, then it may be harder for your body to maintain good posture while holding your phone. Doing back muscle resistance and endurance exercises in PT can strengthen muscles and help them build the endurance they need to do a task for long periods. By doing so, they can also allow you to more easily hold your phone at eye level and hold your back in better posture at the same time.

Whatcom PT can help treat your injury or illness through PT techniques

At Whatcom PT, we value high-quality patient care and innovative techniques for recovery. Our goal is to promote patient independence and self-care through exercise.

In need of treatment for your injury or illness? Unlike a personal trainer, our physical therapists can treat different injuries and chronic conditions. And they can do so with a range of beneficial PT techniques. Some common PT techniques our physical therapists use include manual therapy and electrical stimulation.

If you do decide to come see us, we also want you to know what to expect. Your first physical therapy session with us will typically last for about one hour and 15 minutes. When you come to your first physical therapy session, you should: 

  • Wear comfortable clothing that leaves injured or painful areas accessible.
  • Bring your completed patient forms.
  • Bring your insurance card.
  • Bring any necessary prescriptions or other documents from your primary care doctor.

Interested in learning more about how physical therapists differ from personal trainers? Call us or request an appointment today.