Skip to main content

Evolving from Personal Trainer to Fitness Coach


Personal Trainer and Fitness Coach look like interchangeable terms, but looks can be deceiving. If looking to help clients with long-term, lasting improvements in their health and fitness, in a way that fits sustainably into their lifestyle, you need be an exercise professional that has evolved from just merely a Personal Trainer to a Fitness Coach. In this article I’ll unpack why understanding this important distinction is critical if you’re serious about making a positive, and lasting changes in your clients’ health.

Okay, so what is a Personal Trainer?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “trainers and instructors lead, instruct, and motivate individuals or groups in exercise activities.” That sounds good, but also pretty generic. The American Council on Exercise goes slightly further by saying Personal Trainers have: “relevant skills to design and apply unique exercise programs based on your clients’ goals, abilities and needs.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, as this sounds a little more specific, but there’s still something missing. To truly understand what a Personal Trainer is, you need to understand how they’re taught. While there are many different environments Personal Trainers are educated in, there are very striking consistencies in their educational curriculums, mostly comprised of:

  1. Anatomy, Physiology, and Biomechanics
  2. Pre-Exercise Health Screening
  3. Fitness Assessment
  4. Exercise Program Design (Aerobic, Strength, and Flexibility)
While these are all important things for a Personal Trainer to know, they are only helpful to write a good exercise program, but not a great exercise program. What’s the difference, you ask? A good exercise program checks all the technical boxes of proper program design taught in a Personal Trainer certification. A great exercise program goes an important step further to ensure it’s actually implemented consistently and sustainably into the client’s life. Indeed, the “perfect” exercise program that is not consistently implemented by a client will ALWAYS be ineffective. It’s on the implementation side that a Personal Trainer differs from a Fitness Coach.

And, what is a Fitness Coach?

First, let’s be abundantly clear on what a Fitness Coach is not. We’re not talking about the stereotypical high football coach yelling at his players. Although this is the image that often comes to mind when we hear coach, this represents a misunderstanding of the term, particularly in the context of health behavior change.

An unfortunate reality is that most exercise professionals are former athletes who are quite used to the “sport coach” approach (which, as we’ll discuss below, is more of the expert approach). Because of this Personal Trainers often take on the traits of their old sport coaches, to their clients’ detriment. Personal Trainers need to quickly reframe their “coaching” paradigm in the manner I layout in this article. With that in mind, let’s get to what a real coach truly is. According to Wellcoaches,

“Coaches provide instruction and mentoring to their clients, and help them set goals, define an action plan, and navigate the path until they reach their goals. Coaches facilitate learning and help clients put the learning into action.”

With this great definition in mind, we can start to understand what a Fitness Coach truly is.

Fitness Coaches certainly understand all of the elements listed above. Those are important to know as a Personal Trainer, but they are merely table stakes if you’re going to work as an exercise professional. They represent the floor for competency, not the ceiling. From this floor of technical knowledge, a Fitness Coach evolves to incorporate principles of coaching psychology to ensure the plan they co-create with their client gets implemented.

Language matters in this nuanced discussion we’re having about the difference between a Personal Trainer and a Fitness Coach. In saying that, I want to point out some critical language that has just been introduced. Words like mentoring, navigating the path, and co-create are foundational to understanding the difference between a Personal Trainer and a Fitness Coach. We’ll unpack those words and their important meaning below, but first we have to understand what the fundamental challenge a Fitness Coach helps clients overcome.

Behavior Change is the Goal

Ultimately, introducing a new exercise program into your client’s life is a process of behavior change. At its most basic level the implementation of an exercise program requires change your client’s behaviors. Your client currently has a set of behaviors that involve NOT doing an exercise program (or least the kind of program they need to do to achieve their health and fitness goals), and they need to transition into a set of behaviors that allow them to integrate this new program into their life.

We all know changing our habits and behaviors is hard, very hard in fact. Human beings are creatures of habit, and largely that’s a good thing. As the old saying goes “we’re a product of our habits.” Without habits existing in our life, we’d literally have to make thousands of conscious decisions during our day, that currently happen on the subconscious (or habitual) level. Our habitual behaviors are great when it comes to leading an efficient life, but they become a barrier when we’re trying to integrate something new into our lives.

You know this to be true whenever you’d tried to add something new into your life. No matter what the new behavior is, it is always challenging to eliminate old habits and build new ones. This is exactly what a great Fitness Coach will help with (the operative word there is help, as the client actually does the hard work).

It’s often said that a great coach helps you shrink the gap between what you need to be doing to reach your goals, and what you’re actually doing. The question you’re probably asking yourself now is, “great, but how do I do that?” Fair question, let’s get the answer!

Expert vs. Coach Approach

There are two distinct approaches that have been used to encourage behavior change in individuals. These approaches have been applied in many settings from healthcare, to employee development and management, and certainly in the exercise profession.

The predominant approach that has been employed is the expert approach. The expert approach assumes that the person with all the knowledge (the doctor, the boss, the Personal Trainer) can just give that knowledge to the person that doesn’t have it and that will solve all of their problems. This is often referred to as the “sage on the stage” approach, and operates off the assumption that a lack of knowledge is the limiting factor to making a behavior change.

If only it were that simple, right? In fact, I’d venture to say that most of us know the things we need to do to reach our goals in life (be it exercise goals, career goals, relationship goals, etc.). The issue is NOT a lack of knowledge, but a lack of ability to implement that knowledge consistently in our lives.

That is where the coach comes in. Yes, the coach has knowledge, in many cases a lot more knowledge than the person they’re coaching. Your doctor knows more about medicine than you do, your boss probably knows more about your job than you do (although, some may beg to differ, haha), and an exercise professional certainly knows more about exercise program design than a client does.

One critically important piece of information all of these professionals lack is the most important knowledge they could have – knowledge of client!! The professional may be the expert in their domain, but the client is an expert on themselves and their own life. This expertise about the client and their life is central to the coaching process.

Rather than acting as the “sage on the stage,” a great coach acts as the “guide on the side.” They blend their knowledge of their domain, with your knowledge of the client, their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes, and all the other important pieces of information that ensure all the knowledge the expert has can be filtered through the lens of the client’s lifestyle.

Traditionally, most Personal Trainers use the expert approach in a very transactional manner, and the client happily participates (or at least until they realize they’re not getting the results they want).

The transaction goes something like this, “I give you money, you give me fitness (or health or weight loss or insert goal here).” While this transactional approach works if you’re buying a lawn mower… “I give you money, you give me lawn mower” … it absolutely doesn’t work when it comes to behavior change. Why doesn’t it work? It all comes down to autonomy.

Fitness Coaches Respect Autonomy

The most fundamental human need is the need for autonomy. There are many definitions of autonomy, but on its most basic level autonomy is about being free to make your own choices without being influenced by others. In essence, it’s about being free to do what you want, when you want, and how you want.

The fight for autonomy begins very early in life (think rebellious teenage years) and continues until the day we die (think the aging adult who refuses to go into an assisted living home). Autonomy is even the reason our country was founded (we want to be self-governing). Without getting overly philosophical here autonomy is at the core of who we are as humans, and it must always be respected.

When autonomy is not respected, we rebel. You can insert words like “don’t adhere,” “fall off the wagon,” “slip up,” or “go off track,” instead of rebel. The bottom line is when our autonomy is not respected, we have a much greater tendency to NOT do the things we know we probably should do.

Think about it, our natural tendency when someone tells us to do something (without giving us a choice), we immediately come up with all the reasons we shouldn’t do it. This reaction is ingrained into the deepest part of our brain, and is probably an important factor in our evolutionary survival – needless to say it’s not going anywhere.

This is why the expert approach doesn’t work, it doesn’t respect autonomy. The expert tells you “You should do it like this,” and our brain (sometimes consciously, other times subconsciously) rebels and comes up with all kinds of reasons and behaviors to not do it.

A coach, however, respects autonomy by seeing, hearing, and deeply understanding the client and their lifestyle. The coach still has, and can provide, all the expertise necessary, but they rarely do. Instead, they listen intently, reflect back to you what the client is saying, and guide them down a path to where their the one actually making the choices about what behavior changes to implement into their life and how.

Don’t get me wrong, the coach is still using their expertise to put guardrails on the choices the client makes. Initially those guardrails will be pretty tight (i.e., does the client prefer the bike, treadmill or elliptical trainer). Eventually, as the client gains expertise and knowledge in the domain those guardrails widen out.

In that sense, coaching is like parenting on some level. When your kids are young and lack knowledge/experience the guardrails are super tight. As they mature and gain knowledge/life experience you widen the guardrails. Eventually, you make the guardrails so wide, they go away completely (typically when they move out). This is exactly what great coaches strive for. An expert wants the client to be dependent on them, a coach wants the client to be dependent on themselves.

How to tell if you’re a Personal Trainer or Fitness Coach

We’ve talked about a lot in this article. Before we conclude our discussion, I wanted to give you five ways you know if you’ve evolved to Fitness Coach rather, than just staying a Personal Trainer:
  1. Fitness Coaches listen more & talk less. Depending on the conversation, the amount the coach talks will vary, but it is always very clear the client is talking more and the coach is talking less. Personal Trainers using the expert approach will tend to dominate the conversation (because they want to tell you everything they know).
  2. Fitness Coaches ask great open-ended questions. This goes along with number one. A Fitness Coach uses open-ended questions strategically to deeply understand the client, their motivations, likes/dislikes, and everything else relevant to understanding the client and what could work for them. A Personal Trainer using the expert approach asks more close-ended questions (answered with a yes or no) to ensure they have time to tell the client all the things they know.
  3. Fitness Coaches let the client take the conversation where you want it to go. As the coaching process is all about respecting autonomy, the client is the driver of the conversation. A great Fitness Coach will skillfully use reflections (short restatements of what was said) to allow the client to keep the conversation going in the direction you intend. This is crucial to understanding what the client needs and wants in the process. Personal Trainers using the expert approach will drive the agenda in the conversation.
  4. Fitness Coaches give you choices. A big part of respecting autonomy is choice. As the client starts to move towards the program development part of the process, a Fitness Coach will provide the client with many choices about the elements of the program that move them towards their goals. The client making the choice (again, within some guardrails) ensures they’re more bought in and likely to adhere. In essence, the client and coach are co-creating the best program for the client, blending the Fitness Coach’s knowledge of exercise and the client’s knowledge of themselves. A Personal Trainer using the expert approach, goes away and writes the program without any input, whatsoever, from the client.
  5. Fitness Coaches help their client’s problem solve and critically think. No matter how great the Fitness Coach is, and no matter how hard their clients are working, there will be challenges in making behavior changes. When those occur, great Fitness Coaches work with their clients to help them find the root cause of the problem and then help determine the solutions that work for them and their lifestyle. Here the Fitness Coach is very much being the “guide on the side,” navigating the path with the client. The Personal Trainer using the expert approach will simply tell the client what they’re doing wrong and then tell them how to fix it. Essentially, this outsources your critical thinking to the Personal Trainer, and ensures the client always need them in your life.

Fitness Coaches Make Lasting Change

The expert approach works well in acutely dire circumstances. I’m not looking for someone to respect my autonomy if I’ve just been wheeled into the ER after a serious car accident. Bring me the best surgeon you have and save my life; I’m not interested in answering questions. Apart from these acutely dire situations, being a coach that respects autonomy is always the way to go if you’re looking to make lasting behavior changes that lead to sustainable improvements in health and fitness in your client’s lives.


Popular posts from this blog

Is Strength Training the New Cardio? The Role of Muscular Fitness in Health

  For years, cardiovascular fitness was considered the epitome of what it meant to be healthy. Someone who could walk - or run - for miles was someone with a strong heart and lungs. That strong heart and lungs would help that person live a long and healthy life. “The heart is the most important muscle of the body” is something that exercise and medical professionals have extolled for years—but what about all the other muscles in the body? Aren’t they important as well? That answer is a resounding YES, and its causing exercise and medical professionals to rethink their paradigm around cardiovascular fitness being the most critical indicator of human health and functioning. Dependence of Cardiovascular System on Muscular Fitness At its most fundamental level, in order for the heart and the lungs to be stressed adequately to make functional improvement, muscles have to contract to move the body. The better those muscles are able to contract (that is, the better “fitness” they ha

Five Steps to Professionalization of the Fitness Industry

Note: this article was originally published by Club Industry on 11/3/22 For many years the fitness industry has viewed itself as an essential component of the healthcare delivery system in America. The problem is, broadly speaking, no one outside of our industry views us this way. Look no further than the healthcare crisis of our lifetime (COVID-19) when all of our doors were shuttered. Even more recently, look at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health; one of the pillars discussed was physical activity. In the administration’s whitepaper published from this conference, the fitness industry wasn’t mentioned — not once. The wake-up calls abound. As hard as it is to hear, members of the public health and medical communities, as well as our lawmakers and even the general public, view us as more of a non-essential, entertainment commodity than an essential part of our public health infrastructure. This reality coexists with escalating healthcare costs due to chronic li