By Kevin Hirose – BKin, CSCS
Being both a Strength & Conditioning Coach and Personal Trainer I have come to learn the skills and responsibilities of both professions. At least a few of you readers already know that I have both a personal training and a strength & conditioning specialist designation but the question I am compelled to ask you is: “Do you know the difference between the two?”.
Allow me to backtrack a bit first. There are numerous personal training certifications ranging from very basic to high levels, however, there are few strength and conditioning certifications. By far the most well-known is the CSCS (Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association, considered the gold standard in the industry, although very few in the general population are familiar with it. Either way, almost anyone can call themselves a personal trainer or strength coach and the average joe wouldn’t know the difference. It is only when one begins to investigate further or enters these fields that the difference between good and less than good becomes less hazy. Hopefully, these industries will quickly become more stringent and more organized so that quality control will vastly improve.
Personal Training (PT) is a growing industry along with paired and small group training. The function of a personal trainer is to work one on one with clients to help them reach their fitness, health and/or performance goals. This ranges from weight loss to basic weight training to training for competitive sports, making it very broad. Training motivation and psychology can be a very integral part of Personal Training since the clientele base tends to contain a very wide spectrum of personality types and lifestyles. Everyone from moms to weekend warriors to clients with obesity can be seen working with a personal trainer; so it is mostly geared towards the general population, not the athletic population.
On the other hand, Strength & Conditioning (S&C) generally pertains to athletic training in a team/group setting to enhance performance in their respective sport. All professional sports teams and high level sports teams have a Strength & Conditioning coach(es) who oversee physical training outside of the actual sport practice. They can and should be a vital component of the coaching staff and can definitely have a positive effect on performance and increase the durability of their athletes. Although there are many strength coaches involved in one on one situations the bottom line is that the duty of the S&C Coach is to enhance performance by making their athletes/clients stronger and better conditioned within the framework of the entire sport season and game/competition schedule while simultaneously not overtraining them. Some of the potential physical qualities targeted are: strength, speed, power, agility, energy systems and recovery. In terms of recovery, it is often the function or duty of a S&C coach is to promote physical recovery from hard practice and competition by doing recovery sessions using low intensity exercises and drills rather than high intensity. It is not about body aesthetics goals such as losing weight to fit into a wedding dress or getting huge to compete in bodybuilding; it is about performance and function. Losing weight for an athlete may be a goal but it would be only to improve PERFORMANCE in their sport, not to look good in uniform (although that is undoubtedly a nice bonus!). Also, performance testing is often done in the pre-season and periodically during the season to monitor the physical status of the athletes in order to determine which physical performance qualities need to be targeted in training.
This is not to say the two industries are completely separate and contain no overlap. Obviously, each profession requires that they get their clients/athletes to reach their goals through physical training. You will often see them using the same exercises and, depending on the style of trainer, perhaps similar programming. Some personal trainers base training for their clients on function and performance more than others depending on their style or general approach to training. Despite the differences, a very similar skill set is required to be proficient and even great in these professions. A solid knowledge foundation of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and the ability to cue and coach technique are shared qualities of both. They also have to have, at minimum, a basic understanding of the psychology of their clients/athletes in regards to motivation and barriers to training. In my opinion, the attributes that make one a good personal trainer can have much carryover into being a good strength and conditioning coach. The main difference being the number of people they work with at a time.
Comparing the Two Professions
– knowledge of anatomy, physiology, nutrition, motivation/psychology
– utilize physical exercises and tools such as barbells, dumbbells, stability balls, etc
develop and implement physical fitness programs for clientele/athletes
personal training can sometimes include a group dynamic
Personal Training/Strength & Conditioning
various health and fitness goals/performance-based goals
general population (generally)/athletic population
athletic background not required/athleticism present at all levels
mostly one to one/mostly groups and teams
performance testing not necessarily integral/performance testing integral to progress
The Evolution of Each Profession
I have found that the Strength & Conditioning industry to be a step or two “ahead” of the Personal Training industry in terms of incorporating scientific research and application in training programs and in general approach. For example, foam rolling or soft tissue work has been done in the performance industry with athletes for several years and personal training has caught on just in the last few years. Also, incorporating some postural and movement corrective exercise is still relatively new in personal training but has been prominent in S&C for a several years.
As for myself, I am a strength and conditioning specialist at heart but when I am doing personal training my core philosophy and programming with my clients still reflects that. If I can get my clients moving better, with better range of motion and biomechanics they will train more effectively and usually perform better in all tasks. It is the same with athletes that I train; it’s all about proper movement with control. This industry is quickly evolving from being simply strength & conditioning to overall performance enhancement of athletes, not via supplements and drugs, but through physical, mental, and even psychological training. I believe that it is becoming more holistic in its approach to coaching and training, therefore, I think it is more accurate to title these type of coaches as “performance enhancement specialists” since I believe that is truly what their purpose is. Regardless of the title, it’s all about improving the performance of athletes and raising their potential of durability and longevity in their sport(s).
In the last five years, personal training has made some significant advances such as the incorporation of foam rolling and a stronger focus on mobility and stability. High intensity training has also become popular with many trainers in the last several years. Although I believe the PT industry will always tend gravitate towards being “fitness trendy” in its approach, such as the recent popularity of unstable surface training, it will inevitably pick up some very useful and effective additions in the future. A few of the newer additions are tools such as the kettlebell and concepts such as interval training. The industry will continue to evolve and likely improve while maintaining its very broad physical training targets.
Regardless of what some people in the industry might say or those exposed to either industry, neither is inherently better than the other; just different. Although personal training may get a bad rap at times because of some not-so-good trainers on the scene, a great personal trainer can make significant positive changes in person’s life. Even the well-known strength coach Michael Boyle, stated that he had found a new respect for the personal training trade when he discovered how difficult it could be compared to strength and conditioning athletes (Strength Coach.com). Basically, he became very accustomed to coaching athletes who picked up exercises and movements very quickly because of their athleticism and realized that training the general population can be much more challenging to coach because of varying levels movement competency due to age, background, injury history, athletic background (or lack thereof), limited schedule and wide variety of fitness and health goals. I would have to agree that it is more difficult to train the general population in certain respects, such as coaching movement, and can be just as gratifying, if not more, to succeed with a non-athlete than an athlete. In the end, I believe that working in both fields has carryover into each other and has been an integral part of my development as a professional and will continue to so.