Trainer/Coach -Coach/Trainer...What's the difference?

Despite the terms often being used synonymously there is quite a big difference between your standard personal trainer and a strength coach. Sure, if we’re talking public vs private sector, 24 hr fitness vs the University of …..the differences are clear cut. However, if we're comparing similar job responsibilities in similar industries I feel the largest and most glaring gap is in responsibility for and investment in the client/athlete.

The following is a breakdown, a checklist, or a reference guide for what i think the major differences are between your standard “personal trainer” and a strength coach. I’ve also included how and why I believe the attributes you should look for are beneficial - no matter if you’re a fitness professional or someone looking for the right answer fitness wise.

A Coach is:

  1. Philosophical

    1. Has a philosophies and principles that guide and govern how he or she programs

  2. Ever questioning and analyzing - What does this client do well, not do well, and how do we play to the strengths while accentuating the weaknesses.

  3. Always evaluating and assessing

    1. Utilizes some sort of tried and true movement assessment such as the FMS and at very worst incorporates 1-2 correctives based on the outcome

    2. A coach will know when a client is progressing based upon movement outcomes, not necessarily “is there more weight on the bar”

  4. Movement oriented

    1. Thinks movements not muscles. A coach will program from a  three dimensional perspective and will approach each session with the long term in mind. (vs. one and done)

  5. Educated

    1. Most coaches in the public sector, i.e. college and or pro, have master’s degrees.

  6. Continually seeking education and questioning what he/she knows

    1. Coaches relish the opportunity to learn from other’s in their industry. Most strength coaches hold at minimum 2 major certifications. Absolutely all of them will possess one major certification that cannot be obtained online or in a weekend. Strength coaches are typically very versatile meaning they can probably expound about PRI as well as teach you how to catch a clean.

  7. Experienced (sadly, anyone can be a trainer right out of school or without school)

    1. You would be hard pressed to find someone who refers to themselves as a coach that has not ‘volunteered’ at least 3 months of their time, if not up to a year, working for a coach or program...just to get a chance to potentially do another “internship.” Coaches often have to leave jobs after just a few years in order to move up which may be looked upon as a bad thing, however, working for different bosses at different institutions only adds to the coaches tools.

  8. Team Oriented

    1. Coaches are used to being a part of and working as a team. For example, let's say a coach, public or private sector has an exceptionally difficult client/athlete, some movement issue that doesn’t necessitate a referral but definitely needs expert attention. A coach typically has a wide network from which he or she can draw from to get to the bottom of a problem… 

  9. Consistent

    1. You can usually identify a coaches program because it is in fact a program vs. a workout. You would be able to see regressions and progressions based on the ability and experience of the trainee. You may also see a more extensive warm-up. You would also see a consistent structure to the program...It wouldn’t be 5x5 one day followed by a 20 exercise circuit the next.


*note: once again, not meant to offend, but meant to incite thought and reflection...and in the end these are my opinions. If you are offended, you may be part of the problem. Refer back to 1-9.

Without making this anymore of a  “we’re awesome and they suck” finger pointer exercise than it already is, I’ll close with this.

It may seem ironic that I hold these views given that I went from the public to the private sector and essentially work in the “training” world...however that has not stopped me from adhering and holding myself to the standards that were demanded when my duties were 100% coaching athletes. Despite my environment changing and my clientele taking on a different look, my job title still remains “Coach” and because of that I have not strayed from the ideals that I feel separate the two professions.

I feel just as responsible to the potential client out there looking for someone to guide their training as I do to the greenhorn coach looking for some professional mentoring. You may call it semantics, but I call it standards. Either way you slice it, if you’re currently in the trainer category and killing it, cool, stay there but if you want something more for you and for your clients, use the above as a tool to identify blind spots. We all have them, it’s just a matter of identifying them and then working on bringing them up to par with our strong points...sound familiar to anything else? (hint: that’s how training works).  The resounding sentiment is find what you’re good at, what you're not, and get to work on those aspects that you believe can propel you forward - physically or professional. As always, move, train, and live with purpose.