You don’t need another 21-day workout guide or trendy meal-planning app. You need an accountability partner, someone to stand with you and support you as you pursue your health goals.
Personal trainers, health coaches, and personal coaches provide a level of motivation most people struggle to muster in themselves. But, how do you know which expert is the best fit for your needs and wants? While these professionals share a common desire to help their clients pursue their goals, each focuses on a different aspect of your health and lifestyle.
We spoke to one personal trainer, one health coach, and one personal coach to find out which is the best fit for you and your unique health goals.
What Is the Difference Between a Personal Trainer, Health Coach, and Personal Coach?
A personal trainer — also called a fitness trainer or fitness coach — educates, guides, and motivates clients to improve their physical health. The trainer provides a structured workout regimen tailored to a client’s goals, such as losing weight, and teaches them how to perform those exercises effectively and safely.
“People typically come in with the same request,” says certified personal trainer Collene Larson, “Either to lose weight, build muscle, or both.”
A personal trainer not only shows a client what exercises will help them, but also offers accountability. Of the nearly 61 million Americans who purchase a gym membership every year, research suggests that half will leave their gym after just six months. Personal trainers combat this burnout and provide motivation so individuals can achieve their fitness goals.
“People come in for motivation and education,” says Larson. “That’s what a personal trainer brings to the table.”
Despite many medical advances and improved life expectancy in recent decades, research shows increasing chronic conditions and diminishing quality of life continue to threaten long-term patient health. In other words, the modern healthcare system isn’t cutting it.
Fortunately, health coaching, or wellness coaching, steps beyond traditional medicine. It has been described as: “a practice of health education and health promotion within a coaching context, to enhance the well-being of individuals, and to facilitate the achievement of their health-related goals.” Health coaches evaluate exercise routines, diet, sleep, stress, mindset, relationships, and more, and they help clients identify opportunities to modify their lifestyles to improve their long-term health.
“Any kind of coaching is about change,” says Laura Rupsis, a certified health coach, personal trainer, and admissions director for the Primal Health Coach Institute. “I’m not here to diagnose you… I’m here to help you adopt the behaviors, habits, and choices that will make you a healthy person.”
Let’s begin with an important disclaimer: personal coaching is a very broad industry.
There are executive coaches, relationship coaches, and so on. Fortunately, the word (or words) placed in front of “coach” is an easy indicator of that expert’s focus. Mat Hollen, for example, is a personal coach, certified through the COACH model, and specializes in life and leadership-oriented coaching.
Unlike a financial coach or even a health coach, a personal coach — a broad term that can be used interchangeably with “life coach” — is not necessarily an “expert” in the so-called field of life. Instead, their primary skill is unlocking a person’s potential to [maximize] their own performance. This said, personal coaches can help clients pursue a broad range of goals.
“I’m trained/certified in what is called ‘content-agnostic’ coaching, meaning that I am able to work with the client to excel in their desired area, without necessarily understanding it myself,” says Hollen. “Clients have asked how to develop healthier functioning teams in their office, how to strengthen organizational DNA across diverse groups, and with several clients we work on healthier diet, rhythms, and workout routines.”
Personal coaches teach their clients self-directed growth and provide pathways to help individuals achieve their own aspirations.
How Do They Work?
Once a personal trainer has grasped their client’s goals, they can create a personalized workout plan for that individual.
Some personal trainers may work independently, working with clients in their own business space or even their living room, but many begin their careers at a gym or health club. Nevertheless, no two personal trainers share the same schedule, because it’s dependent on the trainer’s preferences and the client’s goals and needs.
“Personal training can be so diverse,” says Larson. “Somebody can sign up for a six-month program, and we meet three times a week for an hour at a time,” she explains. “[Or] maybe we only meet for three months… twice a week for half an hour at a time.”
Larson, like many personal trainers, has trained clients in one-on-one settings, two-on-one sessions, as well as in groups. While she currently trains in the gym where she’s employed, she also offers to meet clients outside of the gym.
Online personal training removes the location barrier and opens up possibilities for you to cherry-pick the trainer with the exact background, certifications, gender, and pricing you want. You’ll save commuting time and likely money by working out at home, but you may need to invest in some simple home fitness equipment, such as dumbbells, a yoga mat, and a jump rope to get started.
As with personal trainers, every health coach has a unique process.
Coach Rupsis, for example, offers a 12-week coaching program for her clients. This includes an online platform for daily education and communication as well as personalized, one-on-one coaching sessions, which happen weekly. Rupsis uses the online program as a foundation for her coaching practice, but she then tailors the lessons in the program to her clients.
“The program is the tool. The coaching is a relationship,” says Rupsis. “I’m going to pull all the tools and resources I have at my disposal and… every day, I’m asking them to do something with that information. I want them to learn something and then figure out how it applies to them.”
Health and wellness coaches typically meet with clients one-on-one, although they may also teach group sessions. Sometimes they’ll meet a client in person, especially if the coach is affiliated with an organization like a gym, medical center, or spa. Some coaches, like Rupsis, also offer virtual sessions to better accommodate a client’s lifestyle.
Personal coaching is based on the assumption that the client self-identifies the topics, actions, and results that they want to achieve. The relationship a client has with their personal coach starts with establishing and understanding the topics, actions, and results a client hopes to achieve. Once this foundation has been established, coaches typically meet with their client on a consistent basis, revisiting those goals each session.
“Each meeting begins with a check-in on the status of actionable steps from the meeting prior, and each meeting ends by naming new actionable steps to be accomplished before the next meeting,” says Mat Hollen.
Hollen meets with his clients for one-hour sessions on a biweekly, weekly, or monthly basis, depending on a client’s schedule. As a COACH model leadership coach, he follows a specific rubric, “the COACH Model Cheat Sheet,” for these sessions:
Connect: Build rapport and review previous action steps
Outcome: Set the coachee’s agenda
Awareness: Encourage insights and shifts in perspective
Course: Capture insights and create action steps
Highlights: Ask the coachee to review
How Are They Educated?
While many personal trainers are certified, there are no current national or state licensing requirements personal trainers must meet before working with clients. That’s right: technically, anyone can be a personal trainer.
Fortunately, the vast majority of established, credible gyms require their personal trainers to have some form of certification. There are several organizations, accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), that provide nationally-recognized certifications for personal trainers, including the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Larson, for example, is a certified personal trainer (CPT) through NASM. “A CPT is what most gyms ask for as a baseline,” she explains.
Beyond this baseline, personal trainers can also pursue more focused education and certifications, called specializations. “I am getting specializations right now in women’s health and youth,” adds Larson.
As with personal trainers, there is no national regulatory authority that determines minimum training and education standards for health coaches.
Recognizing this lack of consistency, the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC), alongside the National Board of Medical Examiners, established standards to advance the profession, and most reputable training programs adhere to their guidelines today. Coach Rupsis, for example, is a certified health coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition as well as the Primal Health Coach Institute, both of which are NBHWC-approved schools.
It’s important to note that there are plenty of health coaches with no formal education or credentials who are very knowledgeable about health and wellness. But according to Coach Rupsis, a lack of information is hardly the problem; it’s a lack of application.
“We have a terrible environment as it relates to propagating really robust, vibrant health,” she explains, pointing to processed foods, unsafe exercise habits, and more. According to Rupsis, a credentialed coach has not only studied health, but also spent time and energy learning how to apply their research. “It is an indicator of that person’s commitment to their said profession and their life’s work, and I do think that speaks to what their commitment to your outcomes are going to be.”
Although credentialing is not necessary to become a personal coach, it certainly sets reputable coaches apart from their peers. “I would say that in any relationship where you are inviting someone into a position of authority in your life, [choosing a credentialed coach] is both safer and more effective… because you are more apt to trust someone who you know has training in this specific area,” says Hollen.
This said, two credentialing bodies stand out as the most widely recognized in the personal coaching industry:
The International Coach Federation: Coaches can pursue an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) certification or a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) certification
The Center for Credentialing and Education: Coaches can pursue a Board Certified Coach (BCC) certification
How Much Do They Cost?
Most personal trainers charge a per-hour rate for their clients. This is true whether they work online or in person, independently or through an organization. Beyond this similarly, however, the rates vary considerably.
The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), accredited by the NCCA, found the average cost of a personal trainer ranges from as little as $30 an hour all the way up to $125, while Lessons.com states the average hourly rate is $55.
It’s possible to trim the overall cost. A client could “buy in bulk,” for instance, purchasing 20 sessions for $20 each.
While personal trainers charge hourly, many health coaches request a flat fee for a set number of weeks/months. For example, Rupsis offers a three-month program, during which she and her client meet on a weekly basis. An average fee for this type of program is around $1,000, according to the Primal Health Coach Institute.
Coaches offer a variety of packages, based on their own education and experience, as well as their client’s goals and needs. Hiring a health coach may cost you anywhere from $200 to $500 monthly or $50 to $200 hourly.
Since personal coaching is technically a broad field, the fees they charge are also quite vast. For this article, we’ll focus on life coaching specifically.
Depending on the life coach you hire, the price for an individual session may be similar to that of a health coach, ranging from $75 to $200 per hour. Some coaches also offer monthly packages — such as three-month, six-month, or 12-month packages — from $200 to $750 per month. These rates seem to be the baseline for the industry.
Prices increase alongside a coach’s education and credentials and also tend to rise when coaches specialize in a specific field. According to Davis Lin, a client acquisition strategist and founder of Client Acquisition Lab, some coaches charge as much as $25,000 for their services.
How to Know Which Expert Is Right for You
With so many different types of trainers and coaches available, it can be difficult to assess which is the best fit for your goals. If you have a range of personal and professional aspirations, finding the right coach may feel even more daunting. You may need more than one type of coach to achieve your goals, or perhaps you’d benefit from an expert with specific certifications.
Listed below are some common requests clients make when seeking a coach/trainer, paired with some suggested experts for those individuals.
You’re unhappy in your job and would like to transition to a new career
Personal/life coach. Also consider a career coach or a career transition coach
You’re arguing often with your partner, family, and/or friends and are struggling to maintain healthy relationships
Personal/life coach. Also consider a relationship coach
You want to start your own small business
Business coach; focus specifically on coaches with experience starting their own small business and/or assisting small business owners
You’d like to lose 40 pounds and build muscle
Personal trainer or Health coach *Consider an expert with certifications as both a health coach and a personal trainer
You’re dealing with frequent anxiety and stress
Personal/life coach or Health coach *Depending on the cause of your anxiety and stress, these experts may refer you to a therapist
You received a scary health diagnosis and need to make some changes to your diet
Health coach. Depending on your diagnosis, consider working with a specialized health coach, such as a nutrition coach or lifestyle coach, and/or a health coach who has experience in the medical field (such as a nurse or medical assistant)
You were recently promoted to a new managerial position at your company
Personal/life coach. Also consider a leadership coach or executive coach (especially applicable if you’ve been promoted to a prominent position, such as vice president or CEO)
You struggle with sleep deprivation/insomnia
Health coach. Depending on the cause of your insomnia, you may benefit from a specialized coach; for example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs connects veterans with insomnia coaches to help improve their sleep patterns
You’re preparing for a marathon or triathlon
Personal trainer. Some personal trainers specialize in a specific type of exercise; for example, you might benefit from a running coach if you’re preparing for a marathon
Where to Find Your Expert
1. Focus on Credentialed Professionals
One of the simplest ways to narrow your search right off the bat is to focus your time and energy on certified professionals. As we’ve established, these experts have done the hard work to further their education and invest in their careers. They’ve proven their commitment to the job — and to you!
Here are the certifications you’ll want to search for, depending on the type of trainer or coach you want to hire:
Personal Trainer: Consider certifications from schools that are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Some of the leading programs include:
Health Coach: Select a health coach that’s certified through the National Board of Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC).
Personal Coach: Choose a coach with at least one of the following certifications:
Find a personal coach with an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) certification from the International Coach Federation (ICF)
Find a personal coach with a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) certification from the International Coach Federation (ICF)
Find a personal coach with a Board Certified Coach (BCC) certification from the Center for Credentialing and Education
2. Consider Their Background
Coaches can cover everything from exercise to sleep to mindset and more, so choose an expert whose education and experience most closely aligns with your target goals. This is especially important for individuals who want to work with a specific type of personal coach, such as an executive coach or a nutrition coach.
Here are a few questions to help you identify the best expert for you:
How long have they been in the industry?
Do they have any overlapping credentials (for example, Coach Laura Rupsis is both a certified health coach as well as a certified personal trainer)?
Do they specialize in a specific field (such as Mat Hollen’s focus on life and leadership coaching)?
3. Interview Candidates to Find Your Match
Once you’ve established an expert’s reputation, it’s time to think about the relationship.
Your trainer or coach will be a mentor of sorts. You should trust and respect them. On a more basic level, you should get along well with them. If the partnership is going to be successful, you must believe in their ability to help you achieve a better version of yourself.
Here are a few questions to ask your prospective trainer/coach to help you determine whether or not they’re the right fit:
How did you become a personal trainer/health coach/personal coach?
How do you motivate your clients?
What do you enjoy most about training/coaching?
Trainers And Coaches As Health Guides
What’s perceived as “healthy” is changing all the time.
One minute we’re all chugging gallons of milk; the next, we’re transitioning to veganism. Our view of success is no different. Climbing the corporate ladder sounds like a noble endeavor until people begin discussing their work/life balance.
Good health is an elusive goal, whether we’re referring to diet, exercise habits, or our outlook on life. This is one reason why experts like personal trainers, health coaches, and personal coaches exist.
These individuals noticed an overwhelming need among their peers, and themselves, and they chose to act. They pursued education and experience in the health sphere — focusing their attention on areas like fitness, sleep, a positive mindset, and more — for your benefit. These professionals want to partner with you and guide you toward the ever-changing, complicated goal of healthy living, and they’re more than equipped to do so.