People are often unsure of the difference between physical therapy and personal training. During a clinical rotation, I even had a patient refer to me and my clinical instructor as “the trainers”.
To confuse matters more, many physical therapists (including myself) are also personal trainers.
However, there are key differences in what each profession is trained and licensed to do.
Physical therapists are licensed and trained to diagnose and treat injuries and help those with disabilities or pain improve their level of function. Physical therapists use exercise, and sometimes other approaches, to improve function. Physical therapists are also trained to screen for more serious medical pathologies. They may make a referral to a specialist for further medical evaluation. For example, in rare cases shoulder pain could be related to a cardiac problem. A physical therapist might refer a patient to a physician because there could be a more serious cause of the pain that needs to be addressed.
There are several branches of physical therapy. Orthopedic physical therapists focus on musculoskeletal injuries. Some examples of patients would be:
-A teen who sprained their ankle and wants to play soccer again
-A dad with chronic low back pain who has trouble playing with his kids
-An elderly lady at risk of falling who wants to safely go to the grocery store
On the other hand, personal trainers are trained to help people reach fitness and athletic performance goals, such as building muscle, losing weight, and getting stronger. They often work with people who have an injury, disability, or pain. However, trainers are not licensed or trained to diagnose and treat injuries or pain (despite those online who claim that certain exercises or stretches cure pain). Some examples of clients would be:
-That teen soccer player who wants to get stronger and faster
-That dad who wants to improve his endurance so he can play with his kids for longer
-That elderly lady who wants to maintain her strength
Also, the titles used by each profession are slightly different:
-In the U.S., most physical therapists now have a “DPT” (Doctor of Physical Therapy) degree along with a “PT” (Physical Therapist) license. On a physical therapist’s business card you will likely see “PT, DPT”.
-Personal trainer titles, on the other hand, vary widely since there are many certifying organizations. Some trainers use the title “CPT” (Certified Personal Trainer). And some coaches use the title “CSCS” (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist).
-For more naming confusion, in many countries besides the U.S., “PT” actually refers to a personal trainer and physical therapists are called physiotherapists.
There is overlap in the types of exercises physical therapists and personal trainers use. And often a client may be seeing a personal trainer and physical therapist at the same time.
In short, physical therapists and trainers both use exercise but usually the goals differ and the scope of practice is different