"Trainer" is a catch-all term often used by the general public to describe anybody responsible for designing or leading exercise programs for others. From a global perspective, this may be true, but a deeper dive reveals stark contrasts within every coaching/training position depending on the population and setting one works in. Detailed intricacies tether the blurred lines between what at first glance may seem like a singular profession, but in reality, are entirely different occupations and career paths altogether.
Several niche positions for training and coaching exist, but the two most common career paths fall under either the Personal Trainer or Strength and Conditioning Coach (Strength and Conditioning Coach or S&C coach, performance coach, athletic enhancement coach, whatever you want to call yourself) umbrella. These can further be broken down into the public and private sector settings. What most individuals want to know is what steps are necessary to get the position they desire? A blueprint for education, experience, and certifications is murky, to say the least, varying depending on who you consult.
The Difference Between Strength and Conditioning Coaches and Personal Trainers
I would be remiss if I did not first set the stage with more background info on what personal trainers do versus what strength and conditioning coaches are responsible for. Oftentimes personal trainers work at a public gym or privately-owned studio specializing in assisting the general population. They may focus on weight loss, injury prevention, and rehabilitation, or general fitness with their clients and typically train in a one on one fashion or small semi-private group setting. They are in a sense their own small business operating within a larger whole depending on the setting they are in. Some personal trainers train high-level athletes on occasion, but these are certainly fewer and far between. A well-known flaw within the personal training industry is the variability with which one carries regarding their background and qualifications. The entry point is extremely low, oftentimes requiring nothing more than a weekend certification to land a job at a big box gym. This ultimately waters down the industry and devalues trainers who have dedicated their entire lives to building their knowledge base/experience and charge quite a bit more than the newbie because the general population typically does not spot the differences in a trainer's competencies at first glance. They believe it to be similar to that of visiting a dentist or general physician in that all care will be relatively the same and of equal value. Nothing could be further from the truth, and no two trainers are the same. Some have years of experience and are on the top of their game while others have been at it for similar lengths of time but never adapt and are soured by an industry that lives by the "what have you done for me lately" mantra. Contrarily, there are fresh faces who are destined for greatness because of their desire to learn and burning desire for helping others while some new trainers feel entitled to clients and notoriety simply for having a few fancy letters after their name. Further discussion and rhetoric on this topic, however, is better reserved for another article altogether and would best serve the clientele base is making informed choices on who their Trainer is.
The major distinction between a Strength and Conditioning Coach and a Personal Trainer is not only the population they are training but how they've gotten to where they are. S&C is a rapidly evolving profession, and an astronomical number of kinesiology and exercise science students graduating from school every year wish to obtain a position in the field. This is because it is an understandably fun and rewarding job, but there are still major strides that must be made to make the industry better overall.
S&C coaches are mainly responsible for planning, preparing, and executing a phased program for a group or groups of athletes at a particular school, professional organization, or privately-owned facility targeted at sports performance. They will often use a variety of technological tools to gather and analyze data on athletes to better serve and consult the coaching staff on how an athlete is performing and progressing. Collegiate and professional settings have traditionally been the two most common settings S&C coaches have found employment, but high schools and private training facilities around the world are now starting to understand the value of having dedicated qualified coach on staff. S&C coaches coordinate with medical staff, sports coaches, and administrative staff to provide athletes with a program that is designed to train athletes as a group and prepare them for their respective sport.
Building strength, power, speed, endurance, and injury resilience are of utmost importance for coaches who wish to obtain and retain a career in S&C. Aside from the x's and o's of what an S&C coach may do in the trenches. They can also be tasked with a host of administrative duties if they are higher up the food chain. This can include certain things such as gym maintenance and scheduling, fundraising, designing a facility, hiring of other staff/interns, budgeting, and a host of other responsibilities. Resources can vary dramatically based on the funding and staffing a particular facility has to allocate towards the S&C department, which makes coaching responsibilities highly variable. In contrast to the personal training industry, becoming an S&C coach (particularly in the collegiate and professional setting) holds a higher barrier of entry.
One certification, degree, or previous experience does not guarantee a job in the least bit. Private facilities are often littered with highly experienced coaches who've taken it upon themselves to open their own business and pursue training athletes without being under the wing of a larger organization. One quickly discovers that the S&C path to success is more like a maze.
Certifications, Degrees, and Experience, Oh My
Once you know what each position, personal Trainer or S&C coach, respectively, entails from a general sense, you may be left wondering how the heck to land either one of these jobs in the first place? I feel extremely fortunate in that I've been able to do both throughout my career. In fact, as I author this article in late 2020, I am doing both concurrently and can say I love both for different reasons. I believe that coaches should not limit themselves to the title they are labeled with simply because of their environment or previous work. Finding a niche and becoming the best at what they do is certainly helpful for increasing your marketability, but at the end of the day, it is all about helping others perform and move better with their own individual goals in mind. That being said, let's take a look at the path to becoming a personal trainer, and in my opinion, what you need to be most successful.
Personal Trainer: I mentioned it once before, and I'll mention it again, but the reality is that barrier to becoming a personal trainer is extremely low. All you are required to have at most gyms is a personal training certification from an entrusted organization like the NSCA, NASM, ISSA, or ACE. For many, this is their step into the industry, and they are off to the races as soon as anybody gives them a chance. There have most definitely been many trainers who've done nothing more than obtaining one certification and had a lucrative career, but I think there are many better avenues to explore. Settling for the minimum standard will always set you at a disadvantage in comparison to those who reach higher. I would highly recommend that every coach does one of two but preferably both things first.
Number one is to volunteer and become an intern with a highly respectable coach who can teach you what successful high-level training looks like. This doesn't mean you have to work for free forever, but you cannot expect others to pay a lot of money for your services without first doing your due diligence. Coaches like Eric Cressey and Mike Boyle have had a lot of coaches/interns come out of their programs because they foster an environment designed to show you how to be successful.
The second recommendation I have for the aspiring Trainer is to obtain a bachelor's degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Science or something of the likes. While this is not absolutely necessary, and again, many coaches have thrived without one, I still do believe it is worthwhile if you take the initiative and get as much out of the program you possibly can over simply earning passing grades and forgetting everything upon graduation. One caveat to this is that you, as the student, must do your research on the degree program itself. Do not assume that all bachelor's degree programs are created equal. Ask professors and former students how they feel it helps graduates in landing and being successful in a job as well as how they prepare the students. Once you've done the necessary things I've highlighted previously, it is time to earn the only thing that is requisite in this entire process, selecting a certification. Similar to the college programs, do your research on what each certification specializes in and how well it will assist you in earning the training job you desire.
S&C Coach: In contrast to personal training, S&C coaches have several requirements they must first meet before securing a job. First and foremost, they must obtain at minimum a bachelor's degree in something like Kinesiology and Exercise Science. However, the majority of collegiate and professional sporting organizations now require a master's degree to even be considered for employment.
Coaches must have the certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) certification from the NSCA or the strength and conditioning coach certified (SCCC) certification from the CSCCa to work. These are bare minimum and additional certifications like the USA Weightlifting Coach (USAW) certification may help further assists as the cherry on top.
Checking both of these boxes is the easy part, but what coaches must do next is gain experience through either some type of internship or graduate assistant program (GA). GA's typically receive paid tuition for their master's program and a small stipend to help cover some food or housing, while internships are often unpaid or also include a small stipend.
The road is long and windy to becoming a successful S&C coach, and quite honestly, building meaningful relationships combined with a robust network of other coaches, being in the right place at the right time, and success in making meaningful performance changes all play into actually landing a job. The reality is that some coaches never land a full-time job in a position that pays them well enough to support themselves and a family. If there was a list of weaknesses in this industry, this would be at the top next to the ridiculous amount of hours and responsibilities one must take on.
Although the path to pursuing a career as a personal trainer or S&C coach may appear similar from a surface level, there are important differences that separate the two tremendously. Electing the appropriate education, certifications, and experiences can determine whether you ultimately obtain the desired position or not. Taking the initiative to inquire and research how other successful coaches got to their level of success can prove highly beneficial. No matter what path is chosen, however, a passion for helping others and an unmatched work ethic will always be the most critical components. Never stop learning and never stop growing.