Personal Trainers are not Physical Therapists

One area where newly certified personal trainers (CPTs) can stumble is scope of practice. A personal trainer’s scope of practice is well defined and does not include the diagnosis or treatment of acute or chronic injuries. Because personal trainers have an in-depth knowledge of anatomy and human movement, it’s naturally assumed that we also know how to care for an injured body part. We do not. It takes special training to be able to address such concerns.   Do Not Diagnose One of the most common questions personal trainers will receive is phrased something akin to: “I have this pain here. What do you think is wrong and how can I fix it?”. Steer clear of answering this question directly if one of your clients asks something similar. Personal trainers are not diagnosticians. Instead, we are “suspecticians”. We can probably make an educated guess as to the cause or source of discomfort, but chances are we aren’t trained in that sophisticated capacity. However, an educated guess is not enough to assist a client with an injury question or plan of care.   The Personal Trainer’s Scope of Practice The best thing you can do for yourself and for your clients is to understand and practice within your scope. Different national organizations will have slightly different verbiage related to the scope of practice for their personal trainers. Generally speaking, a personal trainer is a member of the allied healthcare continuum with a primary focus on prevention. Within this scope is the responsibility to:
  • Develop and implement safe and effective exercise programs that align with client goals and needs
  • Conduct health-history interviews and evaluate risk for participation in physical activity
  • Administer appropriate fitness assessments
  • Assist clients in setting and achieving goals
  • Teach correct exercise form and technique
  • Empower individuals to begin and stick to an exercise plan
  • Provide balanced and thoughtful feedback and guidance
  • Design structured programs for one-on-one or small group exercise settings
  • Educate clients about fitness and health-related topics
  • Protect client confidentiality in accordance with HIPAA and any related regional and national laws
  • Act with professionalism and integrity
  • Be adequately prepared for emergency situations and respond appropriately
  (ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 2015). In short, personal trainers do not diagnose, prescribe, develop nutritional diets or recommend supplements, treat injury or disease, rehabilitate, provide counseling, or work with patients. While it is highly recommended and encouraged for personal trainers to have a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or related filed, it is not a national or international requirement to sit for an accredited certification exam. Contrast this with a physical therapist’s (PT’s) scope and you will see vast differences. For a complete listing of the scope for a physical therapist, visit the American Physical Therapy Association. In summary, a licensed PT is a healthcare professional who has a primary responsibility to diagnose and treat individuals of all ages who have medical concerns that limit their patients’ ability to perform functional activities or activities of daily living. This branch of medicine requires a post-baccalaureate degree from an accredited physical therapy program. Letters Matter When you prepare to market your services as a personal trainer, be sure to include CPT behind your name as this commonly refers to certified personal trainer. In contrast to PT (physical therapy) or DPT (doctor of physical therapy). It can be tempting to want to abbreviate personal trainer with P.T. but this means something different than CPT. Believe it not, professional initials immediately communicate one’s professional scope. Be cautious and aware as you move forward in your own practice and professional efforts. When in Doubt: Refer Out. As with any service or question which falls outside the established scope of practice for a personal trainer, refer to another professional within your network to help you and your client address that question or provide a different medical or nutritional service.