Health Coach or Personal Trainer – Is there a difference?

I remember the fitness industry of the 1990’s with all its grapevines and power walks, lycra and leg warmers. From a National standpoint, the industry itself was fragmented and governed by State based bodies that set loose guidelines relating to training and education of fitness and aerobics instructors – as they were then known. Personal Trainers were simply status symbols of Hollywood stars on far reaching shores. But I remember feeling the ‘knowing’ that Personal Training was the next big thing.
Along came the 2000’s and finally the nationalisation and recognition of the Personal Training profession. These were exciting times that witnessed massive industry growth and a flourishing of education programs that armed PTs in all things relating to health, fitness and wellbeing.
Personal Training become an everyday expectation, a necessity. The hope was for a healthier nation, a population with a reduced waist line, a decline in chronic disease.
Personal Trainers hold the power to change lives for the better. Through instruction, education and motivation, they can guide clients towards reaching their fitness goals. A Personal Trainer is passionate about health and fitness, inspiring and encouraging others to develop healthy habits and routines through the safe delivery of effective programs, instruction, motivation and education (
So the work of Personal Trainers is no doubt positive. But when we look at the hard figures, the true facts, obesity rates, waistlines and chronic disease are still at perilous levels. What’s missing? There’s fit people who have become fitter or successfully adopted a fool proof, bullet proof healthy lifestyle regime. This is great. But for those who struggle with self-belief, life direction, and chronic patterns of limiting beliefs over control of their own health, more is needed. In comes Health Coaching.
Health and wellness coaching is a client-centered process that assumes a working relationship/partnership develops between client and coach to advance healthy lifestyle behavior change using tools such as nonjudgmental dialogue, goal setting and accountability (Sforzo et al, Compendium of the Health and Wellness Coaching Literature).

Skillful Health Coaches build partnerships or alliances with their clients, but instead of telling and instructing them about what needs to be done, the client drives the process. A skillful coach guides their client towards untapping inner resources that, once unlocked, can empower them to strive towards their goals. Through powerful questions, a coach enables the client to experience self-compassion, to truly know themselves and what works for them. This then allows the client to become empowered by the new knowledge of themselves, owning their choices and taking control. A strong focus on the present and a constant moving towards a future ‘better’ self are key focal points for the health coach. This removes the emphasis on ‘It didn’t work before’ or ‘I can’t’ to ‘what’s really holding me back?’.
Health Coaching will become a profession in its own rite. It will have a powerful impact on the health status of our population. It’s crucial that Personal Trainers and other health professionals develop skills and resources through credible avenues. The ICF (International Coach Federation) is a global credentialing and accreditation body for Coaches worldwide. It is crucial that training that is recognized through such bodies, along with industry based bodies such as APNA, Physical Activity Australia and Fitness Australia are considered, as clients will become more savvy about their choices.
Health Coaches International aims to be the leader of Health Coach education globally. With alignment to professional bodies and with a team of Master Certified, Professional Certified and Associate Certified Coaches with ICF, Health Coaches International delivers high level education and expect high level coaching ethics and professional practice from our graduates.
Here is how Health Coaching is different to Personal Training, and how both can work alongside each other to achieve optimal results. A PT who is also a skilled Health Coach would no doubt be the ultimate health choice for any client!

  Personal Trainer Health Coach Working Together
Power Trainer is in charge of allocating activities and exercises to the client A partnership between the coach and client is established with a client-centered focus Whilst the PT can prescribe and instruct exercise, the health coach helps build self awareness allowing clients to recognize what could hold them back and empower them to meet their health and fitness goals
Expertise The PT is the expert in regards to exercise prescription, technique and performance The client is viewed as creative and resourceful and as an expert on their own life and self The health coach guides the client to become a full expert on how they can best utilize their strengths and traits to reach their unlimited potential – the emphasis is on internal learning whereas in PT the focus is more external learning
Approach Prescription, instruction, measuring, monitoring, motivating Non-prescription, exploration, curiosity, awareness, future focus, self efficacy The health coach’s focus is long term and ongoing. The client is encouraged and empowered to be self regulated/self managed rather than reliant on others. The PT provides the tools, the Health Coach provides the drive.
Process Often progressive and linear/ PT driven Non-linear and client driven Where PTs often prescribe progressive programs to challenge clients, Health Coaches respond to the highs, lows, step forwards and setbacks and addresses a wide range of interrelated factors effecting the client’s health performance
Fixing PTs often work towards fixing problems for clients – weight loss, building strength or rehab Health Coaches do not view clients as needing to be fixed. The focus is on guidance towards strengthening the positive traits and strengths clients already have, but may not be aware or not be utilizing them fully Whilst the exercise and healthy eating program go a long way to solving the client’s perceived or genuine problems, many underlying factors can be left untapped, leading to problem recurrence. A Health Coach focuses on the complete person, including their perceptions and assumptions of themselves and their limiting beliefs that go on to trigger poor health behaviours
Focus PTs consider exercise history and patterns of past behavior to prescribe what is done in the present Health Coaches focus on the present and how the client can reach their potential in the future PTs need to consider what their client’s exercise and eating history looks like as this forms important information for prescription. The Health Coach considers that the client can be empowered to start afresh from the platform of today and a new set of empowered self beliefs.
  • Prescribing exercise programs
  • Instructing fitness skills
  • Motivating in sessions
  • Monitoring performance
  • Advising on healthy habits
  • Finding meaningfulness in decisions and actions
  • Connecting intent with outcome
  • Developing self efficacy
  • Guiding through barriers/limitations
  • Widening comfort zone
  • Whole person change commencing in thoughts and how they effect feelings and actions
A PT can work with a health coach to ensure optimal outcomes for their client OR a PT can complete Health Coach Training and combine coaching skills and approaches with their PT work

Author: Kristin McMaster, Director, Health Coaches International, Masters in Nutrition, Dip Fitness, Executive Health Coach, ICF member

Join us in our Health Coaching Course commencing in October 2017 or at our LORNE RETREAT in March 2018