two people on a track with strength and conditioning

Introduction: Choosing Between Personal Training and Strength and Conditioning Coaches

When aiming to develop elite athletic achievement or personal fitness goals, selecting the appropriate professional guidance is essential. The difference between a personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches is not just about preference; it’s a strategic choice that significantly impacts an athlete’s development and success level.

This post aims to shed light on a frequently asked question, one that I encountered early in my career (and one we are asked regularly here at Athlete Now). My professional journey in fitness commenced in personal training in 2008, during which I was already actively coaching across several sports. My experience led me to work with diverse populations—from youth and elderly to clinical cases and competitive athletes. My commitment to continuous professional development (CPD) encompassed both formal avenues such as courses, workshops, and events, and informal methods like reading, networking, and shadowing experienced professionals. This dedication led me to pursue higher education as a mature student, obtaining a BSc (Hons) in Strength and Conditioning followed by an MSc in Sport and Exercise Science.

Currently, I am an accredited strength and conditioning coach (ASCC), overseeing S&C services at the University of Central Lancashire for the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) and our student scholarship athletes. My roles also include lecturing on sports science and strength and conditioning degrees and pursuing a PhD in strength and conditioning for climbing. As a strength and conditioning coach my experience includes working for British Weightlifting, co-founding the Fylde Coast Weightlifting Club (leading the coaching for 4 years), working as an S&C coach for Fleetwood Rugby Union 1st team and several Sale Sharks academy players, delivering S&C support at sports training camps, most recently with GB Climbing national training camps, and collaborating with exceptional fitness professionals and sports scientists in my day to day roles. This background has positions me to address the nuances between personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches.

Understanding the Role of a Strength and Conditioning Coach


The Evolution of Strength and Conditioning Coaching

The field of Strength and Conditioning (S&C) has undergone an evolution over the past two decades, transitioning from a subsidiary of sports science into a standalone speciality. This shift reflects the growing recognition of S&C coaches’ pivotal role in boosting athletic performance and reducing the risk of common overuse injuries, necessitating a comprehensive understanding of athletes’ physical, psychological, and nutritional needs. S&C coaches work within a multidisciplinary team, ensuring a holistic approach to athlete development (Foulds et al., 2019; Carson et al., 2022; Weldon et al., 2022).

Key Distinctions and Qualifications of an S&C Coach

S&C coaches are distinguished by their rigorous educational background and continuous professional development. Holding degrees in Strength and Conditioning, Exercise Science or Kinesiology as a minimum pre requisite to working as a strength and conditioning coach, and beginning to understand the demands and impact of this role. Additional certifications and accreditation from reputable bodies like the UKSCA, NSCA, ASCA etc ensure that professionals possess a the relevant competencies of the scientific underpinning and applied skills needed. These foundation senables them to implement evidence-based methodologies during training effectively, setting them apart from apart from personal trainers and the other disciplines within the multidisciplinary team.

I needed my undergraduate degree to get my role with British Weightlifting and S&C for the university. To be able to deliver S&C on TASS, I had to have the UKSCA accreditation (TASS is a british scheme for talented athletes who have been nominated by their national governing bodies with an aim to develop them onto the next stage of the world class programme). And working with the training camp more recently I also needed this accreditation.

Strength and conditioning gym

The Day-to-Day Impact of S&C Coaching

Beyond designing training programs, S&C coaches play a vital role in delivering recovery strategies, preparing athletes for competitions, and continuously adapting training plans to optimise performance. Analysing data, monitoring workload, improving skill aquisition and refinement are all part of the parcel. Their commitment to identifying and reducing the risk of common injuries underscores their essential contribution to athletes’ long-term development and success (Foulds et al., 2019; Carson et al., 2022).
Beyond these elements a coach, will do just that coach! They will want the athlete to do more than go through the motions, they want to see long term sustainable improvement in the athletes athletic development. They will inform and educate athletes to be more self sufficient, they will also involve the athlete in the decision making process (along with the MDT), because who knows their history and individual nuances better than them.

A crucial aspect of a strength and conditioning coach’s role extends beyond the confines of the gym environment. While significant time is spent training athletes within gym facilities, their responsibilities also encompass work on tracks or fields to enhance speed and agility. Additionally, they dedicate time to laboratory environments, where they analyse testing data to refine and adapt training programs. Regular collaboration with a team of coaches, physiotherapists, psychologists, and nutritionists is integral to their role, ensuring that their decisions are seamlessly integrated into the comprehensive plan devised for the athlete’s development and success. This multifaceted approach underscores the breadth and depth of expertise that strength and conditioning coaches bring to athlete training and overall performance enhancement.

Integrating Interdisciplinary Strategies for Athletic Excellence

Recent research by Till et al. (2019) highlights the critical need for a cohesive, interdisciplinary approach in strength and conditioning (S&C) coaching, illustrating how S&C coaches often serve as a link within a multidisciplinary team. In my experience, this role frequently involves bridging gaps or enhancing the practices of other team members. For example, I routinely take on the responsibility for the later stages of an athlete’s rehabilitation post-injury or integrating psychosocial strategies into group sessions to bolster team cohesion when there are new members or tension. This interdisciplinary collaboration, focused on a deep understanding of the athlete and the customisation of training to meet specific sports demands, and allows S&C coaches to develop programs that are acutely targeted to improve performance and reduce the risk of injuries. Staying ahead of current research and industry best practices is indispensable in sustaining a cutting-edge approach to athletic training strategies.

Understanding the Role of Personal Trainers in Fitness


The Essential Function of Personal Trainers

In contrast, personal trainers (PT’s) play a crucial role in the broader health and fitness industry, focusing on improving general fitness, aiding in weight loss, or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In the UK, personal trainers typically achieve a Personal Training awards which are the equivalent of a Level 3 Award on the Ofqual framework, thus aligning with CIMSPA standards. This equips PT’s them with the skills to design effective fitness programs and provide basic guidance on health. These courses are typically done over a year at colleges (BTEC or Extended BTEC) or as part of a shorter industry award (sometimes done over a series of 6 weeks).

In comparison to the UK’s personal trainer award, the standards for personal trainer qualifications in the US and the EU present variations that are slightly more comprehensive, yet not markedly dissimilar. For instance, in the United States, personal trainers often pursue certification through organisations like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), which require passing rigorous exams and, in some cases, completing a set number of practical training hours. Similarly, the European Union’s standards, guided by the European Health & Fitness Association (EHFA), ensure a broad knowledge base and competency in fitness training, advocating for a harmonised level of qualification across member states.

Conclusion: Difference Between Personal Trainers and Strength and Conditioning Coaches Education

woman strength and conditioning coaching kneeling beside man Photo by Jonathan Borba

It’s important to note the distinct scope of practice between personal trainers and strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches, particularly in the complexity and depth of their roles. Personal training qualifications, while foundational for entering the fitness industry, do not encompass many of the advanced competencies that define an S&C coach’s role. These include the execution of advanced and accurate monitoring/testing protocols, a deep understanding of how to source and interpret scientific research, comprehensive risk assessment of injuries, and a solid grasp of sports biomechanics, physiology, and coaching pedagogy/skill acquisition.

Moreover, pursuing a full-time degree in strength and conditioning often takes 3-4 years, during which students focus their study on specific sports sciences, securing placements in clubs, with teams, or alongside athletes. This extensive education allows them to develop a more sophisticated understanding and application of exercise science. Contrarily, the foundational knowledge and skills of a personal trainer, while critical, are often a prerequisite or embedded as a module in the first year of such degree programmes. This structure encourages students to adopt a more critical approach to decision-making, exercise prescription, and monitoring, far exceeding the baseline qualification of personal training. This distinction highlights the advanced scope and depth of practice S&C coaches bring to athlete development and performance enhancement.

Aligning Goals with Professional Expertise

Understanding the differences between strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers is crucial for anyone looking to enhance their fitness or achieve athletic performance goals. By considering your unique needs and goals, you can make an informed decision about the type of professional support that will best help you succeed. Whether aiming for athletic excellence or general fitness, the right expert can set the foundation for your achievements.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

How Can I Find a Qualified Strength and Conditioning Coach?

Consider consulting our directory for strength and conditioning coaches (all sport practitioners are verified before they can be listed on here and advertise strength and conditioning or their respective fields) or the directories of professional organisations like the NSCA or the UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) for those who have taken their studying one step further and become accredited.

What is a Strength and Conditioning Coach?

A strength and conditioning coach is a professional with specialised training in sports science, focusing on enhancing athletic performance through strength training, conditioning, injury prevention, and performance optimisation strategies. Their expertise is particularly suited to athletes and sports teams aiming for competitive excellence.

How Do Strength and Conditioning Coaches Differ from Personal Trainers?

While personal trainers primarily work with individuals to achieve general fitness goals, such as weight loss, muscle gain, and overall health improvement, strength and conditioning coaches specialize in preparing athletes for high-level performance in their specific sports. This involves a more in-depth understanding of sports science, biomechanics, and sport-specific training programs.

Why is it Important for Athletes to Work with Strength and Conditioning Coaches?

For athletes, the targeted approach of a strength and conditioning coach is essential for optimizing physical capabilities, enhancing sport-specific skills, reducing the risk of injury, and achieving peak performance levels. Their expertise in sports science and athletic training regimens provides athletes with a competitive edge.

Can a Personal Trainer Prepare an Athlete for Competition?

While personal trainers are well-equipped to improve overall fitness and health, they may lack the specialised knowledge and skills required to prepare an athlete for competition at a high level. The specific demands of sports performance necessitate the expertise of a strength and conditioning coach.

What Qualifications Should I Look for in a Strength and Conditioning Coach?

Ideal qualifications include a degree in strength and conditioning, sports science or a related field. The they should have experience working with athletes or sports teams.
Specialised knowledge in the athlete’s specific sport can also be beneficial particularly for none-mainstream sports where the competitive calendar looks very different in comparison or where there are very specific demands that are unique to that sport.
Though not manditory, you should also consider looking into accreditations from a reputable organisation such as the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) or National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) or other relative national associations for S&C.

Can Strength and Conditioning Coaches Work with Non-Athletes?

Yes, strength and conditioning coaches can work with non-athletes who are interested in improving their physical performance, strength, and conditioning for personal goals. However, their training methods are particularly beneficial for those pursuing sports and athletic achievements.

Can Strength and Conditioning Coaches Support With Nutrition?

In short, we would suggest not. Strength and conditioning coaches will study physiology and nutrition to a reasonable level and be able to give general guidance, however we would suggest working with someone who is an accredited nutritionist or someone with a degree or higher in nutrition especially if you are an athlete. If you have any clinicial conditions, disordered eating or eating disorders, then you should seek out a registered Dietician.

References

  • Foulds, S.J., Hoffmann, S.M., Hinck, K., and Carson, F. (2019). “The Coach–Athlete Relationship in Strength and Conditioning: High Performance Athletes’ Perceptions.” Sports, 7(244). DOI:10.3390/sports7120244.
  • Carson, F., Blakey, M., Foulds, S.J., Hinck, K., and Hoffmann, S.M. (2022). “Behaviors and Actions of the Strength and Conditioning Coach in Fostering a Positive Coach-Athlete Relationship.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 36(11): 3256–3263.
  • Till, K., Muir, B., Abraham, A., Piggott, D., & Tee, J. (2019). A Framework for Decision-Making Within Strength and Conditioning Coaching. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 41(1), 14-26.
  • Weldon, A., Duncan, M.J., Turner, A., Lockie, R.G., and Loturco, I. (2022). “Practices of strength and conditioning coaches in professional sports: a systematic review.” Biology of Sport, 39(3): 715–726. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5114/biolsport.2022.107480

Comments

Leave a Reply

Sign In

Register

Reset Password

Please enter your username or email address, you will receive a link to create a new password via email.