Should You Get A Personal Trainer Or See A Physical Therapist?

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
If your workout routine has been in a bit of a rut lately, you may consider investing in some extra support to help you with your goals. Maybe you have some lingering knee pain that's been getting in the way of you and the treadmill. Or maybe you just need someone to show you how to use the weight room in your gym. Either way, who should you turn to for these types of issues: a personal trainer or a physical therapist?
The role of a personal trainer and a physical therapist do overlap somewhat. Both physical therapists and personal trainers get people moving, and help people make and stick to fitness-related goals, says Ann Wendel, PT, ATC, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer, and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. But the truth is that a physical therapist's scope of practice is vastly different from that of a personal trainer. So, if you're curious which one is right for you, here's what you need to know:
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You should see a physical therapist if...
If you're experiencing limitations in movement from an injury or pain, it's a good idea to see a physical therapist, Wendel says. "PTs are skilled at evaluating and diagnosing problems before they lead to more serious conditions," she says. Once they know what's causing your pain or injury, they will help you maximize movement. That usually means tailoring a personalized recovery program so you can become independent in your exercise program, she says.
It's a common misconception that you have to be injured in order to see a physical therapist, but PTs "definitely do preventative care," Wendel says. For example, if someone suffers from low-back pain and they want to avoid getting injured and needing surgery, they may go to physical therapy. Often people who have had a baby will seek physical therapy to build strength before they go back to their pre-pregnancy exercise program. Or some people may seek physical therapy for help with their posture or stiff neck from sitting at a desk or carrying a backpack. "We would take a look and figure out which muscles are tight and weak, and come up with a good program that they can do longterm on their own," she says.
Of course, physical therapy can be expensive even with insurance (around $50-$150 a session depending on the services), so not everyone can afford to pop in to a practice when there's no issue. If you have health insurance, it's a good idea to see a physical therapist within your network, or look into a clinic that provides appointments on a sliding scale.
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You should see a personal trainer if...
If you want expert assistance developing a regular exercise routine — and have been medically cleared to exercise — then you might consider going to a personal trainer. A personal trainer can assess your posture and level of fitness, and use that information to help you develop a workout program that fits your needs and lifestyle. For example, a personal trainer might take you through a series of exercises designed to measure your flexibility and muscular strength, and then create a program of exercises based on the areas that you need to improve.
Personal trainers typically don't have the same education credentials as a physical therapist, so they're somewhat limited. They can't diagnose an injury or prescribe a rehabilitation program — that's outside of their scope of practice. It's somewhat common for a physical therapist to work in conjunction with a personal trainer, especially if someone has an injury they're working on rehabilitating. "I’ve had patients bring personal trainers in for sessions and things like that, so we’re always happy to answer questions and work with other healthcare professionals and fitness professionals," Wendel says. But personal training isn't cheap either, and can range between $50-$100 a session, so it might be a hefty expense on top of physical therapy appointments, too.
The bottom line? If you're looking for an expert to support your health and fitness, you have options. But think about what your goals are before you invest in personal training or physical therapy sessions, because their expertise is different.
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