There are a multitude of jobs that fall under the health and fitness umbrella. Two of the most widely recognized are athletic and personal trainers.
Whether you’re injured or if you just want to get stronger, the specialties of personal and athletic trainers determine the expert you should seek depending on the goal. This is why it’s important to properly distinguish both professions.
Athletic Trainers: More than just acute-injury remediators
Many people think of an athletic trainer solely as the person who runs onto the field or court to provide care when an athlete gets injured. While this is an important task, it’s just one of many jobs taken on by athletic trainers.
Connie Peterson, JMU associate professor in health professions and athletic training teacher, said athletic trainers are also responsible for diagnosing potential injuries athletes might sustain before they occur in competition. This can be done by putting an athlete in a “prehab” program, she said, which includes injury prevention exercises for injury-prone muscles through movement screenings that assess things like muscle tightness.
Athletic trainers also need to be sufficient in other injury-prevention principles like hydration, nutrition and stretching, Peterson said. The profession works with sports nutritionists to help speed up recovery among injured athletes through differing nutrition plans as well as strength and conditioning coaches so those coaches can debrief athletes on which weight room exercises are contingent with their injuries. Meetings are also held with coaching staffs to go through injury reports and discuss which athletes either can’t practice or have to have limited participation, and what those limitations entail.
Following an injury, athletic trainers accompany the athlete every step of the way in the injury rehabilitation process, Peterson said. She said helping a student-athlete recover from an injury is more complex than a regular student because rehab doesn’t end with the ability to return back to “activities of daily living.” For an athlete, physical therapy is often required to not only return to the sport, but to do so in a manner that prevents further injury or aggravation.
“We’re one of the few health professions that includes injury prevention as part of our scope of practice … as well as the rehabilitation on the backside,” Peterson said.
Not only did athletic trainers treat athletes who missed time from injury during the 2020-21 athletic calendar year, but they did the same with those who had to quarantine after contracting COVID-19 or coming in close contact with someone carrying the virus. At JMU, Peterson said, athletic trainers were administering tests three times a week starting as early as 5:30 a.m., all while following the NCAAs guidelines for best practices as testing and treatment evolved. While some athletes would miss a minimum of two weeks of play as mandated by the NCAAs COVID-19 rules, Peterson said there was usually an additional week on the back end of quarantine that athletic trainers needed to help ramp the athletes up for return to their sport.
Another value that athletic trainers provide to athletes of all ages is the money that’s saved by performing injury treatments, prehab and rehab — all free of charge, Peterson said. In one school year, the value of 13,766 treatments by a high school athletic trainer totaled north of $2.7 million.
“You might spend a salary of $50,000 to hire an athletic trainer, but [you’re] saving potentially from a risk-management perspective a big lawsuit by being there and making sure things are managed correctly,” Peterson said.
Jamie Frye, program director for the JMU athletic training program, said that in a profession where you have to be somewhat “selfless” to provide such versatile care at that steep of a discount, trainers should be in the profession for the right reasons. Frye said she tries to embody that selflessness when designing the athletic training program’s courses.
“My whole purpose is to create a curriculum that trains athletic trainers to help save people’s lives,” Frye said.
While Frye said she doesn’t get to clinically practice athletic training often because of her obligations as program director, she volunteers every May to serve in the Boston Marathon and takes some of her students along with her. Her introduction to the event was in 2013 — the year two bombs went off close to the finish line while she was in a medical tent in close proximity.
During the pandemonium, Frye had to perform additional tasks that exemplify the full scope of athletic trainers’ areas of expertise — emergency and immediate care credentials. Frye said she dealt with mass bleeding and trauma that day in Boston.
“I don’t know what’s different about us or why we’re created the way we are, but we’re the people that when most people are running away, you feel compelled to run toward [the danger],” Frye said.
Other immediate emergency care skills Frye and others like her must be prepared for are treating heat illness, putting in an airway to administer oxygen, managing a spinal cord injury or aiding someone in cardiac arrest. Peterson also said suturing was recently added into the athletic trainer’s repertoire.
“The one thing that differentiates us is the emergency part,” Peterson said. “What I do may be the difference between someone having minimal damage or injury, or saving somebody’s life even potentially.”
Along with selflessness, Frye said the most important traits of prospective athletic trainers are wanting to work with people and prioritizing your patients. The time commitment of being an athletic trainer can be hard, especially when you’re dealing with a large number of patients at a time, Frye said, which is what makes the selflessness so paramount.
“If you’re someone looking at health professions and you love the idea of working with athletics, and you love the idea of working with emergency situations or rehabilitating someone to a high level of performance, then athletic training is a very good fit for you,” Frye said.
At JMU’s University Recreation Center (UREC), there are practicing athletic trainers on duty who can help rehabilitate injured students for free. Keeley Yokley, JMU alumna (’20) and NASM-certified personal trainer, went to an athletic trainer after injuring her back, and the athletic trainers helped her rehabilitate it with exercises that Yokley said helped strengthen her back to normal.
Personal trainers: Coaching the transformation into a healthy lifestyle
Since graduating from JMU in May, Yokley has worked as an online personal trainer through an app called Trainerize. She has her own clients and complements her use of the app with a Microsoft Excel document to chart all her clients’ workout plans and check-in meetings — Yokley said she likes to keep her practice small, with five to 10 clients at one time so that they can have open access to her.
A social work major, Yokley cultivated her passion for personal training not through a traditional route like kinesiology, but through her passion for helping people, she said. After participating in Gym Shark’s 66-day fitness challenge, she said she learned fitness is more of a holistic term than she previously thought. She noticed people saved and sent her Instagram workouts, which led her toward being a personal trainer because she said helping other people was “holding [her] accountable.”
“There’s a really beautiful process of helping people gain confidence in their bodies,” Yokley said. “I think so many people are really hard on themselves, and on social media it’s really easy to compare yourself … I think it’s cool having people be like, ‘I’m building my dream body, I’m being confident in who I am,’ and it’s kind of about appreciating what you’ve been given.”
She said two important traits of aspiring personal trainers are optimism and friendliness. The former helps to look through a glass-half-full lens when her clients experience setbacks in their gains, while the latter is important to have a better overall working relationship and help her clients look forward to exercise rather than dread it, she said.
Andy Allen, Masters of Science in kinesiology from JMU (’20) and ACSM-certified personal trainer, straddles two ends of the personal training industry. Working as both an online personal trainer at Future and an in-person fitness coach at Burn Boot Camp, he said he gets a “well-rounded” experience of “everything that comes with fitness.”
With Future, Allen said his day-to-day consists of having meetings with clients over FaceTime and Zoom, writing workout programs and adding instructional cues into workouts, not only to make sure his clients know what they’re doing, but to also “flare it up.” At Burn Boot Camp, he said he performs hands-on coaching and walks around the gym correcting form, giving directions to group exercises and motivating people.
“Training in person also adds in some excitement and that good connection piece,” Allen said. “It’s nice to be there for people.”
When deciding during his undergraduate tenure at William & Mary whether to pursue a career as a physical therapist, doctor, athletic trainer or personal trainer, Allen chose the latter — partly because the courses in college weren’t as hard, he jokingly said. But he said he enjoys the opportunity to be on the “front side” of exercise, or doing preventative activities to decrease the likelihood of having to go to a doctor because they have to.
“I don’t want people to come to me when they need to come to me,” Allen said. “I want someone to come to me because they want to come to me.”
Allen said his favorite thing about being a personal trainer is having his clients “fall in love” with the process of being active and taking care of themselves, rather than “cliche” goals of losing weight, gaining muscle mass or getting toned.
“It means so much to me,” Allen said. “I’ve seen the flip side of when people don’t do that … it either turns their life south or it ends their life.”
The certification process for being an athletic or personal trainer
What does it take to head the occupations of Peterson, Frye, Yokley or Allen? A vast array of skills in both professions, but more education requirements — and some more skills — in one over the other.
Peterson said the entry-level credential of an athletic trainer is completion of a four-year undergraduate degree plus a master’s degree or other graduate-level program. At JMU, Frye said, the athletic training certification starts with its two-year, six-semester master’s program completed following undergrad.
Athletic-training certification at JMU also includes an application to take the Board of Certification (BOC) exam — a computer-based test that students typically apply to take during their final semester in the program, Frye said. In April of the applicant’s final semester, students typically get their results back, and Frye said she has to ensure the pass rate meets the 70% threshold set by the Commission for Accreditation in Athletic Training Education (CAATE) for first-time test takers. For this reason, Frye said she not only has to admit students that’ll likely succeed in the program, but also those with high enough “educational intervention.”
The passing score of the BOC exam — which is on a 200- to 800-point scale — is 500. JMU has “thankfully” had a “very high” national pass rate for years, Frye said.
For personal trainers, the process of certification isn’t necessarily competitive in the academic sense like that of athletic training. A parallel, however, is that personal-training certification requires CPR certification, Yokley said — but other emergency care credentials aren’t completely on par with that of athletic trainers.
Beyond CPR, personal trainers can take many different yet adjacent routes of certification, Allen said. Popular programs that an aspiring personal trainer can gain certification from include the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the International Sports Science Association (ISSA), among a dozen others to choose from. With different organizations come different emphases within training.
Yokley said she picked NASM over ACE because NASM provided a “more holistic” approach to health by explaining the science behind the workouts and even included a chapter on starting a business. ACE, she said, places a bigger emphasis on creating and structuring workouts.
For Yokley, getting certified while in school meant taking little breaks between busy academic periods. It took her “several weeks” to obtain certification because studying halted during finals season, but she said it could’ve taken her much less time if she didn’t have to worry about JMU classes.
She said there are chapters in a textbook students have to go through to study for the NASM exam, and she also printed out online modules to study. The exam was “really nerve-racking,” Yokley said, because you find out right away if you pass or fail.
“I have never read a textbook every single page [in a class],” Yokley said, “but I actually read every single page of that textbook.”
Allen said he got certified through ACSM because it was the certification the campus recreation center at William & Mary wanted him to go through and because the organization is the “governing body” on exercise — meaning it makes the official exercise-prescription handbooks. However, he said he suggests getting certified through NASM — you can get hired “pretty much anywhere” because many gyms look for their certification.
Whether you want to get certified in college like Yokley to begin practicing as a personal trainer STAT or you’re willing to take on the extra schooling needed to become a certified athletic trainer, the process of working with patients or clients can be extra rewarding when you see their progress being made in both professions, Peterson said.
“[Seeing] someone who was so distraught and broken down, frustrated, irritated and injured … return to play, and the happiness and the joy that you can help them achieve those goals and get back to play is one of the things that most of us really like,” Peterson said.
Contact Grant Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.