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Strength and Conditioning Coach vs Personal Trainer

When we’re considering our potential fitness career options, it’s natural we’d look to compare personal training and strength and conditioning coaching. They’re often mentioned together, but it can be difficult to work out the best one for you.

OriGym’s complete exploration will explore both of these roles, what each of them involves, and how you can make an informed decision when choosing between becoming a personal trainer vs a strength and conditioning coach.

We’ll also explore the routes you’ll have available to you, and answer any of the burning questions you might have when it comes to deciding between a career in personal training and strength and conditioning.

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Regardless of what you choose to do, your first step will always be to achieve a Level 4 personal training qualification, and that’s where OriGym truly excels.

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What Is A Strength And Conditioning Coach?

While this question may seem basic, it’s incredibly important. In the fitness industry, there’s often overlapping or similar terms, and we feel it’s vital to address any misconceptions before we launch into more detailed information relating to strength and conditioning, and personal trainers.

In simple terms, a strength and conditioning coach (often shortened to just S&C coach) is a more specialised fitness professional who focuses on training elite-level athletes, sports teams, competitive fitness enthusiasts, and generally those who are at the very peak of physical fitness.

They’re responsible for designing workouts that utilise high-end or complex equipment, intensive exercises or workouts, and sustainable plans that can continue to stretch and challenge even professional athletes.

This means they’ll need a strong grasp on both the fundamentals of exercise, and how to create workout routines that incorporate elements that are both easy to understand and challenging at the same time.

For instance, they might choose to utilise specific cross training exercises and elements in conjunction with gym machine work, or combine cardio with weight training to create a more complex routine.

Where a personal trainer (which we’ll examine in more detail in our next section) will focus on clients of any fitness or experience level, this is often one of the key differences that separate a strength and conditioning coach vs a personal trainer.

What Is A Personal Trainer?

Let’s now examine the other side of the debate between strength and conditioning and a personal trainer. Again, this may seem simplistic, especially if you’re looking to find the best option for you, but it’s crucial to eliminate any misunderstandings before they can create any confusion.

A personal trainer (or PT) offers bespoke, 1-on-1 training to those clients who may need more clear guidance on workouts, those who have a specific goal or aspiration in mind, or those that want more tailored advice on how to achieve something they may have struggled with (weight loss, for example).

In a similar fashion to those involved in strength and conditioning, personal trainers will also need to design targeted workouts for their clients, but these are usually much broader, and perhaps encompass more basic aspects of fitness. 

This is especially true if a client is new to the gym, or has been out of practice for a longer period of time, and may therefore be unaware of some of the fundamentals of fitness (e.g, the correct form for exercises).

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a personal trainer’s duties - you'll be expected to undertake far more as you gain experience in the industry.

Key Differences Between An S&C Coach and a Personal Trainer

Now that we fully understand the basic concepts that separate a personal trainer vs a strength and conditioning coach, let’s examine all of the aspects where they differ, and how you can recognise the two in a fitness environment.

#1 - Different Clientele

Arguably the most immediately recognisable difference between personal training and strength and conditioning coaching is the clients these professions will attract, and the services those clients will receive. 

While we have already touched briefly upon this, it's one of the key differentiating factors, and it does bear repeating, especially if you’re looking to progress into one of these career options.

A strength and conditioning coach will usually focus on those clients who are likely at the very peak of their personal fitness. They might be looking to compete in a competitive sport (like football or cycling), an event (such as a marathon or a weightlifting meet), or be seeking to build more significant muscle mass.

This will often involve intensive strength training and rigorous diet plans that achieve effective results quickly.

Now, while personal training follows many of the same principles, in that you’ll be working on a more intimate basis with a single client (or a small number, if you’re planning to undertake group personal training), it does differ substantially with regards to clientele.

While you’ll have some element of control over your personal training clients, especially with regards to your own specialisms and passions, the likelihood is you’ll be training a wider range of clients than an S&C coach.

This can mean you’re training clients whose main goal is weight management alongside those who are looking to target tone and definition, and can often prove a tricky test when designing sessions, schedules, and routines that fit each individual client.

This is perhaps the largest difference when we examine the debate of personal trainer vs a strength and conditioning coach, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a deciding factor, especially if you’re an experienced PT.

#2 - Workout Intensity

As you might expect, given the first key difference on our list, there’s also a significant difference in the intensity and length of the workouts you might see from each of these fitness professionals.

However, one major caveat to consider beforehand is that this is entirely dependent on the clients, and is in no way reflective of the trainer or coach themselves - the workouts they create need to be tailored to the individual, rather than to their own interests.

As a general rule, though, when comparing personal training and strength and conditioning, S&C coaches will deliver tougher, more diverse workouts that target muscle groups in unique ways. 

For instance, an experienced strength and conditioning coach might make use of intelligent workout routines that target agonist and antagonist muscles individually, or that activate specific muscle groups to produce the desired effects.

These workouts are specifically designed to test those at the very pinnacle of personal fitness, but often share similar aspects to those we might see in a PT workout, in that they stem from the same basic principles of exercise, and may even use some of the same gym machines recommended for beginners.

Workouts can also have some crossover, even when we compare the sessions of a strength and conditioning coach vs a personal trainer’s sessions. As we’ve previously touched upon, though, this depends entirely upon the clients that you have.

Essentially, what this means is that, while the more intensive workouts may be found as part of strength and conditioning, personal trainers can still inject some of that difficulty and challenge into their own sessions.

 

#3 - Levels Of Experience

The usual qualification route (and the one that the most successful S&C coaches follow) when you’re looking to become a strength and conditioning coach is to first achieve a Level 4 qualification in personal training, before going on to complete another certification in strength and conditioning.

Training providers will often offer a way to do this seamlessly (OriGym’s industry-leading personal training diploma is a prime example of this), and take you from limited or no experience to a fully qualified professional.

Not only does this help to streamline your training process, as well as save you a significant amount of time and money, it’ll also ensure that you’ve got additional experience and expertise that can set you apart from other personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches.

This additional knowledge can then be used to plan more effective training sessions, better understand the needs and wants of your clients, and even incorporate some of those ideas into your own personal exercise routines.

This extra level of expertise can also be used to adjust your session prices accordingly, which we’ll explore in more detail in this next section.

#4 - Price Point

Money is a huge part of both personal training and strength and conditioning coaching, and that applies to both trainers and clients. It can often be expensive, but that’s because it needs to be reflective of the trainer/coach’s level of experience and expertise.

When you train as a strength and conditioning coach, you’ll be able to adjust any preexisting prices you may have, as you’ll be gaining additional marketable skills.

Many people often want their personal trainer or S&C coach to be able to accommodate multiple different needs, and a comprehensive understanding of strength and conditioning is an ideal way to set yourself apart.

You’re immediately more marketable as a strength and conditioning coach, too, meaning you’ll be able to advertise yourself as a more qualified, better educated fitness professional. And marketing is a key aspect of being in the fitness industry.

Having multiple different skills in your arsenal (such as strength and conditioning) is ultimately the best way to develop, and can offer benefits beyond what you may have expected. First, though, let’s look at the benefits of being a personal trainer vs a strength and conditioning coach.

The Benefits Of Training As An S&C Coach

Let’s examine the opposite side of the coin, and explore the debate of strength and conditioning coach vs personal trainer. Just as there are benefits to simply remaining as a PT, there are numerous advantages to becoming an S&C coach.

While we have already touched on this, it’s crucial to remember that, in order to qualify as a strength and conditioning coach, you must have already achieved a Level 3 gym instructor qualification.

#1 - Training The Elite

Perhaps the most immediately obvious benefit to training as a strength and conditioning coach is that you’ll be able to target those who are at the very peak of physical fitness, and are looking for additional, expert guidance.

An S&C coach is a professional whose sole job it is to provide workouts and regimes that challenge, stretch and provide opportunities for progression to those who are looking to go beyond what they might have expected.

S&C coaches are most commonly associated with athletes and fitness professionals (football players or weightlifters, for instance), but they can also act as coaches or trainers in more commercial settings, such as gyms or fitness centres.

They’d likely target those who are looking to progress beyond what a more conventional personal trainer or gym instructor can offer, as well as assisting with classes or groups that are more tailored towards those who are seeking to be involved in professional sport or athletics. 

This is one of the main reasons why you’ll need a prior qualification in gym instructing (such as OriGym’s bespoke Level 3 gym instructor course) before opting for a certification in strength and conditioning.

For further information on what a gym instructor does, explore our complete guide to the roles and responsibilities of a fitness instructor.

#2 - Develop As A Professional

Of course, as you’ll be completing an additional qualification on top of your existing Level 3 gym instructor certification or your Level 4 personal training qualification, you’ll immediately gain more understanding of this area of fitness.

Whether that’s a more complete knowledge of how muscles develop and grow, a better grasp on techniques and tactics used in motivation, or just a greater appreciation for the lengths that athletes go to to achieve their goals, you’ll start to learn more about the industry you work in.

You’ll then be able to deploy this expertise, even outside of any strength and conditioning sessions you might deliver. This is hugely important, in that it paints you as a more rounded, knowledgeable professional.

Even if it’s something as simple as pointing out the next move for a gym goer’s routine, or providing some guidance on how to maximise the gains from a workout, all of this can make a massive difference.

Not to mention that you’ll become more trustworthy and approachable with any client issues (often a sticking point when looking at how to choose a personal trainer), and appear as someone who can be relied upon for expert fitness-related advice.

 

#3 - Greater Potential Earnings

Again, this is something we’ve briefly discussed already, but it’s often a key area that many overlook when considering whether to opt to be a personal trainer vs strength and conditioning coach.

As an S&C coach, you’ll have access to much more in terms of earning potential, ranging from a slight increase in your training session prices, to better paying job opportunities that are made available to you when you complete the relevant training.

If you’ve already qualified as a Level 4 personal trainer, the likelihood is you’ll have existing clients who’ve been paying for the services that you offer, at a previously agreed-upon price point.

Adding this additional qualification to your skillset can mean you’re able to adjust your prices accordingly, as potential clients often look for trainers who can provide multiple services, to save on both time and money.

You’ll also have a completely new scope in terms of your career options, and therefore your potential yearly income.

Benefits Of Becoming A Personal Trainer vs A Strength And Conditioning Coach

While it’s an additional, often very valuable qualification, some may choose not to opt to become a more specialised strength and conditioning coach. There are benefits to opting for this, too. Let’s examine a couple of the key benefits of becoming a personal trainer vs a strength and conditioning coach.

#1 - More Diverse Client Base

We’ve already discussed at length how, as a strength and conditioning coach, you’ll be teaching the highest level of athletes, and those who are seeking to compete at a competitive level.

This can often mean you don’t get to interact with as diverse a client base as perhaps a personal trainer might have, especially as you’ll often be training clients with similar goals or targets.

As a personal trainer, you’ll be training a much wider spectrum of clients, and ones that may challenge you to come out of the comfort zone of what you’re used to training. Let’s look at an example.

When you’re training multiple clients, it’s unlikely you’ll have two people who’ll have the same goals and aspirations. For instance, one client might want to prioritise weight loss, where another might want to look for tone and muscle definition, and yet another might be seeking to improve their overall fitness levels.

This not only ensures that your weekly schedule keeps a good level of variety, but you’ll constantly be developing organically, learning new skills and techniques to help diversify your sessions, and better reach out to clients.

You might also discover new variations to class exercises, such as squats or deadlifts, or learn more about how best to interact with clients that might lack motivation, or struggle with specific routines.

#2 - Less Intensive

Intense sessions or training regimes can often take a toll on both you and your clients’ bodies, and this is especially true when considering the debate of personal trainer vs strength and conditioning coach.

A particularly difficult set can mean you’re not as energised for your next client, or that you don’t get the opportunity to implement other ideas or suggestions that might have worked better during that workout.

Or, it might mean you struggle to adjust your mindset or your motivational tactics - this can especially be an issue if you need to adjust between two totally different clients, or those who have drastically different goals or targets.

Less intensive sessions also provide an opportunity to get to know your clients on a more personal level, as opposed to being just a trainer, or someone that challenges their limits.

This level of interaction and personability is one of the key personal trainer traits, and is often what can persuade people to take on your services as opposed to another trainer that might offer something similar.

It can also provide a much clearer insight into a client’s motivations, goals, and even concerns relating to their future in fitness and exercise. This in turn allows you to create sessions that better cater towards those wants and needs, and ultimately design a more well-rounded experience for your customers.

Career Development Opportunities for S&C Coaches

As you might expect, by qualifying as a strength and conditioning coach, you’ll immediately open yourself up to numerous new avenues for career development that you may never have otherwise experienced. We’ve outlined the key examples below, as well as how having an S&C certification can prepare you for this new venture.

Sports Coach

Naturally, one of the most popular steps you can take once you’ve qualified as a strength and conditioning coach is to move into sports coaching and training. 

Sportspeople are some of the most hard-working competitors, and can often reach peaks of fitness which are out of reach for most, but will still need expert guidance on the best way to stretch and challenge them. This is where a good S&C coach can really make a difference.

You’ll be tasked with designing workout regimes that utilise all of the key muscle groups, but that also test those muscles that will be most used. For instance, if you’re working as a football coach, your focus should be on the leg muscles, with some work on the upper body.

In fact, studies have shown that S&C coaching in football (soccer) makes a massive impact, spurring team performance onwards, and ultimately helping players succeed at the highest level.

Or, if you’re working alongside an Olympic-level team whose main focus is weightlifting, then you’d need to design workouts that strengthen the key arm muscles (namely exercises for the biceps, triceps, and deltoids).

Sports teams are always striving to improve and go beyond what’s expected, and having a conscientious strength and conditioning coach is the ideal way to do so.

Education

Sports education is often closely linked to sports S&C coaches, but it’s an equally important avenue to explore, especially if you’re still struggling to decide between personal training and strength and conditioning.

Working in education means you’ll often be able to get in at the ground floor - you’ll be imparting your knowledge to the next generation of fitness professionals and sports players, as well as being able to test yourself in a new, exciting environment.

While this is often a less active role, you will still need to work on planning effective workout routines and schedules, deciding what’s best for the students you’re working alongside. In fact, a recent study discovered that an effective S&C routine can prove incredibly beneficial in the development of young athletes.

This may even involve challenges that you haven’t faced before, such as designing workouts around the best gym machines for beginners, or establishing less intensive exercise timetables that better accommodate other study.

However, one crucial element to note here is that some positions, while they are looking for a strength and conditioning, will also require you to have a qualification in teaching (such as a certificate of education (PGCE), or a teaching & assessing qualification).

Frequently Asked Questions

What Qualifications Do You Need To Become An S&C Coach?

In simple terms, there’s only one prerequisite for completing a strength and conditioning qualification - you’ll need to have completed at least a Level 3 gym instructing certification

This is the absolute minimum you’ll need to achieve a strength and conditioning qualification, but it’s worth noting that some gyms will ask for you to have completed a Level 4 personal training course as well as the Level 3.

While this isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for all positions in the strength and conditioning field, we’d recommend opting for OriGym’s personal training diploma, which combines both the Level 3 and Level 4 qualifications in a comprehensive, cheaper bundle. 

However, as you progress through the ranks of strength and conditioning, you may need to complete more qualifications. These will often be industry-specific, or part of your own personal development, and form a key part of how you progress in the fitness industry.

For example, if you’re looking to work in an educational role that utilises your S&C skills, you may need to complete the teaching and assessing course (offered at the lowest price point by OriGym), as well as any relevant teaching certifications.

 

How Long Does It Take To Qualify As An S&C Coach?

Given the range of additional benefits you can expect from a course to become a strength and conditioning coach or just a personal trainer, it’s understandable you might be curious about how long that qualification takes.

Fortunately, it’s an incredibly quick process to obtain the necessary certification for strength and conditioning training, with most providers able to certify you in as little as 1 day.

This includes all the relevant training, assessments, and examinations that provide you with the ideal fundamentals for a successful career as an S&C coach. You’ll then receive your official certificate shortly after.

Quick, single-day qualifications such as this one are often a fantastic way to develop as a professional in your industry, as well as being one of the ultimate ways to stand out as a personal trainer, or as any other expert in the exercise industry.

OriGym’s extensive range of online CPD courses provide ideal opportunities to progress, learn and develop in an increasingly competitive field, and can even open new pathways you may never have expected.

Before You Go!

Whether you began reading this wondering about how to get involved with strength and conditioning as a personal trainer, or you were seeking an answer in the debate of personal trainer vs strength and conditioning coach, our advice provides everything you’ll need to know.

With all this information, you’ve got everything you need to make an informed decision, and ultimately opt for the career that’s right for you. Understanding professional development, and where each job can take you, is all crucial to making a meaningful decision for your future.

But the first step in all of this is to achieve the relevant qualifications, and that’s where OriGym leads the way.

Our CIMSPA-accredited personal training diploma provides the ideal foundation for a successful career in fitness, with expert support available 7 days a week, a custom-built online learning platform, ultra-flexible payment plans, and a vast library of bespoke resources that cover all aspects of fitness.

Click here to download our FREE prospectus and learn more about what we offer, or submit your enquiry today to hear from one of our dedicated, knowledgeable team.

References:

  1. Faigenbaum, Avery D1; Kraemer, William J2; Blimkie, Cameron J R3; Jeffreys, Ian4; Micheli, Lyle J5; Nitka, Mike6; Rowland, Thomas W7 Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue - p S60-S79 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31819df407
  2. Turner, Anthony N. MSc, CSCS*D1; Stewart, Perry F. MSc, CSCS1,2 Strength and Conditioning for Soccer Players, Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 4 - p 1-13doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000054 

Written by Chris Allsobrook

Senior Content Editor

Chris is a former English teacher, turned content editor. He holds a first-class honours degree in English Language and Creative Writing from the University of Central Lancashire, before going on to complete his teacher training, and obtain a PGCE at Liverpool John Moore’s.

Chris is a keen runner and is currently undertaking both his fitness instructing and personal training qualifications here at OriGym. 

Outside of fitness, you’ll often find him gaming, watching the football, cooking, or spending time with his family.