Job differences: physical therapy vs personal training

Posted on September 9, 2019

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(Last Updated On: September 9, 2019)

I’m a personal trainer, but do a lot of work with clients reminiscent of physical therapy e.g. some corrective exercise, posture work, exercise for smaller muscle groups. I’m often asked about differences, what I recommend, etc. 

I’m going to address the most important differences, stating which discipline has the advantage. I’m stating what I think are the most standout difference to the average person. Some will not apply to you; some don’t apply to myself.

Time commitment

advantage: personal training

It’s going to take seven years to become a physical therapist. Four years undergrad + three grad school.

For many, it’s a second career, where they’ll need grad school AND at least a year of prereqs to apply for grad school. That’s full time for prereqs. Not a couple night classes each semester. (Or you could do prereqs part-time for multiple years.) A minimum of four years until you can event start a second career is a lot.

I have a degree in exercise science (and a minor in mathematics). It would still take me a year of prereqs to qualify for physical therapy school.

In personal training you could be working quickly. You just need some time to study to get a (hopefully at least a half decent) certification. 3-6 months is about right.

Prestige

advantage: physical therapy

Partially because you can call yourself doctor, physical therapists have a lot more status.

I can’t tell you how many think Biggest-Loser-All-I-Do-Is-Scream-And-Do-Push-Ups-All-Day the moment they hear I’m a trainer.

When I was at a big gym with lots of foot traffic, I was asked weekly if training was my only job. The notion of it being a career is bewildering to many.

Breadth of ailments

advantage: physical therapy

With physical therapy, you can work with stroke patients, cerebral palsy, pediatrics, on it goes.

With personal training, most aren’t going further than the standard get-in-better-shape client. If you’re good with beat-up clients, you’re still really only working with relatively minor musculoskeletal problems. If it’s significant, you’re very unlikely to be qualified.

If you’re thinking longterm, it’s nice to know, as a physical therapist, in ten years you could, say, transition from joint replacement rehabilitation to pediatrics. The opportunity for lateral transitions like this in personal training are much more limited.

Always working with sick people

advantage: personal training

But with physical therapy, you’re only working with ailments.

With personal training, some want to look better, be more muscular or athletic. You get to work with fairly healthy people.

That’s a lot more fun. Always being around the disabled will can get mentally trying.

Big Brother

advantage: personal training

Physical therapy has a lot more regulation. That said, that’s largely because you will be dealing with billing insurance, which you can’t do as a trainer, which right away lessens your pool of potential clients. (Lot more people will pay for insurance than a trainer.)

However, electronic health records, billing codes, just call it paperwork, this is an enormous cause of healthcare professionals’ high burnout rates.

Plenty of trainers and you wouldn’t even know if they knew how to write or type. That’s how little is required.

Less entrepreneurial

advantage: physical therapy

Most are not good with business and money. That’s not my opinion, it’s statistics.

If you’re going to ever make more than part time money personal training, you’re all but forced to start your own business.

Physical therapy though and you’re basically guaranteed at least a middle class household income from one earner. If one is a therapist, there’s a decent chance their spouse doesn’t have to work…but they’ll probably do so. It’s not a path to the high life, but you won’t end up destitute.

Debt

advantage: personal training

That guarantee of safety comes with strings attached. Physical therapy and you’re talking debt anywhere around 100k, possibly up to 200k (depending on undergrad situation, private vs public school, etc.)

-> In my admittedly limited experience talking to people about this, people’s actual student loan situation is far worse than what average statistics from various organizations would suggest. The doctors I’ve known routinely tell me they have well over 100k (~50%) more in student loans than what the average statistics state.

Either way, when doing a thought exercise like this, in my view, the safe bet is to assume you’ll have more debt, not less, and what things will look like for you in the worse situation.

Assume your average salary for your first 20 years is 80k.

If you pay 6-12k a year in loans -$500 to 1k a month: about 10% of your salary! (could be 20% of your pay after taxes!)- you’re talking 20 years to pay off your debt.

That’s is, you’re spending a couple decades only making ~70k.

If you’re decent on the business side of personal training, you could avoid 7 years of school, be ~150k further ahead, and not have any yearly income difference.

IF you’re decent at business.

Another view: after 20 years at 70k net per year the therapist makes 1.4 million.

Take a trainer, have them only make 60k per year, but over 27 years due to less school. Their total? 1.6 million.

From an opportunity cost perspective: 27 years and you’re still not getting a positive return on investment?

Even worse, that 200k -1.6 million less 1.4 million- is the difference between outright owning an American home and not.

A feeling of being stuck is common in people who get that much student loan debt. Lawyers and doctors are notorious for completing their degrees, no longer being that passionate, but forced to continue so they can pay off their debt.

Income stability

advantage: physical therapy

Business is inherently volatile, and most of us don’t like volatility.

Your income is going to vacillate as a trainer. Holidays? People don’t come in as much => you make less money. You go on vacation? You make less money.

If a lumpy amount totaling x dollars sounds way worse to you than a regular amount totaling x, business, and thus personal training, might not be for you.

If making 5k a month sounds way better to you than alternating 3k one month and 7k the next, physical therapy will have much more of that stability.

If the steady 5k a month still sounds better than 3k one month and 8k the next, business really is not for you.

-> Many businesses are heavily seasonal, with no way around it other than proper financial management. Most of us get this, but most of us are employees, and don’t directly feel the impact of income vicissitudes.

Couple approaches

There are endless life scenarios so this is hard to generalize.

Every job has downsides. I’m focusing on the negative because I’ve found it better to focus on what I won’t tolerate professionally, opposed to the more common approach of focusing on what I want to do. Or what “my passion” is.

Overall, I’d boil this down to how much stability factors into your life. For many, this narrows very quickly to whether you have children, and whether they are heavily dependent on you.

If you do, even though it will take a while, the stability of physical therapy is going to be very alluring, and hard to pass up.

If you can handle the emotional roller coaster of being closely involved with business, whether that’s because you’re young, you can weather a year or two of low income because you have money saved up or your spouse can cover you, whatever, I recommend most at least try personal training.

Most are too scared of business and would be better served by having to intimately engage in a service oriented one. It’s why my kids will be working at McDonald’s the moment they turn nine.

No, you probably won’t do well at it. Just like most of us probably won’t do well playing basketball. But that’s ok. You will get something out of it.

Worst case, a year goes by, you realize it’s not for you, and you start making the move to physical therapy. You could even do some of your prereqs at the same time, pretty cheaply at the local community college or whatever. From a handling physical therapy patients perspective, you will be lightyears ahead of your classmates due to your history of handling personal training clients. Or you realize you don’t like dealing with personalities all day, and you completely avoid the space altogether. If you don’t like personal training because you don’t like the training aspect of it, well, you’re probably not going to like physical therapy any better.

At least with training first, you made a little money, and got nothing but helpful experience.

Because once you go the physical therapy route, there does become a point where there really isn’t any turning back.

-> To apply for physical therapy school you will have to do volunteer hours with patients. This might be enough to let you know whether you like working with people or not, in lieu of personal training. I’m honestly not sure, but lean towards no, because you’re not really the person dealing with the patients. You’re not handling billing, phone calls, etc. Lot of therapists don’t even work with patients much; their aides do. The therapist is in the back office all day.

And it’s only like maybe a hundred hours, or a few weeks full time work. (I didn’t know whether I liked personal training til about 6 months in.) The potential for drudgery hasn’t set in yet.

Regardless, it definitely isn’t paid hours!

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