Personal Training, Physical Therapy, and Knowing Which is Right for You

by Diptee Pathak SPT, PTA, CPT, Kristen Henry PT, DPT, and Sarah Neal Hanlon PT, DPT, ATC

Diptee: So here we are ten months into 2020, and can we just say WOW? This year has been bizarre, and I am sure we can all agree. Some of us are just trying to survive and get through this mess, and others are utilizing this time to self-reflect and stay healthy, fit, and safe. For me, it’s been tough doing “zoom school” for my Doctor of Physical Therapy program, running a nonprofit, and working both as a homecare PTA and a Personal Trainer in the middle of this pandemic (I know…phew, I’m busy!). We will each have our own stories in the history books, but we will get through these challenging times. We are in this together!

As you can imagine, this quarantine has kept people sedentary more than ever. More people are complaining of aches and pains that they may or may not have had before. Perhaps your neck is tight, or you’ve developed spasms in the low back, shooting pain in the shoulder, or stiffness in the hips and hamstrings from so much sitting.

Whatever your case is, you are not alone. These are all signals that we need to give our bodies more attention. Here’s the question you should ask yourself: is this something that I can correct, or should I seek advice from a professional?

I have recently had many clients asking me if personal training or physical therapy is better for them during this time. I have had the pleasure of working in both fields and getting a taste of each side, making answering this question a bit easier. How do you know if your condition is something a personal trainer can work with?

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who specialize in evaluating and treating pain, movement dysfunctions, musculoskeletal injuries, cardiovascular issues, neurological conditions, etc. They help you get to specific goals related to your overall function and deal with things like knee pain that prevents you from going up stairs, shoulder pain that’s keeping you from doing push-ups during your workouts, or low back pain that flares up during fitness classes.

On the other hand, personal trainers can prescribe you an appropriate program for your overall health and fitness and do not diagnose and treat the specific cause of pain. Some personal trainers specialize in corrective exercise and can help ensure that you’re not performing movements that could aggravate your condition, but if you are having symptoms that are interfering with your workouts and daily life, seeing a physical therapist first may better help you figure out the root cause of your issue. In Delaware, we have direct access, allowing you to see a physical therapist without a prescription for 30 days with most commercial insurances.

What is excellent at HAC is that the Elite physical therapists and the HAC personal trainers can collaborate and communicate to ensure each client is getting the best quality of care. When I’ve worked with a client whose condition was out of my scope of practice as a personal trainer, I’ve had such a positive experience referring them to Elite. Once those clients are healed and recovered, they often come back to training to build off what was addressed in physical therapy. The system works very well, and it keeps the individual on a life-long journey of fitness and health with support from a phenomenal team.

I have asked two of my favorite gals, both physical therapists at Elite PT, to give us their perspective on this:

Kristen: Especially during these times of working from home and less overall physical activity, movement is so essential for our bodies! Personal trainers and physical therapists have the same overall goal of getting our patients and clients moving more and feeling better. Still, there are certainly times when seeing one vs. the other would be more appropriate. Working out with a personal trainer is a great place to start for people who feel unsure of how to begin working out, need someone to hold them accountable, or need help learning how to change their workout routine to meet their fitness goals. However, when someone has a specific pain or injury that prevents them from performing activities of daily living or exercising without significant modifications, starting with a physical therapist would be more appropriate. The same is true for those recovering after surgery.

With our clinic at the HAC, we have the unique experience of being able to work closely with the HAC personal training staff to help guide our patients from the Physical therapy world back into their regular workout routine seamlessly. I love this setup because it allows us to communicate with the personal trainers often about specific patients and clients in order to help them best meet their needs. If you are unsure of which setting would be more appropriate, our door is always open for a quick chat to help guide you towards the best place to start!

Sarah: Strong relationships between personal trainers and physical therapists are crucial to providing a well-rounded solution to pain in the active population. I work with some incredible personal trainers here at the HAC. I try to spend as much time as possible in their world, as I feel that it makes me a better physical therapist and sports medicine specialist! I completely agree with Diptee that physical therapists are slightly more equipped to address pain and its various causes. I will add to this and say that I highly recommend you find a physical therapist that is familiar with your sport or activity of choice. Our goal should be to keep you as active as possible during an injury, giving you activity modification rather than completely shutting you down. If you ever have questions about pain with your exercise or activity of choice, please do not hesitate to come into the Elite clinic and talk with one of us!

When I first became a personal trainer seven years ago, I felt like I knew nothing compared to what I know now as a 3rd year DPT student. It is vital that personal trainers continue to learn and grow on a regular basis. The human body is fascinating but also very complex to work with. It is important that we seek the right professionals to take care of our own bodies best.

I love that HAC trainers are required to regularly take continuing education courses and are encouraged to participate in conferences and seminars. I have met so many trainers that are extremely knowledgeable and so good at their work.

But like most careers, it really is all about their experience and how much effort the individual is putting into education and training. In the end, everyone’s situation is going to be different, so take a step back, listen to your body, and let us figure out who can help you the best at this time!

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