Personal trainers are a familiar aspect of the fitness-wellness landscape. Everyone has heard of them and quite a few of us have worked with one. But what about health coaches? Ever since I become certified as a health coach I have found that people do not really know what health coaches do or why working with one can be a good option for their health journey. Given that I am both a certified personal trainer and a certified health coach, I thought that this might be a good topic for a blog post. To wit: what are the differences and where are the overlapping areas between the two? And, lastly, why would you choose one over the other?
The designation “personal trainer” is a wide, wide umbrella that encompasses a lot of different ways that an individual fitness professional can provide one-on-one or very small group training to a client. My own experience as a client (yes, personal trainers often have their own personal trainer!) has been mostly with either competitive bodybuilders or under the direction of Olympic athletes (I worked with a marathon and steeplechase runner and wrote about it here; and just before I left Indiana University for the University of New Mexico, I worked with my Coach Paul, who was an Olympic power lifter). My experience training my own clients is different but I use all that I learned then in what I do now. If you want to compete, you need to have a great connection with your muscles and a healthy self-awareness. I teach this to clients today. If you want to go the distance, you need to be able to plan and focus on goals rather than distractions. This I also teach to clients at present. So even though I am no longer active in the gym and competitive bodybuilding culture the way I used to be, my clients—busy people with high-pressure jobs who really do not have the time to fight Austin traffic and go to the gym—reap the benefits of my many years of experience as a fitness client whose trainers were certainly top-notch.
Bottom line: there are so many great personal trainers and there are trainers for every need and interest. Think of those who prepare people for Spartan Race events, or running coaches, or post-partum trainers…just to name a few. There really is something for everyone in the personal trainer-client realm. A great personal trainer will teach you the how-to and, though the focus really is on the activity and outcome, there will be some internal shift concurrent to the external developments. A good trainer, if he or she is mindful of scope of practice, will either be qualified to help you with your meal plans or will know where to refer you, too. A great trainer will have a large referral network and a wealth of options to help you to become physically fit. A successful relationship between trainer and client will see the client getting more and more fit in alignment with the effective programming and support provided by the personal trainer. There is a certain magic in these relationships and the trainer who is present and genuine will learn and grow too. At least, that’s how it is for me as a trainer and I know that all my best trainers have felt something similar when I’ve been their client. It’s not always about weight lost and muscle gained, either. The way that being trained (and training) changes one’s life leaves both sides of the equation with something that stays. This I know is true.
A health coach is similar to a trainer but there are key differences. When I work with a client as their health coach, we focus on more of the why and less of the what. In other words, though there may be some fitness programming, really the actual exercise itself is less of a concern. Most importantly, I provide a sounding board for the client and I offer the sort of support that allows him or her to become independent and strong. I used to be a professor and I was always an adherent of the Socratic method of instruction. When I would ask smart questions and give space for well-thought answers, my students learned how to learn. With health coaching clients, I do the same. I sincerely believe that each individual is able to figure out his or her own best way forward and the coach’s job is to coax this knowledge out of its hiding place. I listen to the client carefully and then ask questions so that the client can answer, think, and come to authentic self-discovery and its attendant sense of mastery. I’ve done this with clients who can’t figure out why they aren’t doing what they know they need to do in order to get healthy and stay that way to great effect, for example. Bottom line: when I do my job correctly, I am providing meaningful assistance to clients who need to slow down and really look into their relationships with food, with themselves, and with their health. When I have done this job correctly, my clients—by the end of our contracted time frame—will no longer need me.
People contract with health coaches and personal trainers for many reasons. These include but are not limited to: weight loss or muscle gain; preparation for life events, like weddings or reunions; training for sports events and competitions; and/or lessons in self-healing and awareness. The outcome should look something like: you have made at least two or three solid habit changes and obtained a greater level of self-awareness. In addition, you will have acquired the capacity to identify and commit to intentional actions to maintain your hard-won goals. You will know how to navigate the gym or the corridors of your own internal health-belief thought patterns. You feel strong. You are capable. You are in control of your health choices.
Different health coaches have different angles, just as we see in personal training. I’ve looked around to see what health coaches in Austin seem to be offering and the trend seems to lean towards weight loss support. A couple of them seem to be quasi-medical in nature. Some are very “live your dream/best life/Oprah-Winfrey-go-on-girl” in their narrative. As we say in Spanish, cada loco con su tema (this means “each crazy man has his theme” and it’s a way of saying, more or less, “ to each his own”). I think the really nice thing about Austin is that we have a variety of ways to get healthy and each person will have their own preferred style for a health coaching interaction. Each person will have his or her own needs, be these needs weight loss or maybe it’s something else. My brand of health coaching tends toward the Socratic method, as mentioned—I’ll inspire you to think, and you will enjoy it, and you will be a partner and a driver in this journey. I also have fabulous referral networks and resource suggestions that range from book suggestions to web sites to places you might like to visit. If you are interested in acupuncture and holistic health, I am definitely a great health coach for you. In addition, I am able to move between personal training, coaching, yoga, and bodywork with ease. So, while I do not come out of the gate with promises to help you lose weight (and a great health coach whose passion is for helping clients to lose weight will do just this) I hold that self-knowledge brings better choices (when we know better, we do better) and with that achievement comes weight loss and other health benefits.
Do you want to learn how to actively do something or get support as you develop an exercise habit? Then probably a personal trainer is your best choice.
Do you want to discover what your realistic yet ideal state of wellness is? Do you want to figure out what is between you and that ideal, and how to get around these barriers? Probably, then, the health coach is your best bet at this time.
If you are interested in figuring out which is best for you, you can always schedule a free consultation with me and we can figure out what is best for you. It may be me or it may be another one of Austin’s many excellent trainers and coaches. Either way, I’m happy to speak with you and eager to see you find just what you need so that you can achieve your best and most exuberant levels of health and wellness. Just send me a message and let’s get you pointed in the right direction today so that in your tomorrows you are healthy, happy, and well!
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.