The Difference Between A Personal Trainer And A Fitness Instructor

Fitness instructors and personal trainers can often be thought of as one and the same thing.

However, in this article, I am going to explain in detail the difference between a personal trainer and a fitness instructor.

If you have ever heard these terms used and you are interested in working in the fitness industry but aren’t sure what the differences are, by the end of this article you will have all the information you need.

Sound good?

Let’s go…..

man using lat pull down machine in an empty gym

In the UK, a Fitness Instructor refers to a person with a level 2 qualification in exercise instruction, allowing them to teach fitness classes and be employed by a gym to prescribe basic exercise programs to members. Personal trainers are level 3 qualified and give 1-2-1 exercises sessions.

One of the common questions that I hear about fitness instructors and personal trainers is “What’s the difference between the two?“.

There are so many different names for people that teach or instruct exercise in a gym environment that I am not at all surprised that it can be confusing.

In this article, the words “Fitness Instructor” will encompass the following terms:

  • Exercise instructor
  • Fitness coach
  • Gym instructor

So what does a Fitness Instructor do?

In the UK, you need to have achieved a REP’s (Register of exercise professionals) level two qualification in order to be employed by a gym as a fitness instructor.

There are some gyms that will let you start working with them with a provisional license whilst you work to get your level 2, but these are fairly rare, and I would think of this more as work experience, as what they can allow you to do in the gym will be very limited for legal reasons.

Your main duties as a fitness instructor are to:

  • Take small group fitness classes on the gym floor and studios
  • Ensure all the equipment is kept clean and inspected for damage
  • Talk to gym members and be available to answer member queries
  • Discuss members exercise goals and write up basic exercise programs
  • Be responsible for making sure the gym is open on time and ready for members
  • Check the gym is clear of all members and cash registers are “cashed up” before leaving at the end of an evening shift.
  • Ensure the changing rooms are kept tidy and safe
  • Be on hand to deliver first aid if required

Cleaning gym equipment and changing rooms

At first glance, you may be put off this role by the mention of cleaning the equipment and changing rooms.

I can assure you that after years of working in the industry, not only was cleaning equipment not as gross or boring as it sounds, I actually found I got into a Zen-like state as I did it.

I actually looked forward to cleaning the bikes in the spin studio because I could put my music on and relax.

Prescribing basic workout programmes for members

As a gym instructor, your employer will make use of your exercise knowledge to allow you to prescribe basic exercise programs to their members.

These are generally far more generic than personal trainers programs, (which we will get into later), but they will still take into account the member’s goals and any injuries they may have.

You will usually be asked to review these program cards each month or so, and there will be a session organized between yourself and the member so that you can demonstrate each exercise to make sure they are comfortable with what they are doing.

Teaching gym floor classes

A big part of being a gym instructor is teaching the free classes at peak times of the day. These will typically be 20-30 minute sessions either taking place on the gym floor or in studios depending on the size of the gym you are working in.

An example of the types of class you may be asked to teach as a gym instructor would include:

  • Kettlebells
  • Abs
  • HIIT
  • Circuit training
  • TRX
  • ViPR

Whichever company you are employed by may have their own brand of classes they want you to teach, and you will usually go to classes to learn these before being asked to teach them yourself.

Teaching classes is a really fantastic way of getting to know the members of the gym and really getting your name known around the gym.

If you read my article “Picking up your first clients: A Personal Trainers guide“, you will see that I state you should teach gym floor classes as a way to meet members and potentially pick up personal training clients.

Therefore, if your plan is to start off as a fitness instructor then moves into personal training, this is a great way to establish rapport with the members of your gym.

It also has the distinct advantage of forcing you into a situation where you need to be talking to a lot of members.

Some people may love exercise but struggle with their confidence.

As a personal trainer, you will need confidence in every aspect of your role. If you begin as a fitness instructor you will quickly learn how to speak to people of all walks of life.

This is an excellent skill to develop, so I heavily recommend starting off as a fitness instructor before starting a career in personal training.

For even further detail on what it’s like to be hired as a fitness instructor, check out the article below.

What Does A Fitness Instructor Do? (Complete Breakdown)

What does a Personal Trainer do?

In order to be a legitimate personal trainer, you need to have achieved a level three qualification.

Gaining this qualification allows you to prescribe exercise and nutrition programs that are far more detailed and thorough than a fitness instructor would be allowed.

A personal trainer will gain their own clients, perform health checks, make assessments, and closely monitor the progress each client makes.

They will generally not have to perform any of the tasks requested of the fitness instructors, so your time will be spent interacting with gym members, training your own clients, and completing your own admin.

A fitness instructor, however, would write a simple exercise program, walk the member through it and leave them to complete the workouts yourself, a personal trainer will closely monitor their client to ensure each exercise is performed perfectly.

If there is one word that would perfectly describe the difference between a PT and a fitness instructor, I would say it is “detail“.

When a client agrees to pay additional money to have a personal trainer take control of their exercise and nutrition, they expect a great deal of attention to detail.

Each and every exercise prescribed is focused on helping them reach their goals and a great deal of time will be taken to ensure that all their dietary requirements are taken into consideration.

Training and continued personal development

Gaining a level three qualification is not where your training ends as a PT.

What distinguishes a great PT, is the dedication they give to maintaining and improving their knowledge of anatomy, exercise prescription, and nutrition.

A good PT will constantly strive to better themselves and learn as much as possible. It is also a condition of staying on the REP’s register to continue your education each year, with 10 points per year being the recommended points to gain each year.

There are many courses that you can take in order to greater develop your training niche and your earning potential during your personal training career. For example, gaining a level four qualification allows you to accept GP referrals so they can refer people to you for treatments.

This can be people that are struggling with obesity or pre-diabetics whose condition can be treated with diet and exercise assistance.

Motivating your clients

A client is not just paying for someone to show them exercises. A personal trainer is far, far more than that.

A fitness or gym instructor will show members exercises and then leave them alone for a month until they are allowed to be re-evaluated. A personal trainer is being employed to demonstrate exercises correctly, but also to be a pillar of support and motivation.

Reaching weight loss goals or any goals for that matter is no easy feat, and a lot of people give up before they ever reach their full potential. A personal trainer is employed to give the required support and encouragement for their client to reach the goals they have set.

Some personal trainers would even go as far as walking around supermarkets with their clients to teach them what they should and shouldn’t be buying.

In most cases, you probably won’t be going as far as this, but you must be available to answer emails and messages from your clients at all hours of the day.

This is all part of giving an excellent service.

For more information on how to keep your personal training clients motivated, give the link a click to get all the information you could need as a trainer.


What differentiates a fitness instructor from a Personal Trainer is in the title, a personal trainer is just that, “Personal“.

A fitness instructor teaches larger numbers of gym members in a far less formal way than a personal trainer that dedicates a great deal of time and effort to each individual client they have.

Both are great careers, and if you have questions about any other aspects of these roles, please read through my articles as I am certain you will find valuable information in them.

Have a great day

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Chris Walker

Chris Walker worked in the City of London as a fully qualified REP's level three personal trainer for just under ten years. He built and maintained a client base of 40 individuals and worked with several high profile clients, including actors, actresses, comedians and politicians.

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