personal trainer/exercise specialist

What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect

Health Benefits

How To Choose a Practitioner



Evidence Based Rating System


What Is It?

 Personal trainers and exercise specialists are trained to help you do more than simply work out. Although the general health benefits of exercise are common knowledge today, in recent years the approach to getting fit, losing weight, increasing cardiovascular endurance, or recovering from specific health problems has become much more specialized. With knowledge in exercise science, nutrition, health screening, and fitness assessment, a personal trainer or exercise specialist can help you get "the most from your motion."

 How Does It Work? 

Many individuals turn to these experts for instruction, motivation, and guidance, whether at a health club, corporate fitness center, or one-on-one in private sessions. Because personal trainers and exercise specialists offer individualized programs based on your unique fitness needs and goals, the results of exercise are maximized. Efficient and targeted exercise is the process--and realistic, measured results are the goal.

 What You Can Expect 

Here is what these specialists do: 

Personal trainer. If you are otherwise healthy but simply out of shape, a personal trainer can help you reduce body Fat, lose or maintain weight, shape and tone muscles, and improve your overall fitness. First, the trainer will conduct a health screening, asking you for detailed health and lifestyle information to evaluate your starting fitness level. If there appear to be any medical concerns or limitations, you may first be referred to a doctor, physical therapist, or other medical specialist. 

Once you're ready to begin, a personal trainer will design a specific, step-by-step program that is intended to help you work into fitness gradually, without injury. Upper-body and lower-body strength training, stretching, and flexibility exercises are all included, as well as aerobic exercises. The trainer will also teach you the correct way to perform each exercise, how to use various kinds of exercise equipment, and the proper form to use. A list of specific exercises and how many repetitions of each you'll need to do is generally provided. 

As you progress, your trainer should monitor and fine-tune your program, offering extra help when you feel you have reached a plateau. Measurements may be regularly taken and charted to show your progress, including your weight, percentage of body fat and other body measurements, cardiovascular improvements, and levels of muscle strength and endurance.  (1)

Exercise specialist. Exercise specialists have all the knowledge of personal trainers in addition to advanced experience and clinical skills that allow them to work with people who don't fit the "average health club member" category. For example, an exercise specialist may be trained to work with special populations such as pregnant women, or active people who have chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, (2) eating disorders, (3) or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

 Health Benefits

Training with a personal trainer or exercise specialist may help you focus your exercise plan. One-on-one personal training can be an effective way to change attitudes and possibly increase your physical activity. (4,5) Personal trainers provide advice on proper exercise form, avoiding injury, and monitoring your progress. 

  • People with COPD may be able to increase their ability to exercise by following a plan created with the help of an exercise specialist and physician. According to a joint statement by the American College of Chest Physicians and the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, exercise training of the muscles used in walking is a necessary part of COPD rehabilitation. (6) Pulmonary rehabilitation is important for the physical and mental well being of people with COPD. (7,8) 

  • Supervised exercise may help those with heart disease improve their overall health and psychological outlook. People who are overweight and also at risk of heart attack may benefit from exercise. Even younger people at risk for heart disease showed a decrease in their feelings of anxiety and depression. (9,10) Research suggests that those with risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, may benefit most from a combination of aerobic and resistance training. (11) Exercise training may help provide the following benefits: reduction in heart rate, improved blood pressure, and increased stamina. (12) Intensive exercise is also useful for those who are recovering from a stroke. (13)

  • Training with a diabetes personal trainer may be mentally and physically beneficial for those with type 1 diabetes. (14,15) A small study of people with type 2 diabetes, who received supervised exercise vs. unsupervised exercise, showed that supervised exercise reduced fat and increased insulin sensitivity. (16)

  • For those with musculoskeletal injuries or disability, an exercise specialist can bridge the gap between rehabilitation therapy and a health club or home-based exercise program. The therapist can also help post-surgical patients (including those who have had knee, hip, or back surgery) move toward full recovery. (17-19) Consulting, as needed, with other health professionals, such as physicians, chiropractors, or physical therapists, an exercise specialist designs and monitors a program to benefit your individual situation, taking your limitations into consideration. (20)

  • People with lower back pain may reduce their pain with a combination of exercise and instruction. The American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society recommend exercise therapy for those with low back pain. (21) Benefits were also found in post-surgery exercise in a small study of patients with herniated discs. (22) In a randomized, controlled trial of lower back pain, stretching and strengthening exercise with cognitive behavioral training provided improvement for one year. (23) Aerobic exercise may also be useful for lower back pain (24), although some studies indicate that instruction in safe motions and proper posture may be more helpful in the long run than exercise alone. (25)

An exercise specialist can also help women recuperating from breast cancer surgery, by providing supervised stretching and resistance training. (26,27) In a review of current literature, McNeely et al shows that there is a general exercise benefit for survivors of breast cancer. (28) Additional head-to-head studies of the potential benefits of stretching and resistance training are in process. (29)

An exercise specialist can also work with you on improving or recovering strength, physical conditioning, range of motion, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular function. Depending on your illness or injury, you may additionally be offered neuromuscular re-education, or training to rebalance the strength of your limbs.

 How To Choose a Practitioner

Because these professions are relatively new and unregulated, there is a confusing array of certifications for personal trainers and exercise specialists. (30) In most health clubs, the training staff will have a variety of backgrounds. To add to the mix, there are other specialists involved in the profession, such as those who work exclusively with athletes, or with people whose primary goal is to improve their performance in a specific sport. There are also different terms used by the various certifying organizations (one offers 11 different certifications, for example), and the certifications are not always equivalent. 

For instance, depending on the certifying organization, a personal trainer might be also called a health/fitness instructor or a fitness trainer. Likewise, an exercise specialist may be called a fitness therapist or an exercise physiologist. If your state requires licensing, be sure that your trainer complies with state statutes. A little sleuthing can help, and there are several illuminating questions you can ask before signing on:(1)

  • Do you have an academic background in exercise science or a related field? A Bachelor’s degree is preferable, although it's not required for certification for a personal trainer. Exercise physiologists may have a Master’s degree.

  • Was your certification exam a written test only, or did it include practical testing? For example, a trainer can't learn to take blood pressure from an online tutorial, so inquire where the training was done.

  • Which organization awarded your certification?


If you are looking for an exercise specialist or exercise physiologist, verify that they attended an accredited university that specializes in the field and have passed the exam to be Exercise Physiologist Certified. (31, 32)  

Look for certification from one of the following organizations. If you are not sure about an individual's credentialing, get references. You can also call these organizations for further information:

  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Indianapolis, IN. Call (317) 637-9200.

  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), Colorado Springs, CO. Call (800) 815-6826.

  • International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), Carpinteria, CA. Call (800) 892-4772.

  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), Calabasas, CA. Call (800) 460-6276.

  • American Council on Exercise (ACE), San Diego, CA. Call (888) 825-3636.

  • American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP), Duluth, MN. Call (218) 723-6297.


It is important to remember that certifications for personal trainers and exercise specialists are not regulated. There is no standard for certificates, so individual schools may provide different training. Also, different states have different regulations. (1, 30)

The selection of a trainer is very personal. A survey study revealed that athletes are more comfortable talking about intimate pain with athletic trainers of the same gender, (33) and the same may be true about personal trainers and exercise specialists of the same gender.

Exercise guidelines and health specifications for people with cancer are not established yet, however there is research into how best to rehabilitate and help cancer patients. (2)

If you have COPD, you should make sure that your physician approves the exercise plan and that the exercise specialist is used to treating patients with emphysema and COPD. (34)

Working with a personal trainer may not result in weight loss, but you may see other benefits, such as changes in upper body strength, prevention of bone loss, and reduction in risk of falling, depending on your exercise plan. (35)

Remember, before beginning any regular exercise program, it's always wise to discuss your plans with your doctor. 


1. Brackro M. Selecting and Effectively Using a Personal Trainer. Indianapolis, IN: American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM); 2005.; accessed 10 September 2008.
2. Schneider CM, Dennehy CA, Carter SD. Exercise and Cancer Recovery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2003;56-74.
3. Goldstein DJ. The Management of Eating Disorders and Obesity. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press; 1999.
4. McClaran ST. The effectiveness of personal training on changing attitudes towards physical activity. J Sports Sci Med.  2003;2:10-14.
5. Fischer DV, Bryant J. Effect of certified personal trainer services on stage of exercise behavior and exercise mediators in female college students. J Am Coll Health. 2008 Jan-Feb;56(4):369-376.
6. Ries AL, Bauldoff RN, Carlin BW, et al. Pulmonary rehabilitation: joint ACCP/AACVPR evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. CHEST. 2007 May;131(5 Suppl):4-42.
7. Ries AL, Make BJ, Reilly JJ. Pulmonary rehabilitation in emphysema. Proc Am Thorac Soc. 2008 May;5 (4):524-529.
8. Gigliotti F, Coli C, Bianchi R. Exercise training improves exertional dyspnea in patients with COPD. CHEST. 2003 Jun;123(6):1794-1802.
9. Lavie CJ, Milani RV. Effects of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training in obese patients with coronary artery disease. CHEST. 1996 Jan;109:52-56.
10. Lavie CJ, Milani RV. Adverse psychological and coronary risk profiles in young patients with coronary artery disease and benefits of formal cardiac rehabilitation. Arch Intern Med. 2006 Sep;166:1878-1883.
11. Banz WJ, Maher MA, Thompson WG. Effects of resistance versus aerobic training on coronary artery disease risk factors. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2003 Apr;228(4):43-40.
12. Franklin B, Bonzheim K, Warren J, et al. Effects of a contemporary exercise-based rehabilitation and cardiovascular risk-reduction program on coronary patients with abnormal baseline risk factors. CHEST. 2002 Jul;122:338-343.
13. Duncan PM, Studenski S, Richard L, et al. Randomized clinical trial of therapeutic exercise in subacute stroke. Stroke. 2003 Sep;34:2173-2180.
14. Nansel TR, Ianotti RJ, Simons-Morton ED, et al. Diabetes personal trainer outcomes: Short-term and 1-year outcomes of a diabetes personal trainer intervention among youth with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2007 Oct;30(10):2471-2477. Epub 2007 Jul 9.
15. Jimenez CC. Diabetes and exercise: the role of the athletic trainer. J Athl Train. 1997 Oct-Dec;32(4):339-343.
16. Alam S, Stolinski M, Pentecost C, et al. The effect of a six-month exercise program on very low-density lipoprotein apolipoprotein B secretion in type 2 diabetes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Feb;89(2):688-694.
17. Carmeli E, Sheklow SL, Coleman R. A comparative study of organized class-based exercise programs versus individual home-based exercise programs for elderly patients following hip surgery. Disabil Rehabil. 2006 Aug;28(16):997-1005. [Abstract]
18. Deyle GD, Henderson NE, Matekel RL, et al. Effectiveness of manual physical therapy and exercise in osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2000 Feb;132(3):173-181.
19. Levine B, Kaplanek B, Scafura D, Jaffe WL. Rehabilitation after total hip and knee arthroplasty: a new regimen using Pilates training. Bull NYU Hosp Joint Dis. 2007 65(2):120-125.
20. Storch EK, Kruszynski DM. From rehabilitation to optimal function: role of clinical exercise therapy. Curr Opin Crit Care. 2008 Aug;14(4):451-455. [Abstract].
21. Chou R, Qaseem A, Snow V, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of low back pain: a joint clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society. Ann Intern Med. 2007 Oct;147:478-491.
22. Millisdotter M, Strömqvist B. Early neuromuscular customized training after surgery for lumbar disc herniation. Eur Spine J. 2007 Jan;16:19-26.
23. Moffett JK, Torgerson D, Bell-Syer S, et al. Randomized controlled trial of exercise for low back pain: clinical outcomes, costs, and preferences. BMJ. 1999 Jul;319:279-283.
24. Nadler SF. Nonpharmacologic management of pain. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2004 Nov;104(11):S6-S12.
25. Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ. 2008 Aug;337:a884.
26. Ahmed RL, Thomas W, Yee D, Schmitz KH. Randomized controlled trial of weight training and lymphedema in breast cancer survivors. J Clin Oncol. 2006 Jun;24(22):2765-2722.
27. Bicego D, Brown K, Ruddick M, et al. Exercise for women with or at risk for breast cancer-related lymphedema. Phys Ther. 2006 Oct;86(10):1398-1405.
28. McNeely ML, Campbell KL, Rowe BH, et al. Effects of exercise on breast cancer patients and survivors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. CMAJ. 2006 Jul;175(1):34-41.
29. Kilbreath SL, Regshauge KM, Beith JM, et al. Progressive resistance training and stretching following surgery for breast cancer: study protocol for a randomized control trial. BMC Cancer. 2006 Dec;6(273):1-5. Epub.
30. Melton DI, Katula JA, Mustian KM. The current state of personal training: an industry perspective of personal trainers in a small Southeast community. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 May;22(3):369-375. [Abstract].
31. Board of Certification for Exercise Physiologists. American Society of Exercise Physiologists Web site. Available at:; accessed on 1 October 2008.
32. Exercise physiology. Health Professionals Network Web page. Available at:; accessed on 1 October 2008.
33. Drummond JL, Hostetter K, Laguna PL, et al. Self-reported comfort of collegiate athletes with injury and condition care by same-sex and opposite-sex athletic trainers. J Athl Train. 2007 Jan-Mar;42(1):106-112.
34. Casaburi R. A brief history of pulmonary rehabilitation. Respir Care. 2008 Sep;53(9):1185-1189.
35. Schmitz KH, Jensen MD, Kugler KC, et al. Strength training for obesity prevention in midlife women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Mar;27(3):326-333.
36. Jimenez CC, Corcoran MH, Crawley JT, et al. National Athletic Trainer’s Association position statement: management of the athlete with type 1 diabetes mellitus. J Athl Train. 2007 Oct-Dec;42(4):536-545.
37. Trees AH, Howe TE, Grant M, Gray HG. Exercise for treating anterior cruciate ligament injuries in combination with collateral ligament and meniscal damage of the knee in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul;3:CD005961. [Abstract].
38. Jette AM, Delitto A. Physical therapy treatment choices for musculoskeletal impairments. Phys Ther. 1997 Feb;77(2):145-154.
39. Ferreira PH, Ferreira ML, Maher CG, et al. Specific stabilisation exercise for spinal and pelvic pain: a systematic review. Aust J Physiother. 2006;52:79-88.
40. Hough E, Stephenson R, Swift L. A comparison of manual therapy and active rehabilitation in the treatment of non specific low back pain with particlar reference to a patient’s Linton & Hallden psychological screening score: a pilot study. BMC Musculoskel Disord. 2007;8:106. Online.
41. Moffett J, McLean S. The role of physiotherapy in the management of non-specific back pain and neck pain. Rheumatology. 2006 Apr;45:371-378.

Evidence Based Rating Scale  

The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies with what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice. This tool is meant to simplify which supplements and therapies demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions. This scale does not take into account any possible interactions with any medication/ condition/ or therapy which you may be currently undertaking. It is therefore advisable to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment regimen.






Date Published: 04/19/2005
Previous  |  Next
> Printer-friendly Version

© 2000- 2019 ., LLC. 21251 Ridgetop Circle, Suite 150, Sterling, VA 20166. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Privacy Policy

Disclaimer: All material provided in the WholeHealthMD website is provided for educational purposes only. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any information provided in the WholeHealthMD website to your symptoms or medical condition.