What is an Athletic Trainer?

January 15, 2020

by Amelia C. Brown, MS, SCAT, ATC

What is the difference between a personal trainer, an athletic trainer, an emergency responder, and a physical therapist? Over the years as a certified athletic trainer, I am often confused for a personal trainer when asked what I do by acquaintances, and even friends and family. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association defines Athletic Trainers as healthcare professionals who specialize in the prevention, evaluation, rehabilitation, and emergency response to injury with the collaboration of a physician. Athletic Trainers have an entry level master’s degree, are guided by state licensure and a Board of Certification, and maintain emergency cardiac care certifications. While Athletic Trainers typically work with athletes and may be found instructing in the weight-room, they do not claim the title of a personal trainer.

Personal training varies in certification requirements depending on the organization an individual wishes to certify under, such as the NASM, ACSM, and NSCA. Depending on the desired certification, personal training does not require an accredited college degree or a national board exam, but rather requires an applicant to pass a test and maintain certification once passing the test. An athletic trainer may work in the fitness industry as a personal trainer; however, a personal trainer could not work as an athletic trainer without first completing the educational and certifying requirements. 

Emergency responders include Emergency Medical Responder (EMR), Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT), and Paramedics. The different titles denote the level of expertise and training, but all aid in the transport and immediate care of patients who access the Emergency Medical System. All emergency responders are regulated by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) and are held to the standards of the National EMS Scope of Practice developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Emergency responders work closely with Athletic Trainers in the event of a life-threatening medical emergency. In such an event, the athletic trainer is typically the first responder activating the Emergency Medical System to coordinate and provide appropriate care and transportation.

Of the medical professions in this discussion, physical therapy has the highest level of educational requirements. Similarly, to athletic training, a physical therapist must obtain a degree from an accredited institution, sit for a national board exam, and obtain state licensure. However, the physical therapist receives a doctorate while athletic training only requires a master’s level of education. Physical Therapists are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, illness, or injury that prevent movement or a patient’s ability to accomplish necessary daily activities. Physical Therapists often collaborate with athletic trainers to ensure proper care and the recovery of a shared patient.

Having a competent understanding of your profession’s scope of practice is imperative. Likewise, it is beneficial for clients and patients of healthcare or fitness professionals to know the specialties and level of expertise of these different professions. From athletic trainer to an emergency responder, to a physician, and physical therapist cooperation and the acknowledgment of the expertise of each medical professional accelerates recovery and the quality of life and care for patients. Of the professions discussed, personal trainers are set-apart as part of the fitness industry rather than a health care provider. For more details concerning these professions please visit the web-pages listed below.


National Athletic Trainers Association

American Physical Therapy Association

National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians

National Academy of Sports Medicine