Personal trainer vs fitness instructor: in-depth comparison

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Updated 31 October 2023

In the world of fitness, there are many titles that refer to people who train others professionally. If you're interested in helping others with their fitness and physical goals, consider either becoming a personal trainer or fitness instructor. Though the two terms are often interchangeable, there are some key differences between the roles of personal trainers and fitness instructors. 

In this article, we consider what these differences are and look at some similar roles in fitness.

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What is a personal trainer?

A personal trainer is an individual who works with a client privately to provide guidance and advice on a range of fitness-related matters, such as exercise, nutrition and health. Personal Trainers provide one-to-one training sessions regularly with clients, with sessions often taking place weekly or on scheduled days in order to keep a routine. Most commonly, Personal Trainers are self-employed and promote their services online and in person in order to attract new clients.

What is a fitness instructor?

A fitness instructor is an individual who works for a fitness organisation, such as a gym, in order to deliver support to users of the gym. Fitness instructors often specialise in gym-based exercise and therefore are qualified to work on the gym floor, carrying out inductions, writing basic programmes and giving ongoing support and encouragement to members. If a fitness instructor has the relevant qualifications, they may also lead a workout class for members to attend, ranging from intensive circuit training to slower-paced aerobic workouts.


  • How to become a personal trainer in 4 steps (Plus tips)

  • How to become a fitness instructor

Personal trainer vs. fitness instructor

Below are several comparisons between the roles of a personal trainer and a fitness instructor:


The average annual base salary of a personal trainer is £29,299 per year. The average annual base salary of a fitness instructor is £28,134 per year. It's important to note that both can change depending on the location of the role, the company that the role is with and the popularity of the services they offer. Personal trainers are more likely to be freelance, hence their lower average salary. There are also benefits to consider with a role that is within a company. You could potentially earn more as a freelancer, but the companies you're interested in might offer competitive benefits, so be sure to do your research.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.


To become a personal trainer, one must complete a Level 3 Personal Training Course endorsed by the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA). The pre-requisite to this course is a CIMSPA-endorsed Level 2 Gym Instructor qualification. Qualifying as a personal trainer allows you to train clients on a one-to-one basis and write bespoke long-term exercise programmes for clients as well as give nutritional advice based on established government guidelines. If being a personal trainer is part of your long-term career goals, you can also consider completing a Level 4 qualification, such as Level 4 Advanced Personal Training, to strengthen your skill set.

To become a fitness instructor, complete a CIMSPA-endorsed Level 2 Fitness Instructor course with a CIMSPA-approved training provider. This qualification is often referred to as Level 2 Gym Instructing if the goal is to work in a gym-based environment. A Level 2 Gym Instructor qualification gives you all the knowledge and practical training required to offer advice to those working out on the gym floor. This helps you offer the best potential support and training to customers, whilst providing you with the knowledge to keep them safe in a gym environment. 

CIMSPA-recognised qualification you should look forYou can find a CIMSPA-endorsed course provider by visiting the CIMSPA website directory and searching for a CIMSPA training provider partner.

Some popular CIMSPA-endorsed training provider partners include:

  • Study Active

  • Future Fit

  • YMCA Fit 

Having a relevant degree is not usually necessary to become a personal trainer or fitness instructor, but it can give you an advantage. Relevant degrees include:

  • Sport: Coaching and Development

  • Sport and Exercise Science

  • Sport and Exercise Nutrition

  • Physiology, Sports Science and Nutrition

  • Sport Science and Coaching


Personal trainers and fitness instructors have some responsibilities in common, despite differing in a few key areas. Some similarities include writing programmes and showing people how to perform exercises. A personal trainer, however, will often write more advanced programmes and show more complex exercises. A personal trainer will also train a client on a one-to-one basis over a period of time whereas a fitness instructor is often limited to demonstrating and explaining safe and effective use of equipment. 

Whilst a personal trainer will largely focus on the client, a fitness instructor must focus on different operational areas of a gym. This includes offering inductions for those who might be new to the gym, completing basic maintenance on equipment in the gym, and opening and closing facilities as needed.

A personal trainer has a few more specific responsibilities than a fitness instructor. Thanks to the highly trained nature of the role, a personal trainer can often take on more complex clients, engage in comprehensive fitness assessments, and generally offer a higher level of knowledge to their clients. This can culminate in offering one-to-one fitness sessions along with long-term diet advice and exercise planning, so clients can make the most of their fitness opportunities.

Skills required

The skills required between the two roles are also very similar. Both require a basic level of physical fitness and the ability to convey information to clients in layperson's terms. This is because they physically demonstrate the exercises their clients do, communicate how they can complete them and explain why they need these particular exercises. 

A fitness instructor may also need more organisational abilities, as they will be dealing with various operational tasks within a gym-based facility. A personal trainer may have more advanced scientific knowledge. This primarily stems from the fact that somebody trying to better their physical health tends to hire a personal trainer. A personal trainer, therefore, needs to be able to offer specialised advice that can resolve their issues rather than generalised information. This one-to-one relationship also means a personal trainer will likely require sound interpersonal skills.

Related: Personal trainer skills: Definition and examples


As a fitness instructor, you are likely to work for a gym, leisure centre or another fitness institution. This can be on a part-time or full-time contract, with most fitness instructors seeking employment permanently rather than being on a temporary contract. This means that fitness instructors tend to have more secure employment, although they are unlikely to get any performance-based benefits.

Personal trainers are more often self-employed. As they deal with individual clients, they can build a network of clients and get more work through word of mouth. Although the self-employed nature of the role means that the job is less predictable, there is plenty of potential for an effective personal trainer to increase their client base and improve their income based on their previous success with a range of clients.

Related: Self-Employed vs Employed: The Differences Between the Two Options

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Similar fitness roles

If you're interested in working within the fitness sector there are some similar roles to consider. These include:

Group-based instructor 

A group-based instructor engages with their clients on a group basis. For example, whilst a gym instructor may focus on inducting clients to use gym-based machines, a group-based instructor will typically lead group-based exercise sessions such as circuit training or exercise to music.

Gym manager

A fitness instructor's role has less operational responsibility than that of a gym manager. Where a fitness instructor is likely to provide inductions or lead fitness classes, a gym manager’s role is to ensure that the gym facility is correctly managed. This includes managing operational concepts such as health and safety, risk assessments, sales, memberships, staffing and overall management of the gym. 

Exercise referral specialist 

Exercise referral specialists often work with clients who have been referred to a gym by their general practitioner (GP). This could be part of a GP referral scheme, for example. A Level 3 GP Referral qualification is needed, in addition to a fitness instructor qualification, in order to perform this role. Exercise referral specialists work closely with the client’s GP and only take clients on after screening and GP consent.

Corrective exercise specialist 

A corrective exercise specialist is an advanced role where a personal trainer opts to specialise in corrective exercise. A Level 4 qualification in Corrective Exercise is required to perform this role. This role involves analysing the posture and movement patterns of a client and identifying areas that require attention. The corrective exercise specialist will then provide remedial exercises to address any areas in need of correction. 


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