What is the difference between a gym instructor and a personal trainer?

In the fitness industry there are many different roles with two that are very common and popular being that of gym instructor and personal trainer. But are these the same thing? Absolutely not. There are definite differences between these two roles, and we will explore some of those further.

Firstly, it is worth noting that many personal trainers are also gym instructors, however there are also many gym instructors who are not personal trainers. The two roles can coexist, or you can have someone who is purely working as a gym instructor. It is also worth noting that the prerequisite to any personal trainer course is being a qualified gym instructor, so you would not find someone who is a personal trainer but not a gym instructor. It is therefore quite common that fitness professionals will be qualified in both gym instructing and personal training. Let’s take a dive in and look at the differences.

What is a gym instructor?

Simply put, a gym instructor instructs fitness in a gym. A gym instructor will instruct healthy adults on how to use pieces of gym equipment. This could be cardiovascular machines, resistance machines, free weights etc. A gym instructor will show healthy adults how to use these pieces of machinery and will write them a basic programme that will allow them to move around a gym and follow an exercise programme suited to them.

Does a gym instructor go any further than this?

This will depend on what other qualifications they have attained. If they are solely a gym instructor then those tasks, as far as fitness goes, are the role that a gym instructor would fulfil. If, however they have an exercise class qualification, such as a group-based training qualification or exercise to music qualification, then they may also take classes.

Can a gym instructor do personal training?

The simple answer to this is no. A gym instructor is not qualified to work one-on-one with a client if they have only got a gym instructor qualification. While there may be times where it is a one-to-one approach, for example showing a client how to use a piece of machinery, a gym instructor would not work for long periods of time with an individual client. The job is more focused on showing a client how to use equipment and making sure they are using it safely and effectively.

What does a personal trainer do?

A personal trainer, on the other hand, does work one-to-one with a client for prolonged periods of time. A personal trainer will work with a client, designing them a long-term programme which often follows quite thorough fitness assessments. The personal trainer won’t just design this long-term programme, but they will then deliver it one-to-one. So, whilst a gym instructor is writing very basic programmes and showing people how to use equipment, a personal trainer will write advanced programmes and will take the client one-to-one through each session. This could be an hour-long session which might include a range of different, advanced cardiovascular resistance techniques. The personal trainer will be there every step of the way one-to-one to support the client.

A personal trainer will also give nutrition advice. Within the scope of their practise, a personal trainer’s job is to effectively pass on government guidance regarding nutrition and personal trainers can do this very effectively through exercises such as setting food diaries and giving advice to their clients on where they may be able to improve. This work isn’t something that a gym instructor would do unless they had achieved a separate nutrition qualification. Nutrition is a mandatory unit to become a personal trainer, and therefore all personal trainers should be able to give nutritional advice within their scope of practise.

In terms of classes, this would again depend on whether the personal trainer has attained an exercise class qualification. If this is the case, then you will see them taking classes. Being a personal trainer by itself is all about working one-to-one with clients.

What are the differences in pay structure?

In terms of pay, a gym instructor is always employed by the gym whereas a personal trainer is usually self-employed. A gym instructor is therefore a position where you have a contracted job, a gym employs you and you receive a salary. A personal trainer on the other hand, is more often undertaken on a freelance basis where the personal trainer will charge their own fees and deal directly with the clients.

So overall there are some definite differences between a gym instructor and a personal trainer. This has explored a few of the key aspects and highlighted some of the differences as to what a gym instructor does and what a personal trainer does. Hopefully this will prove helpful when choosing your career path within the fitness industry.

Editor’s notes - what is the difference between a gym instructor and personal trainer?

In your local gym, when you see a Personal Trainer in gym gear you may wonder if that Personal Trainer at the gym is actually a Personal Trainer or a Gym Instructor. The two disciplines may have a lot of overlap but there are some fundamental differences between a Gym Instructor and Personal Trainer. It is useful for a client to be aware of differences between a Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer as this can help them decide which is best for them out of  getting a Personal Trainer vs self-training. If a client wants one-to-one personal training then they should look for a qualified Personal Trainer. If however they are happy with self-training then all they may need is a gym membership – with the gym stocked with qualified Fitness Instructors of course!

What does a Personal Trainer do?

If you are wondering what does a Personal Trainer do then please read on! Firstly, lets answer the question “what is a Personal Trainer?” The simple answer is an exercise professional who trains clients on a one-to-one basis following a bespoke long-term exercise plan tailored to the clients goals. Personal Trainers also give nutrition advice based on established government guidelines to help their clients achieve their goals. This is essentially what a Personal Trainer does! Personal Training at gym based facilities should only be done by a fully qualified Personal Trainer (remember a Personal Trainer must also hold a Gym Instructing qualification). Indeed it is a  Personal Training qualification requirement that they are also qualified as a Gym Instructor qualification as a pre requisite to commencing training  as a Personal Trainer. So if someone is interested in personal training at the gym that they go to then they should look for a Personal Trainer for fitness activities that suit them, who is appropriately qualified as both a Gym Instructor and a Personal Trainer.

What is a Fitness Instructor?

A Fitness Instructor is a umbrella term which can cover roles such as Gym Instructor, Exercise to Music Instructor, Group Training Instructor, etc. It is usually the case that a Fitness Instructor has an area of speciality, quite commonly this is gym so often the terms Fitness Instructor and Gym Instructor are used interchangeably. It is important to note that someone should decide which career path they wish to pursue for example if someone is already a Gym Instructor do they want to go on to be a Personal Trainer or group based instructor – these are very different roles. Essentially a group based fitness trainer takes classes whilst a gym fitness trainer works the gym floor.

Type of Fitness Instructor

Fitness Instructor Qualification needed

Scope of practice of a Fitness Instructor

Gym Instructor

Level 2 Gym Instructing

Inducting members to use gym equipment, writing basic gym programmes, providing ongoing support and motivation to members

Group based Instructor

Level 2 Group based Training or Level 2 Exercise to Music

Planning and delivering group exercise sessions


The above table shows some differences between a Gym Instructor and a Group Training Instructor

What does a Fitness Instructor do?

When someone asks “what does a Fitness Instructor do?” there are lots of things that spring to mind as this is quite a eclectic role however the main duty is to safely induct members to safely and effectively use gym equipment and be on hand to support and motivate members.

Fitness Instructor vs Personal Trainer

We now know that a trainer at a gym could be either a Fitness Instructor or a Personal Trainer and this will depend on qualifications, duties and scope of practice. With regards to scope of practice. A Fitness Instructor is usually employed by a gym however a Personal Trainer is usually self-employed thus is responsible for their own insurance. The question gets asked what should a Personal Trainer do if they are unsure on insurance – the answer is get professional personal trainer insurance advice. A benefit of a Fitness Instructor being employed by a gym is that they may receive CPD opportunities. Indeed a gym with instructor development opportunities may well hold on to their instructors longer. Some gyms may have an in-house Personal Trainer for the gym members to have someone advanced to go to. It is rare for a Personal Trainer to be employed though, usually they pay a gym rent to be there or have a hybrid model of getting paid for doing a Gym Instructor role then doing freelance personal training in the gym on top of this. That being said you may often see a Personal Trainer in gym gear with the logo/brand of a gym hence showing some affiliation.

We do see some variation of job titles in the sector that can get confusing. For example we may see PT Instructors, a Personal Gym Instructor or even just a trainer at gym or fitness facilities. Its always worth deep diving to find out if that trainer in gym gear is in fact a Fitness Instructor or a Personal Trainer!


Gym Instructor

Personal Trainer

Qualification needed

Level 2 Gym Instructing

Level 2 Gym Instructing

Level 3 Personal Training

Main duties

Gym inductions, writing basic programmes, supporting and motivating members

Working one to one with clients on a long term basis and providing nutrition advice

Employment type

Usually employed

Usually self-employed or hybrid

Scope of practice

Supporting members on the gym floor with gym-based activities

Working closely with client on a one to one level both in the gym and in other environments


The above table shows some differences between a Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer

Summary of key points

  • Fitness Instructor vs Personal Trainer is a common comparison
  • A Fitness Instructor should hold a level 2 Fitness Instructor qualification
  • A Personal Trainer should hold a level 3 Personal Training qualification
  • A Fitness Instructor (who specialised in gym) will operate on the gym floor
  • A Personal Trainer will write and deliver long-term bespoke programmes on a one-to one basis
  • A Fitness Instructor or Personal Trainer should only take exercise classes if they are qualified in group exercise
  • A Fitness Instructor is usually employed whilst a Personal Trainer is usually self-employed

To find out about becoming a Gym Instructor or Personal Trainer please see our range of Gym and Personal Trainer Course options

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