Athletic Training Vs. Physical Therapy

Physical Therapist Helping a Patient

While athletic trainers and physical therapists both work with people who have suffered sports injuries, the similarities between the two careers end there. Trainers and therapists have different educations, certifications and work place settings. If you are considering a career in one of these fields, learn what distinguishes them to help make the best choice for your future.


Doctor and patient

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According to, athletic trainers are health care professionals who help athletes and other physically active people to prevent and recognize injuries related to physical activity. As an athletic trainer you work with athletes to manage and rehabilitate acute athletic injuries. Physical therapists help patients to develop, restore and maintain movement and physical function. As a physical therapist you work with individuals of all ages and fitness levels with chronic or acute injuries and illnesses.

Educational Requirements

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Athletic trainers and physical therapists require different educations. An athletic trainer must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited program and pass a certification test. According to the National Athletic Trainer Association, about 70 percent of athletic trainers continue their education to the master's degree level. Course requirements for an athletic trainer include first aid, injury assessment and analysis, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and biomechanics. A physical therapist must have a bachelor's degree and an advanced degree from an accredited physical therapy program. A physical therapist needs classes in anatomy, kinesiology, pharmacology, neuroscience, diagnostics, health, chemistry, biology, physics, and human growth and development.

Working Environments

Coach talking to five men in park, low angle view

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As an athletic trainer, you work predominantly in the sporting environment with physically active people. You can consider job placement with high school, college, university athletics and in sports medicine clinics. Highly educated athletic trainers with advanced degrees may work with professional sports teams, though these opportunities are rare. As a physical therapist, you work in a clinical setting with people requiring treatment for injury, illness and chronic diseases. Patients range in age from infants through elders. You find job opportunities in hospitals, clinics, doctor's offices and physical therapy centers.

Athletic Trainer Work

Athletic trainer positions often require long work hours that include nights and weekends to be available at team practices and games. You tape, bandage and brace athletes for injury prevention and rehabilitation. Employers require you to coordinate and carry out the physical rehabilitation of athletes. Often, athletic trainers study, evaluate and recommend new techniques and equipment. You are typically the first one to the scene of a sports injury and consult with a physician to diagnose and treat the athlete. The athletic trainer is responsible for managing and maintaining the athletic training room. You need to be physically fit to bend, lift, squat and run.

Physical Therapist Work

Man Receiving a Shoulder Massage

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Physical therapists have more regular office hours than athletic trainers and require a level of fitness that allows for manipulating and lifting patients. As a physical therapist you work on an individual basis with patients over a period of weeks to months. Therapists develop and execute exercises that help improve patient's range of motion, muscle strength, coordination, endurance and motor skills, according to Massage, heat or water therapy, ultrasound and electrical stimulation are tools you may use.