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Exercise Physiology Explained (For Coaches)

What is Exercise Physiology?

Exercise physiology is the scientific study of the body’s responses and adaptations to physical activity, such as structured exercise. It studies how the human body functions under stress and what adaptations it develops in response, from cellular level to whole-body effects. This knowledge helps fitness professionals optimize workout plans to improve health and performance.

What Does An Exercise Physiologist Do?

An exercise physiologist examines each client’s medical history to provide a safe and effective exercise plan that improves functional fitness, work capacity, and health markers.

Like a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach, an exercise physiologist accounts for the client’s needs to create an exercise plan that improves specific fitness components, such as mobility, cardiovascular capacity, and strength.

The primary difference is that an exercise physiologist has a better understanding of the human body and can work with people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

In some cases, exercise physiologists work closely with primary care physicians. Medical professionals may refer some patients to a physiologist for a tailored exercise plan.

The Importance of Exercise Physiology in Sports and Fitness

Exercise physiology is integral to sports and fitness, as it helps physiologists and coaches safely improve their client’s health, well-being, and athletic capacity. 

The field bridges the gap between science and practice, allowing professionals to lean on scientific principles to assess individual needs, reduce injury risk, and improve recovery.

Additionally, exercise physiology helps fitness professionals and enthusiasts understand the unique processes and how they influence the body’s response to different forms of exercise. 

This knowledge helps coaches create more effective and efficient training plans that benefit people with special needs, as well as athletes and healthy everyday people who want to get fit.

Exercise physiology is also beneficial for athletes at the top of their respective sports. By understanding VO2 max testing, the lactic threshold, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, unique recovery needs, and mobility, physiologists can precisely estimate an athlete’s unique needs and limitations. 

This information is crucial for optimizing workout plans, particularly in-season when athletes are under more stress.


1. Do you need a degree in exercise physiology to work in the fitness industry?

A degree in exercise physiology is not mandatory to work in the fitness industry. However, getting one can lead to opportunities for higher-paying work and the knowledge needed to help people with special needs.

2. Are exercise physiologists and personal trainers the same?

Personal trainers typically work with healthy people, helping them get fit. In contrast, an exercise physiologist will generally coach people with specific illnesses or disabilities to help them lead healthier and fitter lives. That said, many exercise physiologists are also certified personal trainers.

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