To most people, “exercise” and “training” are one and the same.
Whether you’re talking about lifting weights, running, spinning, or anything that gets your muscles burning or heart pumping hard, the two terms seem interchangeable.
Actually, these two terms are in fact very different things.
The difference between “exercise” and “training”
Exercise is physical activity done for its own sake. It’s a workout done for the effects it produces during or after the session. Exercise is about how it makes you feel – you felt great because you worked up a sweat, moved for a bit, felt your muscles “burning”, or got your heart pumping hard. It’s also about the feeling of achievement, because you expended X amount of calories, burnt off your “sinful” dinner last night, or hit your “movement/fitness goal” for the day/week.
Training is physical activity done with a quantifiable longer term goal. For example, squatting 10kgs more at this meet than the previous meet 6 months ago. Or, shaving 5 minutes off your 10K run timing. Training is process of achieving those specific goals.
When one is engaged in training, every single workout is specifically programmed to produce a training stress that elicits an adaptation to achieve that goal. How the session made you feel or feels like isn’t relevant.
We occasionally encounter lifters that think, “Oh, it feels pretty light and easy today. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything effective” when we program lower intensity or volume training sessions. But that’s just today’s training session, which is just one piece of the bigger programming picture.
Training is a marathon, not a sprint. Not only do you have to follow an appropriate program, you also have to be patient, because training is a consistent effort sustained over time that will ultimately yield the results you’re after. As Robert Tepper’s song goes, “There’s no easy way out, there’s no short cut home”.
Exercise is great, but has its limits
If you’re sitting on your sedentary ass all the time, then any exercise is definitely better than none.
However, beyond a certain point of exercising, you’ll probably find yourself going nowhere.
While there will definitely be overall health and fitness improvements at first, your progress will stall if your workouts are one of two things:
1. Haphazard, i.e., you hit the gym and use whatever machine is available, paying no attention to weights, reps, or sets. Or you workout only when you feel like it. Or this week is weights, next week is running, and next month is spinning. It’s just a random approach with no structure and direction.
2. Repetitive. At the other end of the consistency spectrum, you won’t get far either if you keep on doing the same workout. When you do the same routine with the same weight/rep/sets, you’ll never progress beyond a certain point, because there’s no progressive overload (more on this later). Henry Ford once said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” – an apt quote for this situation.
Generally, all exercise is good if you’re not already active. But that’s a low bar. If its quantifiable results you’re after, stop simply exercising and start training.
Training provides the training stress needed for progress
Your training program should induce a specific training stress that elicits an adaptation towards achieving your training goal.
The adaptation that occurs is your body’s physiological response to the training stress. This happens because of the Stress-Adaptation-Recovery cycle: you get exposed to a training stress higher than what you are currently adapted to. If the stress doesn’t overwhelm you, and your recovery strategies are in place, you’ll recover from it. Then you’ll adapt to that particular training stress, increasing your baseline of performance. Rinse and repeat to progress.
Yes, I’m beating a dead horse but it’s important to mention once again that repeated exposure to the same level of training stress will not increase your performance. Repeatedly squatting 100kgs for 3 sets of 5, week after week, will not make 100kgs feel lighter, easier nor improve your performance. 100kgs will feel much more manageable when you can squat 140kgs for 3 sets of 5.
Does exercise cause adaptations?
Well, if you’ve just started exercising, you’ll see improvements in general health and fitness. As you continue to exercise, these adaptations will diminish, because you’re either doing random things or repeatedly doing the same thing. In other words, exercise doesn’t provide sustained progress over the long term.
The fitness industry generally sells exercise
If you take a closer look at what the fitness industry is selling, you’ll realise that most of them are selling you exercise, not training.
They’ll throw in jargon-y and science-y words (scientifically proven training techniques! leading- or cutting-edge anything! research-based training!) to make their programs sound like they’re optimised to get to your goals. Unfortunately, it’s almost always just marketing BS.
Conversely, you can tell if the program that you’re currently following is well thought out. If you’ve been working out for a while, just ask yourself – what quantifiable progress have you made? And are you still making progress? In the end, progress is the only metric that matters if you’re talking about training.
Once again, we’re not knocking anyone if they choose to engage in exercise. If you enjoy it, please by all means go ahead. My only concern is that most people, exposed to fitness industry marketing, think that exercising = training. So much so that the exerciser mentality persists when these individuals start actual proper training.
Exercise vs training in the gym
It gets tricky at times when we encounter the exerciser mindset in the gym — we often have to convince them to switch their thinking. Here are some of the common things we hear from someone with an exerciser mindset:
“The weights are too light”. When a new lifter comes in for their first session, we want to achieve two outcomes: for them to learn the barbell lifts, and to establish a starting weight for their program (a slightly challenging weight that they can lift with good technique).
Once in a while, we get a lifter who feels this weight is too light. It’s too easy, so they want to go heavier. Because they don’t understand the purpose of the starting weight, I have to explain that it’s heavy enough for day one. If it’s too heavy, it’s hard to focus on learning and doing the lifts correctly. Focus on the technique first – the weight will increase with every session, and will feel really heavy pretty soon.
“I hardly perspired or got my heart rate up”. On the first few weeks of training, some lifters might mention that they didn’t feel like they had worked out, because they didn’t work up a sweat and got their heart pumping hard.
For a barbell training session, the goal is to lift the weights programmed for that day. We don’t lift barbells for the purpose of breathing hard or raising our heart rates – these are not the metrics that we use to indicate progression.
“Why do I need to rest so much/long?” It’s important to rest sufficiently between sets, so that you can recover for subsequent sets. However, this rest time can be longer than exercisers expect. Especially if they’re used to maintaining a high heart rate or respiratory rate throughout their workout session.
Most of the time, lifters will listen to our advice and rest sufficiently. But a very small handful of new lifters will insist that they’re ready to go. Unsurprisingly, they start to miss reps pretty early on their Novice Linear Progressions (NLP) because they’re just not recovered for the subsequent sets. Like clockwork, these lifters will be the same people that ask for a little more rest when the weights get heavy.
“Why such small increments in weight?” After bigger weight increments in the first few sessions, the increments generally taper off to ~2.5 kg per session, depending on the lift and lifter. This makes some exercisers feel that they should go heavier since they’re capable of doing more that day. They want to push their limits and get stronger, faster.
Once again, this is a good way to truncate your NLP. We always have to remind them that even though their squats are only going up 2.5 kg per session, if they’re training thrice a week, it adds up to 7.5 kg per week and 30 kg per month – it’ll get heavy in no time at all.
“I didn’t feel sore”. Some exercisers would mention that they don’t feel sore after their training (which is actually a good thing), and therefore didn’t make progress. Despite what most people think, soreness is not an indicator of progress.
“Why take so much weight off after a break?” When a lifter returns from a break in training, we’ll usually take some weight off from their previous session before working their way back up. How much weight to take off depends on factors like:
– How long of a break did they take?
– What was the cause of the break – holiday or illness?
– How advanced of a lifter they are
– How old they are
Depending on the above, we’ll take different percentages of weight off their previous session. Regardless, we’ll usually err on the conservative side and take off more. It’s much better to find out that the backoff is too much and compensate with larger increments on subsequent sessions, rather than go too heavy on their first session back.
Some lifters will find that too much weight was taken off, and want to get back to where they left off, ASAP. Back in my earlier coaching days, I was more aggressive about getting lifters back to where they left. But I made mistakes. And I learnt from that. Over time, I realised that you can’t and shouldn’t rush training. Weighing all the circumstances and meeting the lifter where they’re at, not where you want them to be has much better outcomes.
Training is a long term affair. A few years down the road, it won’t matter if it took you 3 or 5 or 7 sessions to get back to where you left off after returning from your holiday. You probably won’t even remember it.
If you want long term progress, ditch the exerciser mentality
Ultimately, it’s your choice if you want to exercise or train. My take is if you’re already putting in the time and effort at the gym, why not make it worth your while and work towards something tangible?