‘Training’ vs. ‘Exercise’: What’s the Difference?

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“Physical fitness.” “Physical activity.” “Working out.” “Exercise.” “Training.” These are all terms that get haphazardly applied to the things we do when we intend to make some type of improvement in our body’s physical capacity. They all have separate and very specific meanings, and understanding them is important if you are to make the right choice about which one to apply to your situation.

“Physical activity” is a rather low standard to hold oneself to, since it merely means movement. Physical activity, according to the American Heart Association website, is defined as “anything that makes you move your body and burn calories.” The world is full of unhealthy people, some of whom are sedentary and some who move all day. Mere movement does not correlate with a significant improvement in physical capacity. It may be a step in the right direction, but a look at its specific recommendations indicates that any steps would be tiny ones.

“Physical Fitness” has a more specific definition. By Kilgore and Rippetoe in 2006 in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online [9(1):1-10]:

“Possession of adequate levels of strength, endurance, and mobility to provide for successful participation in occupational effort, recreational pursuits, familial obligation, and that is consistent with a functional phenotypic expression of the human genotype.”

This is a description of what fitness entails, and describes a reason to be fit based on the genetics we possess. But it doesn’t say anything about how to accomplish this task, either the process or the components thereof.

Most people decide that the thing to do to get fit is something called “working out.” A “workout” is a term that refers to the period of time spent exercising — the exercise event. Us guys go to the gym for the purpose of “getting a workout” before we know much about it. To most of us guys, getting a workout means hitting the bag, running a few laps, getting sweaty, tired, and maybe doing arms a little. A few curls.

That makes “working out” the same thing as “exercise.” The term “exercise” best describes a physical activity performed for the sake of the effect it produces on your body today — right now — or immediately following the workout. If you’re just exercising, the workout itself is the point. Yoga, Pilates, cardio on the treadmill, a group class of any kind — basically punching your time card at the gym is “exercise.” For most people, “exercise” probably involves doing the same thing in the gym every time you go, because the effect is predictable. You want to get hot, sweaty, and tired, because it makes you feel that something positive has occurred. And it has. For many people, the acute effect of “exercise” is all that is necessary for an improvement in their physical wellbeing.

The modern fitness industry is built exclusively around the “exercise” model.

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Corporate gyms are counting on you to come in about three days per week, mess around on the machines for 20 minutes, ride the treadmill while you watch television for 30 minutes, hit the sauna, the shower, and then the parking lot. They want you there for an hour, they want you to bring in a friend to sign up, and then they want you gone.

And this may satisfy your needs perfectly, depending on your goals. If you are severely overweight, the first steps you take to a better lifestyle may well be taken in a corporate gym. The Biggest Loser illustrates this process perfectly. Likewise, the programs advertised on infomercials — especially the ones that “confuse” your muscles — are “exercise” programs, in that their primary effect is the immediate satisfaction of the desire to get hot, sweaty, and tired.

But if you are an athlete with a performance objective, or maybe you’ve been “exercising” for a while and want more out of the time spent in the gym, then “training” is the way to accomplish it.

“Training” is the process of moving from one state of physical preparedness to another. The individual workouts that compose the elements of the process are important not in and of themselves, but because their cumulative effect accomplishes a specific definable physical goal.

To an athlete who is “training” for a performance goal, be it a marathon or a weightlifting meet, the accumulated, increasing stress that characterizes “training” must be specific to the performance goal. This means that “training” must be carefully planned in advance to produce a specific adaptation at a specific point in time. This planning differentiates “training” from “exercise.” 

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“Training” looks like a series of similar workouts in which the reps, sets, weight, and rest are manipulated to produce the desired adaptation in the physical characteristics the workouts address. Some aspects of the specific elements of physical stress — the volume (how much you do), intensity (the percentage of your maximum performance capacity used in the workout), rest (the time spent recovering between the individual efforts or components of the workout), or all three at the same time — are varied throughout a period of time to produce a higher level of physical performance than that with which the athlete started the program.

“Training” requires that you have made a decision about what you want to get better at doing. The marathon involves long-distance running, while weightlifting involves short, explosive force production efforts. These require two different types of physiological adaptations, all the way down to the cells of the muscles, and they are so completely different that you cannot become a competitive athlete at both — at least not at the same time.

So marathon “training” involves a series of runs of varying durations and paces, while “training” for weightlifting involves workouts with the lifts used in the sport and other basic strength work. At the higher levels of competition, athletes must specialize in their discipline to the extent that there is little or no overlap between their respective programs. Given a favorable genetic endowment and enough time spent in the preparation of the athlete’s physical specialty, success is the result of “training.”

Brooklyn Starting Strength Seminar

The more different the physical demands of any two sports, the more different the “training” for each sport will be. “Training” must be specific to the physical stress you want to adapt to. For this reason, any program that features random exposure to various types of physical stress cannot produce long-term progress toward any specific physical adaptation. For example, occasionally throwing in a workout that consists of 100 pushups makes no sense for either the runner or the lifter, because neither athlete’s sport benefits from the randomly applied stress of 100 pushups. Such a frivolous distraction would disrupt the progress of a more advanced athlete, and no competent coach would allow such a thing. An athlete in “training” sticks to the plan, because the plan is the process that produces the results.

Most people never intend to compete in a sport, and do not need to do extensive planning to start the process of getting up off their asses. But a certain percentage of people who start the process will enjoy the results to the extent that they adopt the mindset of an athlete, and will convert from an “exercise” model to “training.” Likewise, a simple goal like the loss of 30 pounds of bodyfat or an improvement in strength can benefit from a less-random, more-planned approach — a “training” approach to the problem. Carefully planned activity works better than just doing the same things in the gym for weeks on end, and once you set up a planned program that increases your strength and controls your diet too, you’re “training” instead of wandering around in the gym “exercising.”

The correct approach involves understanding where you are along the spectrum of your physical existence, and making the correct decisions about what to do next. It may be that “exercise” is all you really need, but “training” may be much more effective.