Exercising vs. Training – A Controversial Debate

Defining Training: Exercising vs. Training is an interesting debate, as I find most people just ‘exercise’ without thinking about what they are doing. Before continuing, I should define the two and detail their differences:* Exercising is about going to the gym and working out. There isn’t really a rhyme or reason to what you are doing. It doesn’t build on the last workout. There may be a goal in mind (IE, fat loss) but the workout is more just a collection of “stuff” rather than something specific. Typically exercisers just love to sweat and know that they are working hard, as a “hard workout” and “being sore” justifies the “stuff” they did the night before – whether it was beneficial or not is an entirely different story.

* Training on the other hand is about specifics. There is a goal, the program reflects that goal, and each session plays a distinct role in helping you move closer to that goal. Rather than doing “stuff”, the trainee goes to the gym with an objective in mind, or as I say a theme (I’ll talk about this in another article). They have certain things they want to accomplish that day and they make sure they take care of business. In addition, those that are “training” are very processes oriented and know that if today doesn’t not feel like a great day, they can back off of the intensity a bit, because the objective is to be there at the end of the program and not just destroy yourself in one session because “if you don’t work really hard and get sore after each workout it is a waste of time.”

With those two definitions in mind, it can be pretty clear to see exactly where you stand. Are you a person that heads to the gym and does a bunch of “stuff”? Or, are you a person that heads to the gym with specific information to guide you in the training process?

Fitness for the masses

I can’t tell you how many times I am asked questions about things like Crossfit, P90x, Insanity, or the poorly thrown together bootcamp workouts that have been popular of late.

These types of things (in my opinion) fall into the category of “exercising”. They have little to do with the training process and more to do with just giving you are hard workout. Whether or not that workout is beneficial to you (the individual) is moot. Rather, what is important is that you sweat a lot, get sore and perceive the workout to be hard. I emphasize perceive because these programs are nothing more than marketing hype.

I have talked to a few people who are satisfied with their results on all three of these exercise programs. They lost weight – which was their main objective – and they were excited about that because for the first time ever, they actually stuck to a training program. This is obviously excellent and one of great things about these programs is that they actually get people up and exercising and moving. However, upon further inspection of what they are doing, you find that their exercise technique is really poor. They haven’t learned anything because the program is constantly changing, and there is no time to build a foundation and adapt (Muscle confusion is idiotic and is nothing more than a marketing scam. Yes, the body adapts to training and yes you need to change things. But, you don’t need to change things from workout to workout and you don’t necessarily even need to change exercises, as any variation in training stimulus – repetition number, rep tempo, sets, rest interval, sequence, etc – will provide a enough of a change to force an adaptation without performing a totally different workout and not taking the time to learn how to properly train.). Finally, their results are usually accompanied by some sort of ache or pain that has either (a) been there before the program – meaning the program didn’t address this issue or (b) is totally new – meaning the program helped to create this issue (or the issue had already been created, but the inappropriate exercise selection caused the individual to be more “aware” of the issue).

Obviously there are going to be people who come back and say, “I got great results and feel fine!” There will be outliers with anything and programs developed for the masses will be appropriate for some and less appropriate (READ not appropriate at all) for others. One of the limitations is that there is no way to tell if this program is appropriate for you because there is no one there to assess you and get an idea of what a good starting point may be. The programs are simply designed to make people do work, and don’t address anything more than that.

Fitness for the individual

Training is an individual endeavor. The training program should address your limitations, your starting point, your goals and your needs. Most of the exercises in the programs I mentioned above are fine. In fact, I use a lot of them – squats, lunges, plyometrics, olympic lifts – in my training programs. It isn’t the exercise that is bad, it is what you bring to the exercise that is the problem. If you have limitations and restrictions in mobility, if you are weak and unable to perform those exercises at the intensity that is being shown on the DVD or in the class, or if you don’t even understand how to properly perform those exercises, you are asking for trouble! This is where the training program needs to stop, back up and say, “Wait a minute. This may not be right for you AT THIS TIME.” You then need to determine what IS right for you at this time. Where is your starting point and where are you training to get to? This is the training process and this is how training should take place and evolve. Rather than just doing the workout of the day and throwing you to the wolves, we need to get down to the “nitty gritty” and come up with something that is specific to you.

I talked to one guy that told me his back has been hurting for 2-weeks since his last Crossfit workout, where they were doing an ungodly number of hang cleans in a specific amount of time (this in and of itself is a foolish application of a great exercise). He asked me what he could do for his back pain and one of the things I told him was to stop doing silly workouts. He said he loved the training because it was hard and best of all, he could go on the website and get the workout of the day FOR FREE! To which I replied, “Back pain, FOR FREE…AWESOME!”

I can’t tell you how many people we have seen come to our facility after going to bootcamp for months and yet they have general aches and pains from training and extremely poor exercise form. I guess exercise technique is only a minor detail when the real objective is to make people sweat and get sore?


Working out is fun and important. There is nothing wrong with intensity (when it is appropriately applied) and I applaud several of these training programs for getting people up out of their seat and moving. However, the program should address your needs. Shy away from fitness programs designed for the masses and seek out something that is specific to you.

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About the Author:
Patrick Ward holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Science. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and a USA Weightlifting-Certified Club Coach. In addition, Patrick is a licensed massage therapist focusing on Neuromuscular therapy and Active Release Techniques (ART). He lives in Chandler, Arizona and is the owner of Optimum Sports Performance and the Co-founder of Reality Based Fitness. He can be reached at patrick@optimumsportsperformance.com. Visit website: optimumsportsperformance.com

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