If you’re exercising but need to be training, you’ll never make it to your end-goal.
Many people equate exercise and training to the same thing, and may even use the two words interchangeably when talking about running, hitting the gym, lifting weights — or doing anything to get your heart rate up, muscles “burning,” and blood pumping.
Any credible fitness professional knows, however, that there’s a crucial difference between the two.
The difference is all in the intention behind the activity. If you’ve got a specific goal, it’s important you know the difference between exercise and training and apply each of them appropriately.
Let’s dive into exercise first. Then we’ll look at training and how to smartly use both to optimize your fitness and health.
What is exercise?
Exercise is traditionally defined as “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness,” with the clear-cut goal of exercise being to keep you generally healthy and well.
“Physical activity fosters normal growth and development and can make people feel better, function better, sleep better, and reduce the risk of a large number of chronic diseases,” says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
All major health agencies agree that some form of exercise, regardless of modality or specificity, is important for general health purposes. The current recommendations for American adults is 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 hours to five hours) of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
Newer research has informed these suggestions and prompted health agencies to include two or more days of full-body resistance training in the guidelines, rather than recommending cardio alone.
I think we can all agree that one, exercise is a good thing, and two, we all need it in order to be our healthiest selves.
What is training?
Training tends to be associated with “training camp” for sports or “basic training camp” for the military. You may even hear guys at the gym say they are going to “train” rather than workout.
The reason that the word “training” has made it into those colloquial vocabularies is because training involves a specific goal to improve upon something. Athletes, military service members, firefighters, and others train for something specific, and their training protocols reflect the physical capacities needed to perform their jobs.
However, training isn’t limited to an occupational status. Bodybuilders train, CrossFitters train, and general fitness enthusiasts train, too. People with outdoor recreational hobbies often train as well — no one’s going to climb Mount Everest or hike the Grand Canyon without training for it first.
Training has a clear end goal and requires you to have a systematic plan or program to force your body to adapt, recover, and increase your capacity or skill overtime. A training plan typically involves progressive overload, skill progression, and assessing and tracking progress over time.
Lastly, training requires you to have a mindset in line with your measurable goal. There has to be a desired outcome and your “why” behind that is what will keep you on track on the days you truly don’t feel like following your program.
Training vs. exercise: What’s the difference?
Like we said, although training can and does include the same activities as exercise, training is much more specific in intention than exercise.
A hard workout without a specific intention is just an intense form of exercise — not training.
The difference is intention, through and through.
This is where the difference between the two matters. If you are going to the gym and throwing weights around thinking you’re training because it’s hard work, you’re probably going around in circles and not reaching your goal because you aren’t following a periodized training plan.
Remember this: Just because your workout was hard and left you a breathless, sweaty mess, doesn’t mean it was a “good” workout. It doesn’t mean your workout inched you closer to your goals. It doesn’t mean your workout was the best thing you could’ve done for your body in that moment.
To recap, exercise is any movement that requires physical effort. Whereas training can be those same movements, but intentionally programmed and thought out for a specific goal.
Should you train or should you exercise?
Now that you know the difference, it’s time to evaluate your goals.
If your main goal is to be generally active and healthy, then simple exercise will probably be enough for you, and you should move in ways that thoroughly bring you joy and excitement.
Whether that means hiking, jumping on the trampoline with your kids, taking a Zumba class, or taking your dogs for a walk, getting moving for a few hours each week is sufficient to help you maintain general health and wellness levels.
On the other hand, if you have a specific goal such as building muscle mass, improving strength, fixing your balance or posture, returning to health post-injury, competing in a sport, or running a marathon — you need to TRAIN.
You don’t accidentally get prepared to run a marathon or compete in a sport. You won’t just wake up one day ready to compete in a Strongman competition. To reach a specific goal, you must follow a specific plan based on where you are now and where you want or need to be.
Smarter Sweat takeaways
If you are generally healthy, have a specific goal, and are ready, willing, and able to follow a specific plan, then training is the right option for you. We recommend following a plan specific to your ability level that has a clear goal in mind.
If you’re primarily interested in supporting general levels of health and wellness, then exercise is probably the answer for you. At Smarter Sweat we support both and our training plans reflect that — so we’re working on programs for all types of exercisers (Fill out this form to be the first to know when our Smarter Sweat Core Six programs are available).
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition
ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th Edition.
By Ashley Pfantz
Ashley is the cofounder of Smarter Sweat, certified personal trainer and professional health and fitness coach. She also owns Pfancy Fitness, an individualized fitness, nourishment, and lifestyle coaching business where she coaches all of her clients remotely.
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About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.