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Exercise vs. Training: Differences and Considerations

If there’s one thing that CrossFit, P90-X, and various recent fitness trends have done well, it’s reminding a lot of people that yielding positive results from a fitness program is well… hard. It’s supposed to be because for the most part, that’s the way everything works in life. Sure some people win the lottery, cashing in on the Powerball or being blessed with freakish athletic ability. However, no one is blessed with excellence. We all have a baseline and we all have to work extremely hard to rise above it. Fitness is no different than any other part of life except that it’s more fair. It’s brutally honest with you. If you suck, you suck. The upside though is that you don’t have to suck forever. Office politics doesn’t prevent you from increasing your VO2 Max. If you want to improve, it’s all up to you. There are so many options for you to try with regards to professional instruction: personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, group fitness classes, CrossFit, etc. Having all of these options can make it tough to decide how to proceed and makes a lot of terminology seem murky and hard to follow. I’ll make it a little easier for you and break them down into just 3 categories: physical activity, exercise and training.

Much like varying definitions of the “core”, these terms have also been twisted a little over the years. Now, keep in mind that there’s a distinct spectrum and hierarchy here, ranging from general to specific. Let’s start off by re-defining them:

We’re going to lead off with physical activity, or PA. This would be defined as getting up and moving through your day. When you hear people talking about “staying active”, this is what it is supposed to mean. It’s gardening and yardwork, small construction projects, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, etc. PA is semi-primal, day-to-day activities that didn’t used to be done for us by an elevator or a landscaping crew. In other words, this is on the far left of the spectrum. It has no biomechanical/ physiological focus and doesn’t take any extra time out of your day because most of these tasks already need to get done.

Moving on, we have exercise. Exercise is scheduled general physical activity for the sake of itself, with no other outcome other than to improve your body. Exercise can come in many forms from walking to burpees and can take place anywhere from the great outdoors to the smallest CrossFit box. We’re moving a little further right on the spectrum. Each activity has at least a relative focus. For example, we’d do push-ups to improve horizontal pushing strength/ endurance. Exercise is scheduled, so it takes some additional effort and time out of your day. While exercise ups the ante on focus over PA, there still isn’t a hyper-focused plan. Getting fit isn’t a performance-related goal. A CrossFit WOD is a perfect example of exercise. Everything across several workouts is generalized so you cannot become elite or specialized at anything. It is just working out for the sake of working out and hopefully getting healthier.

Finally, we have training. Anyone that trains has a specific performance-related endgame and every aspect of their training protocol reflects that ultimate goal. Exercise is not training. They’re just not the same. Every workout, every cycle of workouts, and everything you might do in the future is a deliberate and distinct roadmap to the specific ultimate prize. The fitness apparel industry has twisted the term “training” to make exercise sound more badass and tough so they can sell you their overpriced dry fit gear. The fact remains that I actually have a lot of respect for CrossFit WODs. These are not easy workouts. They require you to dig deep and find a level of “can-do” you didn’t know you had. Don’t believe me? Try one. Every CrossFit box posts the WODs on their website. However as hardcore as some of these WODs are, they’re still exercise.If your goal is to finish a marathon, you’re not going to do 100 burpees, pull-ups, and box jumps. You now have to specialize in long-distance running. You’re going to embark on a periodized running program coupled with strength training that will compliment it. The difference between exercise and training are almost directly related to the differences between generalized and specialized programming.

This is where fitness becomes fair again. No matter what you call what you’re doing, the results will always reflect what you’ve done. Generalized programming such as CrossFit, bootcamps, and the like will illicit huge gains across all aspects of fitness at first, but once you get past that first stage of physiological adaptation, your return on investment will be smaller and smaller. in other words, you will be average at just about everything and great at nothing. On the other hand, through training, you can become elite and specialized at a couple things, at the expense of the other aspects of fitness. Competitive powerlifters are able to squat the world but tell them to run a 3k and their stomach turns over.

Any CrossFitters reading this are probably scoffing and citing the CrossFit games as an example of training and excellence. You’ll get no argument from me here. You have to train to excel at that type of event. I merely said that WODs are exercise. Believe it or not, those people didn’t get to the CrossFit games by just doing WODs. The either migrated to CrossFit from similar competitions (Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, etc.) or underwent specialized training to cause the kind of adaptation necessary to excel in the games. WODs simply cannot get you there. Don’t let Greg Glassman tell you otherwise.

Long story short, neither is inherently better than the other, although it depends on the lens you’re looking through. It’s a small flow chart, but conduct a needs analysis of your goals. If you have hyper-specific goals, you’ll have to train. If being all-around fit is your game, vigorous exercise is all you need. Professionals will want to take care to use the correct terminology to avoid mix-ups with their services. Regardless of the terminology, the results will speak for themselves. Like athletics, fitness favors the hard-working. Work you tail off and find results, no matter which route you take.


Header image courtesy of
Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Author: Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS View All

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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