To the average person, exercise and training are often used synonymously.
But in practice, they're completely different. One implies working toward an established goal, and the other, simply going through the motions.
After my last six years in the gym, I'm well aware of the habits that separate the casual gym-goers from those who get serious results.
A Note on Exercise
Don't get me wrong, exercising is great. If everyone in America took up the habit, we'd all be better off.
And if I were writing this article as a handout for a public health class, I'd be singing the praises of exercise.
However, exercise is the domain of beginners. They go to the gym, do a little of this, a little of that, work up a sweat, and go on with their day.
And that's great, if you like being where you are.
Exercise can help keep you from gaining large amounts of weight. In a land of ever-expanding waistlines, this is a good thing.
But it won't do much in the way of endowing you with the lean, muscular physique you're after.
I know you aren't reading Iron & Tweed because you want to simply maintain an average body. If you want to truly improve yourself, it's going to take training.
Exercise versus Training
There are a number of significant differences between merely exercising for general health and training for a focused purpose. Let's compare, point by point:
Exercise emphasizes burning calories and sweating
Working off a weekend of indulgences is the main goal of exercise. The workout's effectiveness is gauged by how much it “burned” or how much sweat it produced.
Training emphasizes stimulating muscle
If you're training for strength, size, or athletic performance, calories and sweating should be the furthest thing from your mind. All that matters is working the target muscle, strengthening the movement pattern, or mastering the drills.
The best part is that striving toward these goals is a much better method of burning those calories and working up a sweat.
Exercise involves repeating a previous performance
In every gym, you'll come to know the members to set your watch by. Every Monday at 6:25 am, they're doing the same exercise, with the same weight, for the same number of sets and reps. Week in and week out.
Their workouts never change, and neither do their bodies. Because that's their goal – maintenance.
Training demands improvement upon a previous performance
If you lifted 225 x 3 for five sets during your last workout, the worst thing that can happen today is to only match that. You must improve in some way.
Whether that improvement comes in the form of more weight, more reps, shorter breaks, or more time under tension, it doesn't matter. Just improve in some way, no matter how small.
Since you're training, you'll dig deep and do absolutely anything and everything in your power to beat that performance. This is how you make progress.
What constitutes a workout?
Exercise is interchangeable with physical activity
If helping a friend move some furniture or spending the morning shoveling snow is a suitable replacement for your planned workout, you aren't on the right path to achieving lofty goals.
Training downgrades anything other than a gym session to mere “activity”
If you're striving to reach a serious physical goal, anything outside the gym doesn't count.
Keeping the previous example in mind, carrying a couch up three flights of stairs doesn't add a set, rep or pound to your previous performance, so it isn't a workout.
Exercise combines random movements
Exercise routines are usually just prescribed methods of exhaustion. Calisthenics are great, but not in-between sets of squats or deadlifts. Not only can poorly laid out programs be counterproductive, they're often dangerous.
Training combines exercises with thought and purpose
Since training is focused on consistent improvement, there isn't room for any exercise that can hurt the progress of bigger lifts.
Adding in exercises for weak-point training or aesthetics is great, but it must be done in a way that doesn't impede the larger goals. Follow an established program or design your own intelligently.
Exercise is meant to be fun
“I love such and such class, it's so much fun.” “I don't like lifting weights, it's boring.” Notice how these statements say nothing about the effectiveness of the workout.
You may as well say, “I don't like seeing results, it's boring.”
Training is fixated on results, regardless of the fun factor
The real fun happens when you're getting stronger, gaining muscle, and shedding fat. If you need a completely fresh routine, dance music, and a crowd to have a good time at the gym, I'm afraid you won't get very far.
Exercise is short-sighted
Exercising is meant to give you a burn, pump, or a good sweat, today. How much weight you lifted doesn't matter. Progress doesn't matter. Consistency doesn't matter.
All that matters is that you were busy for a pre-determined amount of time and feel exhausted when it's over.This method can help keep your waistline in check, but that's about it.
It'll never move you forward.
Training looks to the future
Will today's workout better prepare me for tomorrow's? That's the question you should ask yourself when training.
You could do a crazy full body workout with high volume and zero rest between sets. You'll burn tons of calories and stimulate all kinds of muscle fibers.
But if it leaves you so sore that you have to skip the gym for the next week, it was a complete waste of time.
So what are you doing: training or exercising?
If you have more than a couple months of experience in the gym and have a specific goal in mind, you need to put yourself into a training mentality.
Decide where you want to be, how you're going to get there, and what small, consistent steps will pave the way.
You must look to the future, plan your workouts with purpose, and give it everything you have to improve in some way, every workout.
Leave the exercising to those who are just starting out or are content to maintain.
And every so often, remember to ask yourself if you're training or simply exercising.
All the best,