Are You Exercising or Training?

are you exercising or training?

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:

Primary focus

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 selection

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,


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  • Reply
    July 14, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Good article, efficiently highlights the differences in mentality between those who want to get from point A to point B and so forth, and those who are content at point A.

  • Reply
    July 14, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    Really interesting perspective. I’d never thought about it in that way before. Before it was either a good tough workout or an average lazy workout (i.e. going through the motions – exercising). Needless to say tomorrow morning’s trip to the gym will be training!

    • Reply
      July 14, 2015 at 8:37 pm

      Glad to hear that, Seb! It’s all about getting your mind right before you hit the gym.

      Just like Arnold said, before each workout he would clear his mind and spends time flexing his muscles to connect with his body and get into the moment.

  • Reply
    Brandon Ramlal
    July 14, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    I exercised for a year straight only to look the exact same. When I started keeping a training log and beating my lifts, I can now make progress and spend less time lifting.

    • Reply
      July 14, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      You’ve just summed it up perfectly. Keeping a training log is essential to long-term progress. It’s also an awesome motivator to be able to look back and see how much stronger you’ve become.

  • Reply
    July 15, 2015 at 4:21 am

    Nate, you have done a great job of summarizing the differences between the two mind sets of a workout. This is perfect for the young dudes who are just getting started or those trying to get themselves on the right track and see significant gains. As a non-young dude who has done his share of goal setting and pushing the boundaries of his physical limits I applaude your work here in driving the hammer of motivation home. Fantastic job! For myself, and maybe some of your other readers, I find that I am able to exercise on a level that pushes the limits of training but also keeps me in my own state of fitness that I desire. Don’t mistake this for a claim to perfect fitness on my behalf. I do not have six pack abs or perfect symmetry. I have decades of injuries and compensating for those injuries but I am still strong and agile. A combination of training/exercise has allowed me to maintain an enviable physique. Rest assured if I do make that final push for those washboard abs I will return to this article and your motivational words. Thanks for the great article.

    • Reply
      July 15, 2015 at 11:17 am

      Thanks Grimm! Sounds like you’ve built a fantastic base.

      Even though you “exercise” sometimes, you’ve already laid the groundwork and are doing it for injury prevention and to extend your training years – very smart!

  • Reply
    July 15, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Enjoy your site Nate. Would love a write up of what you did to go from skinny fat pic to this one. What worked, what didn’t work and basically if you had to go back and start over what would you do to maximize gains and results. Keep it up!

    • Reply
      July 15, 2015 at 6:28 pm

      Thanks, DKB! I’ll definitely be covering a lot of that.

      It probably won’t be in a single article, but everything I’ve learned will support the skinny/fat to muscular evolution.

  • Reply
    Steven Shoemaker
    July 15, 2015 at 5:04 pm


    I 100% agree with the idea of this article. I remember when I was a fat little shithead and I used to think that just because I exercised I was achieving something. I would go to the gym, lift a couple of weights, pound a protein shake, and pat myself on the back for a job well done.

    Now, I am training for my row across the English Channel I have an entirely different mindset. I go into the gym with a purpose. Improvement. I don’t see the gym as a place for good feelings, I see it as a hallowed ground where I put myself to the test and push myself past my limits every day.

    I have been lurking your site ever since I saw you post a comment on B&D and I have to say I am really impressed by your progress. You’re kicking ass man. I’ll definitely make this one of my daily reads.



    • Reply
      July 15, 2015 at 6:53 pm

      Thanks so much, Steven!

      You have the right mindset, I can definitely tell you’re a B&D reader.

      Good luck with the row across the English Channel.

  • Reply
    Indomitable Audacity
    July 16, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Shit Nate, you hit the nail on the head here. I hate to admit it but it seems I have fallen into the trap of exercising as opposed to training over the last few weeks. This is a real reminder about what we really need to do when hitting the gym.

    Thanks for the motivation

    Daniel Ndukwu

    • Reply
      July 16, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      It’s ok. We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. The important thing is that you’ve noticed it and know what you have to do to get back on track.

      Some of my most productive periods of training have been after falling into bad habits. Nothing motivates quite like seeing your progress slip away.

      • Reply
        Indomitable Audacity
        July 17, 2015 at 9:02 pm

        That’s the truth, after reading this post I hit the gym and was actually sore fore the first time in weeks. I just bookmarked it on my phone so anytime I feel like I’m slipping, I will refer to this post

  • Reply
    Marcello Antonio Dreier
    July 20, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Yesterday I saw the post from BoldandDetermined and he wrote that your sites is one of the powerful blogs who writes no blusshit and after reading this post I must say I will and want more. Great Work!

  • Reply
    July 22, 2015 at 3:44 am

    I know you should always tried to improve something in the gym, but I think it’s impossible to consistently improve in every gym sessions.

    Sometimes you just have to keep on lifting what you’re stuck at and in time you will get stronger and be able to add weight.

    You should not force strength to come but let strength come to you. You go to gym to train you strength not to demonstrate it, that means not maxing about all the time, but working on it.

    • Reply
      July 22, 2015 at 10:28 am

      You’re absolutely right, PM. It’s impossible to increase your strength every workout, but the mindset must be there. You go into every training session with the determination to beat your previous performance, even if it’s by one rep, more control, or shorter rest.

  • Reply
    Have a Body That Shows You Give a Damn About Looking Good, Being Strong, and Doing What You Set Out To Do - Unhappy Invalid
    July 26, 2015 at 2:56 am

    […] Let’s talk about goal setting for a minute. Having a proper goal to focus on is crucial and provides you a frame of reference for your progress. In fact, having a proper goal to aim for is the main difference between training and mere exercise. […]

  • Reply
    August 6, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    Awesome article Nate! This kind of mentality is common in the gym. It takes guts, persistence, and a real, tangible drive to achieve results!

    Thanks for this wonderful article!

  • Reply
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    […] drive home the importance of this principle, in a previous article titled Are You Exercising or Training?,I wrote that, “training is focused on making progress every […]

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