Physical activity is great. Whether it’s about getting up off the couch, going for a run, or lifting heavy things, the vast majority of us benefit from being more active. For some people, making the decision to walk to work or go for a hike every other weekend is a big step forward, while others who are already very active might need to change how they are doing things, rather than increase their activity levels further. What I want to talk about in this article is the important distinction between exercise and training. While these terms are often used interchangeably, I like to differentiate between them in order to classify the two major types of physical activity people deliberately engage in. Mark Rippetoe – the author of the excellent book Starting Strength – use the term Exercise to describe physical activity that is performed for the effect it produces today and Training to describe physical activity that is goal-oriented and focused on long-term progress. In this article I’m going to give a similar, but somewhat different perspective on these terms.
The history of exercise and training in a nutshell
Estimates suggest that although physical activity energy expenditure varied widely among hunter-gatherer tribes, our paleolithic ancestors were on average a lot more active than we are today. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as living outdoors and having to run, lift, and jump to gather food and build shelter demand a lot of movement. For our physically fit ancestors, movement/exercise was just a normal part of daily life that contributed to their robust health. Since physical activity was primarily performed for the benefits it produced today (e.g., getting food); training, in the way that it’s often characterized, wasn’t really a part of the ancestral lifestyle. However, hunter-gatherers certainly engaged in a lot of “involuntary” training (or good exercise if you will) by running, walking long distances, and for some tribes – lifting heavy objects on a regular basis. These types of stimuli improved their athletic performance and made them better able to endure the unforgiving paleolithic way of life.
The agricultural revolution marks the beginning of a substantial shift in physical activity patterns. While our prehistoric ancestors often lived constantly on the move and depended on wild animals and plants for food, the neolithic man started to settle down and domesticate animals and cereal crops. This resulted in a decline in physical activity levels, which has only continued over the last 10000 years.
The difference between the average human physical activity levels in the modern environment and the natural ancestral environment largely stems from the fact that individuals living in affluent nations no longer need to move long distances to gather food or expend energy to build shelter. We’ve created an obesogenic environment where we can drive to work, go down to the deli market on the corner to buy highly processed foods, and hire people to do the heavy lifting. We’ve essentially eliminated the natural pressures (e.g., the need to acquire food) that forced us to be physically active and replaced it with other pressures that aren’t always sufficient to get us off the couch. While the urge to be healthy, fit, and feel good certainly is enough to motivate a lot of folks to engage in some type of regular physical activity, it doesn’t force us to move our bodies in the same way hunger and thirst triggered our ancestors to be active.
Good and bad exercise
From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that movement/exercise is the type of physical activity that has dominated human history. Hunter-gatherers, nomadic people, and farmers move their bodies because they have to, not because they are working towards a long-term training goal. And this type of exercise is also perfectly acceptable for most people in the modern world, as long as it’s performed correctly. Getting more low-level activities such as walking into our lifestyle is something pretty much everyone benefits from. It doesn’t get you super fit or set you up for a goal medal in the olympic, but it gets your heart rate up and gives you a good short-term effect.
For the average Joe, exercising when at the gym is also enough to get the desired benefits, but there’s a big difference between good and bad exercise. Most gym goers simple get into the training center, do some random weight training machines, group sessions, and cardio trainers, and go home. While you’re going to build up a sweat from this type of activity, it doesn’t compare to workouts that are based around compound strength exercises (e.g., squats, deadlifts, presses), running/sprints, rowing, and other fundamental human movement patterns. Even when you’re not aiming for progressive overload and long-term progress, a program that consists of these core activities will allow you to maintain a high physical fitness level. This is what I deem as good exercise and it is also consistent with our evolutionary heritage.
Good and bad training
So, while good exercise is adequate for most people and does provide many benefits, it doesn’t really focus on long-term progress. And here’s where we get into the distinction between exercise and training. Training is goal-oriented and based around progressive overload.
For athletes and people with specific training goals or a desire to be as best as possible, this means keeping track of training volume, weights, reps, sets, time etc. and slowly make progress over weeks, months, and years. For strength training beginners this means adding a few pounds to the squat bar every workout, while it for intermediate lifters could mean adding a few pounds every month.
When training, every workout is just a small part of a longer journey. Yes, it sucks to have a bad workout, but it doesn’t really matter as long as you keep progressing over months and years.
Just like with exercise, we can make the distinction between good and bad training. For example; while a bad strength training program (for a healthy individual) is purely based around progressive overload in strength machines and exercises in the smith machine, a good training program is built around the core lifts such as the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press. While including mobility drills, assistance exercises, etc. is often beneficial, the main focus should be to get stronger in a set of core lifts.
Training gives you physical and mental benefits that you don’t get from exercise
And here’s where we get to the root of the article. The majority of gym goers are in the bad exercise group and would benefit greatly from taking the step up to good exercise or training. Also, even those who keep track of their training and progress often follow a poor training program and would see great improvements from taking the step up from bad training to good training. So, good exercise clearly trumps bad exercise, and good training trumps bad training. And here’s where every trainee has to make a decision. Do you want to exercise or do you want to train?
Most trainees exercise. Some have a good workout routine, but they don’t have a training journal or keep track of their progress. These gym goers would see even better results from taking the step into the training camp. It’s not like good training is “better” than good exercise, it’s simply more effective, as it triggers the body to continually adapt in response to progressive overload. Also, it keeps you training hard in the gym in the sense that you’re always trying to beat previous records and make progress. It’s simply much harder to slack off and not do the 7th and 8th repetition in the squat if your training journal says that is what you need to score better than your last workout.
Muscle growth and strength development are all about creating an adaptive response that over time accumulates into huge gains. And this is where training really shines. While exercise is often characterized by different types of movements every workout, variations in technique, reps, sets, and break times, and little control over the increases in load from week to week, training is based around creating an adaptive stimulus by slowly increasing the load on specific movement patterns. We’re not talking about doing the same exact exercises, repetitions, and sets every workout, but simply about being consistent.
While both exercise and training come with a wide spectrum of benefits, training gives you a certain toughness that exercise does not. Probably the most important thing I’ve gained from training has nothing to do with the physical health benefits, but rather with the mental takeaways. Training teaches you the value of hard work and consistency and shows you how small daily improvements add up over time. And perhaps most importantly, you learn to think about the long-term progress and not to put too much emphasis on all of the bumps in the road. These are lessons that you bring with you to all other aspects of life.
Finding the right combination between exercise and training
However, training can also have its downsides. Many trainees try to progress too quickly and end up stagnating. Also, it can get boring to always focus on the same exercises, write down your progress, and follow the “plan”. To not lose the joy of physical activity, combining good training with good exercise is the way to go for most people. Keep control of your progress in the core activities, and focus on getting stronger, faster, etc. over months and years, but don’t be afraid to add some random exercises after you’re done with the core of your workout – or the occasional workout where you simply do whatever you want.
So, for the average housewife who just wants to stay in decent shape, good exercise is usually more than enough. However, for athletes, most strength trainees, and individuals with specific goals, the emphasis should be placed on good training.
So, which group do you primarily belong to? Bad exercise, good exercise, bad training, or good training? If you answered any of the three first, but want to get optimal benefits from your workouts, then perhaps it’s time to buy a training journal, set up a high-quality training program, and make the decision to place more emphasis on good training.