Exercise Versus Training: An Important Distinction

The problem with the English language is that we have many words that can be conflated to imply the same thing, yet are quite different by definition. Add EXERCISING and TRAINING to that. You can go to the driving range to hit balls or you can go to practice your swing. There is only one small but significant difference: INTENT. And, that is the difference between TRAINING and EXERCISE. It is important to understand these differences and what benefits we can expect from both.


Every group from the Canadian Heart Association to the American Heart Association to The World Health Organization wants us to be more physically active and to make it a lifestyle habit — advocating a minimum of 150 minutes per week of “moderate to vigorous” activity for adults. “Physical activity is anything that makes you move your body and burn calories”. Essentially, doing anything other than nothing is Physical Activity. And for most, is enough to maintain a healthy life. For most people, this level of activity can be achieved through EXERCISE — as long as it meets the minimum guidelines. The simple, if not haunting, fact is that the average person is no longer active enough to achieve or sustain a healthy level of fitness.

EXERCISE produces benefits in the here and now. Each exercise session or duration is explicit in its benefits. As author Dr. Joan Vernikos (“Sitting Kills”) has written: “It appears that the benefits of exercise are only of benefit while we exercise.” Though, those same benefits are myriad, including:

  • normalize your glucose, insulin, and leptin levels by optimizing insulin/leptin receptor sensitivity
  • Agreed to be the most important factor for optimizing your overall health and preventing chronic disease
  • the increased stress from exercise encourages your brain to anticipate a fight or flight response, thereby works to optimize capacity by causing your nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections, and protecting them from damage
  • clearer skin, and improved mood and sleep
  • A little throughout each day goes a long way to increasing productivity (as opposed to intense, just a few times per week).

These are all great things!

Essentially, exercise satisfies many essential needs: burning calories, getting hot, sweating, increasing breathing and heart rate, sending increased blood flow to our muscles, and stretching. For the sake of physical exercise, it doesn’t really matter if we “change things up”. Exercise programs or Personal Trainers that promote that methodology do so to stem your boredom.


Training is a different beast. And while it can have all of the same benefits of exercise, training is associated with people who have a clear and defined performance goal. It is possible that exercisers believe that they have the very same ambitions. Though, they won’t achieve the same results. People who train spend time discovering or assessing the areas where they are weak and also how to develop strength, where he is tight and develops mobility, where her posture is poor and researches best methodologies or practices and works to create length.

CONTEXTUALLY, training is also a physical activity, but performed for the purpose of satisfying a long-term performance goal, and is therefore about the process instead of the workouts individually. Process equals outcome and the process must be conducted around a projected and definable objective in the future, but is, both separate from and because of each workout. The process creates the outcome through exercises. Training is like starting a project that has micro-projects that is strategic, and when accumulated, creates an intended result. Artists will understand this process.

So will elite level athletes, competitors and performers. The demands of these activities require a specific kind of physical and perhaps mental adaptation. Exercise does not.

For the record, I put many modalities, including CrossFit,  in the arena of EXERCISE, not as a slight but because its nature: for example, you can not be great at cardiovascular endurance and be explosive for the sake of lifting a heavy weight. The two are very different physical tasks, and you can’t be very good at both — not simultaneously.

As stated by Dr. Stuart McGill: “It's not possible to enhance the fast twitch mechanisms for maximum speed and strength while enhancing fatigue resiliency by challenging the slow twitch metabolism. But this contrast does not necessarily lead to injury – only a poorer specialized athlete.”

Long-term improvement for a specific purpose is the objective of Training, and to achieve this, we must suspend our need for immediate self gratification. They reside in a realm that exists beyond the fixation on sets, reps, weight lifted, time management and the need to set new P.R.’s. Those are respectable pursuits and should not be seen as right or wrong — just different.

For the rest of us

Most people can and should be satisfied from exercise. Getting into better shape can be achieved without training. However, the benefits of training can not be realized from exercise. The vast majority of consumer fitness environments, products and services are predetermined and designed for those who exercise and not those who train. Training isn’t as profitable as you won’t find enough people who do. The fitness environment is designed to be useable with minimal input and understanding from the user. I have no objections to that.

The facts

Any program that promises “muscle confusion” and “changes things up” or can be described as random can not produce a specific and expected result are EXERCISES. Training is about the intent to establish physical and/or mental adaption. It is easy to confuse the result seen during the initial phases of exercise as TRAINING. It is natural for those initial improvements to occur relatively rapidly. The New York Times’ bestselling author Gretchen Reynolds explains: “The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk - all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”

Metaphorically, if you’re just beginning to play golf, you won’t need the best equipment nor will you benefit from them. For most, the equipment just has to do the job. And that is exercise. However, some will quickly outgrow their equipment. For them, due to their practice diligence, an equipment upgrade makes sense. That is training. People who exercise see the initial changes their bodies have undergone and expect them to continue if they only apply a little more: time; effort; speed etc. The person who trains is curious about their improvements and practices to understand the reasons for his specific changes and uses exercises to achieve more.

CNS: the central nervous system

It’s all about the Central Nervous System. Training is demanding on the CNS and requires greater awareness of how we move, and conditions us to be unified with our various systems. To a person who trains, subtle shift are important because they create massive gains.


The benefits of EXERCISE are well documented, readily available, requires very little to get started and can be achieved from a wide range of activities at home, work or the gym. Training is a different beast that requires greater skill, a sense of curiosity and a strategy. That includes how we eat, and both require planning.

Exercise can improve our condition and/or make us fit, and so can training, but training will provide us with other benefits such as improved functionality, mobility or injury recovery. The same can not be said about exercise due to the law of DIMINISHING RETURNS.

For some, these differences may explain why we achieve the fitness results we desire and why it may be a challenge for others. Training is a problem-solving endeavor, while for most, exercise may be all you need. It is important to understand these distinctions so that we may avoid doing these activities with an expectation that they cannot meet.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin