Exercise vs. Training: What Are Your Goals?

16 04 2013


Hey folks- I stumbled across another super article yesterday, this time by the great Mark Rippetoe. I’m surprised that I haven’t pointed you in his direction yet, but I can pretty much guarantee that this won’t be the last time! This article, outlining the differences between exercise and training, hits on several key points that I’ve mentioned in the past. Mark is a very passionate man and doesn’t mince words, so be prepared for an in-your-face writing style. It’s a little rough around the edges, but he is extremely knowledgable, and his message is on point. Everyone, from weekend warriors to high-level trainers and athletes can all take something constructive from this article, so I encourage you to give it a read. As always, here are the Coles Notes:

  • Understanding the difference between training and exercising is fundamental to being an effective athlete and an effective coach. You can only understand this difference if you first know the difference between core barbell movements (primary exercises) and other movements (assistance exercises)

Training: The process of directed physical stress, which results in an adaptation that satisfies a performance goal.

Exercise: The process of going to the gym and doing exactly the same thing as you did the last time you went to the gym, or any randomized program.


Not exactly my point, but hilarious nonetheless

  • Exercise is about today- getting a sweat on, getting out of breath, burning calories; it is not about pushing your body towards an adaptation for future improvement.
  • Primary exercises form the foundation of any training program and can be properly programmed to progress towards future performance gains; assistance exercises cannot be programmed in such a way and are therefore simply used to assist improvement in the primary lifts.
  • If assistance exercises comprise the majority of your workouts, you aren’t training, you are exercising- which is an excellent thing in itself, and something that more people need to do! But if you intend to progress your weights, get stronger and improve your performance, you cannot do so with assistance exercises alone.

“It must be said that not everybody is interested in Training. For many, Exercise is good enough. They just want to burn some calories, get a little conditioning work, and have better abs. This is fine, for those people. But the second you want more – when you decide that there will now be a goal to accomplish with all this gym time – you’ve graduated to Training.”

  • For the development of strength, which is paramount to any athlete wishing to increase force production (read: any athlete), and equally paramount to people like me who get a kick out of being able to lift things that I have no business being able to lift, the primary exercises are:
  1. Squats
  2. Deadlifts
  3. Bench presses
  4. Overhead presses
  5. Power cleans and snatches  (**Leg presses and Barbell rows can also be considered primary exercises for specific protocols, namely bodybuilding).
  • Why are these the only primary exercises? Because the entire body is involved in the exercise: 2 feet on the ground, 2 hands on the bar, making things happen. Bench press is the only exercise of the 5 that is not performed standing up, but the torso and legs are incredibly important if you intend to lift heavier weights safely and effectively, and there is a great deal of muscle mass involved in the movement.
  • Almost any other exercise, one that cannot be trained for long-term progress, is an accessory exercise and cannot be trainer- only exercised- which again, is fine, if you’re just going into the gym to get a sweat, get a pump, and blast some kcals; although you’ll be more productive if you at least start with one of the primary exercises (better fat-burning response!).
Gotta have motivation!

False. Jump rope is exercise. But I like the motivation.

  • Another telling sign of an assistance exercise is that they cannot effectively be done for a 1-rep maximum (A 1-rep bicep curl? A 1-rep shrug? Come on!)
  • Machines are designed to either target one specific muscle group, or are intended to mimic a primary barbell movement but with the balance component removed. As Rippetoe states, “I think it’s important to be able to fall down when you do a barbell exercise so that you have to make sure you don’t. The balance aspects of the movement are critical to the training effect, and when this is removed you’re left with a Glorified Exercise. Leg presses are a good example of a Glorified Exercise.”
  • If your goal is to get stronger, bodyweight-only exercises (push-ups, air squats, handstand push-ups, bodyweight dips, etc.) will get you nowhere. This is because after about 10    reps, they are not limited by your ability to produce force, but instead simply become endurance exercises. They can make you stronger at first, when you are weak, but they can’t continue to make you stronger for more than a couple of weeks. These exercises are, however, great for exercising and getting a sweat on!

Finally, an important note to all the trainers and aspiring strength coaches out there- this may be tough to hear, but heed these words:

There are many successful “strength coaches” who’ve made careers out of writing programs that are actually just lists of exercises done in some way or another that appear to work satisfactorily.

The inescapable fact that many pro-level athletes get away with Exercising instead of Training is a function of elite-level genetics, not exercises posing as Training. Every professional or D1 athlete spending his time in the weight room adding to his collection of unilateral balancing tricks is wasting his potential for strength improvement, and strength is the most basic of athletic adaptations.

All other aspects of performance depend on strength – this is why athletes take steroids. There are no “balance steroids” and no “agility steroids” and no “endurance steroids” and no “core steroids.” And it’s why they should be squatting, pressing, and deadlifting instead of playing around with “Bulgarian split squats” and other such silly distractions from the real task at hand.

Even elite-level athletes who haven’t actively pursued a linear increase in barbell strength still have the potential to do so, and the failure to get stronger always represents wasted potential. This is especially tragic if that failure is the result of following the advice of a “strength coach” who doesn’t really know how to increase an athlete’s strength. Catching up will always involve squats, presses, benches, and deadlifts, and may also involve getting another strength coach.

So, what can we learn from this article? For athletes and coaches I think the message is quite clear. For everyone else, I think it is important to recognize the difference between exercising and training, and to understand your personal goals. Do you want to burn fat? Or do you want to get stronger? Do you want to look better? Or feel better? Regardless of your goals, I’m going to tell you that the primary lifts will be your most efficient ticket to results. Full-body barbell exercises cannot be beat for fat-burning or for strength gains. I encourage each and every one of my readers to work towards adding primary lifts into your workout regimens. These movements will unquestionably help you move towards your fitness goals and in the end will make you a more functional human being. If your goal is exercising, that’s fantastic, but if you want to exercise more effectively than others, make sure your first movement of the day is a full-body, primary exercise!

Exercise can get you there... incorporating primary exercises will simply get you there faster!

Exercise can get you there… incorporating primary exercises will simply get you there faster!

As always, be responsible and move at your own pace, but you should also be gradually feeling out how to push yourself harder to achieve optimal results. If you have any questions on how to incorporate any of these movements into your current workout program, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Whatever you’re doing, whether it be exercising or training, do it to the best of your ability and get the results you need!