Are You Training Or Are You Exercising?

A recent video blogged from the mystics of muscle over at Barbell Shrugged about the definition of all that sweat equity we’ve been investing in our time at SRX has got me thinking; are we CrossFitters just exercising, or are we training?


Although the word choice may seem trivial, this is more than just semantics. There are clear distinctions between the motivation, planning, execution and most importantly results from exercise and training.

As Mark Rippetoe outlines in his article on the subject, both exercising and training fit broadly under the definition of physical fitness, or as he explains, “Possession of adequate levels of strength, endurance and mobility to provide for successful participation in occupational effort, recreational pursuits and familial obligations, and that is consistent with a functional phenotypic expression of the human genotype.”

Basically being physically fit means that your body does what you want it to at a reasonable level at work and at play. How we as humans aim to achieve this physically fit state is where the split between training and exercising begins.

The largest distinction between the two approaches to physical fitness is in the immediacy of gratification. People who exercise are performing a workout for the purpose of immediate feedback, to break a sweat or get a “pump.” Those who train are using each session as a stepping-stone towards a larger goal.

For exercisers, each workout is a reward unto itself, where as for those who train, each workout is a means to a larger goal or reward. This is analogous to “I drew a picture that was fun,” versus, “I spend three hours drawing everyday because I want to become a graphic designer.”

Training involves measurable specific goals achieved through planned incremental progress. These goals can be performance or health based as long as they are measurable. Measurable goals could be increasing your one rep max snatch by 30 lbs, or losing 15 lbs on the scale and reducing body fat percentage by 3% or stringing together 10 muscle-ups. Exercising on the other hand involves more vague aspirations such as “I want to get in shape,” or, “I want to look good naked,” or a personal favorite, “I do this so I can eat donuts.”  I am not advocating one approach or the other because the net result of both is positive; they get you off the couch and moving.

Which approach you chose to take depends on your why. Why are you hitting the gym? What do you want to gain from all this sweat equity?


What Does Training Look Like?

Training is about the pursuit of measurable fitness goals through the planning and execution of a program designed to your needs. Here is what training can look like:

Say I want to add 20 lbs to my back squat. I would first test my back squat to get a baseline number. I would then select a reasonable amount of time in which to achieve this goal, so as a moderately advanced individual it may take 2-3 months to add this amount.

Next I will create a program or consult a coach to write a program that emphasizes the back squat and accessory exercises. In this program I will squat at least three days per week along with 3 squat accessory movements per training session.

I will then follow this program for the prescribed time, sticking strictly to the program and recording the results of each training session. At end of the program I will retest my back squat to see if I’ve added those 20lbs. If I missed the mark then I can look back on my training and try to identify weak points and create a new approach.

According to Strongman Mark Bliss, training has five distinct characteristics:

  1. Training has primary goals – these should be specific and measurable.
  2. Training has secondary goals – every journey begins with a few small steps so you should have incremental goals for each training session towards your larger aim.
  3. Training focuses on weak points and fundamentals – basic and boring is often times most effective.
  4. Training is efficient – trim the fat; use your time and energy towards what is going to make you better towards your goal.
  5. Training uses stats – the only way to track progress is to measure it; weights, times and percentages.

Some other aspects of training

  • Training requires discipline – You must be willing to stick to your training despite outside distractions or setbacks. Your goals don’t care if you’re tired after work or if your friends want to go out drinking every night. It’s about developing a committed mindset.
  • You’ve got to sweat the small stuff and be willing do to the boring basics like endless kipping drills and ring pull throughs to get that glorious muscle-up
  • It’s not what you like, it’s about what’s good for you – You might be smitten with Bench pressing, but if you’re goal is to up your back squat then that relationship is going to have to go on the back burner
  • Training challenges you physically and mentally – The old diamond analogy; success through heat and pressure, or in this case sweat and hard work
  • You don’t stop when it gets hard – you’ll never improve unless you push past those sticking points
  • Training is supported by behaviors outside the gym – Nutrition and sleep are key. Your lifestyle must support your goals.


What Does Exercising Look Like?

Exercise is all about immediate gratification. It’s about the endorphin rush, getting a sweat and feeling accomplished in an hour or less. There may be a plan for each session, but these trips to the gym don’t progress towards larger goals. An hour of exercise could be 20 minutes of jogging on the treadmill, a few sets of bench and flyes, then some abs and out the door with a protein shake. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach to physical fitness; people are off the couch and moving.

As Rippetoe points out in his article, the majority of the fitness industry is geared towards this type of activity. Commercial gyms use most of their floor space for cardio equipment and weight machines, which require little skill or training to use. Exercise is great for immediate gratification, but just as cooking here or there will not make you Gordon Ramsey, simply exercising will not get you to your long term goals.

Letting It All Hang Out

One of the largest differences between training and exercising is the risk factor. When you set a goal there is the inherent risk of failing to meet this goal, and for some this potential for failure can be overwhelmingly stressful. Some stress is good, it can motivate you to be creative and work hard to achieve goals, but stress can also be debilitating and take the fun out of the process.

None of us are professional athletes. We don’t earn our bread from our Fran time. Ultimately we are all in this because to some level we enjoy it, so when the stress overwhelms the process what’s the point? Life is stressful; work, family, bills, traffic, these are all stressors and sometimes we just can’t handle anymore.

If you’ve already got a ton on your plate then maybe training isn’t the best approach right now. In fact, the risk free endorphin release of breaking a sweat with some simple exercise may balance out the madness in the rest of your life. When considering training vs. exercising, take a holistic approach; how will the demands of this approach compliment or potentially harm the rest of your life?

Back To The Point

So the question remains: are we CrossFitters training, or are we exercising? CrossFit is a tool. It is a fitness program that can be adapted to each individual’s needs and goals, which has been one of the keys to its success. The question is not whether CrossFit is inherently training or exercise, but rather how each person approaches CrossFit that makes it such.

If you come to CrossFit a few times a week to lift something heavy and get you heart moving with the overall aspiration of looking good naked then you are exercising. If you come to CrossFit to gain 10 lbs. of muscle and focus on hypertrophy work to do so then you are training.

The beauty of CrossFit is the variety of movements, time durations and energy pathways used means that even if you just show up to exercise as long as you are consistent in your attendance you will see improvement across many areas. It should be noted that this improvement is up to a certain point.

Eventually if you want to improve you’re going to have to stop exercising and start training. This would be the point at which you identify a goal, say getting your first muscle-up, develop a timeframe with the help of a coach, perhaps two months, and then a plan and program for achieving this goal.

This could mean coming in during open gym two or three times a week along with your usual WODs and completing the muscle-up specific training prescribed by your coach. Obviously this requires an increased time commitment, so it must be balanced against the other interests and responsibilities in your life.

A Final Thought

Both training and exercising yield a net positive; they get people moving. You must decide which is right for you. Start with why. What are your goals? What do you want to get out of CrossFit, and what price are you willing to pay, what commitment are you willing to make to achieve those objectives?

– Brandon Sundwall