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  • Writer's pictureJared

Exercise vs. Training. What's the difference?

Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout, or right after you’re through.

Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal.

-Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, and Practical Programming for Strength Training

I came across this quote while reading some of Rippetoe’s work a few years ago, and it always stuck with me. I think that it’s fairly common sense when you think about it, but it’s helpful to identify that there are differences between exercising and training, benefits to each, and both are appropriate given the circumstances. Let’s break it down:


Physical activity done for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout, or right after you’re through.

So exercise can be a standalone activity, an isolated incident of physical activity, the physical effects of which are generally focused on the short-term. There’s an infinite number of options when it comes to exercise, the only limitations being your physical abilities, the equipment, space, and time you have available to you, and your creativity. It can be all of the activities you already think of as exercise, such as walking, running, swimming, going to the gym, taking a yoga class, playing a round of golf, or a game of pick-up basketball...but less structured activities such as yard work, household chores, and chasing the kids around the house count too.

Exercise is done for the effect it produces today; these can be tangible effects, such as doing yard work so that the yard doesn’t become too overrun with weeds, or riding a bike to get to/from work.

Exercise can be done as recreation; simply put, exercise is a healthy way to spend time having fun rather than vegging on the couch or hitting up a happy hour. Exercise can also be done for the short-term effect it has on our physical and mental health. A bout of exercise can reduce overall pain and stiffness, improve your mood, improve energy and mental focus, and just be a good break and stress-reliever from work and everyday life.

The great thing about general exercise, is that it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, organized, or strenuous to be effective. The activities that you participate in as part of your general exercise routine can be highly variable, and changed as often as needed to fit your schedule, to coincide with the current weather conditions and keep it interesting. A week of consistent exercise could include:

-walking on Monday

-hitting the gym for weights on Tuesday

-taking a yoga class on Wednesday

-biking on Thursday

-playing golf on Friday

-yard work on Saturday

-and taking Sunday as a rest day (because everyone needs a rest day)

That’s the nice thing about general exercise. What you choose to do doesn’t matter so much! As long as you’re doing something that your body is capable of doing safely, and it provides the effects that you’re looking for, it works! Exercise to get the chores done that you need to do, exercise to take a mental break from work, exercise to maintain consistent calorie/energy expenditure and your current body composition, exercise while you play with your kids! Doesn’t matter...what does matter, is that you do it.

While exercise can be focused on the short-term effects that are produced today, it is important to recognize the overall health benefits of consistent exercise.

  • Reduced symptoms of low back pain, arthritis, depression, and anxiety

  • Improved mood, energy, and sleep habits

  • Improved cardiovascular health

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced risk of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, and Alzheimer’s

  • Improved bone density, circulation, and hormone levels

The amount, type, and intensity of physical activity that someone performs can be flexible, and is likely going to change over time. That’s totally fine! As long as you get in some physical activity most days of the week, you’ll reap some benefits. Play around with what physical activities work best for you, and monitor how your body responds. Feeling tired and sluggish? Consider reducing your exercise volume and/or intensity. Feeling like your exercise isn’t doing anything for you? Try changing up your routine, or increasing the amount and/or intensity of the workouts. Your general exercise activities should be low maintenance activities that don’t cause you stress to squeeze them into the schedule. If you’re having trouble making the time, or you aren’t enjoying it, it’s probably a sign that you need to consider different options.

The pros to a general exercise routine is that it can be low-stress, highly variable, and flexible to fit your current needs, abilities, and interests, while having a long list of benefits to your overall health and well-being. The drawback to a general exercise program is that sometimes it is easy to lose motivation, and without a specific goal or purpose behind your exercise, the consequences of inconsistency are not always as apparent as they are with a structured training program.


Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal.

Training is taking your exercise time, and focusing (at least some) of your workouts around meeting a specific goal. The goals that you choose to pursue can again be highly variable depending on personal preferences, but once you set a goal for your training program, consistency is key to success. Consistently showing up and making time for your training workouts, and consistently giving high effort to achieve the stimulus required to drive physiological adaptation to occur.

Training goals can be focused on physical attributes such as improving your strength, endurance, flexibility, or coordination. They can also be focused on developing specific skills such as improving your ability to shoot free throws, do a pull-up, or lift and carry your growing baby. Most commonly, people tend to focus their training on changing their body composition; training to increase lean muscle mass, or bone density, or reducing body fat. Lot of people make training goals that are associated with a competition, such as training to run a marathon, complete a triathlon, participate in a power-lifting competition, the Crossfit games, or a bodybuilding/physique competition.

The key to developing a successful training program, is that the goal that you set for yourself is meaningful to you, and it is both challenging and achievable. For instance, if you hate to may be hard to keep up with a running program. Or if you have a goal of running a marathon next month, but the furthest you’ve ever run is a mile, you may become discouraged pretty quickly when you realize how far you have to go in your training program. If you’re starting a training program for the first time, start with smaller, modest goals, or give yourself time to see significant results. For instance, for novice weight-lifters, it takes at least 6 weeks of consistent weight training before we start to notice measurable improvements in muscle mass. You will get stronger in those first 6 weeks, but it will usually take closer to 8-12 weeks before you can really notice that you’ve visibly got more muscle. Most marathon training programs are 4-5 months long!

There are many pros to participating in a training program. Having a goal and a purpose behind your workouts can provide added motivation to stay consistent with exercise, and our bodies are capable of amazing adaptations when given consistent stimuli. Setting up a training program and sticking to it for months on end can help you to develop self-discipline and will-power that is otherwise not required for general exercise. You can often find a group or community of people with similar training goals and programs that can provide you support and camaraderie along the way.

Training programs also can present challenges that don’t often arise with general exercise. Typically a training program requires more time and effort than general exercise. It may be easy to fit in a 30 minute run on a busy day (although even then, not always) but almost impossible to fit in the 2 hour run that’s part of your marathon training. And if you do end up having to skip a workout (due to your schedule, the weather, illness/injury etc) that’s no big deal when it comes to general exercise, but may negatively impact your progress towards a training goal. A solid training program also needs to be more consistent and monotonous than general exercise has to be, and this can lend itself to periods of boredom, or can take some of the enjoyment out of the activity. Of course this isn’t always the case either. Many people love the pursuit of a challenge, and thrive in a consistent, structured environment, where they can put blinders on a focus on the task at hand. Others dread the monotony of a structured training program, and get much more joy and satisfaction out of general exercise.

It must also be said that while training programs are focused on achieving a specific physical adaptation or goal, those goals are not always conducive to our overall health and well-being. For example, with running, in terms of overall health benefits and all-cause morbidity/mortality (your likelihood of developing an illness, or dying in the next X amount of years) the maximum benefits top out at about the 10K (6.2 mile) distance.

Training for half-marathon or marathon distances is not shown to make you “healthier” than running a 5K or 10K, and certainly not worth the added time required to train for them.

It’s an incredible achievement to be able to run a marathon, and if you love running, it could be a worthy training goal, but if your reason to run is simply for the health benefits, having a training program focused on improving your 5K or 10K speed is probably better. You could also just go out for 5-10K distance runs when you feel like it and the weather permits, and not have to worry about the challenges associated with long-distance training, and your health Will. Not. Suffer.

Similarly, it may surprise you to know that training for a bodybuilding competition is not necessarily the healthiest of lifestyle choices. When a bodybuilder hits the stage, they are the leanest they can possibly be, while holding on to as much muscle as they can. They are not at their physical performance peak, and are usually feeling pretty uncomfortable (or down-right miserable) leading up to the competition. In-fact the supremely lean body composition achieved for competition is not healthy, nor sustainable, and can cause problems for the skeletal, renal, and endocrine systems, as well as mental health issues associated with eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Professional athletes develop amazing physical abilities after years of training on a full-time basis, however they are not necessarily the healthiest of people. For example, it’s not healthy to train your body for the rigors of playing 82 games of NBA basketball in 165 days, while also constantly travelling across the country, living in sleep deprivation, and often playing through injuries. That's why the average NBA career is only 4.8 years, it is not a sustainable lifestyle for the long-term, but it is financially lucrative, and that is why those that can pursuit it often do, to maximize their earning potential, they aren't as worried about their long-term health (although more and more players are starting to focus more on the long-term).


There are pros and cons of participation in both a general exercise routine and a training program. We do know that being physically active on a regular basis presents massive benefits to our health that cannot be ignored. While training programs aren’t always focused on maximizing our health, marathon runners, bodybuilders, and NBA players are generally healthier than those of us that don’t exercise at all. The healthiest mix, as with anything, is probably somewhere in the middle; consistently participating in a moderate amount and intensity of exercise over the lifespan.

In physical therapy, we often make use of both training and general exercise to achieve different goals. Certainly, after an injury or surgery, many clients require a regimented training program to restore their strength, flexibility, and overall physical function to where it was previously. However, clients that have pain and difficulty that gradually came on over time, or did not occur as a result of a specific injury or surgery, may find that a general exercise routine meets their needs of improved overall health and wellness, without having to start a focused training regiment.

Everyone’s exercise routine is going to be slightly different. Maybe you have a training program in-place that requires 3-4 days of training, and you get to goof off and have fun with your general exercise the other days of the week. Maybe you cycle between periods of focused training, and periods of more relaxed general activity from month-to-month or season-to-season. Maybe you train once a year for a race or competition, but the rest of the year you stay more generally active and fit. Or you could be on one extreme or the other; always training for something, or never training for anything.

The choice is certainly yours to make. I would encourage you to try either form of physical activity to see what you prefer. If you’ve gone to the gym or taken up exercise in the past without much structure, consistency, or the results you were hoping for, maybe switching to a focused training program will help you stay motivated and consistent. If you’ve always worked out as part of a regimented training program, always focused on the next race, competition, or goal, it might be nice to take a break from the structure, and just enjoy living in your body, without trying to shape it a certain way, or attain a certain level of performance.

What does your exercise routine look like? Is it more of a general exercise routine? More of a structured training program? Maybe a mix of the two? Sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back, and reflect on our habits and routine to see if they’re really providing us with the benefits and outcomes that we’re looking for.

**Interested in learning more about the potential benefits of incorporating a general exercise routine or training program into your life? Looking for further guidance in what type of program may be best suited for your needs and goals? Feel free to reach out to me directly via cell phone at 512-522-2732 or email via so that we may set-up a free consultation to discuss your situation and I can provide you with immediate steps to get started in the right direction.

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