The trouble with talking about fitness on a public forum read by millions and making recommendations based on the scientific literature is that we’re all different. I know, I know, you’ve read/seen Fight Club, and Tyler Durden says that we’re not all unique snowflakes, but he’s wrong on this one. We come from different environments and backgrounds and we all have different goals and desires and abilities. There is no one training plan, exercise program, or piece of fitness advice that is perfect for everyone, equally. Each person must find what works for them.
So when I tried to impart a universally-sound fitness principle, perhaps the only truly universally-applicable one of all - the best exercise is the one you will do consistently - a few people were skeptical. I understand, but my contention stands: single workouts don’t get you stronger or fitter, after all. Adaptations to cumulative workouts performed on a consistent basis get you stronger and fitter. And the greatest exercise won’t work for you unless you do it. The point of last week’s post wasn’t to suggest that doing what you enjoy necessarily leads to peak fitness, just that consistency is key when it comes to fitness.
So, what lies beyond just doing an exercise you’re willing to do? There’s got to be more to it.
Definitely. It helps to conceptualize the differences between exercise, training, and movement.
Movement is the first step above sedentarism. It’s the baseline for good health. It’s the 10,000 steps a day, the hiking, the walking to the store, the gardening, the commute to work on a bike. Movement is required for good health, but it’s not enough for peak fitness. It’s a good start, and maybe the most important part for some people.
Exercise isn’t focused on the long term. If an exerciser has goals, they’re more diffuse and overarching goals like “get healthier” or “get fitter” or “be able to care for myself when I’m elderly.” Exercise is about being active, moving your body, getting fitter, getting stronger, staying fit, staying strong, that sort of non-specific thing.
Training is something you do to achieve a specific goal, like “deadlift 500 pounds” or “complete an Ironman in ten hours.” Training implies a “training program,” consisting of progression (often linear), regimentation, and/or periodization. Trainees employ these training programs to bring them closer to their goals. They’re often competitive athletes – weekend warriors, amateurs, professionals – but they don’t have to be. All that’s entailed is a goal.
Okay, so how do you know if you should exercise, train, or just move?
First off, everyone needs movement in their lives. Constant, low-level movement is the foundation for health and fitness. This s non-negotiable. Plus, it’s a reliable way to “get a workout in” when you don’t feel like going to the gym. I know that however burned out, tired, sore, or run down I am, a hike always brings me back to baseline.
Who should be exercising? Who should be training?
If you’re happy with your fitness level, good. You’ve made it. Keep doing what you’re doing – whatever it is. You can be perfectly happy, fit, lean, strong, and healthy “just” exercising. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with exercising for the sake of exercising.
If you have a specific goal in mind, like bulking up 20 pounds, squatting twice bodyweight, running a five minute mile, competing in an event, running a marathon, playing college sports, you should be training. If you’re spinning your wheels, it might be time to set a goal or two and get training. Even if you’re simply struck by the vague notion that something isn’t working and that you could be doing better, try picking a goal and erecting a training program to achieve it. Note that training often involves doing exercises, movements, or drills that you’d otherwise prefer not to do. It’s challenging by design – to provoke adaptations as you learn to overcome the challenges.
Choosing a Goal
Goals don’t have to be monumental feats or massive undertakings, nor does training necessarily imply the shedding of precious red-tinted bodily fluids and the brandishing of ripped calluses and torn up shins over social media. They certainly can and you’re free to post what you will, but goals and their concomitant training programs take many forms.
There are performance-based goals. You want to beat this time, hit a PR, dunk the ball, or win a competition.
There are vanity-based goals. You want to be better than the other guy, prove something to yourself, prove something to someone else.
Or maybe you want to win some money, win a bet.
These are all legitimate goals and motivations. It depends entirely on what you want out of fitness.
I’ve been to that side of the fitness spectrum – the pursuit of elite performance to the blatant and necessary disregard of optimal health – and I feel like I can be a cautionary tale for others flirting with similar pursuits. You’re totally free to go for performance above all else, of course, and many people do exactly that without any complaints, but I couldn’t do it. There are inevitable tradeoffs (health, social life, diet, free time) and people need to be aware of them and that there is another way to approach training.
Me? My goal is to play better:
I want to go out for a paddling session whenever I want and not have it feel like work.
I want to hit the slopes all weekend and be able to drive home without my quads cramping up every time I hit the brake.
And I want to do all that while staying injury-free.
My training focus, then, is to maintain: my fitness, my muscle mass, the viability of my connective tissue, my bone mineral density. I’m not going for PRs anymore because it’s too risky at this stage while bringing me no closer to my goals. But that’s fine. I’ve found what works for me and my goals.
While I train for a specific goal, the details of my training don’t resemble the training of an Olympic lifter, a football player, an endurance athlete, a Strongman competitor, or even a motivated online fitness enthusiast. I enjoy my training and actually look forward to the hard work, but that doesn’t make it any less effective at helping me reach my goals.
As you can see, my goals are different than most. And that’s okay, because they’re mine. Your goals are fine, too, whatever they may be (even if you don’t have any). The important thing is that we have the conversation with ourselves to understand why we’re walking all these miles, paying these gym fees, lifting these weights, running really fast as if someone is chasing us even though no one is there, and grasping this horizontal bar lying overhead and attempting to touch our chests to it. It’d be a shame if we found out we were wasting our fleeting time.
To cap things off, let’s hear from you. Have you thought about the difference between movement, exercise and training? Which do you do? What do you want out of exercise? What fitness goals do you have? If you have one, how do you propose to achieve it?