When you start trying to get fit, you can find a billion different workouts and training plans that claim to be effective.
But most people don’t understand that workouts and training plans are two very different animals.
Like apples and oranges they certainly have similarities but they are also very different.
Learn the difference and how to figure out which is right for you below.
Most of the time when people want to get in shape they are aware that they will have to do some exercise.
Which is great until you have to choose what kind of exercise with the infinite options that are available to you in magazines, books, and of course the internet.
In general, there are two distinct types of exercise that you can do to get in shape. Workouts and Training plans.
Working out is exercise done for the results gained today. It is a complete unit all by itself. There is usually a goal that will be achieved by the end. Goals like getting a pump in your chest and biceps, stretching out sore muscles, having sore muscles, breaking a sweat or everyone’s favorite–-burning calories.
Training is exercise done for the long-term results. This means achieving improvement towards a goal over the course of time. This involves intentionally stepping forward (and backward) in planned cycles.
Training is a process, while exercising is about getting something done today. Neither is better than the other, they are just different. Let's take a more in-depth look at what each is and when it is a good fit.
Getting a good workout is about showing up, today, and getting something done. It is a lot like pulling out a musical instrument and starting to play. You will definitely get noise of some kind.
Now whether that noise is pleasant or not depends on many factors. But the major factor is whether you have developed the skills that allow you to do what you are attempting to do.
If you have a couple of skills you can find the workouts that will get you worked out today. Knowing the basics like how to squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and carry safely gets you a long way.
Additionally, if you have access to exercise machines you don’t need any skill at all. Just the ability to read and look at the pictures on the machine.
But because workouts are focused on getting things done today they don’t focus on building skills that lead to growth and development. You either can do what's required or you can’t.
For example, if you find a great fat burning workout such as the Fibonacci Finisher you are doing 5 rounds of:
8 double cleans
5 front squats
3 push ups
2 renegade rows
1 minute plank
And you are doing all that in 10 minutes or less with two kettlebells, and if you don’t know how to do a double clean then this workout is useless for you. This isn’t about learning how to double clean or do a renegade row (which will both take some time for a beginner), this sequence is about burning fat right now using those exercises.
Now it is true that if you do appropriate workouts consistently over time qualities that are worked on in those workouts will improve which might lead to the ability to do things you couldn’t do before.
Which brings us to what workouts are good for. When you have a non-specific low level goal they work just fine. And this is where many, many people are.
To illustrate, if your goal is to be “in better shape,” “lose a few pounds,” “have some more energy,” “put on a little muscle,” or “get active,” and you are currently not exercising at all, then workouts will probably get you there. As long as you:
- get them in relatively consistently (2-5 times a week)
- ensure they resemble the type of exercise needed for the goal (i.e. strength training for muscle)
- aren’t completely failing at another aspect of adaptation (nutrition, sleep, stress management , etc.)
- don’t do something stupid and hurt yourself
For most of us if we could just work out fairly often on a consistent basis our lives would be better.
The people who tend to enjoy “workouts” the best seem to be opposites but there is an important theme that connects them. They are the people who always want to do something new and the people who never want to do something new.
With working out you can do the exact same workout over and over or you can always do something completely different or something in between. The first category are people who don’t want to think about their workouts at all or enjoy the comfort of knowing what is coming next. The second is for people who feel bored doing the same thing and want something different.
What these two mindsets have in common is about satisfying the needs of today instead of focusing on long-term growth. Again, if you don’t have specific or high level long-term goals for exercise and just want to enjoy your workouts and see some progress, then this is an excellent approach to take.
In fact, most large gyms are designed for workouts and not for training programs. That is why they are filled with machines with no rhyme or reason other than “always lots of treadmills.” It’s also why they have so many Group “X” classes for you to pop into whenever you want.
Additionally, almost all workout videos fall in this category and anything that claims to work on the principle of “confusing your muscles” (usually a code word for random) means you are working out and not training.
Finally any “group” exercise program that does not have the same attendance rate falls under workouts. This is a little confusing, so let me illustrate.
Take a group fitness class at a gym compared to a team workout at a university. If the group class is offered 2 or 3 times a day 5 days a week and people sign up based on when it is convenient for them there is no way to plan for the long-term for everyone. Some people will come once a week, some 3 times a week, some may come to multiple classes a day. And every week everyone's schedule will change. This makes long-term planning impossible and the only possible solution is just make them good workouts.
On the other hand take sports teams. Everyone's workout days are planned and scheduled months in advance and the strength coach always knows who is coming on what days. This means everyone can have individual plans or even all be on the same plan but the point is long-term planning as slow growth turns this into training.
Training involves a plan with a specific or high level long-term goal, and often on a specific timeline.
If this is where your goals are then training is how you get there. Running a marathon, deadlifting twice your bodyweight, one-arm pressing half your bodyweight, learning to do a handstand, etc.
All competitive athletes fall into this category. This is because we have dates in the future where you need to perform your best. For example, if your goal is to run your first marathon we sign you up for a marathon and work backwards from that date to set up the training program. Even if you can’t run for 5 minutes straight today and you are (and stay) healthy we can have you able to run a marathon in 6 months.
Don’t believe it? Here is a training program for it. And it is actually 2 weeks shorter than 6 months.
Again, as long as you are healthy and can stay injury free this plan works great. I have seen many people use this and similar plans to run their first marathon.
Now, here is an important note. Training plans generally work up to improving a specific quality, skill or goal for no more than 4-8 weeks.
If you clicked on that 6 month Couch to Marathon plan you would see that it is broken up into different segments each ranging from 4-8 weeks. And at the end of every 4-8 weeks you have a specific goal. Also, it doesn’t just get harder every week.
There are multiple reasons for this, the main ones being how long you can see good results before you need to introduce variety (unlike muscle confusion, a very important factor). Also, keeping people mentally focused. It is very difficult.
Additionally, training plans are not about always working harder or doing more. You can’t do that forever, you need longer rest for long-term adaptation. This is why sometimes we back off and let you do something easy. But of course we plan when that will be.
The big downside of training is patience. Often you are repeating almost the exact same workout with just a little more or little less weight. Sometimes you get 3 or 4 different workouts for a week, sometimes you do the exact same workout 5-6 times for weeks on end.
Sometimes you will never break a sweat or get out of breath. Sometimes you will be doing it much more often than you like.
You need faith in a training plan. And usually what you want to do is not what you need to do for a long-term goal.
This is true for many things in life outside of exercise as well.
Skill acquisition is almost always part of a program. Sometimes it means practicing specific details of something more complicated, such as spending time working on how to catch a barbell in the barbell snatch.
Sometimes it means mastering progressions and regressions that lead up to an exercise such as learning the headstand before you start working on your handstand.
A final note about programs is they tend to be strict and rigid. For example, if your program calls for 4 sessions a week, and for 2 weeks you can only do 2 sessions you might blow the program or have to rewind a few weeks to where the loads are more manageable. For this reason we usually schedule programs in advance, when your calendar is more open and you have the time to dedicate to your training.
Changes do sometimes have to be made when life happens. But we have to look at the whole program and where you are before we make even a small change because, say you got sick and couldn't train for a week.
And of course having good nutrition and recovery while on a program is key, but going into those details is beyond the scope of this article.
If you just want to lose a little weight and get a little fitter, finding workouts with exercises that you can perform safely will probably help you reach your goals.
If you have higher and/or specific goals then a training program is what you need.
Another option is to combine both. Sometimes I will approach a person's workout sessions in segments. Some of the segments might be based on a program (commonly skill acquisition so we can add new skills for future workouts). Other parts might just be workouts for various purposes. This way only one part of the workout has to be the same every session and in the rest of the workout they can get variety and not have to feel the pressure of having a complete program.
I am confident that you will land on the right approach for your own immediate and long-term goals exercise (and health) goals, and of course, if you have any questions about workouts and programs feel free to send me an email!