Training vs Working Out

Bottom Line Up Front: There are a lot of people who are dedicated to exercise that do not have a plan with their training. This post will cover the benefits of training vs working out.

old weight set

I was listening to another great episode of Joe DeFranco’s Industrial Strength podcast recently and he brought up a topic that was very important: Training vs Working Out.

The majority of people I know are “working out” unfortunately. Let’s discuss the difference.

The Definitions

Working Out = exercising without a program, template, or clearly defined goals. People who work out usually walk into the gym or put on their running shoes with no idea what they are doing that day. When they finish whatever they somehow choose to do, they have no idea what they will do tomorrow. The next workout they do has no bearing on the last and no relation to the one that will follow.

Training = exercising with a program that is structured, organized, purposeful, and leads to some objective. Those who train have a plan when they walk into the gym. They know what the next workout will bring and it is deliberately organized in such a fashion as to have a synergistic effect on the previous workouts.

There are varying degrees of training programs too: the explicit and the general. An explicit program has very specific sets, reps, time, exercises, etc. All you have to do is show up and do work. A general program like the one I follow now leaves me some room to make some decisions the day of but is still structured enough as to be part of a training program. More on this soon. Stand by.

What is so bad about just working out?

Let’s be clear: I would rather someone just worked out than was sedentary. It is probably better as long as you don’t injure yourself. Here are some reasons though why working out is not ideal:

  • Those who work out may select only things they like to do. When you don’t have a plan, you may tend towards only doing movements or focus areas that you enjoy. Doing what you enjoy isn’t bad, but it doesn’t force you to work on weaknesses or be well-rounded.
  • When you work out, even if you are diversifying your components of fitness, you are not stringing together training sessions to have a greater effect. You may occasionally do some squatting, occasionally do some running, occasionally do some pull-ups, etc., but without a coherent strategy, your gains will not be optimal. Imagine cooking dinner one night with only spices, the next night with only meat, the third night with only vegetables. Not as good as having some meat, veggies, and spices with each meal.
  • Working out can cause overuse injuries. By not having a plan, it is possible and likely one will repeatedly do the same movements in the same ways, maybe even day after day. A diversified program would account for this and mitigate it.
  • Working out may lead to lack of effort. When you don’t have defined objectives with your training session, it is easy to do less work and justify it. If you know you have to complete a 5-mile run, you are more likely to do it than if you just start running with no end state. Ending after 3 miles is perfectly justifiable since you didn’t have a goal when you started.
  • Working out can be stressful. People tend to do better when they have a plan and minimize decision making. Showing up with no idea what’s going to happen is probably more mentally stressful than knowing what you are going to do.
  • Working out can lead to overtraining/overreaching. Let’s say Monday’s workout is long and challenging. You crush yourself again the next day. Then the next. Without a plan to deload or recover somehow, you may end up hurting yourself.

There are some good points about working out too. The biggest one in my opinion is having the flexibility to do what you want to do or base your workout on how you feel. Some training programs are too rigid for a segment of the population who like the freedom to do what they want. The real problem is most people don’t know what they are doing so this is largely an ineffective strategy.

The Framework Training Program: Best of Both Worlds

A few years ago I decided to be less draconian with my programming and give myself more flexibility in my training. I was mentally drained from the meticulous planning I used to do (very specific sets, reps, and times for every workout for months). I moved to a framework program, which is basically a clear set of fitness objectives and focus areas for the day without being overly prescriptive as to how to accomplish them. For example, a very specific program aimed at lower body would be:

  • Back Squat: 5 x 75%, 3, x 80%, 2, x 90%, 2 x 90%
  • As Many Rounds As Possible (AMRAP) in 20 minutes of 10 box jumps (24″), 10 alternating jumping lunges, 10 ball slams

A Framework-based program would call for:

  • Any squat variation, 5 x 5 (5 sets of 5)
  • Conditioning workout with at least one lunge and one med ball dynamic movement

You can see in the specific program, there isn’t any thinking – just execution. In the framework-based program, you have a lot more leeway from which to choose what to do. You won’t, however, end up running or doing a whole bunch of pull-ups. You will still focus on squat strength and a dynamic conditioning workout. You can pick the squat weights based on how you feel, length of the workout, the structure (AMRAP, ladder, task for time, etc.), and the movements. I currently prefer to train in this fashion.

I will end this article here and let you mull it over as a concept. In the next post, I will show you how I apply this specifically and my lessons learned.

QUESTION: Do you follow a specific program or just work out? How do you decide what do to each session?

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