Posted March 7, 2019

Training vs. Working Out

I put up a post on Twitter and Instagram a few days ago that seemed to resonate with a lot of people.

I figured today I would break down a few salient thoughts on this concept so people can get some more insight into this concept.


  1. Training and working out both accomplish goals, just differently

I have a lot of clients who come into the gym only when they have a session with me, and that may be only once a week or once every two weeks. I give them homework, and it may get done or it might not, but it’s not a major priority in their lives.

That’s fine. They understand their role in the process of the results they’re getting, but also understand where their priorities lie in their life, and for them a fitness plan within a weightroom is fairly low, albeit still on the list. They’re not interested in competing in anything, seeing specific improvements, or setting personal records, but will gladly accept them if they come. They work out to enjoy life, stay relatively fit, and consistently show up to work hard and have fun while they’re there.

I remember a gym member who would do the same sets of quarter-rep bicep curls for sets of 50 every time he came in to the gym, because he’d done them that way every day for the past 20 years. Routines matter a lot to people, much more than specific progress.

Contrast that with some of my competitive athlete clients. Their priorities put training at number one on their list, ahead of social life, vacations, date nights, and in some cases even their occupations. Their workouts are much more data-centric, focusing on specific improvements over time, gaining an edge, and fine-tuning an approach to meet the demands of competition.

Both are happy with their results

It’s easy to lose sight of the people who aren’t in the all-or-nothing category of training, and who may get turned off by a rigid and strict approach to how training and nutrition should be, but we have to remember that getting something is of benefit to a very large segment of the population, even if it’s just a single step in the right direction. For those people, attending a Zumba class with their friends is exactly the doorway that will allow them entry into the fitness world. Not everything has to be tracked or measured, even if you get the best benefits from that approach. Sometimes a nudge in the right direction is the best way for the person in front of you given their priorities in life.


2. Working out can fill the time between specific goals

For a lot of competitive athletes, in the early phase of their off seasons the last thing they want to do is anything directly related to their sport, so they opt for workouts that can help maintain some level of fitness or just give them a mental break from the usual training regimen.

For recreational athletes not currently training for a specific outcome – say, age group athletes, powerlifters in between contest prep phases, etc – that off season phase can be a time to work on other stuff, or get in some more random play elements that have not a lot to do with their specific sports, but can help keep them interested in training while getting a sweat on.

This can be the same for non-competitive clients who may be in between goals of their own. Dieting for weight loss all the time can be a big challenge for a lot of people, so working in some maintenance phases here and there, with more of an emphasis on just getting some regular activity like a power walk through the neighbourhood, or finding active  things to do while on vacation can be impactful to keep people “on the wagon” even if they’re not actively engaging in a strict weight loss regimen.

When the individual is ready to make a specific effort towards a targeted goal, that’s when we can ramp things up and get more focused on workout and nutrition specificity, track specific metrics over time, and gauge progress towards that goal, but it’s not mandatory in everyone at all times.


3. Some people have more of a mastery mindset than others

Imagine being given a Rubiks Cube.

You’re given a really appealing reason to figure out how to solve it. Maybe a cash prize, fame, it unlocks a specific ability you can use later, or whatever you like, but it’s REALLY appealing to you. Do you spend every waking moment trying to solve the thing, and stay at it until you do, or do you give up within a few minutes and move on, knowing you lose out on the opportunity to get that really appealing outcome?

Or, do you tackle the cube because it’s a puzzle to solve and the challenge in itself is the reason to make you obsessive about solving it? A final option, you play with it when you have the time but have no attachment to the outcome, you just enjoy it while you’re trying to figure it out but if something more important comes along you’d have no problem dropping it?

Each approach is fine, and depending on the person, can bring a lot of happiness or unending stress. A competitive athlete may step into the gym to get benefits for their sport,  a recreational hobbyist may just love the process of training and the improvements they’re seeing, and still a larger portion of people may do it because they enjoy it while they’re there and want to make a go of it, but it’s not their raison d’etre.


3. To truly excel at something, you have to give up a lot

I’ve done a number of talks to prospective personal trainers completing their education and getting ready to start training live human beings. Uniformly, they all ask what I had to do to be as successful as I am now (however you’d like to define success is up to you). My answers usually don’t inspire them:

  • Work 12-14 hours a day Monday through Friday, and then another 6-10 a day on the weekends.
  • Do the above for at least a decade
  • Market yourself a lot, trying to find as many ways to get people in front of you as possible. Along those lines, learn a lot about marketing, sales, and business
  • Continuing education is non-negotiable. Study everything you can as much as possible, and invest in attending live events and certifications as often as possible

Sounds like fun, right?

This isn’t the approach to use if you want a good work-life balance, however in order to excel at anything, you pretty much have to be willing to give up stuff like work-life balance, some relationships, sleep, self-care, and a lot of other stuff along the way. Work-life balance is a great approach for average people, but it doesn’t work for those determined to be exceptional. I know this doesn’t sound too uplifting, but have you ever heard of anyone who has accomplished amazing things say they didn’t have to devote everything they had to it and sacrifice massively along the way? probably not.

If you look at many other professions, like medicine, law or accounting, they all have a residency or articling phase where they’re pretty much only working and learning. That’s almost mandatory for them to get their accreditation. Have you ever heard of a physician saying they had a great work-life balance through their residency? Or an accountant who slept comfortably through their articling years during tax season?

This is why this isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. You can definitely have a great career as a trainer or strength coach while limiting your time involvement to just 15-20 hours a week, and have a great life full of other priorities. The same goes for your workouts. If you can’t devote 20-30 hours to training each week like a highly competitive athlete on the world stage, you can still get benefits from 2-3 hours a week. You may not win world championships but that may also not be what you want to do either, and that’s fine.


4. Not everyone cares about fitness

It’s easy to get a myopic tunnel vision about how important exercise is for everyone, and how we should all be doing some form of it or another, but the very vast majority of the population holds a workout routine so low in importance that it’s almost off the list entirely. For them, the more easily they can include some activity, the more likely they will do something, but it’s not a guarantee. They won’t care about scapular rhythm, undulating periodization, or macro tracking, but will care about everything else that’s important in their life.

Meeting people where they are can be more impactful to help create positive change than trying to create the same desire for fitness and health in them that we see in ourselves. Everyone has the chance to grow into a love of the gym, and many do, but that growth has to take time and come from their own decisions and positive experiences.


The great thing about working out or training is there’s a way for everyone to get involved. Whether it’s once a week or two-a-days, you can see progress on your own terms and within your specific priorities. Hard work breeds progress, so the rest is up to you, and that’s the beautiful part: you get to decide what’s important to you.