Training vs. Working Out

There are two distinct groups of people in the gym, those who train and those who work out.

This article involves semantics. Some people use the terms “training” and “working out” interchangeably, and this is perfectly fine. I describe the terms the way I do based on how I hear them commonly used, and the qualities often implied by their use. The terms aren’t that important, but the concepts behind them are. 


Training = a mode of exercise based on specific parameters that leads you effectively and efficiently towards a specific goal (or goals).

In other words, training involves following a program that dictates:

1.) How many days you go to the gym per week

2.) What exercises/movements you do on each day

3.) How many sets and repetitions of each exercise/movement you do

4.) What stretches and mobility drills you do

5.) Your means of recovery (e.g. days off and periods of lighter work)

► These are all examples of specific parameters. All parameters are determined in relation to your goals  

► For example, a competitive powerlifter would have very different training parameters than a competitive gymnast.

The purpose of training is to direct you as efficiently and effectively as possible towards whatever your goals may be.

Working Out

Working out = a mode of exercise that is not based on any specific parameters or specific goals. In other words, no program is followed and there is no methodology behind the parameters. The training parameters are inconsistent and haphazard. Therefore, the results are inconsistent and haphazard as well. If you have specific goals, but “work out” instead of “train”, you will have a tough time reaching those goals.

The purpose of working out is vague. People who work out typically go to the gym to socialize, sweat, burn calories, or feel better. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things, but they won’t serve your specific goals well (if you have any to start with).

When people start going to a gym, they usually begin by working out; they are uncertain on what to do and just want to get into the gym and explore, which is a great and necessary step. Once you get a sense of the gym environment, you can develop some goals (if you don’t already have any) and start training.

The Purpose and Benefits of Training

Training is utilized to develop the following physical abilities:

1.) Strength (the ability to exert force)

2.) Mobility (the ability to move joints smoothly through a full range of motion)

3.) Stability (the ability to control joint movement in a safe and effective manner)

4.) Movement Patterning (the ability to coordinate different joints and body segments in creating meaningful, efficient, and effective movement)
      4a.) Good movement patterning requires sufficient development of strength, mobility, and stability

5.) Power (the ability to exert force quickly)

6.) Balance (the ability of the body to maintain a desired position)
      6a.) Balance requires sufficient development of strength, mobility, and stability

All of these abilities, when developed, can increase athletic performance, decrease risk of injury, and increase the ability to accomplish physical tasks safely and effectively.

For example, training can help:

  • a young athlete run faster
  • a middle-aged adult move furniture more easily/safely
  • an older adult walk up stairs more easily/safely

Now for some examples of each of the above physical abilities, listed respectively:

Strength → By incorporating resistance training into your exercise program, you can go from picking 100 lbs off the ground five times to picking 150 lbs off the ground five times. In this example, you increased your ability to generate force via muscular contraction, which helped you overcome a greater load.

Mobility → By incorporating mobility training into your exercise program, you can go from not being able to touch your toes, to being able to touch your toes.

Stability → By incorporating stability training into your exercise program, you can go from squatting with your knees buckling in, to squatting while maintaining a safe and effective knee position (knees over feet).

Movement Patterning (aka motor control) → By incorporating movement training into your exercise program, you can teach the body’s segments to work harmoniously in the completion of meaningful movement. Meaningful movements can range from a tennis swing to walking up stairs. Proper motor control requires sufficient levels of strength, mobility, and stability.

Power → By incorporating power training into your exercise program, you can go from pressing 50 lbs overhead in 2 seconds, to pressing 50 lbs overhead in 1 second.

Balance → By incorporating balance training into your exercise program, you can go from not being able to stand single-legged on a soft surface, to being able to stand single-legged on a soft surface for 5 seconds.

Sometimes strength, mobility, stability, and balance can be trained in one movement or exercise. For example, performing a weighted single leg squat trains strength, mobility, stability, and balance simultaneously. (The difference between stability and balance is that stability refers to specific joints, and balance refers to the entire body).

Other times, certain abilities have to be focused on in isolation if there is a notable deficit. For example, if you can’t sufficiently extend your upper back during an overhead press, your body will make unsafe compensations to complete the movement. Therefore, you must focus on increasing upper back mobility before attempting to increase strength in the overhead press.

Mental abilities that are improved through training:

1.) Mental fortitude/cognitive override (the ability to effectively manage fear in order to overcome challenges)

2.) Habituation (the ability to develop consistency in behaviors)

3.) Self-efficacy (the ability to be self-confident in accomplishing a given task)

The body’s physical abilities are improved through progressive overload (i.e. challenges that become gradually more difficult). The abilities of the mind are strengthened in the exact same way. One must start with small challenges, and gradually make the challenges more difficult in an intelligent manner; this idea is at the heart of training.

Now for some examples of each of the above mental abilities, listed respectively.

Mental fortitude/cognitive override → You plan to squat 3 sets of 10 reps. You know you’ll be able to complete the sets with good form, but you also know it will be uncomfortable and require focus. You summon your willpower and push forward, completing all of the sets. Experiences like this strengthen mental fortitude.

Habituation → The more you repeat a behavior, the easier it gets. There will be days when you don’t want to train, but you know you should in order to serve your goals. You decide to go to the gym despite feelings of fatigue, stress, and inconvenience. Experiences like this strengthen your ability to stick to a habit. Habituation is always the hardest to develop in the first few weeks.

Self-efficacy → Self-efficacy is developed when things outside of your comfort zone become comfortable. Many people feel a significant discomfort when joining a gym for the first time. They experience self-doubt, self-judging, and fear. By familiarizing yourself with different exercises, movements, machines, people, and social dynamics in the gym, you learn to no longer worry if you will be able to set out and accomplish what you wish to do in the gym.

In developing physical and mental abilities, you must attempt to accomplish things that you have never done before (i.e. you must overload). To continue to improve, you must consistently push your limits (this is the “progression” implied in “progressive overload”). In order to ensure long-term results, injury prevention, and consistent success, you must go about pushing your limits in a gradual, attainable, and intelligent manner.

Time Management

In training, you have specific goals as well as a specific plan to reach those goals. The plan can be simple. The plan offers a solidified course of action that “working out” does not. The plan manages your time efficiently. If you have a plan to go to the gym three days per week for 45 minutes each session, you have a set objective that you can plan into your week, as opposed to “I’ll just get in a workout when I have the time, or feel like it.” By knowing what you will do ahead of time, you ensure a greater likelihood that you will actually do what you intend to. 

Keeping a Journal

Training requires that you record your training sessions in a simple journal. By recording what you did in the gym and what results it provided, you can learn how your body responds to different training methods. Everyone is a little different in how they respond to certain kinds of training. A training journal helps you realize what works and what does not, which helps you decide what training methods to keep, and what should be thrown out (i.e. a journal helps you maintain an effective program). In working out, your work in the gym is based off of guess work and memory, which is not effective or efficient. A training journal also serves as a motivational tool, as you’ll be able to see all the progress you’ve made over months of training. 


By training, as opposed to working out, you’ll know your efforts are contributing to positive changes in an efficient and effective manner. It’s easier to get motivated to go to the gym when you have a set of goals, an effective plan to reach those goals, and a journal to examine the progress you’ve made. With training, you won’t have to worry about wasting time and energy in the gym. You’ll know that each time you step into the gym, you’ll be making progress towards your goals.

Bottom line: Many people start going to the gym without clearly defined goals. After exploring the gym and familiarizing yourself with the environment, it is best to start developing specific goals, as well as a comprehensive plan to reach those goals. Training removes vagueness, inconsistency, and lack of direction. Training ensures efficiency and effectiveness.  Training is beneficial whether you have simple goals (e.g. general fitness) or advanced goals (e.g. elite powerlifting).