Training vs. Working Out

Part 1 – Introduction & Outline

At 4.40 Performance, we use part of a white board located centrally in the building to display facility records as well as anatomical facts and various quotes related to training or life. One such quote is “Athletes eat and train, they don’t diet and exercise!” The very first day this quote was posted several athletes walked by and questioned if there was a difference. Well, are there really differences between training and working out/exercising? Oh, but there are, and you should know which you’re doing now and if that’s the best route to pursue given your experience level, schedule, commitment level, and goals.

The World Health Organization defines physical activity as: “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure”. Exercise is defined as: “a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive and has a final or an intermediate objective of improving or maintaining physical fitness”. Training and working out clearly fit both definitions, so what’s the difference?

At 4.40 Performance, I would estimate that 5-10% of our athletes truly train. The other 90-95% are working out for one reason or another. In the last few years I have come to the conclusion that true sports performance training conducted at a high level is a rarity beneath the collegiate level. There are many factors that keep an athlete from fulfilling the requirements of training such as the athletes’ personal investment and interest in their training, the athletes’ mental maturity and strength, the athletes’ training experience, the athletes’ availability & schedule, additional sporting commitments, the parents mindset and viewpoints towards training, duration of training, etc. In this post I hope to clarify what I define as training and how that differs from working out, to instill a further respect for a well executed and goal-oriented training program, and to make you think: what is it that you and your child are looking for in a training facility? It’s no surprise that our most committed, most self-immersed athletes are the ones who see the greatest changes and improvements in our program. It’s amazing what can be done with an organized 6-month plan.

First, let’s define working out since the vast majority fit this definition one way or another. An athlete who works out commonly does so without any specific long-term goals in mind. They often are seeking immediate gratification: the short-term physical or mental effects of training such as working up a sweat, becoming short of breath, or the mood-boosting neurological effects of exercise amongst other things. They may not have the time available to set up and follow a long-term off-season training program. They may play three sports, or one sport year-round, or they have other extracurricular commitments. Working out isn’t bad; in fact I would argue the opposite. It can produce many positive effects such as increased cardiovascular fitness, increased anaerobic work capacity, improved resting heart rate, increased strength, improved body composition, etc. Working out, hell, exercise in general is a truly incredible thing.

An athlete who trains has a mindset and dedication towards their training that goes above and beyond those who just want to work out. “Trust the process”. Joel Embiid and others of the Philadelphia 76ers have used this phrase prominently for the last several years. To me, it represents the commitment to a long-term goal. There is an established goal, a plan to reach that goal, and progressions that are formatted and sequenced in order to best achieve that goal. I have a great deal of respect for those who can isolate and focus on that goal, to ignore the short-term in favor of what’s to come through patience and dedication. These athletes and parents have come to understand what I have come to understand only through coaching and running a sports performance business. Patience truly is a virtue, and there is no magic pill. There’s not much we in the industry can do for you to create permanent change within 1-month, although you’ll be fed a host of rehearsed speeches that may try to convince you otherwise. You can and would likely see some improvement in such a short time. We have seen fairly substantial changes in one month when the athlete trains 3-5x per week, but these results tend to be rather short-lived and fleeting, not permanent. It takes consistent training, month after month & year after year, to bring about true long-lasting change.

I was watching a video on YouTube recently that struck me with how accurately it portrayed my mindset towards training. Mark Fitzgerald, head strength & conditioning coach for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and owner of Elite Training Systems in Ontario was being interviewed by Chad Wesley Smith, owner & head coach at Juggernaut Training Systems in Southern California, one of the most respected coaches in the field. Mark, in discussing training considerations for youth athletes stated: “My company preaches, hey, one summer with us… yeah you might get some gains. You’ll learn a ton; you’re going to get exposed to a lot of different things. But, three summers? Four summers? Five summers? That’s where we’re going to really show our value.” This is coming from a coach who has reached the highest level of success in our industry, both in the professional ranks and the private sector. Success is often a result of long-term, consistent, & organized TRAINING. 

I’ve introduced numerous concepts and examples, but the differences between Working Out & Training may still not be clear, so let’s expand further and make some direct comparisons between these two seemingly similar tracks.


Part 2 – Examples

Working Out

1. There is no plan

You show up at the gym to perform the Workout of the Day. Whether this is something that is assigned to you by a coach or something that you come up with yourself, the outcome is much the same. You show up, perform a bunch of work that had nothing to do with your last or next several sessions, work up a heck of a sweat, and call it a day.

2. No progression of training

Day-to-day variation is random and non-linear. There is no progression of critical variables such as weights, sets and reps, tempos, exercises, or frequency of training. Each day is truly independent and thus does not directly build upon previous days. 

3. Falling into a routine

One of my best friends is guilty of this. Around a year ago he mentioned that he hadn’t seen any improvements in strength or size in months and had been following the same program for several years! Quite simply, he needed to mix it up! You will reach a point where performing the same amount of work, in the same exact way, will do nothing for you. Yes, some work is better than no work, but for each additional step you take up the ladder of performance you must become more and more aware of your training history and what it’s going to take to elicit further adaptation.

4. Quantity over quality

If all you care about is how fast you can finish a workout (Crossfit, I’m looking at you), how many sets or reps of an exercise you performed, how long your workout was, how much of a sweat you worked up, how high your heart rate got, or how much more ice cream you can eat now, you’re working out. Working out tends to favor quantity of work over quality of work. While this approach may work in the short-term , it could also result in burn out or even injury if mismanaged.

5. Going through the motions

Time to call out some of my athletes. If you’ve asked me for 8 weeks in a row what an exercise is without taking the time or energy to learn it, you’re going through the motions. If you’ve ever been halfway through a set only to ask me how many reps you’ve performed, you’re going through the motions. If you’ve came into the building with no idea what you should be doing, you’re going through the motions. If you fail to perform a movement without purpose, you’re going through the motions. If you fail to record any pertinent details of your workout such as weights, sets, or reps, you’re going through the motions. Many of you are going through the motions. I challenge you to stop this trend of laziness and to truly invest yourself in your own training. At the end of the day you are the most critical component of a successful plan. No matter how perfect the programming is, subpar execution will limit results.


1. Have a plan & plan ahead

To keep everything in perspective and moving the way it should be you should have short-term and long-term goals. You should have monthly goals, yearly goals, and in some cases multi-year goals. Each phase of training should build towards these goals. If you can’t answer how something will help you reach your goal, you shouldn’t be wasting your time with it.

 2. Progress your training

To know where you’re going you must first know where you’ve been. Training sessions should be detailed in their structure as well as their notes. Each day, each phase of training should build upon the last. For many novice athletes this means simple linear periodization.. The concept of “shocking” your body into adapting made popular by programs such as P90x is a load of B.S. when dealing with athletes. The S.A.I.D. Principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) states that the body adapts specifically to the stresses placed upon it. If these stressors vary every single day, your body will adapt to none of them. The body desperately wants to maintain homeostasis; to drive adaptation you must be consistent in your training methodology to give your body time to realize that it must adapt to survive the training load.

3. Don’t get stuck in the same routine

A well-structured long-term plan should be apparent by changes in the program seen every 4-6 weeks. You can modify the weights lifted, sets and reps, tempos, exercises, or frequency of training. Research suggests that this 4-6 week window is optimal, as it’s not too long to impede the adaptations made by the previous phase while still being long enough to promote positive adaptations to the current phase.

4. Quality over quantity

Training focuses on skill acquisition amongst many other things. While the most important skills for athletes are sport-specific skills, training is a skill in and of itself. Performing each exercise properly & with correct biomechanics is a skill! Movement quality is never sacrificed for quantity, whether in the form of reps/sets, weights, or intensity. In fact, quantity can limit results depending on your training goal. Vertical jump training, Olympic weightlifting, & speed/strength or power training should be focused on movement quality while keeping volume (quantity) within its applicable range. More is NOT always better.

5. Focus completely on every single rep

In order to make the most of every rep, you need to treat every rep seriously. Each rep should be performed with maximal INTENT, whether in the metric of control, velocity, or biomechanics. Your internal awareness should be at the point where you’re able to tell if you moved a weight slower than normal, if you were pitched forward in the squat, if your knees collapsed medially on a unilateral movement, or if you failed to maintain pelvic alignment during a movement. You are able to identify abnormalities in real time since your awareness & mindfulness is high.

Part 3 – Conclusion

It may seem like the purpose of this write up was to throw some of you who work out under the bus while saving my praise and admiration only for those who participate in and fulfill my definition of training. That is not the case at all. While the majority of high-level (16+ years old, 1-2 years minimal training experience) athletes who already possess a solid foundation of sports performance training and want to reach the next level will benefit more from a structured, planned program built around one or several goals, many beginner/youth athletes will benefit from any form of supervised physical activity. It doesn’t take much to elicit positive adaptations in the beginner population, simple general physical preparedness (GPP) is what most of these athletes need. They need guidance and instruction on how to correctly perform core movement patterns and help to develop awareness of their bodies in space. They need to be taught how to reach deep inside themselves and find their inner strength.  They need an off-season. They need a good nights sleep and a diet based around whole foods that assists their growth and maturation. Their needs are simple, we need to stop overthinking and overdoing it!

The sporting experience now is so vastly different than it was even 15 years ago. Many athletes are specializing earlier, playing one sport for more time each year, spending more time and money traveling, and generally treating sports as a job rather than what they were founded upon, the concept of play. Many of these young athletes and even their parents are too busy and just not ready for the mental demands and commitment of training, and in such cases their best option is to find a facility, a coach, and a program that is based on linear progression and is built to work with their sporting commitments, their training experience, their commitment level, their needs, and their goals. The reality is that this isn’t a black and white distinction, but rather many young athletes reside somewhere in the grey area between training and working out; it is a continuum.

And before anyone asks, no, your 12-year old baseball or basketball player who starts on the travel team is not an advanced athlete. Anyone under the age of 16-18 years old who has less than 2 years of training experience is still a beginner and their needs do not compare with those older, more experienced athletes. We need to get back to letting kids be kids. A 10-year old should not be committing the same amount of time to his or her sport of choice as a 17-year old trying to earn a college scholarship. They should still be engaging in unstructured PLAY, that is the key to reducing burnout and overuse injuries in young athletes that have seen such a steep rise over the last decade. But that conversation is for another time… 

Are you working out or training? Should you be working out or training? Hopefully this write up has helped you to determine where you fit within this continuum. If you’re still not sure, your answers to the following questions should help:

  1. Do I have any previous training experience? If so, how much?
  2. How long will I be able to commit to sports performance training/working out?
  3. How many days per week am I looking to train/workout?
  4. Mentally, how invested am I in my training?
  5. What are my other commitments? What else do I have going on that will take time and energy away from the gym?
  6. What do I want to get out of this? What are my goals? What do I need help with?
  7. What is going to keep me coming back? What is going to motivate ME to do the work?


Ian Connors, M.S., CSCS

Director of Sports Performance @ 4.40 Performance