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Are You Training Or Working Out?

The Differences Between Training Smart Vs. Training Hard Could Be The Key Factor That Is Holding You Back From Reaching Your Goals.

Posted by Impulse - June 6th, 2014

This is a topic that’s been covered by numerous websites and articles in the past but always bears repeating. The Hermanation battle cry is #HTH, Hermanites Train Harder! But honestly, are you training or are you working out? Are you an athlete or just a gym rat? Do you know the difference and more importantly, does it matter to you?

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The key factor between working out and training is the concept of specificity. A solid workout can entail anything from a gut wrenching Crossfit WOD that leaves you in a heap or a simple walk in the park. Anything that elevates your daily physical exertion above the basal level can be considered a workout and easily provide health benefits. This is where the philosophical difference between training and working out is first encountered.

The principle of specificity (AKA: The SAID Principle) dictates that the body will produce specific adaptations to implied demand (SAID). Whatever you do (or alternatively, don’t do) will represent a stimulus for your body to react. This concept is a key component of any training program. It produces a focused framework on the how and why of each session and drives you consistently toward your goal.

A major reason why most people never fully realize their goal is the lack of specificity in their program (moreover, the lack of a definitive program at all).

So the first step toward accomplishing anything in the gym will be to cut the crap.

Do you want to lose weight? Train to lose weight.

Do you want to gain strength? Train for strength.

Are you interested in running a marathon? Why!? (Just kidding)

But the idea here is that your body adapts to how you train. The reason you spin your wheels is because you pull your body in too many directions. Sit down, be honest with yourself and place what’s important to you in the cross-hairs.

Training Smart vs. Training Hard (Training Economy)

A second similar concept underlying the ‘working out versus training’ dichotomy is the difference between training smart and training hard. In the same way that training encompasses working out, training smart always entails training hard but not necessarily the other way around.

Training economy is a foreign concept to many trainees because of the, ‘if some is good, more is better!’ mindset. Training economy seeks to maximize the time and exercise efficiency of each training session. In the ideal world, we would see the trainee gaining the absolute most from doing the absolute least - this extends to both training and nutritional modalities to increase the length of time that the body will adapt to each stimulus.

The perfect example of this concept is to examine the typical leg day for many novice trainees. Most of what I see (and used to prescribe in my earlier years as a trainer), is an extremely high volume routine designed to cause soreness for days. This isn’t to say that you cannot achieve the same goal in many different ways, but why do these typical programs have two squat varieties, a leg press or two, full leg isolation exercises, lunges, hip abduction and adduction, donkey kicks etc.. While other, equally ‘jacked dudes’ may simply have a ‘squat day’, where all they focus on is a concisely prescribed volume of back squats?

In an honest assessment of my prior understanding of the movement and experiential knowledge of the typical trainee, the answer is that most people are woefully unaware of how incorrect they are performing these major movements. When performed correctly, you should be nearly wiped from a solid day of squatting. Leaving your mark on every machine in the gym would be the last thing on your mind after a correctly performed squat routine.

Do not mistake training smart for being ‘easy’, question your training methods and understand potential gaps in your technique. Just because you are sore does not mean you will make gains.

Honesty vs. Ego

A common theme in most gym and message board conversations (especially from those of us that have suffered training injuries in the past) is that we ‘check our ego at the door’; but most of the time we make that statement, it’s in direct reference to valuing full range of motion and quality of contraction over the absolute amount of weight we’re lifting. This is a great way to keep yourself safe, especially when you do not have a quality coach or spotter to explain technical flaws or simple ignorance of how you are performing your exercises. But the concept of being honest in the gym and checking your ego extends far beyond that basic construct.

Just because you’ve done something a lot, doesn’t mean that you’ve been doing it right. Let that sink in. So you’ve been working out for five years huh? Ten years maybe? How many meaningful PR’s have you set, how much body fat have you lost (and kept off), how has your performance improved? The mindset is transferable to any training goal, and the prevailing point is that what you understand or what you are comfortable with may not actually be benefiting you at all.

If you have serious training goals, take them seriously. Do your research or approach someone knowledgeable on exactly what you want to achieve and have them critique your current plan. Check your ego and appreciate that the length of time invested in a venture is not the same thing as length of quality time invested in a venture. If you are plateauing or finding yourself in the same cycle of meager gains then regression – chances are your programming is nonsensical and you just don’t know it. The good news is that there are countless numbers of people that have achieved the same exact thing that you’re interested in, and nine times out of ten they’re the coolest people in the world and would be happy to help you understand what’s happening / not happening in your training. Fall in love with learning, understand your physiology and embrace the grind.


This is a very brief explanation of what training really is. There are numerous other intrinsic differences between training and simply working out, but those would be better served in future articles. There is absolutely nothing wrong with working out in the gym, but when it comes to definitive progress and achievement, there is also no reason not to take it as seriously as possible.

A hidden gem in all of this is that they are both enjoyable methods of improving your health – regardless of what you do and why, always remember that physical activity is a life-long venture and the benefits extend far beyond physique or numerical improvement. When you start to challenge yourself physically, attempt to gain a deeper knowledge of self – both physiologically and philosophically. At the end of the day; enjoy what you do, period.

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Bachelor's Degree of Kinesiology

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I like the part about checking your ego at the door. Something I learned through injuries and wish I just listened to the "old guys" lol. Live and learn.

jcgadfly  Edit  Delete  Close

One must always walk that fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence helps you believe you can overcome any challenge. Arrogance makes you believe you don't make any mistakes. Confidence can help you profit - arrogance just makes you pay.


Excellent article Eric. I was a victim of many of these actions when I was younger :-) I have learned over the years that it is the QUALITY of the training not the QUANTITY that matters and muscles don't need massive amounts of weight and volume to grow and the importance of focusing your training style on your desired goal(s). Like they say, "don't count the reps but make every rep count." I am doing a Push/Pull 4 day routine now. To exercise smarter and more efficient, I concentrate on 1 superset per muscle done 4 times. The results speak for themselves and I can see and feel my body's SAID - which has been better than the many years doing the 3-on-1-off training routines of the past with tons of sets and exercises.

Scott_Herman  Edit  Delete  Close

Well said @jmboiardi and @impulse. I feel like I wasted the last year because I listened to others. Should have stuck with high volume.. But, we learn from our mistakes and our journey. Stepping stones.

Impulse  Edit  Delete  Close

Strength and conditioning is the foundation to accomplish any physical goal, physique, performance or skill based. A lot of us waste valuable years working out nonsensically before injury or aggrivation finally wakes us up.