Among certain coaches – and it’s always the sort of person who insists on being a coach, rather than a trainer, ‘working out’ gets a bad rap. ‘Training’, of course, is serious business: it’s about structuring your routine around primary exercises and programming them for long-term progress. ‘Working out’ is messing about: getting a pump on, doing what you feel like doing that day, having fun and doing circus tricks or wrecking yourself just because you haven’t wrecked yourself in a while. Starting Strength and 5/3/1 are training: following the Crossfit.com mainsite is working out. Doing the Couch-To-5k plan is training: doing Bodypump is not. Which should you be doing? At the risk of sounding like I’ve gone full clickbait, the answer might surprise you.
- If you are a professional athlete or your life is otherwise dependent on you being in shape, you should be training. This includes anyone shooting for some sort of athletic scholarship, and maybe people who just want to get really good at something – like, internationally-competitive-level good. Your competitive lifespan is (hopefully) going to be relatively short compared to your actual lifespan and the stakes are high, so every workout should be tailored to making you better at The Thing. That means doing exactly the amount of work that will make you optimally good at your sport: not throwing in an arms day every so often because you feel like it. Let’s face it: this probably doesn’t apply to you.
- If you’ve given training a genuine try and you hate it, you should just work out. This is where I part company with a lot of coaches, mainly because I’ve met men and women who are spectacularly good at what they do without ever having followed any sort of training plan. MovNat founder Erwan LeCorre, for instance, and many Parkour guys, will never follow any sort of training plan: they don’t need to, because they work hard and use a sensible variety of movements. This is tough to do though, so my advice is to at least try a few training plans before you swear off them forever, because for most people planned progression is better. Having a few indicator numbers to look for and improve, learning how to balance the basic movements, getting a sense of how to manage work and recovery – these things will make you better in the gym even if you aren’t training for anything specific. But if you hate following programmes, just move around and have some fun. Plenty of people go running or hit the weights three times a week without any sort of plan: they aren’t progressing like they could, but they’re still almost certainly better off than people who don’t go to the gym at all.
- If neither of the above apply, you should train and work out. This is me, and hopefully you, and honestly probably the best choice for most people. I know what my squat, deadlift, pullup max and 5k time are, and I’m usually trying to improve them, but I am usually up for sparring, going for a quick run, a pullup competition, trying some new tricks, having a go at a workout somebody else wants to try or just smashing out some tyre flips because it’s sunny in the car park. If I get the chance to do something fun, I’ll do it before I worry about how it’s going to affect my back squat. If I feel like doing some pressups because I’m watching Arrow and it makes me all aggressive, I’ll do that. Is that optimal for progress? No, but I’m not a professional athlete, so that doesn’t really matter: I’m strong enough that I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns, and life’s too short to think about strict presses the whole time. My advice? Have a few ‘indicator’ exercises and a general programme – three days a week is a good aim – and then do what you like the rest of the time.
Training is a good thing if you’re an athlete. But you probably aren’t an athlete. There’s nothing wrong with just working out once in a while.