A real training program has to have a few attributes that make it a training program and not an exercise program. The difference is not subtle. Training should be progressive. Training should be periodized. Training should be goal-oriented and outcome-based. But more importantly than anything, training should be meticulously planned, executed, and the most important piece of technology out there is a training log and a pen to keep your results.
Training without analysis isn’t really training at all. Let’s break this down one by one.
1. Training Is Progressive
First, training should be progressive. This is something that beginners rarely, if ever, understand. Most of the time, training is totally doable, meaning that the work being done—the weight being lifted or the intervals you run (or row, or ski, etc.)—should be just enough to elicit a response and no more.
Really, we’re discussing training volume here. In other words, don’t do 10 rounds when 3 rounds would suffice. Any more just makes progressing the training (i.e. doing more and going heavier or faster) that much harder.
You can only make adaptations to the work that you can recover from and any more than that is literally pointless. But if you’re not writing down what you’re doing from week to week, how do you have any idea what’s working and what isn’t?
How do you know how much volume you can recover from? How do you know how much volume you need to elicit the intended training response? Short answer: you don’t. You’re guessing or worse, you don’t care to know.
2. Training Needs to Be Periodized
Second, training should be periodized. Periodization has a few meanings depending on your specific outcome. In general physical preparedness (GPP), the training emphasis cycles through the four energy systems that make up the fitness continuum: strength, power, power-endurance, and endurance.
In more specific types of training and competition, like a strength sport or an endurance sport for example, periodization refers more to the preparatory, intensity, competition, and recovery cycles of the sport specific training season.
Either way you look at it, if your training doesn’t cycle from lower intensity to higher intensity and from lower volume to higher volume, you’re probably busy exercising. In real training, there are a few highly specific and planned periods of intensity that are either just on the edge of your capabilities or that cause you to overreach and make adaptations to higher training stress than you’ve ever experienced before. This is how we get bigger, or faster, or stronger, or go longer, or whatever outcome you’re seeking.
3. You Must Track Progress and Analyze Results
Third, training results should be written down and analyzed. Doing the work is pretty pointless if you’re not asking yourself this very simple question: did any of what I just did actually work? If so, what?
I see an awful lot of people out there with their fitness trackers and their sleep analyzers and all of this stuff and meanwhile they’re sleep walking through the actual workout part of the equation. And no doubt they head home and pay zero attention to what they put in their mouths and why.
Data is important, no doubt about it, but you have to do the work that makes the data have value. Do you understand what you’re tracking and why you’re tracking it? Do you pay any attention at all to the results? Do you make adjustments to your training or nutrition based on the actual outcomes?
If you’re not doing those things and you’re not putting the work into what is producing the data, then I’m going to break it to you, you’re exercising. You’re literally spinning your wheels. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and if that’s what you want to do, go crazy. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that exercise is sufficient to produce a specific outcome that you desire.
Want to be a great athlete? Sweating in a group fitness class isn’t going to get it done. Want to get bigger and stronger? Picking up some random weights sometimes and paying no attention to the volume or intensity won’t help you one bit.
Training Is So Much More
Training is not walking into the gym and smashing yourself and trying to get as sore or tired or beaten as possible. In a well-written program, the first week or so might actually feel too easy. And it probably should considering that in the last last week or two of the program you’ll be encountering more training stress than you’ve ever experienced before.
Doesn’t it make some sense that the lead up to that period would be planned in a way to ensure you don’t have so much accumulated training fatigue that you can actually get the programmed work done?
After all, you will have to eventually go faster or lift more weight to get faster or stronger. It doesn’t happen by magic and it definitely doesn’t happen by repeating the same interval at the same intensity or lifting the same light barbell over and over and over again.
Getting better is very, very different than just sitting in some spin class somewhere getting sweaty. Numbers and data drive better performance, not how you feel about a workout. Use your data wisely. Buy a pad and a pen and get to work.