Friday Roundup: Exercising vs. Training Programs

If you’re out and about and people steal glances at your physique, you’re probably following a training program. If you struggle with achieving standout muscle definition or building strength, you’re still plugging away with random exercises.

If you’ve ever looked back over old workout logs and been amazed by how far you’ve come, you’re following a training program. If you’re confounded about how to progress your goals, you’re still stringing exercises together hoping for results.

CrossFit is exercising

This week I saw a controversial article about CrossFit that really brought home the differences between exercising and a training program.

In the article, Mark Rippetoe outlined the good, the bad, and the ugly of CrossFit. According to Rippetoe, the “bad” of CrossFit is that it’s random. As he points out, if you’re looking to just get exercise and maintain your health, randomness is fine. But if you’re working towards a specific goal, such as building more strength or muscle, randomness is your enemy. Rippetoe says:

“Once a person has adapted beyond the ability of random stress applied frequently under time constraints to cause further improvement, progress stalls. And increasing the intensity of the random stress doesn’t work either – that just gets you hurt because you haven’t gotten stronger, and your heart and lungs can only work at about 200 BPM and about 50 RPM.”

Rippetoe also points out that athletes who win and place at the CrossFit games don’t use CrossFit programming to get there. I agree with everything in the article (including the “good.”)

I’ve had two online coaching clients who didn’t have basic foundational strength after a year of doing CrossFit. They couldn’t do full pushups (not hand-release), unassisted pull ups, and didn’t know proper form for many basic weightlifting movements. Fortunately, they did know their weaknesses and sought help with filling in the gaps so they could progress safely.

I’m super proud of both my CrossFit clients, who continue to CrossFit but on a lesser scale and while developing strength outside the box. One of those clients had a lot to say during her program about the value of simply following a conventional strength program:

“I stopped crossfitting for nearly 4 months and made serious gains, thanks to @WorkoutNirvana.”

“I just was so upset that I could put 100# barbell over my head, but couldn’t do 10 good-form regular push-ups after a YEAR.”

“@WorkoutNirvana it is a struggle to get out of the CrossFit “beast mode” mindset. You mean I don’t have to bleed to get a great workout???!”

Training Programs are Goal-based

The SAID principle asserts that all training is specific to a particular task. In other words, the stress you place on your body will result in very specific adaptations. This stress has to be the right amount and the right type to produce results.

The SAID principle is important in sports, weightlifting, or any physical activity in which you’re aiming for a specific result.

Before I became certified as a personal trainer and began my lifelong fitness education, I pieced together exercises I found in books and magazines. I did them in a random order that would hopefully produce meaningful results. Here’s what one early chest workout looked like:

Exercising vs. Training Programs

I found exercises in magazines that looked “interesting” and didn’t keep track of how long I did them. I thought “mixing it up” was best, yet my body never had the chance to make neurological adaptations – improvements – because the stimulation was changing too often.

And I never got bigger or stronger.

I give myself credit for at least bringing a cheat sheet to the gym back then, and kudos if you do this too. But at some point, if you haven’t already, you’ll plateau. What will you do then? Give up? Accept that you can’t do more? Or will you learn how to progress, by hiring a personal trainer or becoming educated about progressive weightlifting?

(By the way, online personal training is extremely accessible and produces fabulous results.)

Questions to Ask Yourself

The point of this article is not to harshly judge CrossFit. My goal is to show the importance of following a structured training program IF you want a certain result. It’s just fine to take classes that do the same movements each week or completely different movements each week. But be aware that neither of these types of training will continue to progress you. After a point, you will stop seeing those fantastic changes in your body.

Think about your progress in the last six to eight weeks. Can you answer these questions?

  • How many more pushups or pull ups can you do now compared to six weeks ago?
  • How much more can you bench, squat, or deadlift?
  • Do you know your weak areas? What have you done in the last six weeks to strengthen them?
  • When was the last time you changed your workout?

If you can’t answer these questions, you aren’t tracking your progress and/or aren’t following a progressive program.

Need help? Hit me up. I’m here for you.

This article originally appeared on

13 thoughts on “Friday Roundup: Exercising vs. Training Programs

  1. This might be long-winded….

    So I did Crossfit years and years ago, back when it wasn’t “the thing” and I both liked and hated it. I saw that it had the HUGE potential for injury. But I also loved the randomness–it kept the workout fresh and new and I didn’t get bored.

    That being said, I did several programs with you (thanks by the way) and while I DID see improvement, weight loss, muscle definition, etc, I stalled out. I think I was doing too much of the same stuff all the time.

    Lately I’ve been doing a kettlebell gym, which is very similar to crossfit. I see your point about it not focusing on areas and seeing improvement. But I HAVE seen improvement! Just going 2x a week for the last month I saw and felt a humongous change and was able to do so many more pushups than ever before. Able to hold a plank for more time than before when I was focusing on increasing plank time. I think the randomness and overall conditioning the kb gym has given me has caused those improvements. I think I’ve also lost weight (will check out the scale next week) and my body shape looks different already.

    My conclusion is that I need to do both. I need to a structure plan (like with you) focusing on the trouble areas I want to increase fitness in and then shake it up with the randomness of the kb gym. I love that it got me out of my rut!


    • Yes… you’ll stall out with ANY program, DVD, or class if you don’t keep increasing the weight and varying important elements while sticking with the same basic workouts. You most likely stalled out with mine because you continued doing old ones ;).

      I’m really glad you’re seeing strength gains with the class! It’s no surprise, though, because you haven’t been doing the class very long. The first few months are when you’ll see the MOST improvements.

      Doing both conventional lifting and a class is pretty common. Just be aware that when you have too many different focuses, it’s hard to progress in a meaningful way in either. Next time you feel like you’ve stopped progressing, hit me up for another program :). Love training with you!


  2. Wow! This was me several months ago. I love how you really find the crux of an issue and explain it so well! I just know that this post is gonna hit home with lots and lots of people. Love it.


  3. Oh, I am definitely guilty of this! I’m not too confident in my ability to come up with a strength routine, so my default is to use those workouts from magazines or blogs, and I work out with a friend who loves to do different stuff all the time. I know I’m stronger than I used to be (not counting the loss of strength from reduced training while I was pregnant) but I would love to have better muscle definition for all my efforts! I know that’s partially diet-related, too, though.


  4. This is very well written and contains very valuable information. I think many people like myself miss this point sometimes. We may think just because we’re doing exercise, lifting some weights and doing cardio we’ll get the beach body we want. It doesn’t work that way unfortunately. Sure it’s great for losing a bit of weight and having a healthy heart and what not. But it takes a serious, well thought out training program to attain goals like that.

    Well be sending this link to many friends who MUST see this!

    Thanks! =)


    • Thanks for writing Danny! Yes – agree with everything you say. Progress is the result of a plan. It’s so common to see great progress at the beginning of a new program. When progress stops, people think they need to switch the program or simply add weight to the bar. Not so :).


  5. I LOVE YOU!!! In an oh so we are so much alike way!!!!! 🙂 I agree with this! AND THIS: But if you’re working towards a specific goal, such as building more strength or muscle, randomness is your enemy.

    I have always structured my workout programs based on what is right for me, how I want to look & what is best for my personal goals & still doing that now, 30 years later.. so important.. Such a fantastic post!!!!

    I have a post coming up about some very deep feelings regarding how people look at me in terms of since I am not a trainer, I don’t deserve to be hired to talk or represent companies BUT I want to see how many people do what I have done for 30+ years. No I am not a trainer but I can talk to how to change with time.



    • Hugs back at you Jody! Love ya like crazy!!
      Look at you! You clearly use a plan – if you got that way using random exercises I would be shocked a’moly. Keep being inspiring and KEEP representing. I will look for your post and am behind you 110%!!


  6. Hey Suzanne! Thanks for this great article. I read the same article that you referenced (about the good, bad, and ugly sides of CrossFit) and found myself agreeing with much of what was written as well. The emphasis on the fact that it’s not real training was so important. It got me wondering, however, about the importance of experience when designing a training program. Would you consider it unsafe for individuals to design their own training programs, rather than hiring a professional? Because injury is such a risk in CrossFit, it makes me wonder if self-designed training programs could be just as bad…?


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