Exercise vs Training - What is the difference?


Recently I was training in the gym doing interval work on the treadmill for an hour, performing 15% hill intervals remaining at a pace of 10kph. The session was hell and every 90-second interval felt like hours of pain, my breathing was erratic, and I could feel that horrible pain as the lactic acid builds up in my legs, my arms and the taste of blood is present from the small capillary bleeds in my lungs which, lets me know my circulation systems is under a great degree of pressure.

My body and mind wanted the pain to be over, I wanted to stop but the little voice inside kept saying ‘just hang on for another 5 seconds, now 5 more, keep going you’re almost at 90 seconds’. Coming out of the 90 seconds of hell after the 7th interval I was in a world of pain and there was no holding this back, the gym could clearly see and hear how much I was struggling. After a couple of minutes at recovery pace an elderly woman, who’d been constantly looking at me with disapproving eyes said, ‘I think you should slow down, you shouldn’t exercise like that, sounds like you’re dying there’. I won’t tell you what I wanted to say to her, she was a nice lady I’m sure so, I just gave her my best smile at that time.

Once the workout was over and I was doing a recovery mile, it had occurred to me that everyone in the gym was looking over at some point and wondering what the hell I was doing. Body language and facial expressions tell you a lot, and I felt uncomfortable pushing myself when that’s clearly not the done thing in that place. Scanning the gym, I soon realised it was just me (at that time) who was pushing the physical boundaries whilst everyone else was there to do a few exercises, play with their phones, talk to friends and generally have a nice time.

Now here’s the thing, the people I often see at the gym have not changed their appearance in any way over the 12 months I’d been there, I know we all have different reasons for attending but outside of the people that just want to do some form of exercise to look after their health, everyone else is there to get some kind of fitness or aesthetic results. I hold zero judgement if people want to do a little exercise then go home, each to their own and that’s good with me but, when it comes to results which, I know a lot of people want, many have the wrong perspective and approach in what they’re doing.

Personal Trainer Wirral

With being a Personal Trainer on the Wirral for 20 years I decided to write this blog as a collection of my own thoughts and the thoughts of other fitness industry professionals who look at exercise and training as two separate dimensions. I subconsciously use this concept as an assessment tool when speaking with new clients who come into any of my Online Coaching or Personal Training Programmes which aids in on how to apply the right coaching strategy for them. For the purpose of this blog and ease of reading, I will give these two dimensions a personality label.

The Exerciser

The exerciser is the person who may be looking to achieve a specific goal and their approach is to use a number of different exercises they’ve been given to help them move towards their goal. Weight loss, improved cardiovascular fitness and enhanced physique conditioning. 

If this feels like you then check out some of my helpful exercise and nutrition videos over on my YouTube channel here. 

The Trainer (no relation to a personal trainer)

The Trainer, is a person with a specific goal that holds a deep meaning to them and has a well-formulated plan to navigate them to what they want to achieve. To put it bluntly, these guys are serious about achieving their goals!

If this feels like you then my blog on exercising for a high-performance mind body and life may interest you

Neither of the two is good or bad, they just are. In this blog, I’ll show you the huge difference between these two different characters and why one of them will always get to their goals and the other probably won’t. I am sure you’ve already guessed by now which one does? But here’s the thing, where do you sit in these two dimensions? I write this to help you understand which character you are and what you can do about it. So, grab yourself a pen and take notes as I cover the following:


  • How to set a powerful fitness goal with meaning
  • Assess your existing position
  • The essence of creating a solid plan
  • How to avoid the training blackhole
  • The Tunnel of pain & why you must go through it


Let us get to work!

Exercise and Training

Now we have established a surface understanding of these two characters let us move into the deeper levels of this ideology.

Exerciser – This person generally wants to accomplish their fitness goal and makes the effort regularly exercising within their lifestyle aiming to attend the gym for 1 hour 3-4 times a week. They sometimes see small returns for their efforts and that gives them motivation for a small period. Little to no thought is given for the workout that day, so long as they make it to the gym the job is done, they will stick to the same routine and occasionally challenge themselves by adding a little more weight or increasing speed on the cardio machines.  

Exercise is important but, it will be one of the first things to be sacrificed once their normal life routine is disturbed. This can be holiday periods, unexpected responsibilities or big social events that make returning to exercise hard work.

Motivation can be an issue and a break from the gym can be a couple of weeks to a month or more in the worst case. Often this person will justify a break from the gym using reasons such as the busy period they’ve encountered recently. If the exerciser is injured, all bets are off regarding exercise and they will wait until the injury is 100% before attempting any routine again.

Equally, this character will also feel frustrated with their inconsistency and more so, with the fluctuating results. Exercise is in their world, but they don’t seem to be getting the results they want for the amount they do.

This person isn’t lazy in any way, they subconsciously or consciously prioritise other components of life over their fitness goals.

Sound familiar?

Trainer – This character is highly driven towards their goal, it’s a passion and a deeply rewarding journey they’re on. They attend the gym a minimum of 4 times a week and typically have more than one place where they train. The trainer has a schedule of what they are doing for each session and they think about this before getting to the gym, making necessary preparations prior such as water or food intake. Over time they also like to experiment with numerous nutritional strategies to see which provides an advantage to their training regime.

They will also lose motivation at times but missing training sessions when motivation is low will be out of the question. They cannot afford to take long breaks unless injured, and even when injured they suffer withdrawal symptoms when forced to take a break. An injured trainer will research how to rehabilitate their issue as quickly as possible and despite the problem they start training again but working around their injury, being back in the environment is good for them and they heal faster and gradually make their way back to full strength whilst maintaining their sanity.

They have a plan outlined for the months ahead and what they need to do at each stage to progress towards their desired goal. Each session has a goal for incremental improvements which provides a great sense of accomplishment and confidence in the process. The intensity of their workouts is high, and they become absorbed in their own world during training noticing little of their surroundings, unless someone is walking over to the next piece of equipment they’re about to use (how dare they). When training they just want to get on with the job and don’t want to be disturbed, they might even use tricks like putting in their headphones not listening to anything, but they know ‘headphones in’ keeps people from chatting to them.

When holiday periods are approaching, they have a feeling of dread and wonder how they will keep up with their training schedule whilst going on holiday or entering the festive season. They do not always maintain their schedule 100% at these times but they still get a good job done without too much disturbance. Friends and family often tell them they’re obsessed, and emotional punches are thrown their way, ‘you should be spending more time with your family etc.

The trainers are not bad people, thoughtless or selfish, they just prioritise the necessary steps to get a tough job done and move towards what is important to them.

Sound familiar?

Online Personal Trainer

My personal training clients, mostly online, seem to adopt this mindset quite quickly with being professional busy people. So if you're the kind of person who is driven and very busy with life but want great results then switching to this mindset will certainly suit you and it won't be difficult!

Set powerful goals with meaning

With a deeper insight into these characters, you should be able to get a clear understanding of which one you are. I have some good news; you do NOT have to make any big decisions on which one you’d rather be, and you may actually be a combination of the two. I’m now going to give you the necessary framework to achieve your health & fitness goals, you’ll then have a clear understanding of which character you need to be or the improvements you need to make to your existing character in order to achieve them.

Setting the goal

Both exercisers and trainers can fail to do this so let’s get the necessary steps for goal setting mastered:

Give the goal a deep meaning – Write down what your goal is but now spend time thinking about it and asking yourself some key internal and external motivational questions.


  • Why does this matter to you?
  • How will achieving this goal make a significant difference in your life?
  • Are you willing to immerse yourself in a process to be your best physical & mental self?
  • Does this goal give you a deeply visceral and excitable feeling?
  • Who are the other people achieving similar goals that inspire you?
  • Who do you hope to inspire by starting this journey and achieving it?
  • Can you create room in your life to make this one of your priorities?
  • How would you feel if you failed to achieve it?
  • How would you feel if you reached the end of your life and you didn’t give enough effort towards accomplishing it?

This is your critical starting point; without the deeply connected feelings, your goal will just become a To-Do job. Exerciser or trainer, go through this process, the steps ahead will bring these components together for you.


Assess your existing position

A good way to assess where you are right now both physically and mentally is to look at those people who currently inspire you. Study them very closely and see how close or far away you are from them physically and mentally but also, look to see if your life could be tweaked to move closer to theirs. Doing this will give you a sense of location in relation to where you need to get to. It will also help solidify your goal too.

Let me give you my example. My three big inspirations are Rich Roll, Marcus Filly and Ben Greenfield. All based in the US, these guys have a blend of fitness levels, mindset and lifestyle in which I wish to attain. I don’t follow these guys, I study them. I watch/listen to them on average 5 hours a week. This is done during my dead time in traffic, long queues, long walk, cooking or generally relaxing. This studying does not impact my life logistically, I always use my dead time to catch up with them.

It would be cool to stand shoulder to shoulder with these guys but I’m not looking for that. Rich Roll inspires me through his mindset exploration on high performance and his physical capability as an Ultra Athlete at the age of 53 at the time of writing this. I’m drawn to him as I’m an older athlete (currently 42) recently starting my ultra-marathon journey and I connect well with his philosophies. Marcus Filly has an incredible physique (in fact, they all do) but I love how Marcus has managed to maintain his body fat percentage under 8% whilst developing lean mass and producing incredible power to weight ratio, along with this I’m drawn to his passion for metabolic conditioning and lifestyle. I see Ben Greenfield as being somewhere in between these two guys. He has a great muscular and lean physique, but he also has great endurance capability. His scientific knowledge is incredible, and he goes to extensive lengths to experiment on how to get his body to perform at its best across multiple training modalities. If you’re interested in taking a look into their world, here are their podcasts:

Rich Roll Podcast

Marcus Filly Podcast

Ben Greenfield Podcast

These guys are uniquely different, and I see their key attributes and how they live. From this, I take all that I wish to be as Lewis Bailey. From these guys I can take all that inspires me, who I want to become, the standards I need to meet and the lifestyle I wish to live. This is now my true starting point and orientates me in the right direction to which I’m headed. From here I can now create a plan to take me along this journey.

The essence of creating a solid plan

I’m sure you’ve processed by now that goal setting is far more than writing down what you want in 12 months on a piece of paper. You have to go deep in order for this to work for you, it’s the clarity of depth that matters more than the details of what to physically do. There are millions of different ways of doing things, and in today’s world with all the answers at your fingertips, you can create a detailed strategy without a problem. The difficulties appear when you have no depth and when a lot of the details start to conflict with the other areas of your life you will struggle, as training and/or life becomes compromised.

Looking into the depth of how you need to live your life, how much time you’re willing to invest, how you need to be, think and become, are all integral to you achieving your goals and living your best life so, do not skip this step.

With the level of depth you’ve reached, it’s time for you to create a solid plan. The details will be down to you to explore depending on your goals, however, follow these steps to give you a framework to create your plan:

  • Time – How much time are you willing to give for hours of training, studying your role models and reflecting on your progress each week?
  • Knowledge – What do you need to learn to move towards your goals. Who are the people you can learn from?
  • Self-development – What skills and attributes do you need to work on to become the person you wish to be?
  • Logistics – How are you going to implement and integrate the required components into your existing lifestyle?
  • Negotiate – What parts of your existing beliefs do you need to change. Who are those closest to you that you need to discuss these changes with?
  • Motivation pills – What are the strategies and techniques you can apply when things start going sideways?
  • Milestones – Do not give yourself a deadline to achieve this goal. You want to embrace this as a lifestyle journey of continuous progress on a long-term basis, however, give yourself milestones to achieve throughout the year. These are significant points to aim at to keep you motivated and give you valuable feedback on your progress.
  • Clarity – Look at your goal and list of things to do and skills to learn. Now create a detailed daily, weekly and monthly plan on all the things you need to do.
  • Execution – With all this work done, it’s time to make those important first steps into your journey.
  • Track and measure – You must track your effort, there will be times when things work and things don’t, you need to focus on these points and make the necessary adjustments if required.


How to avoid the training blackhole

What is the training blackhole? I’m glad you asked, both exercisers and trainers can be easily sucked into this vacuum. It’s a space where you reach a particular level of fitness and you remain there, similar to a training plateau but not the same. A plateau is a conscious process, an awareness of your inability to move past a particular point. A training blackhole precedes a plateau, it is an unconscious space where you are showing up for training, you are working hard breaking a sweat and you feel as though you’re progressing because you’re working hard.

The black hole effect pulls you into an unconscious stalemate with your body signalling hard work without any physiological progress. You become comfortable with being in a little discomfort. The feeling of uncomfortableness tricks you into thinking you’re progressing so the continuous reward signals stimulated are welcomed ‘I just had an awesome workout, job is done. But was it?

If you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable then you’re entering into the black hole and over time you may start to question, why you’re not seeing changes. This is where you arrive at the conscious stages of a plateau and proves why tracking and measuring on a weekly basis is crucial.

You could be in a training blackhole for months before you arrive at the conscious plateau, along with tracking you also need to transcend the feeling of being uncomfortable and move into the unfamiliar and often painful territory, welcome to the tunnel of pain.


The Tunnel of Pain and why you must go through it  

The tunnel of pain is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a space of feeling that in essence, hurts, either during training or after, or both. The truth is your body must experience deep levels of shock in order to stimulate hormesis.

Hormesis is a biphasic response to a high-intensity stimulus, this is actually damaging to the body but with the recovery process, allows your body to release repair enzymes thus, you become stronger. Too much stimulus and you’ll release damaging toxins for prolonged periods that will hinder your training and likely lead to injury, especially if you have a poorly balanced recovery strategy.

The key here is to push your body into that space of shock which, could be a new and more difficult exercise regime or a spike of speed intervals in your cardio training. You’ll find the new stimulus very hard and/or unpleasurable. I like to refer to a tunnel of pain, as this is how I can set my barometer for progress. My example, going back to the treadmill intervals mentioned earlier in the blog where I use hills at a consistent pace to spike the intensity. At this stage of my fitness ability, I can do 30 seconds on high intensity whereby I know I can manage, it’s hard but doable. After 30 seconds pain starts to kick in as the lactic acids start accumulating. After 60 seconds I’m in a world of hell (the tunnel of pain), I don’t know if I’ll make the 90 seconds and everything inside me wants to stop.

This doesn’t sound pleasant and it’s not but, just a couple of months prior I’d move into the tunnel after just 15 seconds and I could only do 3 intervals at that pace. Now I can make it through 90 seconds for 10 intervals within the hour. This gives me feedback that my aerobic capacity and lactate threshold is greatly improving but, it can’t happen unless I keep challenging myself by visiting the tunnel.

Exposing your body to shock followed by good recovery (primarily sleep & nutrition), you can avoid the black hole and physically see your progress week by week. Keep pushing your boundaries, updating your training plans and focusing on recovery to ensure your body experiences the necessary levels of shock but also rejuvenates following it.


To Conclude        

Now is your time to think about what character you are or wish to be. Remember, it’s not a case of all of one or the other. Look at the landscape of your goals and feelings towards them and decide what you’re willing to invest in yourself.

Exerciser - If you’re an exerciser but still keen to accomplish your goals without jumping into the complete depths of a trainer then look at what you can take from the characteristics of the trainer and the framework I provided for your goals and negotiate with yourself on what you need to and are willing to implement into your world.

Stuck in the middle – If you’re half in/out then you can simply set yourself up similar to the exerciser but take a great degree of the trainer’s attributes to work on.

Trainer – This is the big one, if you’re 100% in this then use the framework above to enhance your game and tidy up any areas you may have overlooked before reading this blog.


I’m excited for you whatever character you are or wish to be, becoming a better version of yourself is an incredibly rewarding journey and I really hope to hear from you one day with good news on your progress. You can message or tag me on Instagram @Lewbaileycoach or email me [email protected] letting me know how things are going.


Until next time my friend

Live optimal



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