Fundamentally, there are two ways you can approach physical activity. You can “exercise,” which is the term normally used when your goal is oriented toward improving your appearance. “Exercisers” tend to view the terrain through the prism of energy balance: if the exerciser wants to be leaner, she’ll restrict calories and increase energy expenditure, with the goal of a net calorie deficit.
Or, if the exerciser thinks he’s a “hard gainer,” and wants to beef up, he’ll try to increase calories (particularly calories from protein) while conserving energy by training hard but brief, and maximizing rest and avoiding aerobic activities. In other words, give the muscles reason to grow through brief, hard workouts, and then create the opportunity for growth by providing a caloric surplus and plenty of building blocks in the form of amino acids.

In both cases, the approach is scientifically sound, and will lead to the desired result. With that said, there’s another way to conceptualize your life as a physical being…

…which is the development of an athletic mindset. As an athlete, your end game is defined by better performance, and you don’t achieve this by exercising, but rather, through training.

As you may have already guessed, I greatly favor the athletic paradigm, and here’s why:

  • As an athlete, your physical endeavors have a purpose. And I believe that human beings are purpose-driven by their very nature. Personally, if I’m going to lift a weight, I’d much rather do it because it adds meaning to my life, as opposed to doing it simply for the purpose of burning calories. If I’m going to run, I’d much rather go somewhere than burn calories on a treadmill. To extend the analogy a bit, I’m more fulfilled when my work benefits others, as opposed to simply providing an income for me. This premise is intuitively obvious in my opinion, and if you need more verification, I probably won’t succeed in convincing you anyway.
  • The peripheral benefits of training are more significant than the side benefits of exercising. Specifically, when you train as an athlete, you’re very likely- in fact destined- to improve your appearance and real-life functionality. However, when you exercise, while your appearance may indeed improve, your health and functionality may not. The thousands of crunches you’re doing to tone your abs are quite likely wreaking havoc on your low back. Those countless miles on the elliptical machine are burning lots of calories, but they’re also producing a ton of free radicals and cortisol.
  • Exercisers are almost always engrossed in (and defined by) negative themes involving pain and restriction. But athletes are far more likely to think in terms of PR’s and personal achievement. They tend to compare themselves to the best, not the worst. They’re chasing excellence, not running from corpulence.
  • The exercise paradigm almost always leads to a volume-based mentality, at the expense of quality. It leads anaerobic creatures into aerobic lifestyles, often with tragic consequences. Over the past few years in particular, there have been numerous accounts of well-known and/or successful marathoners and triathletes who have succumbed to an early demise, typically from heart or cardio-respiratory disease.
  • Once you start thinking like an athlete, we might eventually coax you into becoming a competitive athlete. OK, I know, I know, you don’t have the talent for that. Actually, I can relate, because neither do I. However, I’ve learned much and benefited greatly by putting myself in the competitive arena. I’ve made my (admittedly modest) accomplishments a matter of public record. I’ve made life-long friendships with fellow competitors, I’ve traveled to places I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and I’ve successfully applied the lessons I’ve learned in competition to other facets of my life.

If you’re an “exerciser,” kudos to you- you belong to the minority of people who choose to improve their health and fitness levels in a proactive way. My goal here is to nudge you toward what I consider to be an even greater experience, with even greater end-results. Please leave a comment if I’ve managed to change your thinking, even if just a little…

Coach Charles Staley

“One of the signs of a great teacher is the ability to make the subject matter seem simple. Charles Staley is one of these rare teachers. After listening and talking to him, you suddenly achieve a new awareness of training. You go to the gym and, suddenly, everything makes sense, and you wonder why you haven’t been doing it his way since day one.”

– Muscle Media 2000 magazine August, 1999

His colleagues call him an iconoclast, a visionary, a rule-breaker. His clients call him “The Secret Weapon” for his ability to see what other coaches miss. Charles calls himself a “geek” who struggled in Phys Ed throughout school. Whatever you call him, Charles’ methods are ahead of their time and quickly produce serious results. His counter-intuitive approach and self-effacing demeanor have lead to appearances on NBC’s The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show.

Currently, Charles competes in Olympic-style weightlifting on the master’s circuit, with a 3-year goal of qualifying for the 2009 Master’s World Championships.


  1. gene 15 years ago

    Some great points here! Of course, as an “exerciser,” I am still doing it for a reason, though the reason is outside of – and larger than – the weights I am lifting, the cardio I am doing or the food I am eating.
    I’m not competing in a game, but I *AM* running in a metaphorical race of life and service. In order to do that best, I need to exercise my physical body.
    So, you didn’t really change my thinking, but you did reinforce the things that I already believe and have given me a good paradigm for them.
    Thanks and keep it up!

  2. jennifer 15 years ago

    hi that was deffinatley something i will try to incorporate into my life style as some one who is trying to improve my health . i am 35 yrs old and i have tryed to think of my goals in that fashion although i have also wanted the results of having a better body .thanks for the info

  3. DougM 12 years ago

    Like this a lot coach. I have certain friends, terribly out of shape, who simply hate exercise. You go far in explaining why. I “exercise” a lot. But it is far more effective for some purpose beyond seeking cut abs. In two days I’ll run my first ever 12k road race. First running race ever. Intend to complete it in less than an hour, which aint bad for a 55 yr old on his first race. Training for the last two months has been focussed on that. It’s amazing the kind of hills I can go charging up like never before, after just a couple of months. And, after a lifetime, still no abs. But closer than ever.
    Now I must admit that I was even more purpose driven five or so years ago, when a member of a rowing club. We travelled the country and I have a ton of various medals. What was amazing with the team was that you could put forth such effort, win races, as a side effect get in the best shape of your life, and actually at the same time benefit others. Those being the other guys in your boat that you helped win. It was truly intoxicating how the drive to win would keep me up at night reading all about various forms of respiration physiology, had me writing down heart pulse rate profiles, and regularly jamming needles into an ear lobe to take a blood lactate readings.
    Well, why I left those days behind is another story. And there are too many who write me off as having some kind of fitness OCD (and they’re all grotesquely out of shape). But purpose works. Whether it’s sending sheets of powder snow flying dozens of feet from beneath your snowboard, to taking the last step to the summit of Rainier, to biking an alpine trail at 10k feet, to windsurfing whitecaps in conditions that drive non-OCD types to run for cover, there’s one big-ass world out there that gives real purpose to all that exercise.
    Thanks again coach. Great message!

  4. mike 12 years ago

    I’ve never considered myself particularly athletic and certainly never an athlete! But about 5 years ago I started “exercising” to lose weight. I got into weight lifting and now with the help and encouragement of friends I just competed in a lift meet last weekend! Your article struck me especially as I was thinking about the change in mindset I experienced in going from exercising to training. If it can happen to me it can for anybody!

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