When Should I Worry About...

Does Your Workout Routine Match Your Exercise Goal?

April 13, 2022 - Katie McCallum

If you consistently make time for exercise, you likely already have a workout routine you try to stick to week after week. You probably also have an exercise goal in mind, whether you realize it or not.

"When it comes to physical activity, I always ask, 'What are you trying to achieve by doing that?' " says JJ Rodriguez, a clinical exercise physiologist at Houston Methodist.

The response, he adds, suggests what someone is generally looking to get out of that activity — their exercise "goal" or, rather, the exercise category they're aiming for.

"The answer ultimately becomes important since it affects how you perform physical activity, which is pivotal in maintaining your activity plan," says Rodriguez.

Perhaps your workout routine already matches what you want out of exercise. But what if it doesn't?

What are the different categories of exercise?

According to Rodriguez, the three primary reasons we exercise are:

  • Health – to reap health benefits
  • Fitness – to optimize one or more aspects of physical fitness
  • Performance – to reach a desired exercise or event outcome

Knowing whether you're exercising for health, fitness or performance is key because it shapes what your workout routine needs to look like to see and maintain results — making you more likely to stick with it.

(If you already know your exercise goal, use the links above to skip directly to it. Not sure which fits? We explain each in more detail below.)

The details of these exercise categories can get fairly nuanced in some cases, but Rodriguez is here to help.

How a health exercise goal is defined and how to achieve or maintain it

Exercising for health reasons is simply about meeting the optimal amount of exercise needed to reap the benefits.

"This is usually for someone who doesn't like exercise but wants the better quality of life it brings," says Rodriguez. "This person is looking for the least amount they can do while still getting a health benefit, whether that's lowering cholesterol, staying mobile or reducing the risk of injury."

The amount of exercise needed to achieve optimal health is generally very well understood.

It starts with 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week.

"When we look at health-risk ratios — the likelihood that you might have an adverse health event in your lifespan — we see this ratio drastically reduce at 150 minutes of exercise a week," explains Rodriguez. "So that's where the recommendation comes from."

This doesn't mean you don't benefit from less than that, though — something Rodriguez is quick to point out. (Related: Beginner Workout Routine: How to Start Exercising in 4 Easy-to-Follow Steps)

Cardio isn't the only type of exercise needed for maximum health benefit. Building and maintaining muscle and stability through resistance training is important, too.

This is why the recommendation has expanded to include two days of resistance training a week.

"There's not yet enough research to define what exactly is needed out of resistance training, like we have with cardiovascular exercise, but we know that it's incredibly important," Rodriguez adds. "Our understanding of how resistance training benefits us has grown tremendously over the past 20 years, and I think soon it will be seen as just as important as cardiovascular exercise."

Ultimately, when exercising for your health, it doesn't really matter how you get your 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or what sort of strength training you're doing. It just matters that you get it done week to week.

How a fitness exercise goal is defined and how to achieve or maintain it

Exercising for fitness builds on the foundation of exercising for health but takes things up a notch through workout specificity.

"This is for someone who is trying to optimize particular components of their fitness, Rodriguez says. "For instance, this person may be looking to improve things like speed, strength and endurance or to lose weight and tone certain muscle groups."

Specifically, a fitness goal prioritizes one or more of the following:

  • Cardiovascular endurance
  • Muscular strength
  • Muscular endurance
  • Flexibility
  • Body composition
  • Accuracy
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Reaction time
  • Quickness

"Improving these components can become a bit complex, but the core principle to understand with fitness is that it requires specificity," says Rodriguez. "Define what you want, and then continuously redefine that along the way."

For instance, a workout routine to lose weight and tone your arms will look different from a workout routine to build muscle.

"You need to be specific about the fitness components you're interested in and hone in on the exercises that complement those components," explains Rodriguez. "In the fitness category of exercise, 80% of your workout routine should focus on the two or three components you're aiming to improve or maintain.

Otherwise, you're less likely to see success and stick with your workout routine.

And since the specifics of a fitness workout routine can be complicated — varying based on your current fitness level and what you're trying to achieve or maintain — you may realize that you need some help.

"I often recommend getting assistance from a trainer when it comes to meeting fitness goals since it typically means addressing really specific things outside of a person's wheelhouse," Rodriguez adds.

How a performance exercise goal is defined and how to achieve or maintain it

A performance goal takes the fitness aspect of exercise to an even higher level.

"The performance category of exercise is typically marked by goals set for events or specific outcomes," says Rodriguez. "So it could be 'I want to run a marathon,' or it could be 'I want to deadlift some specific amount of weight.' "

Exercising for performance requires load progression, which, in simple terms, is defined by increasing sets, reps or weight over time.

"The equation goes: Sets x Reps x Weights = Volume," says Rodriguez. "The goal with performance is to increase your volume by 10% every week."

Depending on the performance event, how you increase volume can vary.

For instance, a marathon runner has just one 26.2-mile set, but it takes many, many reps (over 50,000 steps on average) to get there. Increasing weekly volume, then, means working closer and closer toward those 50,000+ steps each week.

On the other hand, a weightlifter trying to improve their deadlift may progress in volume by adding more weight and more repetitions week to week until the goal is reached.

There are very few people in the performance exercise category, according to Rodriguez. Most people are satisfied with achieving and maintaining their fitness exercise goals.

"It's a lot of work to hit a performance exercise goal, so to stick with it, you'll need to be sure you're ready to put in the work and you're progressing toward your goal each week," says Rodriguez. "This, again, is where getting assistance from a trainer can help."

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...