Updated: Jun 15
Before I get into the different training methods, let me offer a foreword of sorts. When speaking of training methods, you could easily say exercises plans, training styles, athletics training methods, and use other vernacular common to the health and fitness/athletics world. The use of words are not always synonymous, but there are many instances where they are, and overlap often occurs even when a synonymous nature is not present.
There are many different training or exercise methodologies that coaches, personal trainers, and other athletic, health, and fitness professionals put to use. The point of this blog is not to go over every possible style available, but instead to cover some of the top options that apply to you, to someone you know, or that you may hear about during your fitness journey.
With that in mind, I am going to focus on bodybuilding, calisthenics, martial arts, strength and conditioning, plyometrics, powerlifting, powerbuilding, CrossFit, circuit training, Olympic lifting, and cardiovascular training.
So let us get into it, shall we?
Many people are familiar with bodybuilding, or isolation training, whether they realize it or not. If you have worked out at all, you have engaged in this form of training, whether you think so or not. While you might think of bodybuilding as the training of muscle-bound guys flexing on stage, isolation training is the most common form of training in which people engage.
Every commercial gym, such as Planet Fitness or Gold’s Gym, largely caters to this style of training. It is why machines such as the pec deck, leg extensions, and concentration curl, among many others, are in these gyms. If you have ever used these machines, or really any resistance training machine at any gym, you engaged in isolation training, also known as bodybuilding.
An isolation training program, or bodybuilding program if we want to call it that, generally focuses on body part training. While compound exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and bench press may be included, these exercises are included due to the body part specific training they provide. For example, the bench for chest, the squat for legs, and the deadlift for hamstrings, glutes, and back.
In that line of thought, workouts are often divided into body parts. For example, chest day, back day, and leg day. Body parts may be worked one or more times per week. The frequency with which body parts are worked may depend on numerous factors, such as goals (big arms), problem areas, (weak hamstrings), or other factors such as time.
Even though this style of training is still popular, bodybuilding training programs, also called isolation training programs, have been vilified in recent years as inefficient for building fitness. However, even if not the most effective method for building fitness, a person can improve strength, endurance, and mobility via isolation training. These areas are part of overall fitness, meaning body building does have a direct improvement of fitness. When paired with proper nutrition, an isolation training program can also improve body composition.
Calisthenics focuses on body weight training. Technically, any type of body weight exercise or body weight-oriented training program could be classified as calisthenics. This could include gymnastics, running, and body weight based plyometrics.
However, this is not what you will commonly see in calisthenics programs online or in gyms.
For example, tumbling on the mat as part of a gymnastics floor routine or exercises such as the iron cross on rings are, in essence, calisthenics, but you will not see these movements in most widely available calisthenics programs, and certainly not in a beginner program.
At the same time, if you follow a popular online calisthenics program, you are more likely to see pull-ups, push-ups, and jumps that sprints and distance runs.
Calisthenics can be any body weight based exercise or workout program, but the general approach used is “basic” body weight exercises, especially in bodyweight strength training for beginners.
A common approach of any calisthenics program is to begin with exercises such as push-ups, chin-ups, body weight squats, and dips, then gradually increase difficulty. The programs may be dialed down a bit more for people who cannot complete exercises such as chin-ups. A progression for chin-ups might be
Ring row—assisted chin-ups—chin-ups—assisted pull-ups—pull-ups—assisted muscle-ups—muscle-ups
This progression seems simple, but will take months and quite possibly years, to achieve. While calisthenics is “only body weight” that does not mean it is easy. In fact, a body weight strength and conditioning program may be much harder than hitting the machines and equipment at the gym.
We have a body weight only blog coming up that will feature a training program. Keep coming back to the blog to keep an eye out for it. You can also use our Strength Training Service, with which we can be make a body weight only.
Practicing martial arts is a unique style of exercise. With roots in self-defense and combat, martial arts practice has gone mainstream in the fitness world, as seen in "cardio kickboxing" classes. We do not want to focus on this, and instead want to focus on martial arts practice for self-defense or combat.
With so many martial arts available, it is impossible for us to nail down the specific benefits of each in a paragraph or two. Instead, we will offer a summary review. When engaging in martial arts training or exercise, a person will often perform movements in "rounds" as opposed to sets—rounds lasting 3-5 minutes each are common.
Early on a person will practice technique via shadow boxing and other low-impact methods. Over time, a person will graduate to heavy bag work, focus mitt work, and similar training methods, which also increase the intensity of the workout. At the peak, a person will engage in sparring, and a good sparring session is the most intense form of martial arts training.
The physical response of the body to martial arts training can be comparable to a hard calisthenics circuit. Martial arts training can improve cardio, enhance power, improve strength, and offers a host of other benefits, such as increased mobility. To receive this maximum benefit, a person must be engaged in true martial arts training, be beyond only technique work, and be able to engage in heavy sparring sessions as well as heavy bag/pad sessions.
Cardio kickboxing classes have benefit but will not provide the same overall physical improvements as true martial arts training.
Strength and Conditioning
Strength and conditioning does not have a singular definition and style. A strength and conditioning program centers around the purpose of said program. For example, the strength and conditioning program for a fighter is different from that of a football player. While there are some similarities, there are many differences as well.
The commonalities that will appear in any strength and conditioning program include a focus on strength, power, endurance, mobility, and cardio—though what degree of focus occurs in each area will depend on the person’s end goal.
Resistance training, or strength training, will be part of the program. A focus on conditioning will be as well. That seems obvious, but the approaches used will vary. For example, a strength and conditioning program could focus on the bench, squat, and deadlift for strength or focus on atlas stone lifts, sled drags, and the clean and jerk.
By that logic, conditioning could have a strong focus on traditional cardio, with a mix of resistance work included. For example, a mile run followed by a 10 minute HIIT session or a 200-meter sprint followed by 20 push-ups and 20 pull-ups repeated for rounds. Or, the focus may lack traditional cardio and focus on resistance-based exercises, such as 5 rounds of 12 deadlifts, 9 hang cleans, and 6 power jerks.
With strength and conditioning, the possibilities are nearly limitless but should be dialed in to the needs of the athlete, or if not an athlete, the goals and interests of the individual.
Plyometrics is a fun and engaging style of training and exercise for many people. It focuses on "explosive" movements such as jumping. Originally considered jump training, in which only variations of jumps—jump, box jump, broad jump, depth jump, etc.—were included, the plyometrics programs have expanded to include many other explosive variations of movements. Clapping pull-ups, clapping push-ups, ball throws, and even bar throws (in a Smith Machine) all fit into a plyometrics workout. Essentially, if a movement can safely be turned into an explosive variation, it may have room in a plyometrics workout.
For example a standard pull-up is controlled. A plyo pull-up calls for a person to aggressively (explosively) pull-up, quickly release hands from the bar, clap the hands in front of the body, quickly regrip the bar, and then descend to the start position. This takes time, strength, and of course, explosiveness. Done wrong a person could get hurt. Whereas a standard pull-up focuses more on strength or endurance, depending on a person’s ability, the clapping pull-up focuses on power output.
Some people think plyometric exercises can only include body weight but this is incorrect. For example, the clapping pull-up can be completed with added weight through use of a weight vested. This makes the movement harder, ideally leads to more stimuli of the body, and can make unweighted clapping pull-ups even more explosive. External load can be added to many other plyo exercises, including clapping push-ups, jump squats, and jumping deadlifts, among others.
Plyometric movements require maximal force to overcome resistance in a short time (power). Due to this, the volume in a workout is typically low. A person may perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps or similar set and rep schemes (similar to powerlifting or weightlifting) for each included exercise. Rest periods are long, relatively speaking, to allow full recovery between sets so that maximum power can be regained (or as close to it as possible).
On a side note, plyometric exercises commonly appear in strength and conditioning workouts. They may also appear in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, circuit training, non-traditional cardio training, and martial arts training.
Powerlifting focuses on the barbell bench press, barbell back squat, and barbell deadlift, collectively known as the big three. Many different powerlifting programs exist and take varying approaches to sets, reps, percentages, rest, and other aspects, such as overall training volume (though overall volume as well as reps is normally low). To touch on all the approaches in powerlifting is something that cannot be done in a few paragraphs.
That said, most powerlifting programs will call for trainees to perform the barbell bench press, barbell back squat, and barbell deadlift. Powerlifting is very specific, in that powerlifting is a competitive sport and the big three are contested at full meets, while 1-2 exercises may be performed at other events, such as a push-pull meet, in which only the bench press and deadlift are contested.
What that means is all powerlifter workouts should be oriented toward improving the big three. Accessory work, which are additional exercises performed as part of the program, will directly benefit the barbell bench press, barbell back squat, and barbell deadlift, or have an indirect effect by working essential parts of the body. For example, a rack pull deadlift is a close variant of the deadlift that has direct benefit to the deadlift. A pull-up has indirect benefit to the deadlift, and indeed all three lifts, in that it helps build a strong upper body, notably back, arms, and shoulders. Do understand one thing—powerlifting is not just guys lifting as much weight as possible—successful powerlifters take a calculated approach to building strength.
A beginner powerlifting program may have a person focus on one lift with accessory work one day per week. Advanced programs may have a person work every lift twice per week across 4-6 sessions. Programs may use percentage-based approaches, RPE based approaches, weekly max effort days, weekly volume days, or many other approaches. There is no one way to train for powerlifting; there are many, many ways to train for powerlifting. This applies whether you are a beginner, advanced, male, female, young, or old.
A common misconception is powerlifting is solely comprised of "strong fat guys." This is not true. Men and women of all ages train powerlifting. Powerlifting also finds use in other sports where strength may provide beneficial, such as football, CrossFit, and even sprinting or distance running.
Powerbuilding combines aspects of bodybuilding and powerlifting. Though purists of each style of training may frown on the inclusion of the other, today's powerlifters and bodybuilders understand that including both power based training and hypertrophy training can lead to a stronger, more muscular body and equal better performance in both realms of competition. For the average person who is not a competitor, powerbuilding can provide his or her the strength, power, and aesthetics that he or she is looking for.
Workouts may center around the big three—the barbell bench press, barbell back squat, and barbell deadlift—with assistance exercises from both powerlifting and bodybuilding for each day. However, there are many days to set-up a powerbuilding workout program.
A person may have three days dedicated to strictly powerlifting work, with two days dedicated to isolation training (bodybuilding).
A person may complete the bench, squat, and deadlift and powerlifting assistance exercises with powerlifting volumes on one day in, and then have the big three on individual days with bodybuilding assistance exercises and volumes.
A person may engage in powerlifting workouts one week, bodybuilding work the next week, and alternate like this for the duration of the program, making sure the bench, squat, and deadlift are present each week.
These are just examples and while the list of possibilities is finite, it is greatly varied. There is no on way to create a powerbuilding program. There are many effective approaches that can be used.
CrossFit focuses on constantly varied fitness. The idea is programming changes every session in a relatively indefinite manner. This is not to say that repeat workouts are absent, but rather repeat workouts do not occur each week, or maybe not even each month, as in other programs. The exact application of this changes based on the specific CrossFit coach.
CrossFit programming borrows from weightlifting, gymnastics, powerlifting, running, and other training styles. Some applications of these styles are pure. For example, a person may complete a one rep max for the deadlift or run a 5K. However, what CrossFit may be most known for to the average person is metcon workouts during which multiple exercises are paired together as part of a conditioning workout.
For example, CrossFit workout Murph is a one-mile run followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 body weight squats which is followed by another one mile run. CrossFit workout DT is 5 rounds of 12 deadlifts, 9 hang cleans, and 6 power jerks. These are just two of thousands, maybes tens of thousands, of examples.
AMRAPs, round based, and “for time” workouts are common among the metcon workouts. An AMRAP workout refers to “as many reps as possible,” while “for time” means a set volume for time (such as Murph), and rounds refer to workouts such as DT.
With a constantly varied training program, extreme exercise variety, and a wide range of sets, reps, distances, durations, times, and other variables, the program provides a person with the chance to build and test fitness in more ways than most other training styles.
Circuit training is simply a chaining together of movements. It is not so much a style of training and exercise as a way to modify other methods. For example, a person can take bodybuilding movements such as the overhead press, lateral raise, and front raise and circuit them together.
By that logic, a person can take movements from any style of training, or multiple styles of training, and circuit them together. Sets, reps, weights, and overall volume vary and are often dictated not by circuit training itself, but instead by the primary training methodology used.
Circuit training can be found in CrossFit, Beach Body programs such as Insanity, and HIIT classes at your local gym. There is no one style of circuit training or singular approach. The options for circuit training are virtually infinite and each program that serves as an example is just one take on the method.
Olympic lifting is a highly technical style of training. The lifts—the barbell clean, barbell jerk, and barbell snatch—require trainees to move heavy weight from the ground to overhead. In the snatch, lifters do so in one motion, while the clean as well as the jerk are combined to get the weight overhead.
In the clean and the snatch, the trainee moves the barbell from the ground and “catches” the weight in a full squat—the front squat for the clean and the overhead squat for the snatch. This takes timing and spatial awareness to learn and countless hours of practice for a person to perfect enough to handle heavy loads.
Olympic lifting is not for the part-time exerciser. The clean and jerk and snatch, the two primary movements involved in Olympic lifting, are highly complex lifts that take time to master. Due to the explosive nature of the exercises, and the fact that a person moves weight from ground to overhead, the Olympic movements are also some of the most dangerous lifts a person can complete.
The layout of an Olympic program—from technique to overall training volume to rest—varies from coach to coach, trainer to trainer. For example, some coaches want a person to keep the bar in contact with the body when pulling the weight from the ground, while other coaches want the bar close but not contacting the body.
When many people think of cardio, they think of running. You do not need to run to complete cardio. You can perform circuit training, use an elliptical, bike, swim, and complete a number of movements, including running, to engage in a quality cardio session.
The point of cardio is not to complete specific exercises, but instead to accelerate the heart rate and breathing in order to elicit a significant change in the cardiovascular system, thereby improving function. Many activities and styles of training can be used to achieve this end.
Running is the easiest form of cardio for many people because it is something everyone can do without a need for training or equipment. That said, not everyone runs well without training, meaning even running should be approached with a quality program that addresses form, intensity management, and other areas such as training volume.
The intensity, duration, and other aspects of cardio exercise and training varies based on numerous factors, such as ability, goal, and cardio method.
I hope this has been informative for you. Understand that if you want to lose weight, build strength, improve health, or achieve virtually any other health and fitness related goal, many of these styles of exercise and training can help you. You just have to choose one and stick with it, plus be mindful of nutrition, of course. If you have questions, leave a comment or send me a message.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.