Exercise Terminology Everyone Should Know

Did you know there’s a difference between Exercise and Physical Activity? Even though these two terms are used interchangeably most of the time, they don’t mean the same thing. Exercise jargon can be confusing at times, see if you really know what you think you know by perusing through this fitness terms.

Both terms refer to the voluntary movements you can do (that can burn calories), in addition to other health benefits. Physical activities are activities that get your body moving such as gardening, walking to the spaza shop, raking leaves, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator [1]. Exercise, on the other hand, is a form of physical activity that is specifically planned, structured, and repetitive such as weight training, an aerobics class, or tai chi.

Exercise Terminology Everyone Should Know

This distinction of terminology is important for various reasons. We’ve come up with a few but we want to know what you think first. In the comment section below, let us know why you think knowing the difference between Exercise and Physical activity is important. We encourage your input because we learn from our audience just as much as they learn from us.

Exercise jargon can be confusing at times, I myself can attest to this. To make matters even worse it can be difficult to draw the line telling one term from another. Exercise and Physical Activity is a very good example. Another is Exercise Physiologist and Physical Therapist. While similar, these two specialists do different things. An Exercise physiologist studies the acute and chronic physiological responses and adaptations resulting from physical activity and/ or exercise, while on the other hand, a Physical Therapist helps people recover from injuries or diseases of the muscles, joints, nerves or bones. The fact that some people sometimes mistakenly refer to both practices as “Physio” will make a fool out of you. 

It is for this reason that we decided to compile a list of exercise terminology everyone should know. You do not need to know each and every definition but equipping yourself with the basics will prove useful on your next fitness club visit, or you know—when you “flex” (Keep reading for the meaning).

Without any further delay. Here is a list of exercise terminology everyone should know. Some fall into categories and others stand alone.

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The Four General Categories of Exercise

Endurance and Aerobic Exercise

The word Aerobic means In the presence of, requiring, or utilizing oxygen. Aerobic exercise uses oxygen from the blood to fuel your muscles. Regular aerobic exercise improves your cardiovascular endurance, which is the ability of your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and associated tissues to use oxygen to produce the energy needed for the activity. These activities help keep you healthy, improve your fitness, and help you do the tasks you need to do every day.

Aerobic exercises also delay or prevent many diseases that are common in older adults such as diabetes, colon and breast cancers, heart disease, and others [1].

Physical activities that build endurance include:

  • Jogging
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Playing Basketball
Strength / Resistance Training

Muscular strength refers to the ability of a muscle to do or perform work. Resistance training is accomplished when the muscle is lengthened and shortened against constant or variable resistance to increase strength and tone in the muscle [1]. Regular weight resistance activities/training have been shown to improve the structure and function of ligaments, tendons, and joints; decrease lower back pain, and increase muscular strength and endurance. Resistance/strength training can help maintain fat-free mass and bone mineral density [1].

Even small increases in muscle strength can make a big difference in your ability to stay independent and carry out everyday activities such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries. Some people call using weight to improve your muscle strength “strength training” or “resistance training.”

Strength exercises include:

  • Lifting weights
  • Using a resistance band

Flexibility is the ability of a joint to move through a range of motion. As you age, your muscles tighten and your range of motion can become limited. This can hinder your daily activities and make you more prone to injury.

Stretching can help your body stay flexible and limber, which gives you more freedom of movement for your regular physical activity as well as for your everyday activities. To increase your flexibility, try:

  • Yoga
Balance Training

Balance exercises help prevent falls, a common problem in older adults. Many lower-body strength exercises also will improve your balance [1]. Exercises to improve your balance include:

Standing on one foot

  • Heel-to-toe walk
  • Tai Chi

FITT is an Acronym for Frequency, Intensity, Type and Time. Each Explained in detail below.

Frequency is the number of days per week you participate in physical activity. For example, if you are exercising three to four times per week and want to continue to see results, increase the times per week that you exercise by one to two days.

Intensity is how hard you are working during your physical activity. Ways to boost your intensity during aerobic training include increasing your pace or adding hills into your workout.

If you are strength training, increase the intensity by lifting more weight, do more sets or reps and use different exercises to increase muscle tension. The number one thing you need to do when you are working out is to make sure that your form is correct and that you are lifting the weight to a count of two and lowering the weight to a count of three or four. When you’re exercising with proper form, the exercise works the muscles properly and produces better results.

If you are not already strength training, a great way to break through the plateau is to strength train. This has been shown to be very effective in helping people manage their weight because the added muscle helps to offset the metabolism-lowering effect of dieting and losing weight. Muscle is much more metabolically active than fat; therefore, the more muscle you can add, the higher your metabolism will be.

Type is the mode of physical activity that you participate in. Vary your routine by changing your physical activity. For example, if you walk every day, try swimming or biking a couple of days a week [1]. Another alternative is to change the sequence of exercises you are already doing to create variety and a new overload.

Because the muscles are being fatigued in a different order or pattern, they must adapt to this change in stimulus. The next step might be to replace some or all of the exercises in your routine with different exercises that work the same muscles [1]. For each exercise, look at the joint action(s) and muscle group(s) being used and replace them with an exercise that targets the same muscle group(s). For example, the bench press can be replaced by push-ups, dumbbell presses, or incline bench presses.

It’s also a good idea to periodically switch cardio exercises and to change the way that you use the machine. For example, if you use the elliptical trainer, peddle backward to work for different muscle groups. You could also change the program or increase the incline.

Time is the duration of your physical activity or exercises session. Gradually increasing the duration of your exercise sessions can help you overcome a plateau. The recommended guidelines for exercise are to do at least 30 minutes on most days of the week [1].

Individuals with lower fitness levels should aim to maintain their heart rate (Read further) within the target heart rate zone for a minimum of 12 to 15 minutes of the 30 minutes total time. As fitness levels increase, the heart rate should remain elevated for 45 to 60 minutes. Remember to choose activities that you find enjoyable.


REPS is short for “repetitions.” A repetition is one complete movement of an exercise. Completing a Push Up is “one rep”. Completing Five is “Five Reps”

SETS are a collection of consecutive repetitions (Reps). Three sets of Push-Ups (with five reps each) adds up to (5×3 which is 15).

REST (between sets) is the amount of rest you take between each set. Normally while you are performing the same exercise, you should rest no more than two minutes between sets. But if you are training with extra heavyweights, then the rest time between sets may be up to five minutes.

1 rep max or 1-RM is short for One Repetition Maximum and it is the maximal weight that an individual can lift once during a dynamic resistance exercise.

Abs is short for Abdominals. These are your stomach muscles, mostly referred to as Six Pack because of how they look when protruding from the stomach.

Aerobics classes are group exercises usually done in studio settings, most of the time with background music that is led by an instructor (who may be leading virtually or life).

Barbell (BB) is a steel bar onto which weights in a form of disks are fixed to either end and secured (by design) or sometimes manually with a clasp.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the level of energy required to sustain the body’s vital functions in the waking state, when the individual is in a fasted condition, at the normal body and room temperature, and without psychological stress [3]. it can be helpful to know yours if you’re starting an exercise program with the goal of losing weight, since you may want to know how many calories you’re getting from food vs. how many your body burns each day without exercise.

Biceps is the general term given to the muscles at the front of the upper arms.

BMI is short for (Body Mass Index) – which is a number reflecting human weight in relationship to height, defined as weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters.

You can easily calculate your BMI by using the following formula: – BMI = weight in kg/height in m2.

  • Overweight is a BMI greater than 25;
  • Obese is a BMI greater than 30

The BMI is not an ideal measure of “How fat one is”. See Body Composition herein this article to get clarity.

Body Composition is the partitioning of body mass into fat-free mass (weight or percentage) and fat mass (weight or percentage). This is often considered a component of fitness. It refers to the makeup of the body in terms of Lean mass (muscle, bone, and organs) and fat mass.

Boot camps are high-intensity group-based circuit-training exercise session mostly performed outdoors.  The term “boot camp” has military origins. Boot camps are camps for training military recruits.

Calorie refers to a measure of energy from food. (3,500 kilocalories of food energy = one pound of body weight). Food calories are measured by combustion, that is, how much heat is released when a foodstuff burns [2].

Cooling-down is the process, usually at the end of a workout or exercises session, where the body is returned to its normal or resting levels. Cooling down is usually followed up with stretching exercises.

Core muscles comprise both the abdominal and lower back muscles. There are about 29 muscles. I would name them but I don’t like to flex.

Cramp is a painful and involuntary muscular contraction.

Cross-Training is the development or maintenance of cardiovascular fitness by alternating between, or concurrently training in, two or more modalities.

Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the condition characterized by muscle tenderness, pain on palpitation, and mechanical stiffness that appears approximately 8 hours after exercise, and increases and peaks over the next 24–48 hours, and usually subsides within 96 hours [3].

Diet is (1) The food regularly consumed during the course of normal living; and (2.) a restriction of caloric intake.

Dumbbells are exercising weights with two spheres connected by a short bar that serves as a handle. They vary in size shape and design.

Exercise order refers to what exercises you do before the other. You should almost always exercise your larger muscle groups before the smaller ones [1]. The main reason for this is that it takes more of your energy to train larger muscles than the smaller ones.

Fat-Free Weight is the weight of body tissue excluding extractable fat.

Fats are made up of fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. If there are double bonds between any carbon atoms in fatty acid, it is said to be unsaturated [2]. Fats and oils are the same, except that oils are liquid at room temperature. Examples include butter, cooking oil and lard. Many fats are hidden, for example, in cream and pastry [2]. Fats are required for padding, insulation, nerve function, production of hormones and transport of vitamins. Fat contains 9 calories per gram [2].

Flexing (or to flex) is to show off one’s physique or muscles.

Health-Related Physical Fitness (HRPF) is that portion of physical fitness directed toward the prevention of or rehabilitation from disease, the development of a high level of functional capacity for the necessary and discretionary tasks of life, and the maintenance or enhancement of physiological functions in biological systems that are not involved in performance but are influenced by habitual activity.

Heart Rate refers to the number of cardiac cycles per minute or the number of times your heart beats in 60 seconds. It is expressed as beats per minute (bpm).

For moderate-intensity physical activity, a person’s target heart rate should be 60 to 70 percent of his or her maximum heart rate. This maximum rate is based on a person’s age. To get an estimate of your maximum heart rate you can subtract your age from 220 (192 beats per minute for a 28-year-old).

You can check whether you’re hitting your target heart rate during exercise by feeling your pulse frequently or wearing a heart-rate monitor. Many health centers have aerobic exercise machines with built-in heart-rate monitors [2].

Inactivity is not engaging in any regular pattern of physical activity beyond daily functioning.

Kinesiology is the branch of physiology that studies the mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement.

Medicine Balls are a variation of Heavy balls used in physical training. They take different forms and sizes.

Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is a state of chronic decrement in performance and ability to train, in which restoration may take several weeks, months, or even years. This can be alleviated by reducing the amount of training that you do, training at a less intense level, and/or getting some rest [2].

Periodization is a plan for training based on a manipulation of the fitness components with the intent of peaking the athlete for the competitive season or varying health-related fitness training in cycles of harder or easier training [3].

Quads is short for Quadriceps. Thus is the General term used to describe the groups of muscles at the front of the thighs.

Resting Heart Rate (RHR) is the number of heartbeats per minute when the body is at rest. The average RHR for an adult is 72 beats per minute [2]. The best time to measure RHR is in the morning upon waking up.

Spinning Classes are cardiovascular group exercise classes on a stationary bicycle with background music [2]. Spinning classes are usually very intense.

Training Principles are the Fundamental guidelines that form the basis for the development of an exercise training program. They are:

  • Specificity.
  • Overload.
  • Rest/Recovery/Adaptation.
  • Progression.
  • Retrogression/Plateau/Reversibility.
  • Maintenance.
  • Individualization.
  • Warm-Up/Cool-Down.

Treadmill describes an exercise machine with a moving strip like a conveyer belt or two-step like parts on which you can walk or run without moving forward—because you are running on the moving belt.

Triceps is the name given to the group of muscles at the back of the upper arm.

VO2max is an acronym for Maximal Oxygen Consumption is the highest amount of oxygen an individual can take in and utilize to produce ATP aerobically while breathing air during heavy exercise. V is for volume (usually measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute), O2 is for oxygen, and max is for maximum.

Warm-up is something you (should) do to prepare yourself for an activity, especially gentle exercises before physical activity. It can prepare your body for exercise.

Weight-Bearing Exercises are movements performed in which the bodyweight is supported by muscles and bones.

Weight-Bearing Physical Activity / Exercises is any physical activity that imparts a load or impact (such as jumping or skipping) on the skeleton.

Yoga is a set of Physical Activity and mental exercises, Indian in origin, which is intended to give control over the body and mind.

So there you have it. A list of common fitness terminology that most people need to know to get by. Did we miss any? Is there a fitness word or even concept you’ve heard over and over again that we did not mention in this article? If so then let us know in the comments below and we will clarify it for you or some of our readers will do so.

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My interest in Sport and Exercise Dev SA
[1] Go4Life®, “Exercise & Physical Activity,” [Online]. Available: https://go4life.nia.nih.gov. [Accessed 19 June 2019].
[2] S. A. Plowman and D. L. Smith, EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY FOR HEALTH, FITNESS, AND PERFORMANCE, Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a Wolters Kluwer business, 2011.
[3] realbuzz.com, “Glossary Of Health And Fitness Terms A-Z,” [Online].
[4] Health Select, Get Fit.
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Thando W. Dlamini, BA

Sport Development and Exercise Science Practitioner

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