Practical Science on Movement and Pain

The Difference Between Motor Learning and Exercise

When you work on your movement or physical function, are you trying to learn how to move better, or are you just exercising and placing a healthy form of stress on the body? Maybe you are doing both at the same time, or maybe you are focused on only one of these elements. Either way, thinking in these terms is an interesting way to look at the difference between various types of physical training strategies, such as “functional training”, High Intensity Training (“HIT”), or corrective exercise. Here’s what I mean.

Some definitions

My definition of exercise is that you move in some way that puts the body under enough stress to provoke a compensatory adaptation, such as making a muscle bigger, or more capable of generating energy. The best exercise is simply the one that applies the right type and amount of stress to get the sort of adaptation you want without hurting yourself in the process.

Motor Learning means you move in some way that provides the brain with experiences that will teach it how to move the body with more skill, coordination or efficiency. This process is far more complex, subtle, and individual than exercise.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that one process is more important than the other. Of course each is a very valuable tool in helping you improve your physical function. My point is that understanding the differences between these two tools can help you decide which one is right for the job you have in mind.

Of course, the line between exercise and motor learning is not always totally clear, and most workouts will have elements of both. Doing pushups, pullups, squats or lunges place the body under stress in a way that will stimulate adaptations in muscle performance. They will also place demands on good balance and coordination, so doing them will teach you something about how to move more efficiently. “Functional training” might be considered as an attempt to combine exercise with learning along these lines. But there are other approaches to physical training that try to keep learning and exercise as separate as possible. The rationale here is that there may be a tradeoff between the two, so that excessive focus on one will tend to compromise the other, and neither goal is accomplished very efficiently. Here are some examples.

Feldenkrais: all learning no exercise

The Feldenkrais Method is concerned exclusively with learning and not exercise. That is why Feldenkrais referred to his work as “lessons” and his clients as “students.” One common feature of a Feldenkrais lesson is minimizing physical stress, because stress interferes with the learning process. Imagine how hard it would be to learn to play the piano if you were hitting the keys as hard as possible and jogging in place during practice sessions. Or to use a less ridiculous example, imagine a novice trying to learn proper squat form with 300 pounds on his back. Not an optimal learning environment. So the movements in a Feldenkrais lesson are typically done as gentle and slow and easy as possible. Other similar training methods would include Alexander Technique, very low intensity ¬†corrective exercise, physical therapy exercises, and some forms of tai chi.

HIT: all exercise no learning

High Intensity “HIT” style weight training takes the complete opposite of this approach, focusing exclusively on safely stressing the muscles. This is done in part by minimizing the necessity of using any skill to perform the movements. This is why HIT advocates often prefer machines to the use of free weights or other exercises that require more skill and balance to perform. For example, in a squat or lunge you must use proper form, and you risk injury or even falling over if you don’t:

But on a leg press machine all your joints are stabilized and the path of movement is controlled by the machine. So all that’s left to do is focus on pushing as hard as possible – you are not distracted by concerns with safety, proper form, balance, etc. So you maximize the exercise stress by minimizing the skill demand.

The middle ground

As I said earlier, most forms of training fall somewhere in between these two extremes, incorporating elements of physical stress and skill acquisition in the same workout.

For example, running leans more toward exercise stress than motor learning. But running is also a lesson in efficient gait, perhaps especially so if you pay attention to form.

A yoga class leans more toward the development of good movement skill and body awareness, but some classes shift the focus more toward creating exercise stress (often at the expense of any beneficial learning).

Functional training done properly is a nice combination of skill and exercise stress. But sometimes it is biased too much in favor of developing (useless) movement skills, say balancing on a swiss ball while doing squats. In this event, it can degenerate into a circus act, where you have to choose between being safe and while using a tiny amount of weight, or using more weight and killing yourself in the process. Check this out:

The risk/reward here looks rather poor. (But what an effort!)

I think that part of the reason exercises such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, pullups and pushups have stood the test of time is that they are a nice combination of skill and stress, and a good way to get a large bang for your buck in the gym with a minimum of time. Of course many people will not benefit from these exercises for one reason or another, and might be better served by a program that keeps skill training separate from exercise and vice versa.

What do you think? What type of training program do you prefer? Are these useful distinctions? Let me know in the comments.

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24 Responses to The Difference Between Motor Learning and Exercise

  1. Tony Ingram says:

    “The risk/reward here looks rather poor.”

    Yes!!! This what bothers me about the majority of “functional exercise”.

    Anyway..

    They are definitely useful distinctions! Distinctions I make all the time. I really think they are useful in guiding the construction of a truly ‘holistic’ (I hate that word, but it’s kinda appropriate here) exercise program.

    I think when people try to design ‘functional’ programs they end up selling themselves short on the benefits of both learning and exercise by trying to kill two birds with one stone. Plus, the movements they claim are ‘functional’ often look like completely useless movements. Movements I can’t imagine myself using. Ever!

    /rant

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Tony,

      I agree that is the big potential drawback with functional exercise – you try do two things at once and accomplish neither. And I didn’t really address it in the post but the carryover issue is a big one.

  2. BG says:

    Thanks Todd for this article.

    I think I prefer the motor learning approach. At least at the beginning – first learning how to move and then building up. First proper form and then exploring how much I can stress my body while maintaining good form.

    And yes, I prefer rather safe body weight exercises. I go for short runs, do some squats and pushups and sometimes I do some KB swings.

    But that’s interesting food for thought!

  3. Simon Primal says:

    Great article Todd!

    I think what many strength and conditioning coaches fail to realise is that although “functional exercises” do require the skills of motor unit recruitment, balance and coordination, there is little, if any, transfer across to other activities such as sport etc.

    I would not even recommend a normal squat to an athlete, let alone a swiss ball squat. Even the basic movement requires many hours of practice to achieve good technique – Time that could be devoted to practising their chosen sport – The leg press can be learnt is seconds, has much lower risk, and the results are more focused on the leg muscles themselves.

    In my humble opinion, the only reason one should be squatting with a barbell, is to become better at squatting with a barbell!

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Simon,

      Great point on the “transfer” issue, I didn’t get into that in the post but it is a very related issue. Your points on the squat are well taken, but I still think it’s a good solution for many people, especially if they find it fun and more likely to show up for the workout. Personally I get a little bored with leg presses (although besides that I think its the best leg exercise for me.)

  4. Superb stuff. I mix it up with HIT training and then lots of other movement. Safety is key – the last thing I want is injury from exercise stopping me getting to do the fun moves , the hiking etc

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Thanks Chris! Yeah most of my training is HIT plus Feldenkrais or Z stuff. Most of my “skill plus exercise” work is on the sports field. I think I am about your age and very much share your concern with making exercise as safe as possible.

  5. Bennett says:

    It’s always the middle ground that I find the most challenging (isn’t that just the way in life?) When I’m doing stuff with little to no exertion, and focus on learning movement, I’m okay. And when I’m just flooring it to the redzone, I can do that, too. The real trick always comes in trying to find that balance zone between intensity and form.

    D’you figure it’s better to just go from one pole to the other, or is it more beneficial to make practice as much like ‘performance’ as possible, and thus *have* to find middle ground?

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Bennett,

      I do a little of both, going from one pole to the other, trying out the middle ground, seeing what works best for me. I find the middle ground a little more fun and playful but more likely to lead to injury or delayed recovery or inability to progress. And if you want to compete at something, you will need go to there – on the field at least. It’s different for everyone for sure.

  6. Filip says:

    To simon,
    I disagree that for an athlete time spent in the weight room should be spent instead on practising the sport. Ofcouse one must focus primarily on the mastery of one’s sport but there is no reason why an athelete cannot have a supplementary weight training programe. I am a basketball player in college and workout in the gym 6 days a week and when it comes to playing on the court the feeling of strength and power that I have is definately beneficial.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Filip,

      Perhaps I should not speak for Simon, but I think his point is that the leg press is preferable to the squat as a way to train strength, not that training strength is a bad idea. Squatting requires at least some time spent in learning the skill of squatting. Time which could be spent on the court learning basketball skills.

  7. Hi Todd.

    Regarding what is useful or useless I think that depends on for what purpose. Personally I have experimentet with lots of different movements and skills, and for some years with a lot of emphasis on including various balance challenges in other exercises. And also some stuff just for fun, and for the extra skill and learning challenge. One of these have been learning to do squats on the swiss ball. I am not sure how many I can do now, but I could do at least 10 at one point, and also at times with some weight, using medicine balls and also a barbel a couple of times. I also learned to jump from the ground and onto the ball.

    My experience is that this, together with other balance stuff I did, has benefitted me in several ways. Performance in such areas as downhill skiing, telemark skiing, especially in the moguls and off pist, and similar activities went up, even with me skiing a lot less than I did in my younger years. At 40, I am a better skier than I was at 20, when I actually did ski a lot.

    Also, from a fun, and learning skill challenge perspective, learning various stuff like standing on the ball, jumping on to it and doing various movements on top of it, is great. For a while, when I was going to the gym on a more regular basis than now, I focused more on creative movement, learning skills, inventing new variations of old stuff, making them more challenging from a balance perspective, and the result was a lot more fun, and a way more creative body, with a higher capacity for adapting to stress, real world challenges, and also a pretty cool brain “buzz”. Almost like my nervous system said “this is fun, give me some more challenges”.

    From a safety perspective it might be a bit more dangerous than most other regular gym stuff, but compared to being thrown in a martial arts class, or falling while skiing at high speed and other such stuff, not so much. It off course helps to know how to fall. But, with a barbel, I agree, the risk is higher and I rather recommend using something else, like a medicine ball held in front, or a sandbag.

    Obviously, I am not a regular person coming to the gym. I have done lots of Feldenkrais, body oriented trauma therapy and so on over 20 years, including various trainings, and because of this have a way higher capacity for learning, and “talent” for learning new stuff, than I had when I was younger and a lot stiffer in many was, and also more so than the regular person or athlete coming to the gym.

    Regarding the distinction between learning and HIT, in my experience it is possible to include learning also in HIT. You do the same learning stuff you would at slow speed, but now at a high speed. Of course it helps starting at a slow speed, building up. From a learning and awareness perspective, you notice different things going on in your body at the different speeds, and you will notice stuff at high speed that was not there at a slower speed. But of course, this is normally not instructed for in a HIT class or system, so it is something the learner have to include for him/herself.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Hans,

      Those are great points. I think the creative, challenging and seemingly “useless” movements you have benefited from count as “play”, which is a very good thing.

      I have also found that I can do HIT style training on machines and get a “learning” effect with proper awareness. But I put this down more to my background with Feldenkrais and my own initiative more than the nature of the exercise itself.

  8. Jenny says:

    Although most people are relating this to the gym or exercise, this also relates to ‘skill’ as in learning to play the harp or piano. Ideally, we learn to play a piece really slowly, focussing on the movements. Only later do you speed it up = HIT style. If you don’t believe me, just watch some of the fast fiddle and harp players in a session! However, frequently, learning the tune gets in the way, and you move too fast in the beginning, and technique disappears!

  9. Jeremy Brown says:

    Todd,
    I can not tell you how much I enjoy your articles. I believe that every different type of movement you addressed has it’s place. Obviously the people who are going overkill have the place of amusing us. But I refuse to put myself at risk for small rewards. I am right on board with every point made. Here is the medical definition of “functional exercise”. There is nothing sports specific about clinging a 90lb bar over head to a back squat. It just leaves me in concerning aw.
    I will be borrowing that video for my site. Thanks again for the post.

    Jeremy Brown
    fitnessfunctional.com

  10. Oli says:

    Nice blog Todd
    Another different classification I find useful for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is between ‘learning’ and ‘drilling’. Akin to Jenny’s music example.

    Learning is generally slower and exploratory, playing with variations. making mistakes and learning from them is an important part the process.

    Drilling is repetition in order to make a learned movement pattern automatic. Mistakes should be avoided so as not to make them automatic or get injured. Drilling often becomes a form of conditioning/HIT. Of course, the more drills become HIT the more they need to be simplified.

    I think it’s a pretty grey area though and drilling has lots of possibilities for learning too.

    As to Simon’s comments on the squat. I personally feel that squatting a barbell has helped me learn how to transfer power from my legs through my trunk while strengthening both. I have very limited time at the gym and I find the squat a very efficient movement to learn and practice and really helpful for take-downs and guard passing in BJJ.

    I do however understand that the transfer is often overstated and I appreciate reading Simon’s point of view -great food for thought.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Thanks Oli. What you are saying about jiu jitsu reminds me of the idea of motor learning being divided into stages – from cognitive (lots of conscious attention needed) and then eventually to automatic (no conscious attention needed.)

      • Peter says:

        I am another one from the BJJ world, and prior to that was in the taiji world.

        The approach in taiji is much more focused on the efficiency-of-movement-first approach with a lot of internal focus on how and from where you are moving. Yet even within my taiji studies there were continuing peeling back of the proverbial onion to get even deeper into the core of movement.

        BJJ is a whole different animal in which conditioning is essential. Fifteen minutes to half an hour warming up with both gross movements like bodyweight squats and jumping jacks and more BJJ-specific movements like shrimping and sit throughs.

        As one progresses in BJJ, one naturally begins to seek more efficient ways of movement (both because the level of effort is strenuous and when one is sparring one needs to conserve energy).

        I find BJJ to be in that middle ground between learning and exercise with the learning increasing as one progresses in the art.

        It’s also interesting to remember that Feldenkrais studied judo and wrote a book on newaza (the ground game which is the direction that BJJ has gone from its judo roots).

  11. Michael says:

    Hi Todd,
    Just found your site, and not an experienced user of discussion forums so hope you don’t mind a question on an old post. I am currently ‘learning’ using Feldenkrais, and exercising using personal functional training. I have the time so I don’t mind the time investment required to learn to do the functional exercises correctly. However do you think that functional training might hinder learning because it is more “uncomfortable” than HIT even when done efficiently, and so you learn discomfort? Thanks.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      To the extent that an exercise causes pain and discomfort, it will hinder learning, at least compared to the learning that would be available in the absence of pain. Then again some things can only be learned in a context that might cause pain. For example, if you want to learn how to be an NFL QB, you will need to put yourself in a situation where you feel pain sometimes. (Not sure if that answers your question.)

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