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.