Exercise Vs. Skill

Hand walking is a skill, but it can also be exercise

This is a guest post by personal trainer and fitness expert Eric Bergmann.

I’ve long been a fan of a dangerous and irritating word: “why.” I’m fond of applying it when people tell me about their new “fitness” quests. Outside of making me a social pariah, questioning people’s motives has led me to an interesting discovery:

Many people build their fitness goals around a skill, not around exercise.

I’ll explain what I mean more in a moment, but first two caveats: 1) there’s nothing wrong with using a skill rather than exercise to improve fitness, and 2) all fitness regimens have some degree of risk. That said, it is crucial to realize that when using a skill rather than exercise, the primary goal is no longer fitness – it is skill enhancement. The reason this is so important is that skill enhancement comes with a significantly greater degree of inherent risk, and may require an additional exercise regimen to offset the higher injury potential and to achieve peak performance.

“What the heck is he talking about?”

Let’s use an example to clarify what the heck I’m talking about. Bob hasn’t been exercising but wants to lose twenty pounds of fat. Bob decides that he will start running to lose weight. However, Bob knows that he is unlikely to stay on track with his running, so he enters a race to force him to train. His friend at work is running a half-marathon in a few months, so he decides to do the same.

Distance running is a skill that must be developed

It would surprise me if Bob gets fit instead of injured. Bob is carrying 20 lbs of extra fat and hasn’t been exercising. He’s not conditioned to run a long distance. True, as he begins running, his cardiovascular system will become more efficient and he’ll be able to run farther without being out of breath, but will his core muscles be well conditioned enough to protect his lower-back? Will his gluteal muscles have enough strength and endurance to protect his knees? Will his posture be good enough to protect his neck? Most likely he’ll start getting some minor aches and pains after a while – a sore knee, a mild backache or some extra tension around his neck. He won’t think much of it, but as he keeps running and keeps adding on miles, the minor aches and pains will become full blown injuries. Ask around the office; you probably know a Bob or two — someone with the best of intentions who was derailed because of the gap between skill and exercise.

Where did Bob go wrong? Bob wanted to start exercising so he could get fit, but instead he tried to develop a skill he wasn’t ready to handle. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to run a half-marathon, but, for Bob, it crosses that line between skill and exercise. Bob’s goal to lose the 20 lbs of fat could have been handled with a combination of strength, cardiovascular and flexibility work paired with an improved diet (for the record, I believe that cardiovascular training is actually the least important of those factors when it comes to fat loss – yes, I put stretching above cardio when it comes to Bob’s fat loss). Running a few miles is exercise. Running a dozen miles is a skill. There’s no set point where exercise becomes skill – my rule of thumb is that if you can’t do it the same way two or three times per week, you’ve probably crossed that line.

I’ve chosen distance running because it’s a skill I see most often confused with exercise. If I said I was going to start cage fighting to lose some weight, people would laugh at me. They would laugh because of the high risk of injury to someone like me – someone without the skills and conditioning of a cage fighter. So why is it not hilarious when someone says they’re going to run a mid to long distance race because they want to lose some weight? They also lack the skills and conditioning requisite to the task.

To embark on a training program – be it for exercise or skill development, you have to first know what your real goal is. Only after that can you and/or your coach make sense of your assessments and create a plan. If your goal involves a skill, go at it and have an exercise program based around keeping your body healthy enough for the skill. If your goal is based around fitness, start exercising at a level where you’re comfortable, build slowly, and listen to your body!


Eric Bergmann has been a personal trainer for 9 years, working both in big-box and boutique health clubs, as well as in private in-home settings. With a specialization in corrective exercise, Eric blends traditional training methods with cutting edge performance enhancement techniques. If you have questions or comments for Eric you can send them to eric4string@gmail.com

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  • elizabethharcourt

    this is a great entry, though i know eric wrote it, al. this is what we were talking about earlier today!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yep – be patient with distance running, Betsy. I'm glad you like this one; I hope to have Eric contribute to my blog again at some point.

  • http://www.strengthrunning.com Fitz

    This reminds me of freshmen in HS, overzealous to prove their fitness try to keep up with the veterans for time and distance. Injuries happen all the time because they haven't built up their running skills. New runners are just not efficient enough. A good test is to have them do 10-20 minutes of running drills. If they look good, they have more skill and can progress more rapidly. If not, slow progression is the name of the game. Great write-up of the differences; loved it!

  • http://twitter.com/simonvd Simon v Duivenvoorde

    Wow. For me an amazing lesson and eye opener. I'm exercising at this moment, but I haven't progressed that far that I can call it a skill. Thanks for the insight!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Fitz! Running is like anything else worthwhile: it takes patience, dedication and humility to make progress.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad you found this helpful, Simon. Keep at it!

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  • Miranda

    I'm curious about Eric's theory that cardio is less important than diet, strength and stretching for weight loss. I've always been taught that cardio is paramount. Do you agree with Eric, Al? Can you explain a bit of the thinking behind the theory?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I don't completely agree with Eric, but I don't completely disagree either. I feel that flexibility/mobility is often under-valued in the overall wellness picture, while cardio is over-emphasized, but I wouldn't say one is more important than the other personally. Eric?

  • Eric

    Hi Miranda,

    I'll provide the short version here, since I'm planning to write an article about this in the near future. To be completely honest, improving mobility doesn't directly relate to fat-loss, but what it does relate to are all the factors that do cause fat loss.

    For instance, if my client doesn't have good dorsiflexion (she has tight calves) or hip flexion (tight hamstrings) then we may have a harder time promoting fat loss. When we squat, her range-of-motion around her ankles will be smaller, not allowing her knees to travel as far forward, forcing her to bring her torso further forward to keep from falling over. But, because of her tight hamstrings, we have to reduce the depth of her squat or her lowerback will start rounding very early, *especially* since she's pitched forward at the hips because of her tight calves, exposing her to a high risk of injury.

    We may have to cut squats out for a while, or do a partial range-of-motion squats and potentially reduce the resistance/weight, and she'll be using her quads less during the movement. If, like me, you believe that EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) is a crucial factor in fat loss, then you're into exercises that use a lot of muscle at a high intensity, like squats.

    This is getting a little long already, so I won't go into the radically increased risk or injury (both during and not during exercise) associated with poor mobility, but injuries — even aches and pains — will obviously throw off your fat-loss goals.

    I hope you'll still read the article after this!

  • Miranda

    Very interesting, thanks for the replies Eric and Al. And I'd certainly like to read your article Eric. In my experience, just running or just practicing yoga hasn't helped me lose weight. In fact, I've even gained weight during periods in which I work out a lot, which can be frustrating. But I find that when I stay away from processed carbs, go to yoga, and do strength training (yay bootcamp!) I do lose weight. So it seems that for me at least a multi-pronged approach is necessary. Thanks for helping me understand why!

  • Eric

    I'm all for a multi-pronged approach. Sounds like you're finding your path, which is the most important thing.

    The pending article may also help shed some light on why bootcamp has been more successful for you than a traditional cardio workout. I'm sure avoiding processed foods is helping as well. Keep up the great work!

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  • http://www.chronomaitre.org/ilan.html Ilan Vardi

    Nice post, the skill element is only being now understood in the USA. For example, the role of neural recruitment in maximum strength has long been undervalued versus muscle hypertrophy, in other words, the misconception that you need to have big muscles to be strong. Just one look at middle weight (170lb) Olympic weightlifters is proof that size doesn’t matter, they can outlift the biggest bodybuilders.

    As you state, skill is also inherent in aerobic sports, obviously in “technique sports” such as speed skating and swimming where good technique is as important as fitness. I was in the pool the other day and saw a lady swimming next to me, and it was obvious that her kicking was actually slowing her down. In fact, if she just used a kickboard, she would probably go backwards! Of course, she was certainly getting more of a workout per distance than I was…. Even seemingly straightforward sports like road cycling, experienced riders have more efficient pedal strokes, as in swimming, their legs don’t resist each other as a beginner might do, and that also means that a seasoned cyclist will get less of a workout for a given distance than a beginner. That’s why the currently fashionable fixed gear bikes have traditionally been used for early season training, they teach you to adapt your pedaling to all conditions, that is, they work the skill part of pedaling.

    Keep up the good work,

    -ilan

  • http://www.chronomaitre.org/ilan.html Ilan Vardi

    Diet is paramount over everything, and exercise is necessary to make sure that you are not losing muscle while losing weight (which would make you less heavy but fatter because your fat percentage would increase).

    The physical process is quite simple, for most people, one pound = 7,000 calories which means you need to expend 7,000 calories more than you eat. Now you could do that by eating the same but working out more, but it seems that decreasing caloric intake works best.

    Lots of low intensity aerobic exercise does not guarantee weight loss, because increased food intake will mean you won’t lose weight (though you will become fitter). Just look at cycle tourists who ride around long distances at a slow pace (10-15mph) and you should be able to find lots of overweight people. On the other hand, go to a bike race (speeds averaging up to 25-30mph on level roads) and you won’t see hardly any. That observation seems to disprove the commonly held belief that low intensity cardio is the “fat burning zone.”

    Well, my seemingly contradictory advice would be to: diet sensibly and work out moderately or else eat what you want but build up to a very intense exercise program.

    -ilan

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Ilan – thanks for your comment. Technique is a big part of all athletic endeavors – it takes a lot less energy for me to run a few miles than it did when I started running. Even something like a muscle-up is as much about technique as it is strength (though it takes a great deal of both!).

  • http://herbwifemama.wordpress.com/ Herbwifemama

    Great post, definitely got me thinking. So, would my couch to 5k program be an effective way to promote fat loss (and not a skill I’m not ready for)? Especially if I study proper running form?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I don’t know anything about you, so it’s impossible for me to assess what you are capable of.  Having said that, finishing a 5k is a reasonably attainable short term goal for most people.

  • http://ebconditioning.com/ Eric

    I would say that most people know how to run safely, if not efficiently, without ever studying any running form.  That said, without a proper assessment, it’s impossible to know if your muscles and connective tissues are are ready for you to start running.  THAT said, it’s been my experience that most active people are woefully unprepared to start running without any preparation, much less someone getting up off the couch for the first time in a while.  Estimates for compression with the impact of running are typically in the 2-3x/bodyweight range.  (I.e., if you weigh 150 lbs, each stride delivers the same kind of compression squatting with 150-300 lbs on your back would provide.  This is a bit of a simplification in my view, but worth noting.)

    DO NOT take this as a specific recommendation for you, but in general, the following areas need work before subjecting yourself to the impact of running:

    Tissue Quality:
    Plantar fascia
    IT Band & TFL
    Rectus Femoris & Vastus Lateralis
    Pec minor & subclavius

    Flexibility:
    Gastroc/Soleus (calf)
    Psoas/Rec Fem/TFL (hip flexors)
    Hip adductor group
    Deep cervical flexors

    Mobility:
    Ankle
    Hip (anterior and medial)
    Thoracic spine

    Activation & Stabilization:
    Gluteus maximus & medius
    Rectus abdominis
    Transversus abdominis
    External Obliques
    Quadratus lumborum

    While this may sound daunting, it really amounts to about 10-15 minute dynamic warmup of foam rolling, stretching, mobilizations, and activations.  The real question is whether or not this is appropriate for you — something only a proper assessment can answer.

  • http://www.comfortor.de/footexercises.html Gluteus Exercise

    Great information! Thats really make me think about the exercise more seriously,thanks for sharing the post.

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