Exercise Vs. Skill

May 17, 2010 // Al Kavadlo

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