On the benefits of learning to move your body, instead of just moving things

Most gyms have an overabundance of overused machines.

These machines even have fancy little images, allowing you to figure them out on the spot.

This is actually one of the problems; they’re way too easy to use.

This article will cover:

-      Two glaring problems with machine – aka, isolation – training

-      The three zones of learning

-      How different types of physical activities deliver very different outcomes

-      Why functionality should be a priority


Isolation training is far too specialised

Isolation exercises aren’t inherently useless. They are commonly used for rehabilitation, and bodybuilding.

But that’s pretty much it.

You might be using isolation training for a fat loss goal. I understand the logic here; that you simply want to put on lean mass in order to increase your metabolic rate and blah blah blah. Cool story, bro, you’re still bodybuilding.

In any case, this type of training could be more trouble than it’s worth.

Rehabilitation studies of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, suggest that certain isolated movements increase the shearing forces in the knee joint [1-3]. Essentially, isolated movements can cause undue strain on the internal structures of the knee, making them a riskier proposition, not only for individuals trying to rehab their knee injuries, but also for healthy individuals just trying to build their quads.

This is just one example of many isolated movements you’d be better off avoiding entirely.


Isolation training offers the brain almost zero stimulation

You’re basically just a troll, grunting as you move a stack of weights up and down with the help of a pulley.

Think about this for a second. From day one, you can perform the machine movement with relative ease. Sure, it might be new, but it’s certainly not difficult to perform until you increase the load.

And even then, you hardly need to focus on your technique. Machines are designed this way, so that the amateur user can follow a simple, linear pattern.

Short-term risk of injury is supposedly decreased.

However, long-term risk of injury – and severe boredom – is increased.

The training sessions also then become repetitive workouts.

And if you can sit down and watch TV while you strength train, you’re doing a lot wrong.


Zones of learning

Movement teacher, Ido Portal explains the three distinct zones of learning that one undergoes on the way toward mastery of a movement pattern [4].

Zone 1 is where you are introduced to a new skill, but you cannot fulfil the physical requirements. It takes a serious amount of concentration to even attempt the task, and you ultimately fail at the execution. There is the most to gain from this zone, by default, because it offers the greatest potential for improvement.

Zone 2 is where you manage to execute the task, albeit crudely. Your ability to correctly perform the movement can still be significantly improved.

Zone 3 is where it’s perfected. This is where the movement pattern has really sunk its roots. This zone offers the least potential for overall improvement, but you can now turn your focus to sharpening your technique.

So how do we incorporate this concept of the zones of learning into our training?

Ido explains that you should not look to remain exclusively in any one zone.

Instead, he says that you should look to spread your focus across all three zones, ensuring they are all present, at all times.

However, given the added neurological benefits that the earlier stages of learning offer, and given how much it is generally neglected, your time should be biased towards the learning, not perfecting, of new movement patterns.

Now to bring this full circle... By solely engaging in such isolation movements, you are skipping integral phases of learning that seem to offer the most profound benefits to your mind and body. The very first day you sit down at a bicep-curl machine, you’re training almost exclusively in Zone 3.

This is true for most of the machines you will find at your local gym.

The learning curve progression is largely non-existent – they do not challenge you – and thus, these exercises are of poor quality and have little to offer a highly evolved human like yourself.


Why train the nervous system?

This leads us to examining the role of the neural networks in the body and how this relates to exercise.

Physical activity triggers a cascade of profound beneficial effects in the body. It can build new brain cells, strengthen connections between neurons, and even stimulate the release of nourishing brain chemicals [5-8].

Here’s the catch; different types of activities trigger different responses.

Skill training appears to potentiate significantly greater neurological changes in the brain than do repetitive, menial activities [9-11].

Furthermore, it has been seen that strength gains can be made without noticeable hypertrophy (growth of muscle), meaning that building lean mass is not pre-requisite to building strength. As it turns out, neurological adaptations are integral to the process of strength accumulation too [12, 13].

This suggests that we can stimulate a cascade of beneficial changes – getting stronger is one of them – simply by learning new skills and movements on a regular basis.

You can train to become stronger and smarter, all at the same time.

Making time for (mal) function

Here’s another reason isolation training is inferior: it offers little functionality.

Look at the most famous bodybuilders from the past. Do they still move the way they did in their prime?

Not even close.

Meanwhile, this 90-year old gymnast has been consistent in a true functional movement practice and would put most of us to shame.

If you choose to body-build, you will develop a series of muscle groups that function relatively well – in an extremely specific manner. The downside is that when you look to incorporate these muscles in a compound – rather than isolation – movement, they will disappoint you.

If you choose to body-build, your stabilising muscles won’t have been developed at all. You will have isolated your prime movers at the expense of the little ones that form integral links in the chain.

If you choose to body-build, you won’t have taken into account the body’s myofascial slings.

If you choose to body-build, you won’t have trained your body in the way it was expecting. You will have overused a jumble of Open – rather than Closed – Kinetic Chain movements, which is rather unnatural and a fair bit less beneficial. The body will eventually break down, and become a shadow of its former self.

If you don’t know what any of these things are, and you use a lot of machines, then you’ve proved my point. You should become familiar with them, and how they relate to your goals.

A couple of crucial questions you need to ask yourself the next time you sit down on a comfortable padded machine seat at the gym are:

What am I trying to achieve?

And can it be done in a more optimal way?


What to do instead

On this, Ido offers some sound advice.

“Learn new stuff. Never leave the playground”.

Look to incorporate a functional movement practice into your life. By performing functional movement patterns, you will (re) learn how to move your entire body as one entity, with all the parts working together as a whole.

And age does not preclude you from gaining back lost function. Your loss can be a temporary one, but that’s for you to decide.

Start with simple compound movements, like deadlifts and squats. Barbells are great, and dumbbells can be useful too, although the versatility of these tools is somewhat limited.

Following on from there, kettlebells, clubs, ropes, rings, and basic bodyweight exercises are some great tools that you can use for a much broader, more functional approach in the gym.

Going even deeper, martial arts, gymnastics and climbing, just to name a few, are demanding physical practices that deliver a myriad of the aforementioned benefits.

Find a movement practice you enjoy, or something you’d like to achieve, that isn’t rooted in vanity. Ever wanted to be able to do a chin-up, or a handstand?

Then do that. The aesthetics will follow, providing your diet is on point.

Don’t perpetually reverse-engineer your body by using machines to build malfunctioning muscle groups.

Build and strengthen it all at once, and learn a new party trick while you’re at it.





Beynnon, B. D., & Fleming, B. C. (1998). Anterior cruciate ligament strain in-vivo: a review of previous work. Journal of biomechanics, 31(6), 519-525.



Fleming, B. C., Ohlén, G., Renström, P. A., Peura, G. D., Beynnon, B. D., & Badger, G. J. (2003). The effects of compressive load and knee joint torque on peak anterior cruciate ligament strains. The American journal of sports medicine, 31(5), 701-707.



Kvist, J., & Gillquist, J. (2001). Sagittal plane knee translation and electromyographic activity during closed and open kinetic chain exercises in anterior cruciate ligament-deficient patients and control subjects. The American journal of sports medicine, 29(1), 72-82.


Rose, B. (Presenter) (November 18, 2015). Ido Portal – A Moving Conversation [Video Podcast]. Retrieved from https://londonreal.tv/ido-portal-a-moving-conversation/



Hötting, K., & Röder, B. (2013). Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(9), 2243-2257.



Taubert, M., Villringer, A., & Lehmann, N. (2015). Endurance exercise as an “endogenous” neuro-enhancement strategy to facilitate motor learning. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9.



Stevenson, S. (Presenter), and Harrell, J. (Producer). (2015, August 27). The Model Health Show 119 – 15 Ways Exercise Can Make You Smarter, Younger, And More Successful [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://theshawnstevensonmodel.com/benefits-of-exercise/



Gomez‐Pinilla, F., & Hillman, C. (2013). The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities. Comprehensive Physiology.



Kumpulainen, S., Avela, J., Gruber, M., Bergmann, J., Voigt, M., Linnamo, V., & Mrachacz-Kersting, N. (2015). Differential modulation of motor cortex plasticity in skill-and endurance-trained athletes. European journal of applied physiology, 115(5), 1107-1115.



Miendlarzewska, E. A., & Trost, W. J. (2014). How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers in neuroscience, 7, 279.



Schlaug, G. (2001). The brain of musicians. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930(1), 281-299.



Gabriel, D. A., Kamen, G., & Frost, G. (2006). Neural adaptations to resistive exercise. Sports Medicine, 36(2), 133-149.



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