Learning new exercise skills

Learning new exercise skills to help reach your goals

When it comes to exercise, our initial focus is often on just getting moving – like going for a jog, playing a sport or joining the gym. This is for good reason… living an active lifestyle has many benefits to offer, from stronger muscles and bones, to better mood and sleep.

However, for many of us, sticking with exercise can involve much more than getting moving. It can also include learning new skills – like how to tailor your jogging for the best results, perform a sporting skill well, or using gym equipment safely and with the right technique.

But learning things like this can be hard work, right?

The good news is that with the right support, learning new exercise abilities can be easier than you think. In this article, Accredited Exercise Physiologist Ned Jelbart explains how you can use simple strategies from the field of skill acquisition to improve your ability to learn new skills, and exercise right.

Exercise Smarter

The field of skill acquisition is the science behind how to learn skills, such as those involved in physical activity, efficiently and effectively. It’s where learning meets exercise, and the result can be a positive cycle of improvement. For example:

  • When you learn a new skill (like how to use all the pieces of equipment in your new gym program), you feel a sense of pride in what you’ve achieved;
  • Your sense of pride motivates you to continue exercising, and this gives you the confidence to try new pieces of equipment (if you’ve done it once, you can do it again);
  • Feeling comfortable using various pieces of equipment means you’ve got options – you’re not stuck waiting for a piece of equipment that someone else is using and when you’re bored with a particular exercise you simply find a more interesting alternative;
  • As a result, exercise stays interesting – you get into a routine of exercising regularly, and you start to notice that you look and feel better;
  • This makes you more confident still, and you continue to exercise regularly and achieve your goals.


So the question is, how can you use skill acquisition to kick start a positive cycle like this? Let’s start by looking at one strategy that has been shown to be particularly effective.

Spaced practice

Spacing practice, or distributing practice as it is also called, means spreading out practice over a relatively greater number of shorter sessions, instead of fewer longer sessions. For example, it could mean completing 4x 30 minute training sessions instead of 1x 120 minute session. In this equation, the total time spent practicing is the same, but importantly, the frequency of the spaced practice is greater.

Why does spacing work?

Research from various fields, including education, psychology, medicine and exercise, has repeatedly shown spaced practice to produce better long-term effects compared to longer less frequent sessions. But why does it work?

One potential reason is that engaging in smaller chunks of practice at a time allows the body and mind to complete higher quality practice before fatigue kicks in and reduces the body’s ability to persist. More time doing higher quality practice = more improvement.

Another reason relates to how humans learn. Learning occurs through a process called ‘elaborative encoding’, which involves us retrieving content that we have previously learned and applying it in new or repeated situations. Spaced practice requires us to repeat this retrieval and application process more often, and in doing so, more deeply reinforce and consolidate the skills being learned.

How to use spacing

There are various things you can do to space your practice, utilising this technique to help achieve your exercise goals. Some examples include:

1. Look for new things you’d like to learn: Look for new things and include them in your exercise goals – you might be interested to learn how to do a complex lift at the gym, or to learn basic Yoga – the choices are practically endless, and it could start a positive cycle of improvement that boosts your health and wellbeing.

2. Schedule regular exercise into your week: Using shorter blocks of time (like 15-20 minutes for example) can fit better into your busy lifestyle, and it can also be more effective for learning new skills (bonus!).

3. Play along at home: Combine regular physical activity, such as a regular sessions with an exercise professional or in a group, with short chunks of practice at home (like when you’re watching tv or waiting for the kettle to boil) to space out your practice and fast track your progress.

Exercise professionals can help

Accredited Exercise Physiologists are experts in using the principles of skill acquisition to help you learn new skills and get the most out of your exercise. They can help with both what type of exercise to do, and how to do it, to help you meet your goals safely and successfully.

To find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist in your area, click here.

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Written by Ned Jelbart. Ned is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Lead Instructor at Applied 8 Education and Professional Development.