What is the purpose of an exercise?

functional movement s m a r t training

This vlog post is from a tutorial previously only available in our professional membership area. However, we feel this is such an important topic we wanted to raise greater awareness to the importance and relevance of individualised approaches to exercise prescription and programming. It poses two very important questions:

  • What is the purpose of an exercise?
  • Can exercise centric training systems truly serve the interests of all those that they profess to help achieve their aspirations?

To answer these questions, we must first understand what an exercise is and the role they play for those who practice them and those that teach them. We must also consider where the exercises we know come form and for what purpose they were originally intended. It is also probably important at this point to clarify what I mean by an exercise centric training system. These are training systems, approaches or methods that typically teach a repertoire of exercises that are synonymous with that system. Often the exercises are unique to that exercise system but not always, some exercises seem to be interchangeable between systems although the names are often changed. The opposite of such a system is a person centric system, such a system starts with an individual or a group of similar individuals and then builds training tasks around their particular needs. Most importantly a person centric system focusses on the desired outcomes of the individuals that practice them, not the ability to perform the exercises to perfection.

Put simply, an exercise centric system can be viewed as a pass-time or recreational activity, just like any other physical activity that someone might take part in for enjoyment and fulfilment like running, cycling, swimming, dancing or other sporting activities. That’s not to say that such activities don’t have any side benefits to health and general fitness as most of them do, just like running, cycling, swimming, dancing or other sporting activities. In contrast a person centric system is only a means to an end; an outcome orientated training system that is undertaken only to facilitate the acquisition of positive outcomes that serve the aspirations of those that work through the bespoke training tasks set within that system.

Now this could end up being a deeply philosophical topic that delves into the physiological, psychological, and psychosocial factors that drive human behaviour. However, this is only a relatively short tutorial and it really doesn’t have to get too deep for us to start considering some quite awkward questions regarding our personal and professional motivations as movement teachers.


Do we need exercises?

It wasn’t too long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with a very well-respected colleague of mine about this very topic and they were presenting very compelling arguments as to why we as movement teachers we should distance ourselves from the word ‘exercise’ all together, particularly those of us that are more inclined towards functional movement and performance-based training agendas, as opposed to recreational agendas. While I actually agree with much of what my esteemed colleague was getting at, I also feel the best way to deal with the issues that crop up around this word and the activities people pursue as a consequence, is to clarify the meaning and purpose of an exercise and the training approaches that utilise them. After all, whether we like it or not, we as movement teachers are operating within what could be reasonably termed as an ‘exercise industry’ and make no mistake it is an industry! Like most industries it is focused on creating product to sell to consumers and it doesn’t much matter whether those consumers actually need those products, only that they believe they do! While this may be good for business it is not necessarily good for those clients, students and patients that put their trust in us to help them achieve something. This is why we place so much emphasis on working with a person-centric approach here at KineticNRG MTA.


What is an exercise?

According to most dictionaries, it is….

  • An action or actions intended to improve something or make something happen
  • A physical activity that you do to make your body strong and healthy
  • A short piece of work that you do to practise something you are learning
  • The use of, or the action of doing something

We could therefore reasonably say that a physical exercise is a physical activity or movement sequence, that is performed to provoke or reinforce a specific positive response, or change, to either a physiological, neurological or psychological aspect of an individual. The key words here are specific and individual.

This means by their very nature; exercises need to be bespoke and not generic. They need to be selected or created from scratch for an individual or individuals to help them achieve specific outcomes. In other words, to select, modify or create an exercise you first need a person and a desired outcome for them to work towards.

A truly person-centred approach would start with no exercises, only methods of attaining what an individual needs or wants to achieve and the skills needed to create the appropriate training tasks to help facilitate that achievement.

Here in lies the problem with exercise centric training systems that focus on pre-built exercises that are generically given for pre-determined generic outcomes. This unfortunately is how many exercise systems are put together and the reason why a large majority of exercise instructors, teachers and coaches fall into the trap of collecting exercises to teach and then look for justifiable reasons to give them to their clients, students or patients.

Well-designed exercise centric training systems do at least seek to modify exercises to an appropriate level, so an individual is be able to perform them satisfactorily and safely. However, the focus of progression still usually gravitates towards the next level of an exercise synonymous with that system, without considering if the exercise or its progression is pertinent to the desired outcomes of the individual being set that exercise.

Worse still, is that many exercise training systems profess to serve the interests of specific groups of individuals by simply putting the word ‘for’ between their trademarked brand name and the population group they seek to attract, while doing little or nothing to adapt the ‘exercises’ to reflect the training needs of the individuals they hope to draw in.


How did we get here?

To understand why we end up with exercise centric systems you have to go back and examine how and why they were conceived. Almost every one of them along with the exercises and equipment used within them, originate from a training application for which they were entirely pertinent; serving the acquisition of specific outcomes for a specific individual or group of similar individuals. However, once divorced from this original application they become just another popular activity that MAY have some incidental benefits to SOME individuals outside the original population group they were created for. The flip side of this is that they are just as likely to be pointless or even detrimental to some individuals that practice them. Many of these exercise centric systems borrow from one another so much so that the original source of many of the exercises and training principles is hard to trace. The resulting system or method is then often enshrined in woolly terminology that makes it sound like the next new evidence-based discovery, that will deliver whatever you want to believe it will. The true benefits of many exercise practices are hard to scrutinise, as the pros and cons are often measurable only in the points of view of those that preach or practice them and you quickly run into barriers formed on belief rather than facts.

It is not just exercises that migrate from specific applications to the nebulous ether that enshrouds the exercise industry. Specific approaches, techniques and methodologies also get acquired by unrelated training environments, their meaning and rationale often lost in the process leaving us with common practices across a wide range of applications that are not relevant to the applications they are now being applied to. Once taken out of context these approaches are often embellished and manipulated to the point they are so perverted they bare little or no resemblance to the original meaning or application.

Core Stability training is a case in point! A vague, ill-defined concept that evolved from some very specific research on recruitment patterns associated with NSLBP in the 1990’s, has now grown into a multimillion-dollar market in its own right. Now, More often than not viewed as an integral component of physical fitness and performance, the lacking of which, is used to explain away every manner of ills and musculoskeletal dysfunction, from pain experiences to poor performance on the playing field or theatre stage. Most of the exercises spawned or reformatted under this hollow agenda are about as functionally relevant to most human beings as balancing on your head with your fingers in your ears!

But that is a discussion for another day! Want to join the discussion? Sign-up for the next 'CORE Conundrums Workshop'


What do people need?

What we need to focus on in this tutorial is what people need and want from exercises and the exercise systems that encompass them. Doing so will enable us to be more objective about whether the exercises and training systems we know and love can truly deliver on their promises. And if not, what we can do about it so that at least in our own working environments we can provide an objectively reasoned approach that can deliver where possible and be honest enough to admit when it cannot and refer on where necessary.


What is an exercise for?

What do people want? Why do they exercise? Ultimately, we can divide the reasons into two main categories:

  • To improve and support a good state of health – which means doing anything that positively impacts their physical, mental and social well being.
  • To attain, maintain or enhance fitness & Performance potential for specific activities and environments.

This covers a massive spectrum of reasons, so big in fact that you could actually say people exercise for almost any reason and in many ways whether or not those reasons are valid is unimportant. As long as they get something positive from the experience, then the exercises they perform can be viewed as worthwhile. The problems only arise when the exercises people do are actually part of the reason they are struggling to achieve their goals and aspirations. If someone feels a sense of achievement by holding a plank position for two minutes that sense of achievement will soon fall away if they learn that that very exercise is contributing to the dysfunctional patterning in and around their hips that is preventing them from improving their 5k running time or worse still is the root cause of why they get back neck and shoulder pain.

It is therefore important at the very least, that we as movement teachers consider the individuals we teach as individuals and that we consider very carefully the motivations behind them seeking our assistance. So long as we can objectively justify the approaches, we adopt along with the training tasks or exercises we prescribe, then the purpose of those exercises should be clear to see.

We must also adopt a process of ongoing evaluation of the work and training tasks we set; constantly assessing their suitability and effectiveness in relation to the reasons why someone has chosen to work with us along with the progress they are making towards their goals.



Goal setting is at the heart of a person centric approach. Setting SMARTER goals is the most effective way to achieve this but requires high quality objective evaluation techniques in order to build those goals in a meaningful way. Goal setting is a big topic that warrants a separate tutorial or more to cover it properly but the key words from the SMARTER mnemonic to consider in regard to this tutorial and the creation of meaningful training tasks or exercises are SPECIFIC, ATTAINABLE and RELEVANT. Just as is needed for each of the Goals being set, any training activity put in place to help achieve them, needs to be SPECIFIC, ATTAINABLE and most importantly RELEVANT to the goals being set.

Develop your understanding or SMARTER training approaches with the upcoming 'SMART Movements Matter Workshop'

It is only through constantly considering the relationship between an exercise and the desired outcomes it represents, that the justification and the purpose of that exercise can truly be measured. This evaluation process never stops, if it does the exercise ceases to be an exercise and simply becomes a physical activity that may or may not be helpful or useful to the individual performing it. That will be more a matter of luck than judgement!

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