Two Types of Learning

by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist | Feb 08, 2016

Two Types of Learning

In the quest for better understanding, learning more is quite important. And no one of any accomplishment will downplay the role of continual learning, even when you’re already an expert. While the quest for ever more knowledge is great, it might be important to remember that there is not one type of learning but two important kinds that are of great value to enhancing our knowledge. It’s important to be aware of both kinds of learning and practice both kinds, because only through a balanced attention to both is the best quality of knowledge available.

The first kind of learning is the more obvious one. It’s the kind in which we reach outside of our sphere of understanding to new facts and relationships of which we were previously unaware. Reading studies, reviews of the literature, books, articles, and even blog posts about information outside of our previous awareness are the most common forms of this kind of learning. And it’s of course the most important kind, because no matter what else you do, you can’t become too wise or too learned without access to new facts about the outside world, even with the deepest of introspection.

Introspection? That’s where the second and very important kind of learning comes in. By thinking deeply about the information you already know, something very critical to understanding occurs. You sift through all of your newly acquired data, and you begin to sort it. Logical relationships align the learned material into an integrated web of understanding. By thinking deeply on already learned information (often by preparing to have to explain it to someone else with less knowledge), you allow that information to be organized into useful relationships that can actually be used in the real world, can predict the real world, and can give you the edge in whatever outlet you’re planning to use that knowledge.

Have you ever read a bunch (perhaps had a late night session of reading article after article about getting leaner or stronger) and just felt like “man, I’m learning a TON!” Of course! But then sometimes a friend asks you a question that stumps your right away, and it seemed so closely related to the topic at hand! Ugh!!! For example, let’s say you just read a couple of articles on the idea of maximal recoverable volume (MRV), and understood that you should train, on average, around your MRV if you want the best results. A couple of weeks ago, you also read some articles on the effect of low calories on fatigue and recovery ability… the fewer calories you eat per day, the lower your ability to recover.

Then a friend asks you how much they should train on a fat loss phase vs. a muscle gaining phase, and all of a sudden, you feel like you know NOTHING! “Ummmmm, well… you’re supposed to train a lot on a fat loss phase to burn calories… and high volume training is good too… but you need your recovery or else you’ll go too far…. UGH!”

Without a unification of concepts, even simple questions just outside of the direct information you learned can be a big mystery. BUT, if you take the time to think deeply about the concepts you’ve learned, you’ll be able to understand more and more about exactly how they relate, AND… so many more of the intricate relationships between other ideas that they can shed light on. Once you accomplish this second type of “integration” learning, you’ll discover that a whole lot more questions seem to have answers that not only make sense for that question, but tie in to the other related concepts in a logical, even beautiful way.

In the example above, you can make the connection that yes, a person on a fat loss phase is indeed supposed to train at their MRV, but because their recovery ability is not as high as on a muscle gain phase, their total training volume should be a bit lower to reflect this.

If you remember that both learning new things and taking the time to understand and discover the relationships between them are important, you’ll be ahead of the game in a big way. Almost nothing in the real world rewards a Jeopardy kind of knowledge…a bunch of facts randomly hanging out with no structure. But if you know just a few things so well that you know the connections between them at a deep level, you’ll be able to make accurate predictions about how the world works… how the body works… and what to do in training and diet, among many other things. The process of integration is, just as much as raw knowledge of new facts, what separates the student and the teacher… the athlete and the coach.

A lot of folks have been very kind and told me that I seem to know a whole lot of stuff. That’s true, but I don’t know THAT much stuff. However, I make it a point to focus on knowing what I do know VERY well, through and through, and the deepest levels of which I’m capable. When I’m not learning new things… I’m sorting through the older ones, and piece by piece I hope to turn knowledge… into wisdom.

By: Mike Israetel, PhD

Mike is a professor of Exercise Science at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA and was previously a professor at the University of Central Missouri, where he taught Exercise Physiology, Personal Training, and Advanced Programming for sports and fitness. Mike’s PhD is in Sport Physiology, and he has been a consultant on sports nutrition to the U.S. Olympic Training Site in Johnson City, TN. Mike has coached numerous powerlifters, weightlifters, bodybuilders, and other individuals in both diet and weight training. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Mike is a competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu grappler. Mike serves as the Head Science Consultant to Renaissance Periodization.