Learning a New Skill Takes Practice
A while ago I was working with one of my clients on technique adjustments for the deadlift, including kinesthetic awareness cues to help him better master the movement.
As he was working through repetitions I could see he was a little frustrated, but he wasn’t upset. He has an analytical personality and he needs to “intellectually” understand each part of the lift. He knew what he needed to do, saying back to me what I taught him, but the movement wasn’t happening on the gym floor. He was stuck in his mind not yet able to “feel” the movement patterns for the deadlift.
After a few minutes or rehearsal he said, “But I just want my deadlift to be perfect.”
I laughed and asked him, “How long did it take you to get to where you are now in your career?”
How Long Does it Take to Learn a Lift?
The comparison is not that different from learning bodybuilding movements. You have to practice the lifts to improve. You have to repeat, hundreds of times, to improve over time with every single repetition and set.
Many people come to the gym for the first time and think that they can do one of the big lifts, like the squat, power clean, or deadlift right away. They read a description or most likely saw a video online of some body builder or Olympic athlete and think, “There’s not much to this. How complicated could it be? It’s not like I need to hire a trainer to do this, right? I’ve got a description of how to do the squat in this magazine so it can’t be that hard.”
What was it like the first time you drove a car? While not the same as working out, to drive a car you need training and repetition in visual acuity, quick decision-making, and knowledge of the rules of the road. Just because you can join a gym, doesn’t mean you can safely get your body under a barbell (or conversely behind the wheel of a car) the very first time.
It’s difficult to describe in words the form and technique cues required to perform a strength training movement. You can rehearse a lift on the intellectual level, but you still have to experience it on physical level.
Learning New Movement Patterns
Movement patterns can be challenging to learn for many reasons, e.g. if you have weakness, imbalance, injuries, or tightness and inflexibility, performing a strength training movement with good form could be compromised.
The most challenging aspect of teaching movement patterns is when someone has been lifting incorrectly. Having to “unlearn” an incorrect movement pattern is many times more difficult than learning a brand new one. It takes between 300-350 repetitions to build a new motor or movement pattern, however it can take 3000-5000 repetition to “re-train” the proper movement. [Source]
You need to learn how to feel and listen to what your body is telling you. An excellent drill to “feel” your muscles and the movement is to practice the lift with your eyes closed or facing away from the mirror (most gym walls are covered with them). With your eyes closed you have to rely on the rehearsal that you’ve practiced and “feel” what your body is telling you through every part of the lift.
Like learning to drive a car or studying a course at university, you need to first understand the concepts and then you apply them in real life. A teacher or a coach can support you and give feedback and correction. You try again and repeat. If you do things correctly enough times you might master the lift, or pass the course.
Here I am deadlifting 245 pounds for two reps:
Volume vs. Intensity
Learning how to lift weights correctly requires time and repetition at low volume (in this case a light load). One person may need to start with bodyweight exercises and mostly dumbbells to learn. Then they can progress to a greater level of challenge using barbells. During this learning process they are practicing lifting for volume as opposed to lifting for intensity.
Lifting for volume can certainly be challenging (especially when learning a new movement), but it provides less opportunity for injury and lots of opportunity for practice.
Lifting for intensity requires a high level of precision, technique and control. Lifting for intensity also means having the ability to control a much heavier weight or perform a highly technical lift, like the clean and jerk or the Olympic snatch. You can’t train both volume and intensity at the same time as these parameters work against each other.
Let’s wrap up using the Olympic lifts as an example. Have you noticed how most Olympians are very young, somewhere in their late teens or very early 20s? These incredibly athletic individuals have probably been training in their sport since a very young age. They would have been training 5 to 7 days per week for years on end and sometimes multiple times per day. They would eat, live, and breathe their sport. They would have the support of family and coaches to mentor, teach, and support them emotionally. That’s a level of dedication that very few of us will ever experience, but it’s the level of repetition required to compete at the Olympic level.
Very few of us need that level of ability, but it’s a useful comparison to understand that to become any sort of expert you need to practice. You need to do the work.
The more that someone is an expert in their field, the more time they have invested in planning, preparation, practice, and repetition.
What do you want to practice in your life that would improve your health?
If you want to eat better, what aspects of your diet will you change and practice daily?
If you want to exercise more often, what will you learn or who will you work with to improve your technique and help with accountability?
If you want to calm your mind and reduce stress, will you practice meditation on a daily basis, spend more time in nature, workout more often, or cook your meals in advance to have less to do every night when you get home from work?
Move often to be well