Initial Conditions, Movement Variability, and Skill Acquisition

Written by: Kevin Cann

The human is a complex system.  I think this idea most accept, but most have a hard time understanding what this means.  In order to make sense of things we like to reduce the complexity down to a sum of its parts, and perhaps disregard some more complex nuances.

How coaches view developing strength is a great example of this.  We view the acquisition of strength as a primarily physical byproduct of certain types of training.  We forget that without the brain and CNS, the body is nothing more than a bag of muscles.

We can develop strength in the absence of increased hypertrophy, but we cannot develop strength without neurological adaptations.  Think about that for a minute.  This idea has been on my mind for years now.  This doesn’t mean that hypertrophy is not important, it just raises a question about how much we should focus on it, and even raises another question that perhaps hypertrophy is just a byproduct of training.

This doesn’t mean we do not do hypertrophy work either.  I think we have been asking the wrong questions in regard to muscle mass and strength.  This is where complex systems theory comes into play.

A motor schema is a memory representation of movement parameters.  According to schema theory a movement is a generalized motor program that is retrieved from memory and then adapted to fit the specific situation.  This needs to be flexible, and we need to learn how to navigate and ever changing environment.  This relies on updating those motor programs based off of sensory feedback.

The system must then learn the relationship between initial conditions, actions, sensory consequences, and outcomes of the movement.  Powerlifting is a relatively stable sport in terms of the environment and actions.  I think this leads to a general disregard for skill acquisition in the sport.

I believe that targeting a weaker muscle group is important to updating the initial conditions.  Communication is always running top down and bottom up between the brain and the body.  If that communication started with “The hamstrings are weak”, but then over time of us hammering away at that weakness, that initial condition is updated to the “Hamstrings are strong and ready to help sit back and stabilize in the bottom of the squat.”  When this happens, we see a change in technical execution.

This of course only works if we keep the main exercises in the program.  By main exercises, I do not mean a competition version of each, but some variation.  This needs to come with the focus of lifter being on fixing that one area.  Mindlessly performing hamstring exercises and comp lifts will only go so far.

However, being given a box squat, with directions of sitting back and not falling onto the box, and then given immediate feedback, all in conjunction with hamstring work, and we can see great improvements in the lift.

Here, we are changing the initial conditions in a couple of ways.  We are updating the sensory information over time by building greater hamstring strength.  We are also updating the initial conditions of the lift, to drive action, and improve technical skill.

Complex systems have the ability to adapt based off of experiences.  They learn over time.  I think coaches and lifters get really hung up on the emergence and self-organization aspects and individuality.  “This is what works for me” is a very common theme in the powerlifting world.

There will be some individual differences for sure, but the coach should be guiding the process, so we see that emergent behavior that we want to see.  The laws of physics apply and are a constraint on the system.

Teaching a skill is incredibly difficult and complex.  This becomes even more complex trying to do it exclusively online.  The majority of the powerlifting world is online.  It is much easier to use fancy spreadsheets to manipulate training loads than it is to develop a skill from a distance.  This is a topic for another time though.

The coach can strengthen particular areas and give particular exercises to help guide the process of learning and skill acquisition.  This process requires a lot more time sometimes.  Everyone can get beginner gains that last a few years.

Dedicated deliberate practice over a long period of time will make anyone above average.  Not everyone will win a world championship, but everyone has the potential to be above average.  Those with greater potential can tend to get away with more mistakes than the majority of people.

We tend to want to follow everything that they do because “That means that it must work.”  We look at the top 1% and use that as a reason that technique may not matter that much because of the vast differences in those lifters.  Just because the top 1% gets away with some things, it does not mean that the 99% will.  

The majority will need to do things right and put their time in in order to see the levels of success that they dream about.  Too often, they will only be viewing the future success and never really be in the moment in training.

In order to develop high levels of skill, this will not work.  Building myelin is very costly and requires our focus and attention in the moment.  Mindlessly going through the process will only yield average results.  Lifters need to be accountable for this and coaches need to teach the lifters how to train.

The combination of all of these aspects discussed in this article are necessary to deliver above average performance.  A disregard for these pieces relies on an above average person partaking in the program and showing their results on the internet.  

You see this with coaches coaching 100 or more people.  You can’t really do that.  Each person requires a good deal of attention and communication to help them achieve above average results.  The cases where a coach is coaching that many people, they just get lucky they get some strong lifters that already possess the tools to achieve high levels of performance.

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