How to Program Skill Learning

Written by: Kevin Cann

Powerlifting is a skilled sport.  To be able to squat, bench press, and deadlift with maximal weights is a developed skill.  I think there is a major misconception on how we go about developing these skills.

Malcom Gladwell made the “10,000 hour” rule a known concept.  Many coaches and athletes take this and think that they just need to put in the repetitions and eventually they will display high level performance.

Of course, time is an important component, but Gladwell did not understand the research.  The research he quoted came from Anders Ericson.  In Dr. Ericson’s book “Peak” there is a chapter where he addresses Gladwell.  Apparently, Gladwell never even called him to have a discussion about his work.

Ericson’s work showed that musicians at elite musical schools put in about 8,000 hours of work.  Now, 8,000 hours is not 10,000 hours.  Also, these students were not elite yet, they are in school.  By the time they reach elite level status they probably log between 20,000 and 30,000 hours of practice.

What Ericson did discover was that how a person practiced matter.  The most effective strategies for practice he termed deliberate practice.  Basically, this means having clear goals to guide focus and immediate feedback.  I am summarizing an entire book in a sentence so there is much more to it, but that is the general gist of it.  Repetitions for repetitions sake will not yield great results.  

Repetitions for repetitions sake will only get results up to a certain point.  Once this ceiling is reached, if the practice habits are not made deliberate, progress will stall.  This often leads to frustration and the belief that this person has reached their genetic capabilities.

The coach’s job is to structure practice in a way that allows each lifter to reach their true maximal potential.  This means that the program needs to extend beyond sets and reps as mindless repetitions will only work for that 3-to-5-year beginner phase.  After that if they have not developed appropriate practice strategies they will most likely quit.

We need to first understand the 3 pieces of our nervous system that aid us in learning.  We have upper-level motor neurons, central pattern generators (CPGs), and lower-level motor neurons.  The lower-level motor neurons go from the spinal cord to the muscles and control muscle contraction.

CPGs are also found in the spinal cord, and they control movements that we utilize often.  A good example of a CPG controlled movement is walking.  At this stage of our lives if we are reading this blog, then we are capable of walking without even thinking about it.  We can probably take up other tasks as we are walking like chewing gum and texting.

The upper-level motor neurons are in the brain.  They drive the learning.  When we encounter novelty, complexity, and unpredictability the upper-level kicks on and sets the stage for us to learn.

When we were learning to walk, the upper-level motor neurons were very active.  As we performed countless repetitions, and many repetitions with failure which is extremely important, we learned to walk. Eventually the upper level was satisfied with our performance and let the CPGs take over.  Most of us have not gotten better at walking since.

If we have a hard squat workout and our legs are extremely sore, we will grab the upper-level motor neurons’ attention.  Our perception will be drawn to how our legs are sore, and we may change our gait because of it.  If this were an injury that required us to limp for a prolonged period, we may develop a limp that sticks around even after the injury has healed.  This is the CPGs updating the movement preferences.  We technically learned a new skill here.

Our brain lives in this paradoxical world.  It always wants to learn, but it always wants to conserve energy as well.  Having the upper-level kick on is very energy consuming, but it allows us to learn.  Passing the task to the CPGs saves energy and frees up energy to learn new things.

According to Ericson, practice needs to challenge our skillset slightly beyond our current abilities and there needs to be error.  Error is extremely important here as it gets our internal environment ripe with the right hormones and neurochemicals to learn.  Without error, we literally cannot get better.  We also want intermittent reward.  This intermittent reward will give us a blast of dopamine and help us lock in the skill we are developing.  It does not have to be perfect, but just 1% better than before for this to happen.

The more you investigate Ericson’s work, the more you see the overlap between deliberate practice and flow state.  The challenge-skill balance, the concentration of effort with feedback, and the neurochemicals involved all overlap.  This makes sense if flow state is truly the optimal state for human performance.  

The easiest way to get kicked out of flow state is through distraction and negative thinking.  Mindfulness can help us stay focused and also increases positive thinking and decreases negative thinking.  The more mindful we are, the closer to the flow state we will be in and the more often we can enter this state of optimal performance.

How can we setup a program to allow for this level of skill learning?  In week 1 of a block, we bring in a variation for max effort.  The novelty, complexity, and unpredictability of it grabs the attention of our upper-level motor neurons.  The following week we perform repetitions.

We do not just do these repetitions, but we are practicing mindfulness under the bar.  It does not matter what we pay attention to here as long as we are paying attention to the lift in the present moment judgment free.  I like to pay attention to how the ground feels under my feet throughout the squat and the deadlift to stay in the moment.  Not trying to fix anything, just being present and letting my body take in the sensory information as well as proprioception.  This is how the body was built to learn.  This is how you learned to walk.

Week 3 the lifter will attempt to beat week 1 by 5lbs.  They are way more successful here at doing this than they are not as they are told to leave 5-10lbs on the bar on week 1.  This small PR will give us that intermittent reward we are looking for to lock in our skill.  We then have a lighter week of comp lifts and repeat the process all over again.

The more repetitions we can do, the better.  This is where visualization comes in.  Visualization can be a great supplement to physical training.  We can’t just do endless volume to get better as there are real recovery costs.  However, visualizing the movement will get our upper-level motor neurons turned on and there is some carryover from this to real world performance.  Also, visualization between sets keeps us focused on the task.  This is what Ericson showed to be important for skill development and it is also how we can get closer or even into flow state more often.

After training, we let the mind idle for a few minutes to let the training really sink in.  The mind will play the training session over again, but backwards for some reason.  When we sleep at night it replays it forwards.  Both are important.  So just shut your eyes for a few minutes after the training session and let your mind just chill.

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