Skill Acquisition For Beginner & Intermediate Lifters
So... You want to get stronger... You hop on Google, find a popular strength program... And you dive on in.
Before long you're lifting more weight and watching yourself getting stronger day by day. But after a while your progress stalls, a few injuries creep in (back, knees or shoulders feeling a bit tweaky?) and you're not sure what to do.
What's happening here?
The reality for so many guys who learned to lift on their own is that they stall out around a 225-275lb squat, a 300-350lb deadlift, and a 185-225lb bench. Often it's because their program didn't address their specific structural imbalances (i.e. week glutes, weak mid back, etc.) and they never truly perfected their technique.
I've talked at length about structural balance in other posts here and here (this is a massively important concept), but today I want to share some vitally important info about skill acquisition.
Individualized coaching and program design is always best for this, but for a free training template to get you started, check out my Quantum Learn To Life Program.
I like the way physiologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner describe the three phases on acquiring a new skill... here's how they outline the process:
Phase 1 (Cognitive Stage): You're a total beginner and start breaking down the task to discover new ways to improve proficiency.
Example: You're squatting for the second time in your life and getting familiar with the basic movement. You figure out how to gauge the depth of the squat consistently.
Phase 2 (Associative Stage): You're concentrating less and starting to become somewhat efficient, but you still have to think through what you're doing as it happens.
Example: Your basic squat is decent. Now you’re thinking about breathing and maximising tension.
Phase 3 (Autonomous Stage): Your get good enough to run on autopilot.
Example: You get under the bar and do your thing!
When you get “good enough”, you automatically shift into Phase 3 and no longer think much about what you’re doing. In a way this is good, because it feels like you're operating effortlessly. But it can also be limiting. Author and memory specialist Joshusa Foer calls this the “OK plateau” – “the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”
HOW THIS IMPACTS NEW LIFTERS
Most lifters reach the “good enough” stage with their lifting technique (at least they think they’re good enough, they actually aren’t!) far too quickly.
At the start:
- they can perform the movements somewhat decently
- the loading isn’t very heavy at the beginning of their career so they get away without even noticing minor mistakes much
- everything seems great because they can feel themselves getting stronger
It’s easy to make progress initially, even if technique isn’t great. The average guy can go from a 95lb squat to a 200lb squat with pretty poor form, and without injuring themselves.
But as you get stronger and you ask your body to consistently handle more and more load, cracks will start to show if the underlying structure isn’t sound. This is when progress grinds to a halt and injuries start to creep into the picture.
For people like these to get better results, they need to suck up their ego, and take a step back. Then, after a lot of focused work, they can finally take two steps forward later, and continue to improve.
Taking a step back isn’t fun, believe me. I see this all too often. It’s better to learn the right way the first time.
HOW TO AVOID THIS TRAP
We tend to think that the more we practice, the better we become. That’s false.
If the practice isn’t purposeful and challenging, we don’t improve. Dan Coyle and others call this concept “Deep Practice”.
Think about your typing skills. Most people spend hours hacking away on a key board every day, but don’t get any faster at typing year over year. We reach the OK plateau, because we believe that we’re “good enough” (and they might be true). The task we’re doing becomes automatic.
To actually get better would require focused speed typing practice. Something most of us probably don’t want to do.
The same is true for lifting though. If we don’t regularly get out of the autonomous stage (i.e. when we’re on auto pilot), we can’t expect ourselves to improve our technique. We need to force ourselves to consciously continue developing our technique and position so we avoid the common mistakes and sloppiness that exist in the weight room.
Because that slop will severely limit our potential, and increase our risk of injury.
IS THERE A BETTER WAY?
Set the standard higher than just being OK. Put specific technique practice into your lifting programs where it's needed.
As always, an individualized program under an experienced coach is the best way to do this. They'll make sure you're doing things properly and not cutting corners.
If you want to try a program template, try the Quantum Learn to Lift Program. We're trying to improve on what most typical strength programs offer in two two big ways. .
First, we tell you what needs to be improved.
We simplify the lifts and focus in on the most important technique points. This focuses the lifters attention to something that is concrete, easily understandable, and that will make a major difference in their performance.
Second, we use specific drills that we know will force lifters to work on these key points.
This includes technique variations like paused lifts, tempo lifts, and appropriate accessory work that, when done properly, automatically reinforce the optimal positions for our main exercises – squat, bench press, etc. We also includes remedial structural balance work to build up common weaknesses.
Regardless of which program you use, schedule some time for deep practice. Think about one or two technique points that you will improve. Then pick weights and exercise variations that will enable you to perform the movements with near perfection, but also ones that will challenge your ability to do so.