Photo by Bev Childress
Photo by Bev Childress
Let’s say you have been working out for a long time, by yourself. You are extremely self-disciplined and feel confident following programs that use basic movements you are familiar with, but you aren’t sure how to learn new skills. You are worried about your form, you don’t know how to figure out whether you’re doing it right, and you are unclear about timelines. You don’t have access to a coach, either because you live in a place where coaching isn’t available, you aren’t in the financial situation to pay for a coach, or you simply don’t like being coached. How can you learn skills on your own confidently, without risk of injury?
Learning can be broken down into three stages. Stage one is the awkward stage. It’s kind of like puberty—nothing is easy, everything feels like work, and you feel like you are going to be stuck there forever.
Stage two is kind of like college. You feel a little more confident in your abilities, you still make the occasional snafu, and even though once in a while you think you have it all figured out, something happens to remind you that you really don’t. You contemplate quitting once in a while because it’s harder than it seems like it should be.
Stage three is kind of like nearing retirement. You have attained a level of confidence you never actually thought you would have, you are well practiced at the skill, and you are fairly certain you could actually perform it on demand under almost any circumstance.
To get from stage one to stage three requires making mistakes, learning from them and trying again. However, it’s easy to get discouraged and feel like you aren’t making progress. Maybe you abandon the skill, or you stop exploring new ways to approach it, or a nagging irritation/pain occurs that deters you from working on it with the same enthusiasm you had in the beginning. How do you successfully maneuver your way across the stages?
Let’s use the L-sit as an example. The ability to L-sit can come in handy for a variety of bodyweight skills, but there is technique involved and it can be difficult to feel whether or not you are actually performing the skill in a way that would be considered technically proficient.
So what do you do?
- Break down the skill into mini skills. What steps do you need in order to eventually L-sit?
- Periodically film yourself performing the mini skills and watch the playback.
- Give yourself honest feedback regarding what you see. Does what you are doing feel like what you are doing? Is there anything you could do to make the skill more efficient?
If you aren’t sure what you see, watch others performing the skill and see if you can identify what they are doing. If you really want to improve, you need to take the time to understand what is happening.
The Mini Skill
To continue with our example, a mini step for the L-sit requires straight arm pressing, scapular depression, and hip flexion. In less technical terms, you need to be able to push the floor away from you, your shoulders and shoulder blades need to move down when you do this, and you need to be able to sit with your legs straight in front of you. If any of these pieces are missing, you won’t be able to execute the skill efficiently.
Right about now, you might be thinking, “that’s a lot of thought to do a (relatively) basic skill. I don’t want to think about all of those things, I just want to be able to do it.”
Fair enough. But if you want to be your own coach, you need to think like a coach. Part of thinking like a coach means you are able to troubleshoot and figure out the weakest link.
Video Your Skill
Let’s say you feel like you understand how to press down, but you aren’t exactly sure where your shoulders are and you don’t have the mobility to extend your legs out in front of you so you are currently working on the tuck position. Unless you are participating in a tech revolt and refuse to have a smartphone, chances are high you have the ability to video yourself with your phone. I totally get the irritation with filming—you have to set it up, if there are other people in the gym you have to carve out a little space to do it where you aren’t in anyone’s way, you have to remember to hit record, and you can only cross your fingers and hope that you actually end up in the frame. I promise it’s worth it, and it gets easier.
For those of you thinking, “I will just look in the mirror,” research and my own experience suggest mirrors don’t work.1 In fact, research on motor skill learning actually shows less feedback is better for learning, so looking in the mirror on every single skill attempt isn’t going to speed up the learning process.2
Pure and utter blasphemy in a culture that’s obsessed with appearance, I know. The thing is, if you want to get better at a specific skill, you need to reconcile what you feel like you are doing with what you are actually doing. Mirrors take you out of what you are experiencing by making the skill more reliant on your eyes rather than your inner sense of what’s happening. They also don’t fully show you what you are doing, unless you turn sideways and crane your head in a weird position to see what’s going on, and what does that feel like? Video keeps you honest and allows you to watch the feedback after the execution and before you try again. The lag time is important for processing and learning. When you try it again after you watch the video feedback, your image of what you look like will be more clear and whatever feedback you gave yourself, you will be able to apply.
You don’t need to film yourself every single set. I usually film twice a week, I pick one of the middle sets so I’m warmed up, and I watch the feedback between sets. I try to internalize what it looks like and how it could be better and I don’t film the next set—I simply work on implementation. The following week when I film, I will be able to see if the feedback I gave myself is working.
Sometimes what I see on my videos is something I need to work on separately to make the skill better. For instance, let’s say I’m not pointing my toes, and when I do point my toes, my feet cramp. This is not a matter of “do more of the same thing in the same position.” Instead, I need to work on just pointing my toes strongly in lower level positions so I can build up the strength to do it successfully. Only then will the carryover to the L-sit be successful.
Since I started this conversation using an L-sit as an example, I will stick with that theme, but I have done this on a variety of skills, including deadlifts, rolling variations, and handstands. The thing that separates people who perform a skill masterfully from the ones who are more average is the willingness to work on every aspect of the movement.
Other than filming and watching myself after the set is over, one of the most useful ways I have found to give myself feedback over the years is to write down a couple of words when I am finished. The next time that particular skill is in my program, I glance at my notes from last time. It triggers what I need to work on and gives me a focal point.
Let’s say for the L-sit I could feel I wasn’t getting my hips off the ground as much as I wanted. I might write something like “hips stayed low. Press more next time.” These cues will help me focus my attention during my practice.
Making notes also enables you to monitor improvement. For instance, if I struggled during my last round of tuck holds last week and I noted that in my training log when I do tuck holds this week if I don’t struggle with my last round, that indicates some form of improvement. If I happened to film myself, I can see whether the quality of the movement looks a little bit better this time or if it just feels better.
What if you aren’t sure what you are looking at or what you are feeling? Go to YouTube and pull up video of people that are competently performing the skill. If it’s a tutorial, listen to what the instructor says and pause the video to see if you can identify visually what he means. Can you imagine yourself performing the movement the same way? There is research that suggests if you spend time visualizing yourself successfully performing a skill, there is a learning effect- imagining helps you learn how to do the skill faster.3 If you can’t visualize it, you haven’t internalized the movement yet.
Don’t just watch video of one person; watch video of several people. Observe the similarities and observe the differences. Mimic the ones that look like they are performing the skill efficiently by identifying how they perform it. How do they place their hands? Where are their feet located? How wide are their hips?
The Work Is Worth It
Learning how to identify inefficiencies that are holding you back from performing a skill requires a little bit of work, a lot of self-reflection, honesty, and a fair amount of patience. However, the gains you make and what you will learn about yourself along the way make the extra effort worth it.
1. Swinnen, S.P., Schmidt, R.A., Nicholson, D.E., & Shapiro, D.C., (1990). Information feedback for skill acquisition: instantaneous knowledge of results degrades learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 16(4), 706-716.
2. Schmidt R.A. (1991). Frequent Augmented Feedback Can Degrade Learning: Evidence and Interpretations. In: Requin J., Stelmach G.E. (eds) Tutorials in Motor Neuroscience. NATO ASI Series (Series D: Behavioural and Social Sciences), vol 62. Springer, Dordrecht
3. Lacourse, M.G., Orr, E.L.R., Cramer, S.C., & Cohen, M.J., (2005). Brain activation during execution and motor imagery of novel and skilled sequential hand movement. Neuroimage, 27(3), 505-519.