How does your body learn? with Sarah Sweeney
Have you ever noticed when you learn a new exercise, it’s hard? Not just a little bit hard, but A LOTTA BIT hard. It’s awkward, it requires a lot of effort, and it generally feels like it’s never going to get easier. Until it does. Eventually, the thing that was so challenging the first time you tried it begins to feel almost effortless. It requires little thought, almost becoming rote in its simplicity. How does this happen? And how can you make sure you learn good habits when you are learning new skills in the gym?
When we are young, our brains learn new things very easily. When we are in our twenties and early thirties, we still tend to pick up new motor skills fairly adeptly, and in less time than it takes an older person, age 65 plus. Part of this may be the fact that we are still (hopefully) pretty active at this age, so new movements and exercises don’t look as foreign to us as they might to our senior counterparts. Part of it, too, is the fact that we aren’t dealing with physiological changes in muscle or vision loss that often accompanies aging.
However, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn new complex motor tasks as we get older. Lifelong learning, in fact, is believed to be beneficial for our overall mental and physical well-being. Our brains retain their plasticity and their ability to establish new connections, but it takes a little more effort. The effort it takes is lessened if you challenge yourself frequently to learn new skills. The gym is a great place to practice learning.
Neuroscience research suggests our brain sends all the appropriate signals to the muscles before we move. For instance, if you are preparing to do a handstand, before your hands touch the floor, your brain informs all the muscles via the nervous system what needs to happen for the handstand to take place, essentially predicting your next physiological state. This doesn’t mean real time feedback isn’t useful or doesn’t occur. The sensory nervous system sends a play by play as soon as the movement begins. “The floor is uneven,” “the weight isn’t centered,” “the toes, oh the toes! Why aren’t they pointing?” The motor nervous system tries to remedy as much of this feedback as it can by sending signals to the right muscles to adapt to the desired outcome.
Now, let’s throw another voice into the mix. You are up in your handstand, trying to keep your balance and point your toes, when a coach says, “drop your ribs.”
“My ribs, where are my ribs? Oh, right, in the front. Drop? What does that mean? To the floor or to ceiling?” Your brain, being the people pleaser that it is, processes the words before you start talking to yourself and begins changing the rib position, trying to figure out the right way to move.
And with that, you fall out of your handstand, still not sure where your ribs were supposed to go.
Handstands are a complex skill that require many components to be successful. I am completely INCAPABLE of doing even ONE. It’s possible, or maybe even likely, that had the coach cued you between repetitions you would have been more successful at understanding what she meant. I use handstands as an example here because it is something that many of us know the mechanics of, probably could do at one time, but would readily fall out of if giving interrupting cues. As a coach (who used to be a classroom teacher, but not one who typically teaches handstands) it is important to know how your intervention can both promote and prevent learning.
Learning and refining complex motor skills happens with a higher degree of success and a little more quickly when you receive feedback after performing the task. If you had been given the cue differently you also may have been more successful. Had she given you a tactile cue, for instance, the correction you made would have been more automatic, requiring less conscious thought.
But what about when you are first learning a skill? How do you take information and implement it in a meaningful way?
Learn with Patience
When you are first introduced to a skill, there is a period of time where you simply try to figure out how to do the thing. Let’s pretend you are learning how to do a kettlebell clean. Moving the kettlebell from the floor to the rack position is the goal; the path it takes to get there varies at first until you gain a level of competency. You don’t need tons of cues at first, other than the basic idea of how the kettlebell gets from point A to point C. You need a general understanding of the path the kettlebell should take, and the coaching you receive during this time period should help you perform the movement effectively.
This part of the learning process requires patience. As a student, you want all the information on how to clean. At the same time and despite the fact you probably don’t possess the basic motor control/strength/stability/mobility to be successful at the skill yet. You may find yourself watching YouTube videos and reading blogs about the ideal way to grip the kettlebell and drive through the hips, assuming the more information you have, the faster you will gain a level of proficiency.
Working through a few ugly reps is challenging, but necessary. Coordination for a skill improves significantly after a little bit of practice, and trial and error is how we begin to figure out what works. Efficiency will improve whether or not you know every single step to the perfect clean. In fact, it’s often better from a learning perspective to focus on one or two things at a time. It’s kind of like having all the pieces to a puzzle, but you aren’t sure what the final picture looks like. Too much information can muddle the process. Figure out the overall picture and then lay out the pieces.
Once the exercise begins to resemble the desired outcome, you can begin fine tuning the motor pattern through specific feedback. This is an excellent time to hire a coach for a few sessions to assess your form. He will give you targeted cues to groove the skill. It’s easier to learn a movement well the first time than it is to re-learn a motor pattern you do often that is filled with inefficient habits.
Novelty Is Good for Your Brain
Even if you have progressed a skill to the next level, it’s always a good idea to occasionally return to the basics, looking for an opportunity to make the movement a little smoother. Maybe you play with tempo during these sessions, slowing the movement down, adding pauses, speeding the movement up. Maybe you change your focus: what does it feel like to emphasize the feeling of the hip drive for the clean? What happens if you enter the handstand differently? The basics are only boring if they are always experienced the same way.
Handily, there is research the suggests novelty is good for the brain. It keeps us engaged and helps us see things in a fresh way, improving our ability to learn. In addition, our bodies are designed to move in many different ways; we just need to remember to challenge them outside of what we like and what is comfortable.
3 Steps to Put Your Learning to Practice:
- For the Beginner
Learning a motor skill falls into two categories: understanding the general motor pattern and sensing what it feels like. The general motor pattern describes what the skill generally looks like? What body parts move? What does the skill accomplish?
Let’s pretend you are learning a basic hip hinge pattern. The general pattern is that as your hips move back, your torso stays long and changes the angle with the hips. The hips drive the movement. An easy way to learn this is to stand with your back toward the wall, about a foot’s distance away from, with your arms across your chest. Your feet are about hip distance apart. Move your hips back to touch the wall and then stand back up to center. This is the general motor pattern.
If one hip moves faster than the other or you’re holding your breath and narrowing your eyes, you won’t know you are doing these things. Check in with yourself for a couple of reps. Notice which hip touches the wall first or notice what your breath feels like and what your eyes are doing. The ability to sense natural physical tendencies during new situations in the gym often mirrors what you do during new situations in life. The ability to feel these tendencies makes it easier to choose alternative ways to breathe or move the hips or relax the eyes. This is sensing what happens during the movement.
A good way to set yourself up for success during the learning process is to make sure you focus on one thing while you are practicing the skill. If you think about too many things, you will be the handstanding student earlier, and she fell down.
- For the Intermediate Learner
Once the very basics have been mastered, the skill becomes more about performance. In the example of the hip hinge, let’s assume the hip hinge was being taught in order to learn how to do a kettlebell clean.
You can hip hinge well and you are able to clean the kettlebell to the rack position. Yet, it doesn’t feel smooth, so you video yourself to see what you are doing. You notice there is something weird with your torso, so you compare it to the video of a well-known coach performing the motion. “Aha!” you think to yourself. “I am arching my back when the kettlebell gets to my knees.” So, how do you fix this?
You could try imagining you are doing the lift your normal way, with your back arching a little bit, and then imagine what it would be like to do differently, driving from the hips as the kettlebell stays close to the body during the movement. How would this feel different? What would you have to do to perform the clean in this manner? The ability to imagine you are performing a skill a specific way expedites learning and has been shown to improve coordination and motor recruiting beyond the initial learning phase. Plus, it’s an easy way to get extra practice between sets or during your cool-down without impacting recovery.
Another option is to try to perform the clean differently for the next set. If I were coaching you in this hypothetical situation, I might say, “See if you can exhale as you grab the kettlebell to get your ribs down towards your pelvis. Keep that position as you pull the bell up from the ground, driving your feet into the floor.” Often, by focusing on one goal for the movement, in this case getting the ribs in a particular position, is enough to change the strategy for the upcoming set.
- For the Advanced Learner
Goal setting can be important at this stage to offset boredom. What do you want to do with the skill you mastered? Lift more weight? Combine it with something else? Progress the exercise?
Whatever it is you want to accomplish, approach it thoughtfully. Checking in with a coach occasionally can be helpful to ensure you aren’t getting sloppy or are avoiding certain aspects of the skill. A coach can also be helpful at providing ideas to vary aspects of the movement. If you don’t have a coach, video yourself occasionally and try to watch yourself with an open mind, observing the quality of the skill.
Progressions are only as good as the foundation you have established for yourself. Approach your workout with the enthusiasm and focus of a master honing his craft and you will reap the benefits.