Strategies For Learning New Movements And Improving Your Technique
This is a post for both clients and coaches.
Or for my 3.8 regular readers. You heroes.
Yeah, I'm talking to you, you loveable rogue.
The ability to learn new movements or change your technique is slightly different in everyone. If you are a coach, you'll know this already.
Is there a way we can level the playing field and give everyone the best chance of retaining a new movement pattern or change in lifting technique?
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To maximize your learning capacity you need to have a good night's sleep where your deep sleep is undisrupted. In an ideal world that sleep will be between 7 and 8 hours and will be fully restorative.
By sleeping like this you are looking after your motor cortex.
My motor what?
Your motor cortex of course!
When you have a good night of sleep the neurons ‘reset’ and can begin again the next day with a normal ability to take in new information.
As THIS study shows, when you disrupt the motor cortex preventing deep restorative sleep with alcohol, caffeine or just by not sleeping enough learning ability the next day isn’t reset to normal as it would be after a good night of sleep.
The take-home from this is that if you want to learn a new movement or you need to tweak your technique after many years of lifting you should choose a time of lower stress where your motor cortex can get the recovery it needs thorough sleep.
So the day before a driving test, for example, might not be the most effective time to learn new movements or to work on a new coaching cue because the stress will get in the way.
But what if technique changes or new movements are programmed in for the day after a night of bad/no sleep?
My approach for both myself and clients is to do exercises that are already bread and butter which don’t require much processing and zero new learning so you have a good workout and don’t further add to the stress of the situation as no-one likes being seep deprived at the best of times!
Each time you have slightly less-than-optimal sleep isn't a ticket to get out of training. Life happens and to stay fit and strong you have to consistently train under nearly any circumstance.
If you’ve had a great restful night of sleep then go for it, your learning capacity is at its highest, especially in the morning.
I strongly feel that lifting, especially strength sports like powerlifting or strongman are safer from late morning onwards rather than first thing, so while learning potential may be optimal slightly earlier, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best time to lift.
However, you have a life to train around. That takes priority over any bullshit rules about learning optimization so I'll move on!
After A Session Of Changes/New Movements
Ideally, you’ll have a nice nap at around 2 pm followed by a great night of sleep (hahaha.)
Unfortunately, most of us don’t live a life that would allow such a routine so the best recommendation I can give you is that on the night of a learning session you should prioritize sleep and go to bed at a time that allows you to get 7-8 hours.
Stop having caffeine in the very early afternoon, if possible try not to cram lots of other information you’re trying to remember in too as your brain can only process so much and is very selective about what information it retains.
Then the next day, after a great night of sleep try the same movements again or if you can't MENTALLY PRACTICE THE SHIT OUT THE MOVEMENT YOU WANT TO LEARN OR IMPROVE.
How does this help you out?
“Your physical and mental training will cause significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions. We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.”
The above is taken from a study you can find HERE.
By using visualization techniques you’ll be able to use the muscle you have more effectively, therefore, you should be stronger in your newly learned movement patterns or slightly tweaked movement pattern or at the very least, you'll have decent form quicker.
How would you go about visualizing the performance of a particular movement?
Get yourself nice and relaxed (hopefully in a well-rested state) focus on the specific movement pattern.
Watch videos of people performing the movement pattern.
Think about the place where you last performed the movement.
What colours can you see?
What does it smell like?
Imagine what each joint feels like as you move. What can you see as you perform the movement?
Perform the movement mentally in many ways.
Upside down (remember, I'm still talking about your imagination here!)
This will involve as many parts of the brain as possible to maximize learning potential.
Or just actually perform a movement a lot until you or your coach are happy with your form.
Practicing visualization will help you learn a movement far quicker or will minimize any 'unlearning' which happens between sessions if you have to have a week off training.
The old method of learning new movement would be "keep practicing until you get it right goddammit!" but it turns out this probably isn’t the best way to learn new movements or how to change old movement habits.
The best way to learn a movement it would seem is to practice lots of very subtle variations of whatever you are trying to learn.
Say you are learning how to squat.
Perform a session, say 30 minutes performing the squat as a coach would teach it. Then in the next session perform a subtle variation like manipulating the tempo to something slower. The next time you perform the movement perform them as fast as you can. The next time pause at various stages of the lift. The next time perform them with your eyes closed or some other version that isn't terrifying.
You’ll have full ownership of the movement pattern in very little time then you can start loading up the movement and hitting it hard. Time to make some gains!
Different movements will take a varying degree of time to master, from years to a few minutes.
Olympic lifts and its many variations can take years to perfect.
The powerlifts (squat, bench, deadlift and all the variations of those) can take months to perfect.
Bodybuilding style movements and lighter weights are often perfected far quicker as far less weight are being thrown around.
Machine work tends to be picked up very quickly as you don't need to worry as much about stabilization or dropping a barbell on your neck and face.
People pick up movement patterns with varying degrees of speed. Some people just need to watch a coach do a couple of reps and can replicate things very easily whereas other people may take far longer to pick up even seemingly basic movement patterns.
This isn't something you can necessarily change. Be patient, keep practicing and you'll get there!
How else could you improve your ability to learn a new movement?
It’s time for me to tell you to get a coach.
You know it.
I know it.
Tony The Tiger knows it.
A coach will rapidly increase your learning speed (if they are a good coach) because they’ll take out the guesswork and eliminate the mistakes that you otherwise wouldn’t spot.
They can write you a program and make sure you are preparing your body adequately for the ensuing training.
A coach normally makes the learning process less stressful and for that, you will sleep better at night, and as I keep banging on about, low-stress levels and sleep make for much better mental health and I’m all for that!
What Else Can You Do?
When learning a new movement perform it in a quiet environment with minimal distractions
If you are in a busy gym, wear noise-canceling headphones with the music off so you can focus
Don't lift while chewing
Don't overdose on caffeine so that you are "too stimulated" to be aware of your technique
Try to focus on one thing at a time rather than lots of things. The simpler you make it, the simpler the process will be
To learn new movement patterns the most effectively you should prioritize your sleep the days before and after learning new movements to help your brain process the new patterns and improve as you rest.
You should practice lots of subtle variations of the new movement pattern or position to maximize learning potential.
You should practice the art of visualization training to maximize learning retention.
You should eliminate distractions until you have your form in a place where you don't need to think about it.
And finally, you absolutely should get a coach.
Thank you for reading my friends!
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal Strength Coach
@the_heavy_metal_strength_coach on instagram!