If you are immersed in a TV show, reading a magazine, or texting throughout your workout, you probably aren’t paying a lot of attention to what’s happening in your training. That’s just fine if your goal with exercise is to get some blood flowing and sweat it out to relieve some stress. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
But there’s another way to approach exercise, and it’s one that will do more for you than just expending energy: make it a learning-based practice.
Our concept of Physical Autonomy involves increasing confidence in your body’s abilities. A big part of that is the acquisition of new skills as well as refining your current ones. And doing all of that is enhanced by improving how we learn.
Let’s talk a bit about the process of learning, the benefits of learning-based training, and the specific stages of learning new skills.
The Process of Learning
Learning starts with exposure to new stimuli. These stimuli then become integrated as knowledge when they are analyzed and processed by the brain and stored in memory. This can be declarative knowledge (knowledge of facts) or procedural knowledge (the application of skills).
We use many types of procedural knowledge throughout our day; tying our shoes, touch typing on a keyboard, and driving a car. Athletic skills such as throwing a curveball and doing a cartwheel are other examples.
And whether you’re working on building declarative or procedural knowledge, practice is what makes that possible.
How Practice Helps Us Learn
As we practice a skill or review facts over and over (a type of practice), we lay down new neurological pathways and strengthen old ones. This is the biological aspect of learning where our brain undergoes physical (but microscopic) changes when we learn new information or skills. This is the primary way the brain grows and improves.
As Albert Einstein put it, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” This is more than just a quip to encourage a person to keep learning; it’s a reality of biology.
When the brain isn’t challenged, it atrophies, responds slower, and has greater difficulty in the tasks presented to it, much like a muscle. Or, as author Norman Doige puts it repeatedly in The Brain That Changes Itself, our brain functions by the “use it or lose it” principle. This book was one of the first to introduce neuroplasticity into the popular press and is a great introduction to the subject.
Unsurprisingly to those who are already physical active, the book also touches on how exercise and movement strengthen the brain:
“A cognitively rich physical activity such as learning new dances will probably help ward off balance problems and also have the added benefit of being social, which also preserves brain health.”
During waking hours we encode new memories, knowledge, and experiences. When we sleep, we consolidate all of this information, upgrading those parts of our minds and bodies that are being challenged, consistently. (This is why sleep and recovery are so important!)
This process, examined extensively in Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, is a vital and inseparable part of the learning process.
Active Engagement is a Necessary Part of the Process
Being exposed to new challenges, addressing them actively and thoughtfully, and resting well–these are the basics of learning. Rinse and repeat, and you’ve got yourself a lifetime of mental and physical growth.
Here’s the catch, though: this process only matters if you actively participate.
You may recall the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell a few years go, with the idea that this is the amount of time required to “master” a skill.
Anders Ericsson, the researcher that Gladwell derived this from, is quick to point out that this “rule” is misleading. He determined that your practice must be deliberate practice to reap the full benefits of your efforts. That is, mastery is not achieved by going through the motions for 10,000 hours, but rather, through meaningful practice.
Why a Learning-Based Training Approach is Better
There are many specific benefits to making learning the focus of your training, including:
1. Less Wasted Effort
A learning-based approach means less wasted effort because you’ll get more in tune with how your body responds to particular movements, so you can make adjustments accordingly. Getting really specific with the effort focuses everything you do toward your goals.
For example, when warming up before your training session, instead of doing random movements just to get your heart rate up, you can make sure your efforts are specific to where you need the most work.
2. Transfer to Related Movements
When you spend time focusing on learning specific skills, you begin to learn the nuances of those skills and what’s going on with your body in that context. Ask yourself what works, what doesn’t, and why. The answers you discover will improve not just the movement on which you’re working, but also transfer to other movements with similar mechanics and challenges.
For instance, learning how to do a lunge properly means that you understand the mechanics of coordinated movement and force between your hips and knees. This transfers to all sorts of other activities such as running and hopping on one leg.
3. Improved Autonomy
The most common approach to training involves following along with a video or doing what your trainer tells you to do, with almost no emphasis on learning at all. And that’s okay for a lot of people, but it does create a sense of dependency on something external–whether that’s a video or trainer.
Taking a learning-based approach (even in the context of a video or trainer-led program) gives you increased autonomy over time. You will understand how your own body works and responds to movement, and that gives you so much more than passively following someone else.
4. Decreased Chance of Injury
Focusing on learning can also decrease your chance of injury, as it’s arguable that most injuries stem from a lack of knowledge or awareness.
Even if you roll an ankle while trail running, it was likely because:
- You did not know that a tree root was right there, or
- because your body and mind did not know how to respond to the movement appropriately.
There’s a good chance if you had slowed down enough to learn the trail better, or had trained your ankles more thoroughly and thus taught your body how to respond, that root may have been a minor nuisance as opposed to a season-ending injury.
5. Helps with Autoregulation
Autoregulation is when you are able to adjust your workload up or down based on how you are feeling and performing on a particular day. If you’re not regularly paying attention to how your body is working, testing things out, and observing honestly, it’s almost impossible to get all the benefits of autoregulation.
But with a learning-based approach, you’ll intuit when you’ll be better off working on flexibility instead of maxing out. This is invaluable for a long-lived and productive training lifestyle.
The 3 Stages of Learning Any Skill
There are many models for learning out there, but most of them follow similar principles. The following is an adapted version of a model developed by Noel Burch.
To describe it simply, you begin incompetent in a particular skill, then develop a more solid competence, followed by autonomy with that skill (sometimes referred to as mastery).
Let’s look at these stages a bit more closely.
First Stage: Incompetence
Incompetence is when you completely lack a particular skill (or skill set).
This generally begins as “unconscious incompetence,” where you lack awareness that a skill is even missing, much less possible.
Riding a bike is a good example. Whether you remember it or not, at one time as a young child, you weren’t even aware that riding a bike was something you could do. Later on, after watching people riding and wanting in on the fun, you might have hopped on a bike, only to quickly realize that it doesn’t just magically happen.
This is called “conscious incompetence”–where you are aware of a missing skill but is still not there yet in practice. This happens in those first (knee-skinning) attempts at riding a bike.
Second Stage: Competence
At this stage, you’ve developed an understanding of the skill at hand.
At first, you may be exceedingly conscious of the movement. You can get on a bike, stay balanced, and pedal. Maybe a spill here and there, but nothing too bad. You’re definitely keeping that helmet and pads on, though. You are “consciously competent,” at this point. You can do it, but you still have to invest a fair amount of mental energy.
After enough practice, though, you become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t ever have to think about “how to ride a bike.” You just get on and go.
Final Stage: Autonomy
Autonomy is where the skill becomes part of your nature. You barely have to think about it, if at all. This is where the magic happens. High speed, power, and all kinds of superhuman feats are common here.
Using combat sports as an example, highly trained martial artists can powerfully and accurately kick, punch, block, and throw, intuitively, rather than as a conscious reaction. This “flow” state of an appropriate action occurring without conscious thought is the result of learning something so well that it’s automatic.
To take it back to the biking example, this is the stage where you can ride your bike along the edges of buildings and it doesn’t make your heart leap out of your chest. You know you’ve got this.
If you’re feeling stuck and unsure whether your focus is really on a learning-based approach, check the symptoms of low learning patterns. During your workouts (and life!) are you:
- Noticing time passing faster (or slower) than you’d like
- Pretty consistently grumpy
This is the quickest way to tell whether you’re learning something. If you can tune out from what you’re doing, you’re not actively learning. And when you’re not actively learning, you’re not getting what you could from your training.
Be present. Pay attention. Take full advantage of this time you’re spending. If there is one goal that can offer you the highest payoff, it’s making the commitment to learn new things as often as possible within your personal practice. And we have just the place to start.
Our free Strength & Mobility Kickstart will show you the benefits of emphasizing learning as the foundation of your training. You’ll see how much more efficiently you can get stronger and more flexible, while improving overall control and body awareness.