I think this is the 3rd of 4th time I have reposted this on the blog over the past few years. I’ve presented this model (not my creation) during talks and its one of the things I get the most positive feedback about. After several recent conversations with people, and things I see in the gym every day I thought it would be nice to revisit it again now.
You may have seen this before and you may think you understand it but if you are frustrated with progress at the moment take the time to reinforce this model into your training.
Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning
The process of learning a new skill can be divided into four stages:
1. Unconscious Incompetence – You are unable to do something and you probably don’t know you can’t do it until you are asked to attempt it. A lot of people who walk though our doors for the first time cannot do an air squat when asked to perform one for the first time. We coach them on what to do, cue them on the positions and spend a lot of time practicing.
2. Conscious Incompetence – At this stage a person is starting to develop the skill however he or she is aware that they are still performing some aspects of the skill incorrectly. Continuing with the air squat as our example, a person may fall back on their butt every couple of reps, let their knees cave in, not go to depth, etc. This is usually a tough time for the client as they are trying really hard but at the same time they are learning a lot at this stage in their development.
3. Conscious Competence – You can perform a skill correctly but must go slow and REALLY focus on what you are doing. With each repetition you are going through a checklist in your mind on the correct sequence of steps and movement patterns. People in this stage have learned a skill but have not yet mastered it.
4. Unconscious Competence – This is the “mastery” stage. A person at this point in their learning process knows how to correctly perform a skill and can do it without thinking about it. On top of this, the person can also perform the skill correctly under various constraints and conditions, such as with speed, with load, mixed with other movements, and under duress (such as a competition). If you have ever watched someone perform a movement so well that they “made it look easy,” you are watching a person who has reached the stage of mastery with that given skill.
If you put in the time to the dedicated and patient practice, you will eventually get to this fourth stage with just about anything you want and can create good habits. Keep in mind that the learning curve for an Air Squat, a Power Clean, and a Muscle-Up are all vastly different.
The big problem is that if you try to rush the learning process, the habit that you end up forming may be incorrect and you will need to unlearn it at a later stage.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, Perfect practice makes perfect.” Vincent Lombardi
If you are rushing to add weight to the bar, trying to rip the chain out of the rower, or obsessing with your score on the board then you are missing the point. To use an example, if you bend your elbows too soon when you do power cleans then you’re missing a critical component of the skill, which, if not addressed with dedicated and patient practice, will negate any chance of reaching the stage of mastery for power cleans, and likely many other similar movements (such as rowing and snatches).
“When the arms bend, the power ends.” – Coach B
Unlearning involves working from stage 4 back to stage 2 and Relearning is 2 back to 4, just going a little slower and being more conscious of what you are doing.
I see this problem most often when people are trying to learn how to do Muscle Ups. Someone will work the progressions for a certain amount of time, get their first one then think that they don’t need to practice anymore. When this happens people are trying to jump from stage 2 (Conscious Incompetence) to stage 4 (Unconscious Competence) and then when they can’t do it again they get frustrated.
If you perform a movement correctly once, then miss it five times after that, it means you need to practice more.
The same thing happens with the Olympic lifts. Someone pulls the bar up with their arms on a Clean or presses the bar out overhead on a Snatch. If your coach tells you you did either one of those things it would seem crazy to add weight to the bar right? Well, it happens a lot. These problems are not going to be solved by trying harder or adding more weight. All you are doing is reinforcing the incorrect movement pattern, so in a way you are actually making yourself better at doing it wrong.
In this situation, what doesn’t need to happen is to put more weight on the bar. What does need to happen is to check the ego and take a step back. Doing so will show that you care enough to fix the problem instead of trying to ignore it. Unless you address things head on they usually continue to build up and can eventually result in hitting a plateau or unfortunate injury.
Take the time to learn how to do things correctly and then take pride in your ability to do so.