Better Movement = Better Lifting
By: Barbell Logic Team
It takes one-fifth of a second for the eye to receive information, to convey that information to the brain, and for the brain to put your muscles into action. This is true for average Joes and elite level athletes and it affects all levels of skill development, from Grandmaster chess players to athletes. Perception is the complete biological process in which the brain organizes sensory input. It connects our senses to our actions. You can use perceptual learning strategies and deliberate practice to improve your training, to make yourself better at squatting, pressing, and deadlifting.
Kinesthetic Learning and Deliberate Practice: Make Your Movement Better
It takes one-fifth of a second for the eye to receive information, to convey that information to the brain, and for the brain to put your muscles into action. This is true for average Joes and elite level athletes. For the latter group, however, this presents a conundrum. A major league fastball has traveled halfway to the plate by the time the batter can see and recognize that it has left the pitcher’s hand. “Humans don’t have a visual system fast enough to track the ball all the way in. . . . [T]he only way to hit a ball traveling at high speed is to be able to see into the future[.]” David Epstein, “The Sports Gene” (Portfolio 2014). This is true for punches thrown in fight sports, balls hit or thrown in sports like tennis and cricket, and decisions made in team sports.
In one study, researchers flashed images from volleyball games “too quickly to actually see the ball” in front of elite level volleyball players in which they could only see the position of the players. The highest-level players could determine the location of the ball in a split-second exposure, and the better the player, the more quickly she extracted and organized the information in the slides. Another informal study showed that Grandmaster chess players could consistently reassemble a chessboard after viewing it for only 3 seconds, while a Master could reassemble about 90 percent of the pieces, and players with a lower level of experience showed proportionally less aptitude to reconstruct the board. But, this amazing feat was contextual: in another study, the players were shown unrealistic chessboards where the positions did not represent actual, potential game play. With this change, the Grandmasters’ recall was the same as that of the average players. Their lightning-quick ability to organize information was not a feat of memory, but one of perception.
Perception is the complete biological process in which the brain organizes sensory input. It connects our senses to our decision-making and actions.
Sensory input is the external way that we experience our environment. The five traditional senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch—are external senses. But we also have internal senses that tell us about the relative positions of our body parts (kinesthetic sense) and our relative position in space (vestibular sense or our sense of balance). This is all information that our brains must interpret.
Perception is the inside out, or top-down, way our brains organize and interpret sensory input. Perception is an experientially based, learned process. We accumulate experience that defines our own worldview, such that every interaction we have with our environment builds the library of our experiences that we can draw upon to interpret the world around us.
The 10,000 Hours Rule
Since some of the most advanced expressions of perceptual learning occur in highly specialized circumstances like chess and sports, linguistics, and highly specialized skills such as air traffic controlling, there seems to be a proportional relationship between experience, the ability to organize information, and a person’s skill in a particular domain. This suggests that this type of learning is a highly generalized aspect of human ability, something accessible to everyone.
This idea has given rise to the 10,000 hours rule: The idea that mastery of something comes 10,000 hours of accumulated deliberate practice. People’s attempts to put the 10,000 hours rule into practice have shown that other factors differentiate the highest skilled individuals in any area. Deliberate practice can get pretty far in developing a skill for which you do not have an innate talent, but at the elite levels, athletes and performers have both huge amounts of accumulated practice-hours and some genetic gifting or innate talent for that skill. You can have all the talent and gifting but you must develop the experience, the perception, to fully realize those gifts.
Perceptual Learning and Lifting
This relates to lifting because perceptual learning affects your ability to orient your body in space. It relates to the senses that control your movement. Called “parallel processing” the brain can process sensory information of different qualities: color, motion, shape and depth, and this ability relates your kinesthetic sense and your vestibular sense. Epstein writes, “Even skills that appear to be purely instinctive—jumping to rebound a basketball after a missed shot—are grounded in learned perceptual expertise and a database of knowledge . . . . It’s a database that can only be built through rigorous practice.”
This process, the “experience-dependent enhancement of our ability to make sense of what we see, hear, feel, taste or smell” is known as perceptual learning. Gold and Watanabe, “Perceptual learning” (Curr Biol. 2010 Jan 26; 20(2)). Perceptual learning is adaptive and can be trained through certain intentional practices. This means that you can better learn how to do many things, including lift, when you pay attention to the learning process.
Building your movement database for lifting requires that we first consider the sensory input involved in the movement. There are sensory elements to the movements themselves: Kinesthetic and vestibular senses are the way your body senses its own movements and positioning and balance in space. You develop control over your movement by interpreting your kinesthetic sense and controlling your balance. There is also another kind of visual interpretation of the lifts that lies in how the lift “looks” in comparison with the models that define the movement as correct or incorrect. You need to develop how well you can move and learn what correct movement feels like. There are three basic strategies you can use to help develop your movement through perceptual learning.
Learn to Move by Moving
The first is practice exercising conscious control over body’s movements. A good example of this is the methods we use to help teach lifters to exercise conscious control over their lower backs. Setting the back is one of the most important things you must do when you lift and some people cannot consciously control the muscles of their lower back to hold their spine in rigid normal anatomical extension under load.
The process of teaching someone to use his lower back usually involves cues: verbal, visual, and tactile instructions to help get the person to use the desired muscles. Very often, we will give the lifter a task that will force them to use those muscles in the desired way.
Learn Tasks, not Body Parts
Making movement task-based is extremely effective when the task requires unconscious control over the body. In the case of setting your back, we may have the lifter lie down on their stomachs and perform the “Superman” exercises, lifting his feet off the ground and squeezing 10 – 12 times. This forces him to contract his spinal erectors but puts his thoughts on lifting their toes off the ground. This is a much more accessible movement than contracting the spinal erectors because it is already in the database of conscious control over his body. Once the lifter does this, they can feel the muscles of their lower back—adding a layer of sensory input—which helps him to consciously contract those muscles and allows him to practice the movement.
Interestingly, once a lifter has done this exercise and felt how to control his lower back and hold it in extension, he rarely needs to be reminded how to do this. It is a movement that becomes immediately available for conscious control. This tends to be true of low-skill movements.
You should develop a feedback loop for your lifting. You can try to move correctly but if you aren’t doing it right, you need to continually correct the movement until you are. Then, you need to reinforce good movement through practice and conscious control. As in the example of contracting your lower back muscles, you might THINK you’re doing it correctly, but if you don’t have someone to confirm that you are doing so and say “That’s the movement” and make you do it several times until you demonstrate conscious control over those muscles, then you might not actually learn it—your practice is less deliberate.
We will examine deliberate practice in-depth next time and talk about why you should learn what “correct” looks like.