By: Barbell Logic Team
Like muscles, you can train your brain to evaluate your own lifts. You can actually learn to see differently. Artists train themselves to see the world as shapes, light, and shadow because seeing the elements of a scene allows them to draw it more clearly. Similarly, you can adapt your perception and learn to see the building blocks of movement. This will lead to better, more deliberate practice in your training sessions.
Train Your Brain
Last time, we talked about perceptual learning strategies and gave tips on how to use these concepts to improve the way you learn movement. These tips depend on a feedback loop and the concept of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice means that merely showing up and lifting isn’t good enough. Part of your training is practice. So part of your approach to training should include processes that help make your practice better. This means that you practice with some knowledge (preferably expert knowledge) of what makes the movements correct and how to best use each rep to make your movement better.
Think about a golf swing. You can take a few buckets of balls to the driving range and swing away for an hour. If you are very new to golf, you will probably get a little bit better at hitting the ball. But, if you spent that same time with an expert golf instructor who showed you the correct grip, stance, posture, and mechanics, you would end that hour having improved much more. Deliberate practice makes each hour more valuable.
To be fair, squats are less complicated than a golf swing. But both are a repeating, predictable movement pattern and the same idea applies. If you simply show up at the gym, put a bar on your back, and start going down then up, you will get a little bit better at that movement. But if you spend an hour with a coach, learn the correct bar position, the correct stance, and the proper mechanics, you will have spent that hour learning the movement and laying a better foundation for future practice.
Seeing the Correct Movement
Regarding the squat,
“The correct bottom position is identified by definite anatomical position markers:
- The spine will be held rigid in lumbar and thoracic extension.
- The bar will be directly over the middle of the foot.
- The feet will be flat on the ground at the correct angle for the stance width.
- The thighs will be parallel to the feet.
- The hip joint will be in a position lower than the top of the patella.” (from Starting Strength 3d Edition)
This quote from Starting Strength describes both visual components of the squat model elements and elements that you achieve by feel. The relationship between the bar and midfoot describes your balance, which you feel when you are under the bar, but which can also be confirmed visually. Also, “parallel” is a visual orientation, as is “lower than.” Each of these markers represents something that must occur for the movement to be biomechanically correct, but the markers themselves are visual—or at least have visual analogs that tell you whether what you felt was indeed correct.
This is important because feel is subjective. Senses are innate, but how you interpret them—your perception—is learned. What feels right or comfortable to you may not be correct—in the deadlift comfortable almost always means it’s wrong. But visual markers are objective. An informed and experienced eye can see that a movement is correct even when the person under the bar cannot feel that it is.
Physics rules your world, and moving a bar through space means you have to obey certain principles: (1) Gravity works in a straight vertical line downward, meaning the most efficient way to oppose gravity is in a straight vertical line upward. (2) Every combination of a lifter plus a barbell has a center of mass and a center of balance, and when the center of mass is directly over the center of balance, the system is operating in its most efficient state. Other aspects of the model depend on anatomy: Muscles pull (never push) on bones and use leverage to create movement or to resist movement. And some aspects of the model are based on physiology: We know that stress causes adaptation and that the adaptation is specific to the stress. Therefore, we have learned that increasing force production is a necessary stress in order to train our bodies to produce more force in the future, leading us to train with movements that use the most muscle mass, over the longest range of motion, and allow us to lift the most weight. And from these basic principles, we develop a model that helps us see what correct or incorrect movement looks like.
Like movement, the experienced evaluation of your own lift is something you can train. You can actually learn to see differently. Artists train themselves to see the world as shapes, light, and shadow because seeing the elements of a scene allows them to draw it more clearly. Similarly, your perception can adapt and you can learn to see the building blocks of movement.
If you pick the brains of experienced coaches you will notice a couple of different things. They tend to see people in simplified terms, like stick figures, broken down into the levers and diagnostic angles that help them interpret your movement. You will also find that they can quickly size up a person’s relative proportions, seeing people with long torsos or long arms and anticipating how that will affect the person’s expression of the model. If you ask a coach to explain their reasoning for giving certain cues, you will often find that they cannot immediately do so. A good coach has learned to “see the fix” without spending extra thought examining the error, and it sometimes requires slowing down their own process to explain their reasoning.
Humans are very good at organizing visual information when they are sufficiently experienced. Remember the chess Grandmasters and volleyball players? And, human movement is something that you have seen and learned about every day from the moment you could interpret shapes from light as an infant.
Every person on the planet can develop some ability to see movement in its constituent parts. This has been studied, as biological motion perception, using point-light tests. In a point-light test, researchers attach lights or reflective markers to the ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders of someone performing an action. These studies have shown that an average observer can easily recognize familiar human movements even with very limited information, as in only being able to see the points of light at the joints and not the entire movement. Dr. Stef Bradford has an excellent lecture on learning in which she discusses these studies. (Learning and Teaching Strategies by Dr. Bradford.)
Whether you realize it or not, you are very good at distinguishing different types of motion. You can tell whether a person is running, walking, or dancing—moving in a manner that is familiar to your everyday experience and performed with the necessary grace and balance those movements require. You can also tell whether deviations from that standard movement occur. Your eye is sensitive, for example, to abstract art in which common forms are represented outside their natural ratios. And, the point-light tests have shown that observers can not only recognize normal human movement but can also recognize deviations from normal movement, distinguishing between when a person is walking normally or when the person is limping.
To help you with your deliberate practice, you should train yourself to add the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift to your visual database of human movement. Keeping in mind that all people look a little bit differently when doing these movements correctly, your first goal should be to learn what you look like when you do them.
This is easy. And if you are already an SSOC client, you started doing this your very first workout. Every time you train, you should be filming and reviewing your lifts. At a minimum, this means that you record every workset and watch it immediately, while the lift is still fresh in your mind. If your work today is three sets of five, you have three chances to implement your cues, practice your lift, and evaluate your own movement. This feedback loop of learning—seeing the correct movement and practicing it—will improve the more you do it.
The models for each movement contain visual markers, like those listed above. An experienced eye can pick out the relationships between the bar and various body parts such as the angles your limbs make at certain joints, what we call the diagnostic angles of a lift. Starting Strength (3d ed.) will teach you what to look for every time you review your lift. The goal is to start seeing yourself as a stick figure of connected articulating points.
While everyone looks a little bit different when they perform the lifts, you look like you. If you have a long torso and short femurs, you will squat with a more vertical torso than someone of the opposite build. But, you will do so consistently, and you can learn what you should look like. An experienced coach can help you confirm or correct your visual perception of your lift, but over time, you will get better at picking out your form errors and learning what cues or fixes work.
We’ve talked about making warm-up reps practice reps. Really, every time you train you are practicing the skill of lifting. Resist the urge to “just lift” your warm-up reps and light-day reps. You should never just go through the motions—every rep has a goal. Those goals will become more narrowly defined as you become more experienced and you learn the cues that fix certain errors or best help you focus before each rep. Lift every rep with the focus on HOW it should move. The weight on the bar has the potential to distract you from the lift. Practice helps turn deliberate effort into natural movement.