Memory and Skill Acquisition

Written by: Kevin Cann

When we are in the gym hitting repetitions, we are learning.  Since we are learning, our memory systems are involved in this process.  I believe we have 4 different memory systems, but today I am going to spend time discussing 2 of them.

Coaches give lifters feedback on their lifts.  However, do lifters understand how to take this feedback and apply it underneath the barbell for the best results?  I feel many do not know how to do this.  

The 2 memory systems that I want to discuss today are our working memory and our procedural memory.  We learn by using our working memory system first.  This is where we think about what we are doing.  We bring conscious attention to the action.  After doing many repetitions, the skill should pass from the working memory system to the procedural memory system.  Here we should be able to produce the skill automatically.

If a coach is constantly giving feedback to the athlete, the athlete may always be using that working memory system and never make the skill automatic.  This is usually where coaches will argue that feedback should be limited.

If coaches do not give any feedback, then how can they guide the lifter to greater skill development?  Yes, we can use variations of the lifts, but we still need to be able to communicate what we want to see from them so that they know.  Some coaches will argue that feedback is important.  Both are right depending upon the circumstances.

Earlier on we want the lifter to bring conscious awareness into a specific component of the lift.  However, at some point they need to soften that conscious awareness and continue to soften that conscious awareness until they are automatically executing the skill.

Part of this process is highlighting weaknesses within the lift.  If a lifter is pitching forward out of the hole of a squat and needs to develop low back and hip strength, there needs to be exercises in the program to develop those areas.  In this case I will usually communicate to the lifter what I want to see but explain the importance of the accessory lifts here.

Our programs are setup in a way to help lifters advance their learning.  We run 3-week waves, but with a week 4 that is competition lifts at around 80%.  This keeps enough comp lift exposure in the program, but also lets me see how their skills are developing.

Week 1, they will get a max effort of a variation.  The complexity, novelty, and unpredictability of this gets our upper motor neurons’’ attention.  These neurons are responsible for allowing us to learn and they also reside in the cerebellum, where our procedural memory lives.

Week 2 the program will give reps of that exercise using a percentage of that max effort.  This might look like. 70% of last week, 5×5.  This tends to be a pretty low RPE once the lifter is used to the workloads of our programs.  This allows them to get the volume necessary to get stronger, but also allows them to get the hang of the exercise.

We can use visualization here as a supplement as well.  When we visualize a task, we also get the attention of the upper motor neurons.  We can use visualization between sets to get comfortable with a movement and then soften our conscious awareness under the barbell.  Once we are under the bar, we can just let it happen and let our body learn the way that it was designed to learn.  It is built to dominate the environment if we just let it.

On week 3 they put it together and compete.  They are instructed to beat week 1 by 5lbs.  They need to trust themselves and let it happen.  This also builds momentum and gives a release of dopamine and testosterone, both of which increase our learning.  We hit our lower volume comp lift week on week 4 and we repeat the process.

Our training is broken up into phases.  In phase 3 the lifter will have a max effort squat and bench every week.  The goal is to hone in on our skill of competing.  Beat our best in each exercise by 5lbs.  By the time a meet rolls around our momentum and ability to handle pressure is peaked.  Their skills are automatic at this point.

In phase 3, we will also use the comp lifts as our rep work.  This is where we make the technique automatic.  We don’t overthink, we just let it happen.  You can use shorter rest periods here to not give the athlete the opportunity to even think.  Just “flow and go.”

The majority of lifters will be prone to overthinking.  As coaches we need to be aware of that and direct our actions accordingly.  Also, meditation can really be helpful here.  A mindfulness practice will teach the lifter how to soften their conscious awareness.  10 minutes of a mindfulness practice per day can help develop these skills and enhance recovery.

Sleep should be utilized to recover our physical body.  However, if our minds are stressed, sleep will be utilized to recover our minds and our physical body will not be fully recovered.  Without sleep we cannot develop the skills we intend to.  Without meditation, we may not be able to get the most from our sleep.

When we are under pressure, overthinking, or trying to force things, we disrupt these memory systems.  We become more tense, tire more quickly, and actually slow down.  This is where we see athletes choke.  

Too often lifters say, “I will get this at the meet.”  You need to develop these skills before the competition.  If you neglect them and expect them to just show up, you will be very disappointed.

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