Each year, personal training gains more respect as a viable extension of the health industry. To support this growth, there are more educational resources available to fitness professionals than ever before. The majority of these materials are based in disciplines such as musculoskeletal anatomy, biomechanics and exercise physiolology. Some trainers' mastery of such subjects would rival that of many physical therapists.
One discipline that still seems to be under-taught, however, is motor learning. Most trainers have a tendency to look at exercise in terms of its effect on the energy systems and musculature, with little regard for the brain/central nervous system. But when we understand how the nervous system works and, by extension, how our clients learn we can adjust our coaching styles to give them a far more comprehensive training experience.
Part 1 of this article will be dedicated to scientific theory; Part 2 will explain how to put this theory into practice. Since motor learning is a broad subject, this series will be limited to the theory and data most specific to the fitness professional. While reading this article, keep in mind how the following points pertain to training:
- While acquiring a new skill, clients go through distinct stages of learning. It is important to be able to recognize these stages and program exercises accordingly.
- Errors play an important role in learning by providing feedback to the learner. As long as risk is minimal, clients should be allowed to “work through” mistakes rather than be immediately corrected.
- Learners will make errors for a variety of reasons. The trainer must be able to identify why errors are being made to identify solutions.
What is Motor Learning?
Motor learning pioneer Richard A. Schmidt best defines motor learning as “a set of [internal] processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes in the capability for responding." Simply put, motor learning is the process through which the body learns and retains movement skills. Seemingly interchangeable words like “movement” and “skill” have very specific meanings in motor learning.
- Movement: A change of position in space
- Action: A movement performed to achieve a goal
- Skill: An action which can be performed consistently under variable conditions
With these definitions in mind, a motor skill is a type of action and an action is a type of movement. However, a movement is not necessarily an action, and an action is not necessarily a skill.
Types of Skills
There are many types of skills and understanding the skill required can help a trainer choose the best approach when training.
Open skills require the performer to adjust to an environment containing objects that have spatial and/or temporal qualities. Skills with “spatial” qualities have certain physical parameters that must be met. For example, a basketball player must shoot the ball through a hoop 10 feet from the ground. “Temporal” qualities are movements within the environment to which the performer of the skill must coordinate his movements; other players in a basketball game would provide the temporal quality.
Closed skills are those where performance can be planned and adaptation to the environment can be predicted in advance. Closed skills have spatial but no temporal qualities, for example, bowling. Most exercises in the fitness center environment are closed skills; however, open skills can be used to challenge more advanced clients.
Gross skills require a great deal of muscular involvement such as total body and/or multi-limb movements. The majority of the skills required for team sports are gross motor skills. Conversely, fine skills require very little body movement and usually involve manipulation of tools or objects, for example playing a musical instrument. Fine motor skills are rarely used in the fitness center environment.
Discrete skills have a distinct beginning and end and involve a single execution to complete. Most gym exercises are discrete skills performed multiple times (a set of 10 squats).
Continuous skills have no distinct beginning or end and require repetition of movement patterns, such as swimming and running.
Finally, serial skills require various steps or a series of movements in a sequence to complete and tend to be made up of closed, discrete skills. Serial skills such as dance or gymnastics routines are often choreographed. Serial skills are frequently used by group fitness instructors teaching routine-based classes.
Feedback and Mistakes
The most essential element of skill acquisition is feedback. Feedback is information gathered about a movement while it’s learned and can come from internal or external sources.
Internal feedback is the information collected by our own sensory systems (mostly mechanoreceptors and vision) during performance of a movement. By sensing joint position, rate of force development in muscles, and other sensory information (proprioception) our bodies can correct errors. Internal feedback is a valuable element in learning because it allows exercisers to self-correct, rather than just react to the cues given by the trainer or, external feedback.
Often the best feedback comes from making mistakes, but what role do mistakes actually play in skill acquisition? Trainers are often quick to correct clients' mistakes during performance of an exercise, but are they robbing them of an essential element of skill building? According to Schmidt's “schema” theory of motor learning, the practice of a movement sets a “generalized motor program” for this class of movement rather than a specific memory. The learner is then able to produce other movements within the class by varying features such as duration, distance or force.
According to the schema theory, practice movements should be widely varied with room for error and a skill does not need to be practiced with total accuracy to be useful in the later performance. For example, a tennis player would likely be better their first time playing squash than someone who has never played either game. The tennis player would be able to perform the basic skills while adjusting for the racket size and weight as well as ball and court size. Errors made would assist in learning the differences between the two sports.
Stages of Learning
As an individual learns a skill there is a predictable learning process with three distinct stages. A trainer should be able to recognize these stages and select or alter exercises to keep clients constantly learning. While the exact moment a client moves onto a new stage may be unclear, accurate approximations can be made.
During the cognitive (verbal) stage subjects are mentally assessing what to do. Although they may understand the demands of the skill, they are not yet able to perform them. The cognitive stage typically occurs between the time subjects accept instruction for a new skill and attempt it for the first time.
Subjects in the associative stage are able to perform the action but have not yet mastered it. As part of motor learning, the associative stage is the most productive in learning a new skill as correction of minor mistakes made in this stage fuels learning and keeps subjects progressing. To determine if your client is in the associative stage monitor how many errors they make. If the client can perform the action consistently without error they are no longer in the associative stage and continued use of this action in training may be of limited value.
Once subjects can perform the action consistently without error and under various conditions they have moved into the autonomous (automatic) stage . In the autonomous stage an action can be performed without coaching and thought. Professional athletes performing the basic skills of their sport have reached the autonomous stage of learning. The autonomous stage is where an “action” becomes a “skill.”
Types of Coaching Cues
There are several types of cues that trainers can use to give feedback while clients are learning. Which type a trainer chooses can have a substantial effect on the speed at which the client learns the skill.
The most frequent type of cueing is verbal cueing. While trainers tend to rely on verbal cues more than any other, many do not take optimal advantage of them. When teaching a new movement, keep cues simple and limit cues to no more than three per movement. Giving too many cues can confuse clients and cause them to focus on less important information. Additionally, research has shown that cues given between sets are more effective retention than cues given mid-set.
Verbal cues should be task-orientated as opposed to physiology-orientated. For example, when coaching a barbell curl, telling a client to “lift the bar toward your chest” is more effective than “squeeze your biceps.” Frequently novice exercisers do not have the muscular control to contract individual muscles on command, but they will understand task-orientated cues such as “press,” “step” or “squat.”
While it may take clients longer to learn a skill with verbal cueing, it is likely the skill will be better retained because clients can rely on internal feedback as they practice. When clients are forced to rely on internal feedback to detect mistakes they more effectively learn. Verbal cueing should be the first and only method used until it is clear the client is unable to progress with this method alone.
Also called mirroring, visual cueing is the next method used to teach movement. Most clients will be able to perform a movement correctly faster following a visual cueing but this does not mean the movement has been learned. When clients rely on mimicking to learn a skill they depend less on internal feedback which may slow learning since mimicking does not produce the same results as detecting one’s own mistakes and developing motor patterns.
Despite its limitations there are many instances where visual cueing is the most appropriate method. Sometimes a movement is too complex to be learned through verbal instruction. Olympic lifts such as the snatch and the clean & jerk would be difficult, and possibly unsafe, for most clients to try without demonstration. Large group training also lends itself to visual cueing as it helps prevent slower learners from holding back the group.
The final method is touch or tactile cueing. With tactile cueing, the trainer assists and guides the client’s limbs throughout the movement. Tactile cueing is a frequently overused and, when used inappropriately, can interfere with the client’s ability to develop motor patterns. Since exercisers learn skills within the context of which they are taught, clients who learn a skill through tactile feedback alone will depend on that feedback during future performances of that skill.
Trainers frequently overuse tactile cueing because they do not want their clients to make mistakes. As discussed above, however, mistakes are an essential part of learning and, as long as the client is in no danger, they should be allowed to make them. Under normal circumstances, tactile cues should be saved for when verbal or visual cues do not work.
Knowing which cues to use is important to your client’s learning; however, it is equally important to know when—and when not—to cue a client. Feedback timing is an often misunderstood factor in movement coaching.
Trainers typically have a negative attitude towards mistakes in training and frequently try to minimize client errors through cueing. It is a common practice among trainers to offer corrective cues while a client performs an exercise, known as “constant feedback”. Cues can also be provided between sets as the client rests. This technique is known as “summary feedback.” While constant feedback allows the client to immediately correct themselves, results from a study by Schmidt, Young, Swinnen and Shapiro indicate that summary feedback results in better skill retention. As we can see in the Figure 1, the constant feedback group (SUM 1) showed the lowest errors per trial, but the poorest retention when re-tested.
The evidence indicates that by allowing clients to work through a movement on their own during a set (provided mistakes do not increase risk of injury) they better retain that exercise. So, try letting clients make some mistakes without immediate correction. By allowing them rely on their own internal feedback, you'll speed learning and pave the way for more advanced exercises. More advanced exercises create fitter clients and a more successful training business!
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- Schmidt, R.A., Wrisberg, C.A. (2007) Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-Based Learning Approach. Human Kinetics
- Schmidt, R.A., Young, D.E., Swinnen, S., & Shapiro, D.C. (1989). Summary knowledge of results for skill acquisition: Support for the guidance hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 352-359.
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