As a trainer I feel the constant need to remind myself about how we achieve motor learning. Regardless of how complex a motion is, we usually take on the challenge with the same basic learning method. So this article is primarily aimed at other trainers and coaches out there but should interest fitness enthusiasts who train themselves. The way we learn motor skills has a strong influence on how we should perform new activities. I'm not going to dive into the field field of human motor behavior. There are plenty of textbooks for that. What I am going to look at is the specific phrases of motor learning when it comes to learning fitness related activities.

Like I stated there are basic phases to human “motor learning”. Each phase builds a person to become proficient at an activity (which includes exercising or just about any movement in life). Each phase is vital to building proper “motor skill” for an activity. These phrases have been given many names and it depends on the expert you refer to. I personally like the ideas associated with PM Fitts on motor behavior and how we learn (1).

The first phase of learning is the cognitive phase (2). This is a period in learning where things can be quite awkward and inefficient. It is here a person is slowing the motion down and really being aware and conscious of body posture and proper movement technique. A good example is a child first learning to walk. When it comes to exercising, this is a period when it is very advantageous to have a smart personal trainer or coach. It goes without saying the benefit of having someone properly critique and correct exercises to reduce the risk of bad habits and possible injury. Most of us have to “re-learn” movement patterns and really need this critical phase to ensure optimal progress. For instance, squatting, lunging and jumping are motions we have known since being a child.

Unfortunately, for most of us in our sedentary societies, we have to re-learn these abilities. Some individuals, who still possess motor skill from childhood can speed through this phase. When watching children play outdoors we can see different movement patterns occurring very quickly and subconsciously. A child does not put too much thought into jumping over an object, squatting deeply or taking off on a fast sprint. However, as the child becomes a man or a woman in an environment where activities become secondary to a less active lifestyle, we find the motors that once were easy and subconscious are now difficult if not unthinkable.

So, as a trainer and coach I see this phase incorporating more of re-learning and enforcement proper technique than a point to learn something new (even though it will seem new). This phase can be a very humbling experience where someone finds out how well she can actually perform a given activity. I also push not to follow too many fitness theories. There are very few rules that I find are necessary or make the training more time efficient. Would a child follow a lot of rules on how to play outside? It is important not to over analyze fitness activities. Treat them the same way a child would look at playing at a park.

Next, is the associative phase (1). Here the person begins to separate what strategy is useless and useful to accomplish the exercise. Like I stated earlier, there are flaky rules when it comes to strength and conditioning. In this phase a person can really begin to shake off the rules that do not really refer to that individual. It is an eye opener to find out there are no solid rules, just ideas and theories. Case in point, the rule of “not letting one's knee go past her feet”. This is one of the most useless strategies and rules that I have come across. As a trainer I feel this is a good time for the trainee to think for herself. It is at this point that I will still observe the client for proper technique but much of my attention is now driving her to the goal of the given exercise and session.

As the skill to do the exercise is becoming more efficient, the motivation and confidence builds. Most of the time, there is no longer a need to do the exercise at a slow tempo for learning purposes. Now the exercise can be brought to a more functional and natural tempo allowing what was conscious to progress into a subconscious activity. As the movement becomes less analyzed, more energy is available to actually do the exercise. An interesting note, is the mental factor here as compared to the cognitive phase. In the associative phase, there is less mental energy spent on learning the motion. Therefore this is the point a person can push herself and be able to focus on getting through the exercise instead of the focusing entirely on the mechanics of the exercise.

Lastly, is the autonomous phase (1). It is here the exercise is subconscious and proper form is hopefully instinctual. The person can progress in different ways such as increasing intensity (increasing external load), changing environment, and so on. Once the first two phases are completed a person can continue to progress without fear of injuries developing from the lack of motor skill. In my opinion, it is here that I can have a client increase the speed and change the exercise to a plyometric activity. For example, a person may learn how to deadlift, high pull, and front squat a barbell. It is at this phase I would transfer all three movements into a higher speed called a “clean”. An even simpler example, a person re-learn a squat she first may start with a squat in a wider place, next progress to a stance hip width and possibly to a box, and finally change the stressors to a jumping squat, one legged squat , or a squat on an unstable surface.

This is typically in the back of mind and how I consciously train clients and how I subconsciously train myself.

1. Fitts, Paul M. THE INFORMATION CAPACITY OF THE HUMAN MOTORSYSTEM IN CONTROLLING THE AMPLITUDE OF MOVEMENT. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Vol 47, No. 6, 1954.

2. Whiting, WC and Rugg S. Dynatomy. Champagne IL, Human Kinetics, 2006