Evidence suggests that teachers who over-manage the learning process tend to stifle their students' long-term improvement
When you got into this industry you may have thought that your job would be to help people achieve physical or aesthetic goals. You’d spend your session time instructing and refining your clients’ form, making their movements look flawless, and, in the process, increase their functional capacity.
While you do get paid to provide instructions and cues for personal trainers, there’s a big difference between giving deliberate, timely feedback based on your clients’ skill level and stage of learning and over-coaching with an onslaught of verbal instructions.
In fact, most trainers who adopt the latter approach are, unknowingly, doing a disservice to their clients. That’s because the evidence suggests that teachers who over-manage the learning process tend to stifle their students’ long-term improvement (1).
And make no mistake, we are in the business of teaching people movement skills. However, we can’t assume that our clients know how to learn. We’re mistaken when we think that they will process and execute our instructions the way that we envision””they don’t share our movement experience or expertise. Therefore, to be more effective coaches, we have to focus on educating our clients.
To optimize our clients’ learning experience (and the way that we coach them throughout the training process), we can look at how people learn a new skill on their own, without the benefit of feedback from a teacher. For our purposes, I’ll term this situation “natural” learning.
How We Learn “Naturally”
When Emma, a one year-old, is trying to walk, she attempts this new skill with various strategies until she finds one that works reliably well. Mommy isn’t telling her to flex the knee, brace with the core, shift her center of gravity forward, and establish a new base of support. Instead, Emma learns this incredible new skill on her own. But how does she do it without instruction?
This idea refers to a reciprocal relationship between how we perceive sensory information and then modify our movements to match the demands of the environment.
So, Emma feels her body position change when she shifts from a crawling position to an upright posture (action), reassesses the new configuration of her limbs (perception), takes a step (action), then falls because of an imprecise weight shift. She then senses her butt on the ground and the change in her visual field (perception) and begins a new attempt to stand up and step (action).
As you can see, there are many ways a learner engages in perception-action coupling, even within the same activity. But the main thing to keep in mind is that this process is an inherent feature of movement and trainers need to understand this fundamental dynamic so as to preserve it (not interfere with it) when teaching (Click here to read more).
Emma’s goal is to walk so she can experience and interact with her environment more fully. Her entire focus is on creating locomotion, not on the technique with which she can accomplish that goal. If her first strategy fails, then she tries something new. She’s not fixating on whether her feet are externally rotated or if her scapulae are retracted. By keeping her focus on an external goal, the appropriate technique will emerge, based on her individual morphology.
Emma moves her body a bit differently each time she steps. Even if she doesn’t fall and is able to maintain equilibrium, her movements aren’t homogenized. She’s experiencing the full range of her movement repertoire and this process of variability demonstrates a healthy central nervous system.
Along with movement variability is Emma’s desire to experiment with different strategies. As she gets older and more experienced, she’ll use the reliable walking program that she will have developed with practice. Until then, however, she’s going to use a trial-and-error approach and experiment with different ways of picking up and placing her feet, maneuvering her center of gravity, and moving her arms in space.
Because Emma is developing this skill on her own she has to rely on her own internal feedback system. Proprioception is one element of feedback (i.e., sensors that report on muscle tension and length) and, along with her visual and vestibular systems, she creates a picture of her body in space. She responds to this information by refining her actions to help her produce more complex, skillful movement.
Emma’s journey to walking may be filled with many non-walking tasks: standing up, looking around the room, hitting the table she’s using for support, tapping a foot up and down a couple of times, and then taking a few steps. These movement tasks aren’t uniform from beginning to end (like a set of 10 squats) and, in fact the random nature of the movements’ order will help her solidify these skills better in the long-term than if she practiced one skill over and over (2).
Long-term development (learning)
Finally, one commonality between Emma’s quest to walk and her mommy’s goal of improving her tennis game is that they both accept short-term setbacks as part of the learning process. Mistakes and experimentation are necessary for the long-term development of skills. Changing (or developing new) behavior requires acquiring and refining new skills, which are best learned with a long-term trajectory in mind.
How We Learn in the Gym
When we work with clients we typically follow a scheme far different from what Emma experienced during her “natural” learning process.
Prescribe movements rather than goals
When clients come to us needing “fixing” or who have limited movement experience/capability, we focus on teaching proper movement patterns. After all, squats, lunges and deadlifts are fundamental patterns that also have a host of health benefits and transfer to daily activities.
However, we aren’t providing clients with outcome goals. Emma had a tangible goal””to walk””but getting a client to squat isn’t an outcome goal, it’s a movement pattern.
Instructing a client to sit the butt back, shift the weight to the heels, descend to parallel, and keep the chest up emphasizes the movement as the goal rather than focusing on the result of doing all of those things well: i.e. to stand up from a chair.
By reframing how we describe the true goals of movement””to pick something up from the ground (deadlift), to open a door or push away a defender (chest press)””we can help clients better relate to the task at hand, facilitating learning.
Emphasize technique above all
As in the previous section’s example, trainers are indoctrinated early on that the best way to help clients is by teaching them proper technique. This makes perfect sense since our primary interest is to “Do No Harm.”
We want to avoid injuring our clients at all costs. However, if they aren’t in a dangerous position or lifting a ton of load, then allow them to experiment with some degree of movement variability. Remember that Emma developed a technique specific to her morphology and stage of learning to accomplish her goal. Her technique was simply the means to achieving her goal, not her sole focus.
Encourage uniformity of movement
We tend to focus on getting our clients’ movements to look as uniform as possible, as if homogenous movements are the pinnacle of skill development. Yes, we want clients to learn symmetrical squats with proper weight distribution and full ranges of motion””this will help develop a solid platform from which you can develop their strength and capacity.
But symmetrical squatting doesn’t always happen in “real life” activities. We get up from chairs at different depths, field ground balls in a variety of directions, and return tennis serves at different speeds.
Your clients can be given more freedom to generate their own movements, within the scope of the skills you are trying to teach them, because it will help their long-term learning and will keep them more engaged in the process (1).
Assuming they aren’t risking injury, allow them to experiment with their squats””it’s okay to move side to side or forwards and back to experience the full sensory environment that their operating in.
It’s good, and quite helpful, to have clients lunge in a variety of directions and with different foot positions and widths. Try to avoid the uniformity-at-all-costs trap.
Movements often uniplanar, segmented
The movements that we typically prescribe are uniplanar. Squats, rows, bench press, pull-ups, they all stick to one primary plane of motion. However, we know that life happens in 3 dimensions. There are times when it’s important to stabilize a client’s pattern in the sagittal plane before progressing to the transverse plane, but there is also a time when we can let them break free from segmented, uniplanar movements so they can experience more “life-like” skills.
Emma’s quest to walk happened in all 3 planes, as walking is a tri-planar activity. If a one-year old can handle all three planes, then I’m betting your clients can too.
Deliver feedback with an internal focus
Because we’re very technique-oriented (we are trained to analyze mechanics, after all) we tend to use cues that emphasize an internal focus. Examples of internal cues are “Squeeze the shoulder blades together,” “Brace the core,” “Extend the elbow.”
However, when we turn our clients’ attention inward to specific body parts, their brain’s processing gets in the way of actually moving, impeding performance. “…an internal focus on the body induces a conscious type of control. As a consequence, individuals tend to constrain their motor system by interfering with automatic control mechanisms that have the capacity to control movements effectively and efficiently (3).” This holds true for novices and expert athletes.
To keep our clients’ attention geared towards the result of their movements, we can substitute external cues. Here are some examples of how you can turn the internal cues above into external cues:
“Hold an orange between your shoulder blades,”
“Pretend I’m about to hit your stomach,”
“Punch the ceiling.”
The research is overwhelmingly in favor of external cues to increase your clients’ force production, movement speed and accuracy, and even reduce O2 consumption (3).
Provide feedback when we decide clients need it
When we do give clients feedback, we give it when we think it would help them the most. That might be after every rep or even during each repetition. The problems with this approach (which I’ve been guilty of countless times in my career) are numerous.
- We’re robbing clients of self-reliance. They learn to count on us as the dispensers of all feedback, which interferes with their natural tendency to rely on themselves (1). Emma didn’t have anyone telling her how to walk or when to contract certain muscles. She was aware of her body and the environment and relied on herself to develop a movement strategy. Why should we think our clients are any less capable than a toddler?
- When clients aren’t training with us they must figure out movement problems for themselves. So, closely tied to the previous point, if they aren’t used to relying on themselves for feedback, why should they be skillful at doing so outside of the gym?
- If we’re giving too much feedback then clients will focus on processing the verbal information, not on staying balanced while doing a single-leg squat.
- Since people learn differently, they require feedback at different times. If clients are allowed to select when they receive feedback, their movement accuracy (and engagement) goes up (2).
Devise sessions with “blocked” skill practice
When we have a client perform 8, 10, or 20 lunges in a row, we’ve devised “blocked” practice of the skill. Blocked practice is the most common approach to acquiring and refining skills. However, most of life’s activities, as well as sporting skills, are devised of consecutive, yet non-repetitive actions.
For example, we pick up a bag, step off the bus, and walk to a destination. Or, a quarterback may start in a ready position, catch the ball, step back and sideways, and throw. Rarely do any activities happen in a blocked fashion.
Not only can you avoid the boredom of repetitive actions (especially for clients who can’t keep their focus for more than a few reps), but research shows that random practice improves the long-term retention of those skills better than practicing them in a blocked manner (2).
Seek short-term improvement (performance)
We’re under some degree of pressure to show our clients results. After all, they’re paying us to help them achieve a goal and they’ve got to see some tangible change over time (a bigger chest, a smaller waist, more weight on the bar, etc).
So when we work really hard to coach them to “get” a particular movement, it feels good for both the client and trainer to see improvement over the course of a session. We can clean up a faulty pushup pattern or go from an awful squat to a decent one in a matter of minutes. It’s gratifying to see such a short-term change.
However, the tactics that we use to induce such short-term improvement (i.e., a barrage of cues and a laser-focus on technique) can reduce a client’s ability to retain those changes in the long-term.
Think of short-term change as “performance” and long-term change as “learning.” A focus on performance, while gratifying in the moment, doesn’t translate into your client’s ability to repeat those fixes in the long-term.
Struggle and sloppiness, while not pretty to watch, are the keys to helping clients solidify the desired skills in the long-term. It may seem counterintuitive but by keeping your vision trained on learning, and not cringing at the sight of mistakes, you will actually turn them into more skillful, capable movers.
The disparities between the Emma’s approach to learning and the trainer’s conventional approach to teaching are great: focus of attention (external vs. internal), variability vs. uniformity, goal-focused vs. technique-focused, random vs. blocked practice, intrinsic vs. augmented feedback, and a short-term performance vs. long-term learning view.
By looking at how people learn skills in “natural” settings (and by setting aside our egos), we can formulate more effective strategies to teach people, so that they can become more skillful learners and movers.
Also by Carolyn
Successful Cues for Personal Trainers – Jarred English
The Art of Cueing (Not the Science) – Jonathan Goodman
Why I Gave My Clients Bad Advice – Jonathan Goodman
Lewthwaite, R, & Wulf, G. (2012). Motor learning through a motivational lens.
In Hodges, N.A. & Williams, A.M. (Eds.) Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice (173-191). Oxon, UK: Routledge.
Lee, T.D. (2012). Contextual Interference: Generalizability and limitations.
In Hodges, N.A. & Williams, A.M. (Eds.) Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice (173-191). Oxon, UK: Routledge.
Lohse, K.R. et al. (2012). Attentional focus affects movement efficiency.
In Hodges, N.A. & Williams, A.M. (Eds.) Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice (40-58). Oxon, UK: Routledge.