Over the course of the week I am going to present a concept of learning that was originally studied in relation to motor-skill acquisition by researchers Fitts and Posner in the 60’s, and will apply it to olympic lifting and overall health. This research has been applied across a broad spectrum of disciplines ranging from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to Piano playing and always seems to hold water. when people relate it to something in their life, it usually brings for a bit of an a-ha moment.
Now it is obvious to most that mastering weight-lifting is skill acquisition as it falls into what we generally think of as a skill. But, I’d like to propose that cultivating a healthy lifestyle is no different than acquiring a skill. It takes out the emotion, expectation, and some of the hardship. Just like mastering weight-lifting, mastery of health is going to have different stages of development and hardship. The reason I believe this mindset is important is because it combats the ineffective “quick-fix”, “30 days to ripped” mentality that permeates our society. True health mastery is about what "health average" you maintain for 10-20-30-40 year periods, not losing weight for a trip to Vegas then returning to soft-hood.
Fitts and Posner proposed that there are three stages of learning. One could really simplify these as beginner, intermediate, and advanced, and Fitts and Posner goes into the characteristics and attentional demands of each stage of learning. These are outlined below and I will discuss the first stage of learning in today’s post. (Table sniped from Attention and Motor Skill Learning by Garbiele Wulf)
Beginner (Cognitive) Stage
During this stage you are beginner AF. Things do not come easy, it is mostly frustrating, and you are often time more taxed mentally than physically, even if it is a physical skill. The thinking about what you are doing is more taxing than the doing in many cases. You know so little about what you are doing, and you are being given so much information, you are drowning in newness. This is overwhelming, and makes a lot of people want to quit. I would also venture to call this the excuse-forming stage for quitters.
When you are in the cognitive stage of weightlifting you have to think about every inch of the movement and controlling every part of your body. When you coach someone in this stage, often-times you will cue them in one area, and then on the next rep when they are focusing on that one area, five others will go astray. The lift is generally choppy, too slow in parts, too fast in others, and just messy. People in this stage get head-aches, pout, kick the bar, and spend time during this phase convinced that they are “not made for weightlifting”.
Here is a video from when I first decided I wanted to get good at lifting and it is worth some laughs, but it is a great visual representation of being in the cognitive stage. Does this look cognitive to you? What is working harder… my body or my mind? I would say it looks like I'm working on the Freidmann Equations in that setup, not getting ready to pick up something off the ground and put it on my shoulders.
(*This is not the torso angle you want for a clean, just sayin')
This is also the phase when most people quit. Personally, when I started Crossfit and was introduced to the Snatch, it was so difficult, painful, and frustrating, that I admittedly convinced myself that I could do Crossfit and just not snatch. I quit the Snatch. I avoided it completely for the first 2-3 years. My ego was too big to admit how shit I was at the lift and that I had to really be a beginner with the movement.
If you aren’t willing to suck for awhile, you’ll never make it past this stage.
When you are in the cognitive stage of developing a healthy lifestyle, you have no idea what to eat, how much sleep you need, whether to lift weights, do a 10k, spin-class, or yoga. You need a meal-plan given to you, you need recipes, you are guessing, frustrated, hungry, and pissed off at everyone with lower body-fat than you. You feel like you are drowning in google searches of how to be healthy. To be healthy seems to be some secretly held knowledge out there of which you have no access.
During this stage is when people often decide that being healthy takes too much time and work. Or being healthy is too expensive or a luxury. Since being healthy seems so complex and unreachable these answers to the problem seem to make sense. They will try fifteen different diets, four different training plans, and have numerous gurus. This is the period of trial and error in terms of nutrition and lifestyle and it might take ten years to find the sweet-spot of autonomous mastery.
Surviving This Stage
Using the example of weightlifting, what I think is important during this phase is managing expectations. Often times we expect way too much of ourselves. We’ll spend 30 minutes a day watching world-class lifters on instagram and end up thinking its normal and easy. But in reality the people who make it look easy didn’t start that way, and the reason they can lift like they do is because they didn’t skip the beginner phase. Not only have they practised the lifts more than you (to an extreme degree), they’ve also failed the lifts more than you. If you want to master weightlifting, expect to be in the beginner stage for a committed 2-4 years. And committed doesn’t mean 15 minutes once a week during the strength phase of a group-class. That means 30-60 minute of Oly only 2-4 x/week for 2-4 years.
For the example of a healthy lifestyle, it is important to once again manage expectations during this phase. You can’t go from 0-100 in a week and expect it to go well or seem reasonable. The change will be too drastic. Let yourself figure it out slowly, because its a hell of a lot more important what your average health is like over the course of five years than it is in the next month. Have a longer view. Take time figuring out how to eat more healthy one step at a time. Focus on sleep, then exercise. First step may be as simple as committing to drinking 3L of water each day for the first month. Then, eating a high-fat and high-protein breakfast every day.
Another tidbit to consider is that if you have been living an unhealthy lifestyle for 10 years, your body is going to think that that is normal, so it is going to fight to stay overweight and keep its bad habits. It is going to likely take at-least 2-4 years of good habits for your body and mind to want to work with you and things to be less of a struggle.
Be ready for battle!
If it was easy everyone would make it through this stage, but unfortunately this is where most ambitions die. How many guitars end up in pawn-shops or kijiji? If acquiring skill and proficiency in a certain domain is important to you, you have to be able to put up with some hardship. But what is most important to know here is that even though its going to be hard, and this stage is longer than people would like, it is still only a stage, and the first one at that.
It is worth mentioning that if you stick it out in this stage this is the stage where you will see the biggest gains and improvement. During this phase, in a year you might put 30# on your snatch. When you are an expert you might be pleased and feel successful adding a mere 5# in 16 months. Losing the first 5% of body-fat might take a couple months, but the next 5% might take 2 years.
I was recently listening to a Joe Rogan podcast and they were speaking about getting good at comedy, which segued into music and then Brazilian jiu jitsu. His guest Eddie Bravo who is a GIANT in the BJJ world said something so beautiful that it inspired this blog post and relates heavily to this stage.
“Your body is magical and it will do anything you want it to do, you just gotta tell it over and over and over again to a point where it does it by itself without you telling it”.- Eddie Bravo
That applies to being healthy, and lifting well. What I have yet to state, but is arguably more important than any of the preceding words is that BELIEF is necessary. If you don’t believe you can make it out of stage 1, you won’t. Like Eddie said, your body (you) is magical and it can do whatever you want it to do. You just have to have the balls/ovaries to put in the work, face the suck, and endure knowing that eventually it will all become easy.
-What is extremely important during the cognitive/beginner phase is having a coach or guide to help you make it through, by sharing their knowledge and experience as well as helping you navigate the hardships they endured on their journey towards mastery. If you feel like you are ready to take your journey seriously and want a guide to ease the process, I have three spots left on the Grit Human Performance roster. Shoot me a message!
Onwards and Upwards,
Grit Human Performance