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It’s your favorite (and only) nerdy-neuroscience-speech-language-pathologist coach, back again!

As a coaching team at BHCF, we always emphasize having correct form before increasing the weight. The most obvious reason is that trying to lift heavy with incorrect form is just asking for an injury! But there are other benefits to learning the proper technique prior to increasing the weight.

Let’s take a look at the steps involved in the snatch. This is one of the most complex movements in CrossFit, and requires you to set up in the correct position; lift the bar from the ground to the top of your knees; extend your hips and lift the bar to your “waist”; straighten your knees and shrug; lift the bar with your elbows high and outside; rotate your arms/wrist while dropping into a receiving position under the bar; catch the bar solidly in an overhead position while landing in a squat; and then stand up to full extension of the hips and knees while maintaining control of the weight overhead.

Phew, that’s a lot of steps! And making a single error in any of those moving parts means your lift is less efficient, so you won’t be able to move as much weight.

So what does it take for your brain to learn a complex motor movement like the snatch? Most of the time, we learn through trial and error. Just think about it; as babies, we try out all sorts of movements before we figure out how to walk and talk efficiently. But is this really the most effective method of learning?

One of the methods I use as a speech-language pathologist is called “errorless learning.” Just as it sounds, I try to prevent my patients from making a mistake when learning or completing a task, whether it’s in a memory task or helping a kid learn how to say “r” correctly. It’s trickier than it sounds though!

So, if one of my patients with dementia forgets my name, I don’t let him just guess until he gets it right since it provides incorrect information to his brain. Instead, I provide him with clues (e.g., It starts with an “H”) to help lead him to the correct answer and form the right pathways to the answer. The theory is that if mistakes are avoided during the learning period, the brain only knows one way to complete the task and doesn’t have to decide between the correct versus the incorrect way.

Believe it or not, there is actual scientific research to back up this theory using golf swings, a complex motor movement. Participants in the studies were split into two groups. The errorless learning group was given explicit verbal instructions on the proper putting technique and started putting from very short distances.

On the other hand, the second group was not provided with any instruction and had to acquire the skill through trial and error, testing out different hypotheses in order to make the putt successfully. Because the first group made significantly fewer errors during the learning process, they were able to learn the skill in a more passive manner (that is to say, they used their brain less). The second group had to use an active learning strategy that required significantly more cognitive processes, such as memory, attention, and problem solving. This limited the automatic nature of the movement that the first group seemed to acquire. Furthermore, researchers tested these two groups under a “dual-task” condition, which required them to complete a cognitive task while they were putting (in this case, listening to a series of tones and counting the number of high pitched ones). The performance of those in the first group was not affected by the addition of a second task, while the second group made mistakes both in their putting accuracy and counting the tones. 1, 2

So let’s transfer this to CrossFit. We talk all the time about the benefits of lifting light until you learn the proper form, and this is why. While you may be physically strong enough to lift heavier weights, using the incorrect form will only increase the length of time it will take you to learn proper form. If you learn the form correctly the first time (errorless learning), you’ll be adding weight quickly and won’t need to break bad habits. By trying to go too heavy too fast (trial by error), you’re only making it harder for your brain to decipher the correct motor sequence.

And this goes for warming up a lift as well! Why do you think professional athletes warm-up on a PVC pipe, use the Burgener warm-up, etc. They are priming their muscle memory to perform the lifts correctly at little to no weight, and before they start to work up to the ridiculous amount of weight they can lift.

So how many reps does it take to master a lift? If you research that question (I really did Google that before writing this), you find a lot of different answers, from 3000 to 100,000 repetitions, to 30,000 hours of practice… The real answer is that there is no answer. It depends on a variety of factors, such as the complexity of the movement, what distractors are in the environment, how you are feeling that day, etc.

So while I can’t tell you how long it will take before you become proficient at a lift, I can tell you to listen to your coaches if they tell you to hold off on adding weight. Adding weight slowly takes a lot less time and effort to become proficient, and it will save you frustration in the long run!

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1Maxwell, J.P., Master, R.S.W., Kerr, E., Weedon, E. The implicit benefit of learning without errors. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2001, 54A (4): 1049-1068.

2Poolton, J.M., Masters, R.S.W, Maxwell, J.P. The relationship between initial errorless learning conditions and subsequent performance. Human Movement Science, 2005, 24: 362-378.