Skill Acquisition in CrossFit

Our brains adapt first, then our muscles, then we are able to do skills under added intensity. Slow down to teach your brain and build muscle. Progress from simple movements to complex movements. Finally add intensity.

One of the wonderful aspects of CrossFit is the never-ending procession of new skills to master. We get pullups and want chest-to-bar, then muscle ups, and so on and so forth. However, sometimes it’s easy to get frustrated by our inability to master a certain skill. This article is designed to give you a roadmap to mastering new skills. While it’s written from the perspective of CrossFit, this can be applied to any motor skill–so if you’re looking to learn to play an instrument or swing a golf club, this will work just as well.

Before we get into what’s going on in your body and brain when you’re learning a new skill, let’s talk about the fundamental principle that drives all progress in the world of fitness: The SAID principle1. The SAID principle stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. That’s a fancy way of saying that your body will only respond to the specific stimulus that you place on it. In order to progress in any sort of skill acquisition, we’re going to need to place the right demands on our bodies to achieve the result that we’re looking for.

Very generally speaking, there are three stages of skill acquisition:

  1. Neurological improvement.
  2. Physiological Improvement
  3. Skill usage under added intensity.

The first improvements in any skill are always from an improvement in our neurological system’s ability to perform a given task. Some of this is because of an increase in motor units–your brain’s connection to your muscles. Some of it is due to an increase in neural efficiency–your body’s ability to recruit the existing motor units. Finally, some increases in skills come from our brain’s ability to automate lower order parts of a skill with practice over time2. So, when learning a new skill, step one is to begin with the least complicated aspects of the movement and move slowly through many perfect repetitions. This will give our central nervous system time to adapt. For example, if we’re learning how to squat for the first time, slowing the descent and pausing at the most challenging portion of the squat (the bottom) will allow our brains time to automate the process of squatting, since we’re reducing the neural demands of moving quickly through different stages of motion. This also means that more complicated movements are easier to learn because we’ve already ingrained the less complicated movements. Attempting to learn how to overhead squat prior to mastering a basic goblet squat will force your brain to expend energy both on the new aspect of the movement (the overhead position) and the aspects of the movement that you’ve only halfway mastered (the squat). Compare this to learning the overhead squat after a simple squat has become completely natural–your brain will only have to concentrate on learning the motor pattern of the overhead position during squatting. This phase happens on the span of days and weeks–but the next phase will require more patience and perseverance.

Once our brains have learned a movement pattern, the limiting factor in motor skill acquisition shifts to physiological characteristics: we may have the ability to successfully execute the snatch with an empty barbell, but loading 200 pounds onto the same bar will exceed our muscular system’s ability to accelerate the barbell enough to pull our body underneath the bar. The rate of improvement once we get to this stage will unfortunately be much slower than the increase from neurological improvement–building larger muscles, improving our heart’s stroke volume, or creating other physiological adaptations requires weeks or months, as opposed to days and weeks that neurological improvement occurs over. One of the most common mistakes that CrossFitters make is to grow impatient once their faster gains from neurological improvement slow down, and give up before enough time has passed to impose sufficient stimulus to create the desired effect that they’re looking for. For example, someone who has a good grasp of kipping on the rings and good pulling strength may be able to kip through the transition into the dip portion of a muscle up, but without the physical strength to do a ring dip, they won’t ever be able to perform a muscle up. With complex, strength based movements, respect the fact that it may take a few months to achieve your goals–and chase gradual improvement over a quick fix.

In terms of gaining strength (either with a barbell or gymnastics) improvement from physiological adaptations, there are three important facts to consider:

  1. Most strength and hypertrophy is built in the eccentric (lengthening) portion of movements rather than the concentric (contracting) phase. Because slowing down the movement also has the benefit of increasing neurological adaptations, slow eccentrics have a double benefit in regards to skill acquisition. However, be careful with the amount of volume you do with negatives–their increased stimulus leads to increased potency as well.3
  2. We only gain as much strength from the work that we are able to recover from. Once we’ve reached the end of your neurological adaptation with a movement, progress will stall unless we get enough sleep, eat well (and enough!) and give our muscles adequate time to recover in between sessions.
  3. Returning to the idea that our bodies only respond to the stimulus we deliver to them, it’s important to slowly ramp up volume and intensity over time. Doing the same number of reps at the same weight and tempo will quickly lead to plateaus.

The final piece of the puzzle when we’re learning new skills is to add intensity. Intensity can take the form of more weight, longer sets, faster cycle time, or doing the movement under fatigue. Intensity is a wonderful driver of fitness–but simple skills are quick to master. Complex, skill-based movements can take months to reach a level of mastery that can withstand fatigue. Respecting the process of building true adaptation will allow for years of healthy CrossFitting–and better scores in workouts!

So what does this mean? Learning new skills takes time. We have to progress from simpler to more complex, from slower to faster, and from few reps to high reps. One point worth reiterating–it’s your brain that learns movements first. Doing 100 reps in a day, getting frustrated, and never returning to that skill won’t give your brain the opportunity to adapt and learn. Practice skills often (3-4 times a week) at low total volume. As you get better, start to increase volume and decrease frequency of practice. Finally, add intensity in order to transfer those skills to workouts, and life.