We know that skill building and retention of skills involves practice. We practice swimming, typing, putting, free throws, dance moves–all with the expectation that we’ll improve those skills. I think most of us would agree that swimming probably won’t do much to improve our putting. Nor will practicing our cursive handwriting improve our soccer skills. In other words, we need to practice specifically those skills and tasks that want to improve.
To that point, we in the exercise field are familiar with the SAID Principle, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. It means we adapt to the stresses and stimulation which we’re subjected to. It’s the SAID principle at work when a swimmer swims and thus gets better at swimming. Or why a boxer improves his skill through boxing. In order to improve a skill then we’d better practice that skill. A new study however tells us that if we’re willing to deviate just a bit during our practice sessions then we’ll probably learn better.
Why (Smart) Practice Makes Perfect comes from Science Daily and Athletic Edge: Does Practice Really Make Perfect comes from Time Magazine. Both pieces profile research done by USC and UCLA neuroscientists. The study featured six groups who practiced an arm movement pattern that mimicked a pattern on a computer screen. The more accurate the subjects’ arm movements the better they scored. Three of the groups practiced the arm movement only while three other groups practiced the arm movement plus other arm movements that were similar to the target movement. The groups were then tested 24 hours after their practice sessions. The variable practice group scored significantly better than the rote practice group. Why?
“In the variable practice structure condition, you’re basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don’t have to process it very deeply,” said study senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at USC.
“We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity,” Winstein said.
“While it may be harder during practice to switch between tasks … you end up remembering the tasks better later than you do if you engage in this drill-like practice,” Winstein said.
This research is particularly fascinating as it coincides very much with a book I’m reading, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. In it, Doidge profiles various individuals with brain injuries and diseases and describes their efforts at rehabilitation. Often these people have lost use of language skills, thinking or cognitive skills, and/or their ability to move or their motor skills. They must focus to learn anew skills that are common to most of us. It is through intense concentration and focus that these individuals are able to regain these damaged brain functions. It seems a key aspect of this process isn’t just the learning of new skills–but it’s the very act of concentrating that brings success.
What might this mean for fitness enthusiasts and athletes? It means that if you’ve tuned out during your workout then you’re probably not getting all that you could be getting out of your effort. It means that doing the same workout over and over will yield fewer benefits than adding challenging variety to your routine.
In gyms, I see a lot of people who tuned out long ago. They sit on the same bicep curl machine and curl the same weight the same way they did the last 1000 times they came in to workout. Or they’re on the same elliptical machine going at the same pace for the same amount of time as they’ve always done.
Clients often struggle with new exercises. They may be very comfortable with certain movements but try and add something new and it can be a bit of a battle sometimes. Our brains aren’t always happy about making our limbs move in new ways! Kettlebell and Olympic lifts for instance, require more skill and coordination than calf raises or pec deck flyes. But if we look to this latest research it may make sense that just as lifting the barbell is healthy for our bones and muscles, the challenge of learning these new complicated tasks is in fact just as healthy for our brains.