A 4-Step System for Teaching and Learning Strength Exercises

Written By: Justin Kompf

One of my athletes just isn’t getting it and I can’t blame him.

We’re working on a kettlebell snatch, which isn’t an easy movement to master, especially if the weight is heavy. I’m asking him to do something that requires excellent upper and lower body coordination.

Telling him the standard cues of “extend your knees and hips at the same time,” or “explosively extend your elbow,” just isn’t working.

I look at my frustrated athlete and give him six words: “Get the weight to the ceiling”. Suddenly it clicks and he executes the movement perfectly.

Very technical cueing didn’t work for a very technical exercise, but giving a borderline asinine cue got the job done.

What gives?

Physical therapists, athletic trainers, strength coaches, and personal trainers all use strength training to help their clients or patients reach their goals. These people all help their clients learn new movements.

Anyone trying to improve their performance or recover from an injury needs to use progressive overload. If you want your clients to avoid injury, you need to teach them good form. And you can’t get good form just through practice, but through perfect practice.

And the heart of perfect practice, is feedback.

Why Feedback Matters

Feedback is simply information about the movement that reduces the uncertainty involved in any new skill.

How a coach presents feedback can either help the learning process or hurt it. This article will help you select the proper exercises for clients, model them effectively, direct your client’s focus of attention, and decide on the right frequency of feedback.

Exercises such as the squat, deadlift or pushup require muscles to work in a coordinated fashion to create movement. These movements are a skill — a learned movement. Learning is the process of getting better at new skills, and that’s only possible with practice.

Learning is relatively permanent but not always easy to see. This is what makes learning different from performance — learning is a stable condition, but performance is influenced by feedback, fatigue or mood. You can also easily see when someone is performing poorly or well, based on how much they lift.

Your goal as a coach is to facilitate learning and improve your client’s performance, largely by using the techniques in this article.

The Two Rules of Selecting the Best Exercises for Your Clients

As a coach, it’s your job to select exercises that your clients can learn quickly and perform safely.

Their technique might be bad, but their room for improvement is high. If their form is good, there is less potential for learning.

In other words, you don’t want to always give them a movement they’ve already mastered. There are some exceptions to this rule. If you’re [training a powerlifter](https://evidencemag.com/powerlifting-diet-training), they need to squat even if they’re already ‘pretty good’ at squatting. This statement holds true more for new clients rather than the athlete who is training to compete in a specific event.

As an example, take a new client who is not familiar with resistance training and tell them to do leg extensions and back squats. You will likely see high performance with the leg extension because it’s easy to learn and low performance with the back squat because it’s hard to learn.

Neither exercise would likely be appropriate to coach at that moment. Something better might be a goblet squat, as it’s harder than a leg extension, but easier to learn than squats.

The leg extension is easily mastered so you, as the coach, don’t have much to contribute. That’s not to say that leg extensions aren’t a good exercise, but they aren’t the best use of your time as a strength coach.

The optimal exercise is one in which the potential for learning is relatively high and performance is only a little impaired. These criteria are all subjective; understanding the difference between very poor form, acceptable form and great form comes with practice as a coach.

An Effective 3-Step Process for Modeling Exercises

As a coach, you’ve probably demonstrated, or modeled, exercises for your clients before.

A common misconception is that you need to have perfect form while modeling exercises for your clients. Demonstrating correct form is important, but a client can also learn from watching you correct an error in technique. Watching a model make mistakes and listening to the coach describe the errors the model made can teach the client how to see and correct their own errors.

A simple way to put this into practice is to have two groups performing an exercise. While one group is modeling and receiving feedback, the other group is also receiving feedback about how to spot technique errors.

I would go further to recommend a three step process of modeling:

1. Model the exercise and discuss 1-2 critical aspects of the movement.

2. Have the client perform the exercise and give them feedback about any critical errors.

3. Let the client practice without feedback for a set.

Then you can switch the groups. That way, your clients learn how to perform the movements correctly, and how to fix their own mistakes as they go.

How to Use Focus of Attention to Improve Your Client’s Learning

Focus of attention is basically “what you think about when lifting.” In general, you can have an internal or external focus.

In the context of resistance training, the client may focus either on the actions their body is creating (internal) or the outcome of their movement on an external object such as a dumbbell (external).

Research supports external cueing for learning in a variety of tasks and sports.(3) Unfortunately, research on learning and resistance training is lacking. Therefore, the best we can do is make assumptions based on sports research.

However, research has been done on performance like force production and weight lifted, and resistance training. Compared to an internal focus, focusing externally enables greater force production (1,4) and lifters can complete more repetitions before failure occurs on the bench press and squat.(2)

This likely means that adopting an external focus aids in more efficient movement. When an internal focus is used, unnecessary motor units are likely recruited and thus fatigue occurs more quickly. When possible, draw the attention away from the body movements and instead focus on what the bar is doing. For example, when during a curl, rather than saying “bring your hand to your shoulder,” say “bring the barbell to your shoulder”.

You want your clients thinking about moving other objects, not their own body parts.

How to Find the Right Frequency of Feedback

The less experienced someone is, the more often they need feedback, and vice versa.

Think about it this way; imagine that you are traveling somewhere you have never gone before. You’d likely use a GPS. In the end you would get to where you need to go but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned how to get there. If you want to actually learn the route you need to begin to rely less and less on feedback from the GPS.

Frequency of feedback works in a similar way when teaching new movements.

When learning motor skills there is a learning continuum so it’s useful to classify individuals as novices, intermediates, or advanced.

People who are novices are in what is called the cognitive phase, intermediates are in the associative phase, and advanced learners are in the autonomous phase.

Here’s a simple definition of each phase.

**Cognitive**: The cognitive phase represents the beginning stage of learning. During this stage you need to demonstrate the movement and then provide feedback when your client tries it. Your client’s technique will be pretty poor at this stage. Their technique will improve as they practice, and it will improve even faster with good feedback.

**Associative**: In the associative phase the learner begins to decrease their movement error and move more consistently. They start to get a grasp on how the movement ‘feels.’ They begin to rely on the feedback their body produces rather than just the feedback you give to determine if their technique is right.

**Autonomous**: During the autonomous phase the individual is very proficient at the movement. At this point, your job is to help your client maintain their skills and provide motivation.

If someone is practicing an unfamiliar movement they are in the cognitive phase and will need lots of feedback. Once the client becomes familiar with the movement, you need to ease back on the frequency of cueing. This helps your client learn to use their own bodily feedback to adjust their technique. Like I mentioned earlier, you don’t want them using a GPS the whole time.

Your clients need to pick up on inherent feedback, which is sensory information from their own bodies. For example, during a back squat your client needs to understand what it feels like to maintain lat and erector tension. If they’re consistently relying on the feedback the coach provides they won’t be able to ‘listen to their body,’ if you will.

As an individual becomes more advanced and enters the autonomous phase of learning, you don’t need to provide much feedback. Your job then becomes motivating the client instead of teaching them new skills.

You Are a Teacher

So what was the deal with my athlete that mastered the kettlebell snatch?

You might have already picked up on this. His focus of attention was completely on the motion his body was producing. By switching his focus to an external reference point (the kettlebell and the ceiling) his movement became more natural and his movement became more efficient.

We often discuss the best exercises to get results, but less frequently do we talk about the best methods to enhance learning. Remember this; as a coach you are the common denominator that can either hinder or enhance the learning process.

The exercises you select and the way you present information should be a carefully calculated function of the learner’s experience level and how they respond to feedback.

That’s how you become a good teacher.

Justin Kompf is the head strength coach at SUNY Cortland. He is currently pursuing his masters degree in exercise science. He competes in powerlifting, likes to roast his own coffee, and genuinely believes he is Captain America.

References

1. Marchant, D.C., Greig, M., & Scott, C. (2009) Attentional focusing instructions influence force production and muscular activity during isokinetic elbow flexions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(8), 2358-236.

2. Marchant, D.C., Greig, M., Bullough, J., & Hitchen, D. (2011). Instructions to adopt an external focus of attention enhance muscular endurance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82, 466-473.

3. Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 77-104.

4. Vance, J., Wulf, G., Tollner, T., McNevin, N., & Mercer, J. (2004). EMG as a function of the performer’s focus of attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 36(4) 450-459.

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