Perfecting Mistakes: The Impact of Learning by Rote

Like many of you I often observe people working out in a gym and wonder how the hell they can manage to blunder through so many exercises with such atrocious form.

Mostly I ignore what others are doing, but often they are using equipment I want to use (typically using a squat rack to hold their barbell for arm curls).

It appears many in the current generation of workout buffs have never discovered that they can bend at the waist and pick something up off the floor.

On reflection it occurs to me that for the most part people who populate gyms today have learned what they know simply by rote repetition. This means that they learn how to do a simple movement, and never think about modifying the way they do it.

Typically they learn how to do something by watching a YouTube video. Then they try to approximate what they think they saw.

This sort of works for beginners.

However, rote learning only takes you so far. Rarely beyond the beginner level.


I dont know whats the matter with people: they dont learn by understanding; they learn by some other way by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

Richard Feynman Nobel Laureate in Physics

This quote applies to building skill in sports or almost any other complex area. If you dont understand what you are doing (or trying to do) you can never move beyond an elementary level of performance.

This applies to working out in the weight room (or running or playing hoops, etc.).

For example, if you want to build skill as a powerlifter it is imperative that your technique be excellent and your workout program be designed to build the strength and skills you need to perform at the top of your game.

In my experience, building your skill in any sport requires a fundamental understanding of what to do, how to do it, why something works (or doesnt), when something is important, and why various exercises will help (or hinder) your progress.

This understanding is essential if your workout sessions are going to help you progress or simply be a means to producing sweat that justifies a shower.


No Understanding: Perfect Your Mistakes

Someone who does the same routines without understanding what they are doing is locking in bad habits.

If you doubt this, simply watch people at a golf driving range. Most hack away with the same swing year after year. They may learn a bit from time to time. However, they are at the mercy of trying to adopt advice from the last article they read or the latest YouTube video.

Weight room performances are often sadly similar. People training for power seem to get stuck at the same bench press weight for years. The same applies to squats or deadlift. If you dont understand how to progress, or how to lift for maximum mechanical advantage, you are on a semi-permanent performance plateau.

Constantly repeating your mistakes means that you learn them well.


Consistent Positive Learning

Most experienced competitive lifters will have a decent knowledge of how they can perform best. However, excellent execution tends to be a perishable thing. Over time we slip into small mistakes or let our mental focus drift.

Taking a video of yourself doing different lifts can be a bit of an eye opener if you begin to see poor execution creeping in.

If you have the good fortune to train with a topflight coach, they will tend to correct your small flaws before they become bigger.

Remember, all major league baseball teams have a hitting coach whos job it is to correct the minor flaws that creep into a hitters performance. NBA teams have a shooting coach to help the best players in the world correct minor flaws in their shots.

The bottom line is that each of us must be constantly aware that it is natural to slide into small mistakes in the execution of a complex lift. The sooner we correct those issues the more we will get out of each training session.

Lift Big!


Written by Richard

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