When you learn a better handstand (or whatever), it’s not just because you’ve gotten stronger. It’s because you learned something.
While you’re definitely using the strength of your muscles to hold a handstand, the learning happens in your brain.
Why is this important to keep in mind?
So you want to learn a new skill…
People say things like “you have to develop the muscle memory of a movement”. Muscle Memory sounds like this special memory located within or close to your muscles, and this can be misleading.
It may feel like the brain isn’t involved after a while; it’s like you can do something you’ve practiced almost unconsciously. So if you are not thinking about these details, then it must be in your muscles right?
Nope, it is still in your brain… (think about it, your nervous system controls your muscles).
This is important to think about when learning (or perfecting) something, because often times people will just try exercises that look like the movement they’re learning. They might keep working on what they think are pre-requisite exercises. They focus on strength or endurance, rather than skill.
This may help if you are stuck on a certain part of the movement. There are definitely many essential skills that should be drilled, strengthened and conditioned for many sports. But the best way to learn something is by practicing; working on the specific movement you want to do.
When practicing, the focus needs to be more on the quality of the movement, rather than the quantity.
I’m not saying repetition isn’t important – it absolutely is! The more you practice, the better. But if you are just trying to get through a number of repetitions, you may be practicing poorly, and developing bad habits!
Don’t forget Bruce Lee’s famous quote:
“Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”
Practicing a physical task is usually called ‘motor learning‘.
After a while, the detail can become unconscious… automatic. People say things like “you’re getting the hang of it” when it gets easier. It becomes “second nature”.
Through all the hours of practice, your brain has developed the experience of what a good handstand feels like. It has finely tuned the motor control necessary to coordinate your muscles to contract and relax in just the right proportions, in just the right locations, all while taking into account the feedback of your senses 1.
It’s all eloquently explained in this video:
Yes, Strength is Important Too!
Of course, if you are not strong enough to hold yourself up, you won’t be able to do a handstand. And your muscles may become stronger from practicing the handstand. That’s great; strength training is a good thing. It may help you hold the handstand longer, and do more advanced movements. But balance and coordination are more important for the vast majority of athletic skills.
This is important to understand, as some people may not feel ready to learn complex skills because they think they are not strong enough. But don’t let that stop you! Go ahead and practice! Don’t forget… anything is possible.
- Skill is in your brain. Now stop trying to find the right muscles to build or what exercises to do. Practice!
- Quality = Practice. Quantity = Conditioning. Of course there’s lots of overlap, and you can mix the two, but be careful when fatigue causes you to lose concentration on your form. That’s not ‘perfect practice’.
- Fitness helps, but nothing will ever help more than specific skill practice.
So go practice!!!
This article was talking about movement skill, like the example of a handstand. It did not describe how learning works with broad, abstract skills like the ability to dance to music, freestyle, create and change on the spot. However, the point still remains; these things are still controlled by your brain, and you can practice it, no matter how abstract it seems. Even being creative can be practiced.