Skill Acquisition - A Brief Overview of the Skill-Verse

Skill Acquisition

Skill Acquisition, two simple words. 

Who would have guessed this random text to Shallow between clients would grow into this. 

What is skill acquisition?

How does it apply to strength and performance?

How do we apply it to strength and performance?

Does it matter?

To answer the latter, yes I guess it does.

What was simply two words, has grown into a framework in which I constantly think, a hashtag which I constantly see, and possibly the worst pickup line I could ever use.

So what is it?

The skill acquisition model is something we see used often across a multitude of disciplines, regardless of if we ever notice it being used or if it is ever identified.

It is a three phase model designed to organize both the neurological and physiological adaptations of acquiring specific skills.

Have you ever learned to play an instrument?

That is skill acquisition. 

Learning to read notation - Cognitive Skill 

Finding those notes on your instrument - Associative Skill 

Learning a melody, chord or song - Autonomous Skill

When you learned to read notation, you went through the acquisition of a cognitive skill. Cognitive Skill is described as the stage associated primarily with neurological adaptation. Seeing something, feeling something, hearing something, and identifying and classifying these stimuli. 

You placed those notes on the keys or frets of your instrument. Maybe you learned a few scales. This was Associative Skill, the addition of a physiological stimulus. You were tasked with not only the identification of the notes but the coordination and finesse required to find and play the requested notes accurately. This eye-hand coordination brought with it a new level of fatigue, and with that fatigue the possibility of mistakes and frustration. This frustration might have lead to poor quality practice or demotivation if left unattended.

Once you could confidently find those notes, shape chords, and possibly even play without staring straight down at your hands you most likely learned a few of your favorite songs (or just Wonderwall, but that was good enough right?). You began to enter Autonomous Skill Acquisition. The final stage of Skill acquisition, we see the neurological requirements begin to take a back seat to stamina, and dexterity. You have got to a point where reading notation and finding the notes has been so ingrained that it is second nature. We see skillful practice for longer and longer periods of time. Physical fatigue is now the performance limiter, and its influence on intrinsic motivation is far less detrimental than earlier on in the acquisition of skill.  

So, we’ve talked enough about music, skill, and somehow Oasis. If you’re still reading you’re probably pretty lonely and COVID 19 is still keeping you locked inside. 

This is the beauty of a captive audience.

How does this apply to strength and performance? 

Skill acquisition can be used as a highly effective tool to organize programming for both the general population and athletes. The bias of each phase allows for the attenuation of fatigue, prevention of injury, and an emphasis on high quality movement. 

Understanding stress as an aggregate (a combination of several elements) the skill acquisition model allows for the greatest control over these stressors due to its dedicated adaptations at each tier. 

Optimum Stress = Optimum adaptation 
Overload Stress = Fatigue, demotivation, injury

This model with forethought and creativity can be superimposed on multiple scales.

Session - Week - Month - Block - Season

Based on sport specificity, client goals, and training and injury history a three tiered approach to program design allows for a progression at each tier of training. This creates a larger and larger toolbox from which to pull variations and progressions. This larger exercise vocabulary can be used in later phases to stimulate new adaptation and delay plateau and fatigue.

Utilizing the specific neurological or physiological criteria at each tier of this model creates a better quality over quantity metric to track when it comes to making decisions on volume and intensities in training. 

Knowing athletes from a young age have been trained to adapt and appease high standards of performance, as well as understanding performance in the weight room is only as valuable as its transfer to the field it is extremely valuable to use a model of periodization and programming that emphasizes stress and quality management.

How do we apply this to strength and performance?

Cognitive Phase

During Cognitive Skill Acquisition physiological stressors are attenuated as much as possible. In place of physiological stress, positions of instability are created to develop a cognitive understanding of how muscle function influences the ability to create a stable structure from which to exert force.

This phase of skill acquisition being highly neurological lends itself to a lower rep range daily ensuring high quality practice but overall a high frequency week to week.

Careful consideration should be made to body position throughout each drill or movement, understanding interactions between positions at multiple joints will build an understanding and intention when we begin to build associative skill later on.

Cognitive work looks to develop proprioception and stability throughout active and requested range of motion. Due to the neurological adaptation required and the positions of instability required we look to cater to this with the chosen modalities. 

For the most part only body weight may be necessary, the introduction of KB’s will also come into play as we scale movements. The KB is chosen due to the shape and its adherence to the stability tenets (Deviation of Centre of Mass, Reduced Base of Support). In addition to the KB, cables may be used as the constant tension and ability to assign specific and direct lines of pull make them efficient at creating balanced resistance even in rotation / anti rotation drills. 

Associative Phase 

During associative skill acquisition we begin to introduce physiological stress. Both neurological and physiological stressors will be present in this phase as we introduce sport specific and skilled based movements. 

Load will only be progressed if skillful execution is still intact. Both neurological and physiological adaptation will be emphasized in this phase. Careful consideration is to be made surrounding variations and their correlation to competition season. Variation will allow for a bias to either neurological or physiological adaptation. This will potentiate sport performance and attenuate fatigue.

Technical fatigue presents itself when desired positions begin to fail visual criteria assigned to them. 

It has been shown that frequent deliberate practice leads to a higher uptake in skill development. Therefore skilled work should take place each training session, variation in movement and focus on the upper or lower body should be made so as to not fatigue.

Associative work looks to develop a transference of stability and proprioception to sport. Therefore the modalities chosen should best apply to the shape of the sport.

For most, barbell movements such as the squat, deadlift, press, and olympic variations will have dynamic transfer to power and strength. Accommodation should be made for athletes in which unilateral power and strength is necessary along with athletes that face a high frequency of contact particularly to the head and cervical spine.

Autonomous Phase 

During autonomous skill acquisition neurological stress is attenuated as much as possible in favour of driving effort towards output. Exercises are chosen that are either externally supported as much as possible, or that do not challenge the technical limitations of the athlete.

Due to the externally supported nature of this phase we are able to train both volume and load to failure with limited risk to the athlete. 

The ability to train to physiological failure in this phase allows for the greatest increase in physiological change to the body. That makes this phase of training the best in terms of challenging weakened positions of muscles in isolation, correct muscle imbalances, and work on key areas of an athlete’s physique.

The exercises you have at your disposal will be reliant on the stability and skill developed in previous tiers. The modalities chosen will speak to this training history and skill level of the athlete. Novice athletes and those with poor stability will see machines and cables as the bulk of their high output work, with more advanced athletes seeing DB, KB, and barbell work feature more prominently. 

The goal should always be to drive stability and skill allowing for more and more exercises to land in the autonomous category, the greatest volume and intensity can be utilized in this phase of Skill Acquisition due to it’s downregulation of neurological adaptation. This ability to train skillfully and at higher volumes and intensities pays off in the greatest physiological adaptations to the athlete while mitigating most of the risk for injury.

So does it matter?

As I stated previously, yes I guess it does.

This was as brief and general an overview of the Skill Acquisition model as I could articulate. In coming articles I will look to expand on these principles and delve far deeper into how we can program for strength, sport, and physique without disregarding the level of skill necessary in each discipline.