Intro to Myelin - Guide to Deep Practice

Article length: 1,700 words

Reading time: 5-8 minutes

Take home: Building myelin is how we form movement habits. Use the skills of deep practice to build more myelin and move better. 

My introduction to lifting came from playing basketball. While quickness, jumping high and being tall play major a role, few would argue that basketball isn't a sport dominated by skill. The same can be argued for soccer, baseball, gymnastics or just about any other sport. So why is it that so few think about the skill of lifting? 

Why Beginners Suck

When you first start training your coordination sucks, you're neuromuscularly inefficient and have small muscles. All the best things.

In order to do anything (such as reading this blog) you must have the appropriate neurons and synapses firing to accomplish the task.  You can think of neurons connecting like roads and the synapse is the car moving down the road. As the video below points out, the power of neurons are their ability to bind to other neurons. 

To complete any motor task, such as squatting, neurons have to signal specific motor units. Each of these motor units controls a given number of muscle fibers. This is how we move. 

Neuron --> Motor unit --> Muscle fibers --> Movement

Rookie lifters are neuromuscularly inefficient, which means they're not capable of recruiting a large portion of their motor units to move the barbell. In contrast, an individual like Richard Hawthorne is incredibly neuromuscularly efficient, as he must be to perform a 4.5x bodyweight deadlift. 600lb for 2 reps at 132 in this video. No one looks at Ant and says "Wow. Look at all the muscle he's using to move that weight." It's clear when watching feats of strength like his, there's more to lifting than a big muscle. 

Becoming more efficient is the primary way a rookie gets stronger and more skilled. The more times neurons connect via a specific motor pattern the more that synapse is ingrained. Myelin is a white fatty insulator that wraps around the axon of the neuron, making this connection move faster and feel more fluid. 

More repetitions --> more myelin --> faster synapses --> improved skill.

As you can tell, I'm nerdy and on days I don't feel like training or want to cut some volume off of a workout, I remind myself with the cue. "Earn your myelin." Shit ain't gonna build itself.

From an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense that myelin is beneficial. The more myelin we have, the more easily we can perform a given movement. After a while, the connection becomes a part of our unconscious mind. This frees our conscious mind to learn new skills, as well as face immediate threats.

Think about the time and mental energy it would cost if you had to actively think about doing something like driving. The first few months of driving, it's imperative to do little things like make sure you press on the brake before shifting into "drive", but odds are you haven't consciously done that in years.

Over time, a novice trainee can recruit a greater percentage of their motor units. This is why strength gains come so quickly at the beginning, you already have the equipment - you just needed to know how to use it.

Neuromuscular inefficiency is also why strength supercedes hypertrophy for the first few months. You need to recruit motor units in order for muscle fibers to contract, muscle fibers contracting leads to their breakdown. Combine muscle breakdown with adequate rest and proper nutrition and muscle tissue will repair and get larger. Whats the problem? Well, you suck at recruiting motor units, so you suck at recruiting a lot of muscle fibers, which means your ability to actually cause muscle damage and force hypertrophy as an adaptation is much lower.

Once you build the up the pathways and improve motor unit recruitment, you're capable of doing more and actually forcing muscle growth. But first, you have to earn your myelin.

MORE ON MYELIN

Wrapping myelin around an axon doesn't just reinforce our good skills. It reinforces whatever we do the most. Knowing this, it's crucial that beginners learn correct positions and movements first and adding load second. If you've been deadlifting with a rounded low back for five years, that's a lot of myelin developed by doing that certain movement pattern. We can't simply unwrap that myelin and move it where we want. We have to correct that movement every single time until it becomes the new default, the unconscious movement.  People struggle with this because it takes time. Well no shit, you've had 5 years of shitty practice deadlifting, you're not going to undo that in 2 weeks. Earn your myelin.

I've always found it easier to teach someone who has a limited lifting background. They don't have poor movements ingrained into their system. If they were playdough, then they're fresh out the box.  Someone more experienced but moves like shit is like Play-Doh left out of the container for a few days. Hard and difficult to mold.

And it's not just inside the gym. We spend majority of our waking hours not training. So don't expect to be hunched over a desk for 5 hours, do some mobility drills right before training and perform your pulls with a flat thoracic spin. You just spent 5 hours building myelin towards a certain pathway, your 30 minute deadlift session doesn't counteract that. Myelin isn't unwrapped, a physiological explanation for why habits are difficult to break.

These default poor positions aren't specific to individual movements. This is the default movement for people with everything. The common trend I now see is that people are trying to fix these issues under heavy loads, but not understanding how limited that viewpoint is.

You may cue the athlete to have an upright torso and prevent their butt from shooting backwards in a heavy back squat and they seem to be improving. Then 10 minutes later they're doing light overhead squats in a WOD and it's 50 reps of that shitty moving again. Butt shoots up, toro is horizontal, building more myelin to reinforce bad movement. But it's not as easily seen or corrected here because it's not a severe limiter like it would be in a heavy movement. Sure, you can move like shit under light loads and be proud of your score, but that doesn't mean those bad habits suddenly disappear when you're training heavy.

ON A POSITIVE NOTE

You may feel like myelin is the grench now, but the key is building it properly. If you can successfully learn how to do movements well everything will flow. If you've wrapped the myelin around staying upright and keeping your hips under you for EVERY movement, then it won't be a limiter during the heavy back squat. It won't even be a conscious thought after a while. Just like driving.

In more common terms this is referred to as "muscle-memory", but as you know it's not really your muscles remembering, it's the built in myelin making those synapses move faster and more fluid. This is why it's not uncommon to see someone take a long time off from a skill, return to it and not be nearly as rusty as expected. Pick your sport, pool, basketball, lifting. Odds are someone that put in 5+ years of deliberate practice everyday can still perform those skills well, after long layoffs.

I rarely touch a basketball now-a-days, but countless hours of building myelin from age 12-19 and I'm still a pretty good shot.

WHAT CAN YOU DO

Now that you have a basic primer on the role of myelin and it's purpose I want to offer three take home points. Ways you can put this information into action today.

Deep Practice

Myelin doesn't build easy. We must actively search towards a sweet spot. Challenging ourselves just outside our current comforts, but not too far to feel anxious. When something is too easy, we don't bother to pay attention. A great example comes from an exercise I saw in "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle.

"The best way to understand the concept of deep practice is to do it. Take a few seconds to look at the following lists; spend the same amount of time on each one.

A                                              B

ocean/breeze                            bread/b_tter

leaf/tree                                   music/l_rics

sweet/sour                               sh_e/sock

movie/actress                           phone/bo_ok

gasoline/engine                        chi_s/salsa

high school/college                  pen_il/paper

turkey/stuffing                         river/b_at

fruit/vegetable                         be_r/wine

computer/chip                         television/rad_o

chair/couch                              l_nch/dinner         

Now close your eyes. Try to remember as many of the word pairs as you can. From which column do you recall more words? If you're like most, column B wins easily. Studies show you'll remember three times as many. When you encounter the words with blank spaces, something both imperceptible and profound happened. You stopped. You stumbled ever so briefly, then figured it out. You experienced a microsecond of struggle and that microsecond made all the different. You didn't practice harder when you looked at column B. You practiced deeper."

Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA explains, "It's all about finding the sweet spot. There's an optimal gap between what you know and what you're trying to do. When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off."

Applying these principles towards lifting, this is why I'm a fan of regular high-intensity work. Of course learning can take place with loads in the 50-70% range and I frequently prescribe technique days with a lot of submax work, but it's really easy to go through the motions here. Even with a high-volume session, going into a workout with sets of 7 at 65% you're fully aware you're capable of hitting that. It's like looking at column A. Compare that with training that's mentally uneasy, maybe going for a PR or  heavy enough you at least want to grab a spotter. This is where learning and myelin is accelerated. You're reaching just outside your current abilities.

To make myelin work for you a) practice the lifts with good movement every single time b) have a program that challenges you slightly outside your comfort zone.

On training days where the loads aren't so challenging you still must remain plugged in. Record yourself, feel your movement. Look to make every rep better than the last. In between sets think about your previous set and if you need to make adjustments. Be active with your mind. Earn your myelin.

Like what you read? Next week I'll release part two "The Three Rules of Deep Practice."