Three Rules of Deep Practice

Article length: 1,500 words

Reading time: 5-8 minutes

Take home: Deep practice is about paying attention. Substitute going through the motions with deliberate analyzation and correction of your lifts. 

In "Intro to Myelin - Guide to Deep Practice" you learned how myelin works. Making our synapses faster and therefore movements better. You learned that it's not just about practicing duration, but quality. 

Now we'll break down Daniel Coyles three rules of deep practice and apply them to the barbell sports. 

Three Rules of Deep Practice

Rule 1: Chunk It Up

Rule 2: Repeat It

Rule 3: Learn to Feel It


In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle sets out to find the similarities between great talents across multiple disciplines.

*A talent hotbed is what he refers to in the book as locations where certain activities notoriously thrive. A classic example is baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Rule 1: Chunk It Up

"In the talent hotbeds I visited, the chunking takes place in three dimensions. First, the participants look at the task as a whole, as one big chunk, the mega circuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn it's inner architecture."

Starting with the lift as a whole is important to avoid over thinking in the beginning. There is actually a lot going on in order to squat a big weight. But thinking (or cueing for a coach) a dozen words before a set is ineffective for action. The best way to start is simplify the movement. 

You may be shocked at how naturally fluid the motion feels when you're not think about 10 cues at once.

Imitation is a great way to learn subconsciously. Coyle tells the story of a top ranked 8-year-old tennis player named Carolyn Xie. Most young players are taught to hit a backhand with two-hands, but Carolyn naturally hit one-handed backhands - just like Roger Federer. 

When asked why she hits that way she said "I dunno. I just do." Turns out, her family was a huge Federer fan. Watching nearly every televised match he'd ever played in. Odds are Carolyn was exposed to that aggressive and fluid one-handed backhand thousands of times and picked it up subconsciously.

As a lifter you can do the same. Find someone who moves well with a similar body type and study their movements. Even make it a ritual to watch 5 minutes of their training before you go train.

After we see the movement as a whole, it's time to chop it up.

We do this by using derivatives of the lifts to shift the emphasis. Front squats for upper back and ab strength. Pause squats for speed out of the whole.

You can also begin to organize your assistance work around that movement. Do you have trouble finishing squats and deadlifts at hip extension? Maybe it's wise to add in hip thrusts, which emphasizes that movement. Extra tricep work if the last few inches of bench is where you stall. 

After you've analyzed the whole lift, find out where you're weak and chop up the movement to improve the whole. 

Finally, it's time to slow it down. Abraham Lincoln said of his own learning, "I am slow to learn and slow to forget what I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out." 

When you first embark on learning a new movement, it's important to start slow, to let the myelin form. 

Going slow allows you to recognize errors. It's important we fix those errors as early, in order to build the correct synapses. Building slow doesn't allow you to get away with good enough technique. Near perfection should be demanded. If your sole focus is on getting stronger now, you may sacrifice your ultimate strength later. 

Learning slow makes it easier to understand. You become more tuned into the lifts and your body. A master of the movement, not a slave to the next 10 lbs on the bar. In the long-term, you'll better be able to diagnose the problem and properly fix it. 

It's all too common with novice lifters to want to move up too quickly. They don't want to build a solid foundation. They follow top lifters online and want to reach their levels as quickly as possible. They want to do high-volume, high-intensity workouts, frequently. Not knowing this isn't what their idols did at the beginning of their journey. More often than not, progress will be quick out of the gate, but they'll run into major problems later. You're better off building good movements from day one, than trying to rewire 2 years of shittiness. 

Rule 2: Repeat It 

There is nothing you can do to replace repetitions. I've written about this in the past, see "Under the Bar." Now knowing more about myelin this makes biological sense. Talking about doing something doesn't build myelin. Reps do. Reading a "how to deadlift" article doesn't build myelin. Practicing does.   

Myelin is dynamic tissue. It builds with more practice, diminishes with less. This is why you may feel moderately rusty after a few days of no exercise, but take months off and it feels like starting from ground zero.  

We've all heard the saying "practice makes perfect", but myelin tells us more. It's not just about the amount of reps, but the quality.

Deep practice is hard and according to Dr. K Anders Ericsson's research [2], most disciplines can only withstand deep practice for 3 hours per day. It's easy to pat yourself on the back by saying you spent 2 hours in the gym yesterday. But how was that 2 hours spent? Were you socializing between sets or analyzing your lifts? How many of your sets were performed with perfect movement. As intensity got higher did your movement suffer?  

Deep practice differs in that it requires full attention. With deep practice you can find yourself exhausted after short periods of work. This doesn't only apply for physical exertion. After being in the flow state studying for an hour, you may come out of that state and be ready for a nap.  

Rule 3: Learn to Feel It 

After your initial exposure to training you should be able to feel when things are going smoothly or not. Often this feeling is unconscious, but very real. You don't need to be able to explain why the last warmup attempt felt good, but you do need to recognize and take advantage of it. 

You can see this happen when a lifter shows a video of his or her self training, with a comment like "Today I felt off. Don't know why" or maybe they talk about "misgrooving" reps. An external viewer will look at the footage and can tell no difference from that lift to another lift which the lifter claimed felt great. The subtle difference? The viewer can't feel it.  

Regardless of how great your coach is, you need to take personal responsibility for your own training and nutrition. As a side tangent, I can tell you this trait is one of the most common with my most successful clients. There are certain aspects even the best coaches can't feel for athletes. I can't feel that how that lift really was for you, so tuning into your own performance is imperative.  

As you start to become more advanced you'll naturally start to think less about the lifts. It won't be, "Okay. I'm going to grab the bar here, take three steps out, look straight ahead, squeeze my glutes, big breath into stomach, break hips first, then knees, stay tight, push through midfoot, knees out." As more myelin grows, the less you do (think) and the more you do (feel.) For most advanced lifters I'd guess they only have 1-2 main cues they're thinking about during a lift - and you may be shocked to ask a lifter what they were thinking during a PR attempt and here an answer like "I dunno." 

Hilarious clip from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Hopefully your journey to deep practice isn't this rough

Feeling a lift is difficult to talk about, because, well you have to feel it. Not read about feeling it. As a reader, be conscious of your movement and lifts. Deep practice is all about paying attention. When I bring my arm in like this, how does it feel? When I take two breaths between reps instead of one, how does it feel? 

This process must be diligent. Anyone can see a rounded back deadlift and know it didn't feel good, but only you can hit a lift that looks perfectly fine and know exactly what to adjust to make it better next time.  

Attention --> Connection ---> Focus --> See mistakes ---> Fix mistakes ---> Repeat


a three step process to start deep practicing right now 

Step 1: Take 5 minutes before training and watch a lifter who you want to move like. 

Step 2: As you begin warming up for the main lift only think about one cue. That's it. Let the cue guide all movement. 

Step 3: As the weights get heavier, pay attention. Take at least 30 seconds after each set to think. "Ok. How did that feel? Can I do anything to make it better?" If it felt great, continue on with the same cue. If it didn't, think of a cue to fix the the issue you felt and think of only that for the next set. Continue on this pattern for all of your working sets. 

More on Deep Practice?

1. Daniel Coyle TED Talk on talent hotbeds 

2. https://psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson.dp.html