Strength is a Skill and Deliberate Practice

In Mental Mastery, Strongman Mastery by admin9 Comments

I just recently read Talent is Overrated, and this is led to me thinking more about this statement that I first heard from Pavel that “Strength is a Skill.” For this article I wanted to dive deep into this subject so that you’re able to improve your results in your strength training.

Chess Skill

Strength may be more like Chess than you’d believe…

Let’s start off with a couple of explanations from Pavel himself on this idea:

The science of motor learning explains that an extreme, all out movement is operated by a program different from that used for the identical task performed at a moderate intensity. As far as your nervous system is concerned, throwing a football for maximum distance is a totally different ball game than passing it ten yards, no pun intended.

Prof. Vladimir Zatsiorsky…summed up effective strength building as training as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.

Russian strength researchers discovered that fragmentation of the training volume into smaller units is very effective for promoting strength adaptation, especially in the nervous system. In other words, one set of five every day is better than five sets of five every five days.

With any skill, there is much that goes into. The first statement is saying, that your body is really operating two different programs when its doing a max lift on one exercise, versus doing the same movement with less weight or intensity. This is important.

If you’ve read The Naked Warrior, the second statement is probably familiar to you. Because strength work creates physical fatigue (as opposed to mental fatigue as in many other skills) you have to do it at times where you’re as fresh as possible.

And lastly that frequent practice is much, much better than a lot of practice on one day.

Testing Your Strength vs. Practicing It (and the Oldtime Strongmen)

I found another useful article on the subject by Jason Feruggia talking about his early experiences with max effort lifting, and getting away from that, and why the oldtime strongmen were so strong.

You are training your nervous system to be more efficient. That’s why all of the great old time strongmen, like Louis Cyr, Eugene Sandow and Earle Liederman called their workouts “practice.” Lifting was their sport so they understood, as does a good pitching coach, that you can not continue practicing in a fatigued state or you ingrain bad habits. A good pitching or tennis coach would not let you continue on when your speed starts slowing down and your form gets sloppy. They know that you’re done for the day at that point. The same can be said about a good sprint coach.

I had a conversation with Jim Wendler over a few beers back in 2003 or 2004 and he told me that, “Low rep, max effort work is only testing your strength; it’s not building it.”

Saxon Bent Press

Saxon didn’t workout…He PRACTICED!

It is as he says. Many oldtime strongmen treated their strength as a skill to practice, and spent several hours each day doing so. Hermann Goerner went so far as to never really max out at all even when setting world records. He always left something in the bank.

Why PERFECT Practice is Wrong…

Another person that has spoken on this subject is Dr. Eric Cobb.

“The body ALWAYS adapts to EXACTLY what it does.” If you do your pushups with poor form or poor posture (or just simply pretty good form and pretty good posture) your body will IMMEDIATELY begin an adaptation process to make you better at maintaining that poor posture.

The logical conclusion is that if you perform ANY exercise in less than perfect posture, you are training yourself to have less than perfect posture. If you perform ANY exercise in less than perfect form, you are training to have less than perfect form (and eventually injury). If you perform ANY exercise with excessive tension you are training yourself to be tight, slow and in pain. In Z-Health we call this the Perfect Rep Principle and it guides everything that we do in training.

Now this is something I largely disagree with. Let me tell you why. You CANNOT do something in perfect form at first. Often times you must stumble through something, and it’s even ugly, the first time you do it. Only with repeated practice, seeking to get better, can you eventually get to perfect. Also, “perfect form” to me is in many cases in the eye of the beholder, and up for debate. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly at first.

While I don’t disagree with this occurring, I don’t think its as bad as he makes it sound. The body is made to compensate well. I’ve never met anyone that has no compensations, let alone someone that has achieved a high level of strength.

What is Deliberate Practice?

Finally we get to the book I just finished, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. This book is written with business, sports, music, chess and the like in mind, but it’s principles are really just as applicable.

If strength is a skill then that means to improve your skill i.e. strength you must practice. But not all practice is created equal. Here are a few lines from the book on that subject.

The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is also not what most of us do and work practicing golf or the oboe or any of her other interests. Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with the teachers help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Top performance repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent. The most effective deliberate practice activities are those that can be repeated at high-volume.

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: you won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Unlocking the Possibilities

When I heard “Strength is a Skill” before, I thought it was a smart idea and I sort of grasped it and put it into action. (You can actually read one of the first articles I ever wrote on the subject here.) But now I feel like I have much more of a base and can truly wrap my mind around this idea. And it’s opening more doors into possibilities…

If you treat your physical training like a workout, this has a completely different look to it than if you treat your training like a practice. I’m not just talking about doing greasing the groove where your training is spread throughout the day. That fits but what if you do an hour or two block of training? What will that look like?

With my latest training in NLP and EFT I’ve also came to the idea that if strength is a skill that can be improved through practice, you can make it big jumps in the skill in a single practice. This seems completely counter-intuitive to most people who exercise, and is counter to EVERYTHING that is taught. But what can I say? I’m looking for ways to hack performance as quickly as possible, without side effects.

It’s generally recognized that you can get stronger in one of two ways. One of which is that your muscles grow bigger and stronger. The other of which is you become stronger through more efficient neurological means. This is an oversimplification, but it suffices here. I think we can all agree that in the former, this process will take time. Muscles need to be torn down, then built back up. But in the latter category gains can be made quickly and instantly.

In my own training recently, it’s really taking on more of this practice look, rather than a workout. Specifically, I’m going after deliberate practice.

This article has already grown quite large, so we’ll continue this talk in the future. I wanted to give you an introduction to the subject as well as a sneak peek of what I’m going to be teaching at the Wizards of Strength workshop this coming weekend. I’ve developed a couple techniques that answered my question on how to improve in big jumps (yes that is plural of jumps) in a single practice session.

If you can get your neurology to learn faster and better, and to activate even better, couldn’t you make jumps just like that?

For far more detail check out my new book Practicing Strength and Movement: How to Gain Any Skill FASTER!

Practicing Strength and Movement


  1. I just found your site through looking and reading about VRT training. I like your feats of strength on youtube. This site looks good, I’m going to read through it later on today or tomorrow. Also, any more tips on where I should start on VRT or things like it would help.

    I stopped weight training about 5 years ago, I could do full presses of my body weight, after that I got fat, because I didn’t know how to eat properly. I changed up my diet these last few years and now I am eating ketogenic: moderate animal protein, green leafy veg, and good fats.

    I no longer want to gain size, but rather gain strength. Some more size would be good, but it’s not my goal.

    I’m reading convict training and practicing muscle movement like you do in some of your youtube videos. I just need some pointers on what to read to move into the next level. Thanks a lot.

  2. Great articles. I really liked the one by Pavel and then linked to Clarence Bass. I have the book on Herman Goerner. Love it. He was incredible. Sprinting with 110lb dumbells is just insane as were most of his incredible lifts.

  3. I liked the article as well; and agree with what you have to say. I disagree with Pavel though and I disagree with Dr Cobb. All respect to them both; and I am not saying they are 100% wrong. Just that in my experience with me; and for me their comments are are incorrect. For example; Pavel talks about junk reps. I also would not want people continuing a movement where their form was off but I have to say, I believe that I do a lot of what Pavel would consider junk reps. In the course of a session; as many as half my reps would be what he calls junk. I look at what I do; and I always devise tests because I feel I need to prove to myself that what I believe in theory works to achieve that goal in practice. So know through my own tests and experience in my case; junk reps in one session are converted to good reps in the next. I know that for a fact.

    Very interesting comments there about deliberate training. I don’t understand it well enough but perhaps that is what I am doing. Would you like to make some comment about deliberate practice and Bud Jeffries’ multi thousand rep swings. Personally I would, that to swing for an hour requires a lighter weight; and when you go down in weight, you can really enjoy the smoothness of your own movement. So again; I have to disagree with those two gentlemen.

    1. @David: Yeah that thing about junk reps has some truth to it, but the hard part is determining what is a junk rep and what isn’t. Pavel has said that anything below a certain percentage of your max would be junk reps, but recently I remember hearing about a study showing improvements when people were working with something like 30%, And I completely agree that just because a rep may not “look good” doesn’t make it junk.

      With conditioning exercises, I’d say that’s a little outside this conversation. But looking at the skill in the swing, are you improving and finding out new things about the swing, in all those reps, or are you tuning out during the hour? That would be a difference between delibrate and mindless practice.

  4. Thanks for the reply Logan. I agree entirely with your comment.

    In my case, I am doing 15 second intervals. That is about 8 reps per interval. I don’t know how that fits in; conditioning or strength?

    I have no idea how I look but I will say this; I feel better all around. My posture feels better, and all of my results have increased. I am progressing to heavier and heavier bells. I got weight loss and I feel good.

    One thing I have been thinking about, is structure. Or I call it structure. I feel (but have no idea what I look like) that I can be at the end of my absolute strength and endurance; and yet my form is good. I am thinking that maybe I have good stabiliser strength?

    Am I finding out new things in the swing? I am not sure how to answer that. When I drop back to a light weight then yes I definitely do. Not in a comparative way but I see much more. When I am really pushing deep into my reserves with my max weight; I close down my senses. I focus i would say on weight distribution and hip extension. By weight distribution I mean how force moves through my body as I swing. For example; pressing through the left foot, while I swing with my right arm. It is like I am blind and feeling my hip lock out at the top. I am searching for that lockout, and then immediately reverse.

    I am repeating but the result I see in the next session could be another 20 intervals. When I reach the end of what was my previous best my performance is much more comfortable.

    1. Author

      @David: If the move is becoming easier and you’re able to handle heavier weights for more reps that means you’re getting better as far as strength and wind is concerned. Plus your skill in the movement is going up, as you’re finding small things about how you move in how they effect the exercise, at the same time it sounds like.

  5. Sorry I just reread your comment. If there is some confusion; I have done swings for 60 min but normally I do 15 second intervals. When I reach 80 intervals; I go to the next heavier weight and start again. I have done that for maybe 5 years.

Leave a Comment