You want to make rapid progress with something but you also want to do it properly. How can you think through a structure to make that happen with lowering all risks?
Whether it is executing pushups, your golf stroke, kathak dance, or even something that is sedentary like writing with your left hand (if you are right-handed, like I am) there is an optimal path towards mastery.
If you are someone who is happy to just cruise with whatever you do, this article is not for you. Please continue with whatever else you were doing.
If you are someone who is always looking to take whatever you do to the next level, and always exploring new things or better ways to do old things, I hope you will read on and benefit from what I have to say here. As always, if you find this note useful, please share it with your family and friends.
At the end of this article, I have a link to a template for logging, specifically for pushups, but you should read all that comes before it to use that example.
For ease of navigation, to allow you to jump to the parts that interest you, here is a hyperlinked content list.
B A C K G R O U N D
Quality v Quantity
Why Bother with Good Form?
Mindset and Philosophy
12Physical v Non-Physical
12Attitude for Life
12Move the Bones
12With Your Brain
The Importance of the Master Instructor
C O N S I D E R A T I O N S
Technique v Form v Progression
Tension between Form and Progression
Learning Something New v Improving Something Old
Emotional Conditions for Learning
S T E P S
Start with a Break
1234Example Observation for Runners
Full ROM v Breaking up the Pattern
Incorrect Breaking up of Movement Pattern
Correct Breaking up of Movement Pattern
T U R B O T I P S
Deliberate Practice not 10,000 Hours
12The Case of Pushups
F I N A L T A K E A W A Y
The Long Race Winner
B A C K G R O U N D
Quality v Quantity [top]
Every few months, on social media, I see something that people call a “25-days pushups challenge”. That’s great, on the face of it. I’d love to see everyone being able to do pushups. It would be nicer, however, if most of them would do them with quality. Five quality pushups every few days is worth more to one’s overall development than 25 poorly executed ones for 25 days in a row! A culture of quantity over quality is not a good culture to propagate. Neither for external wealth nor for internal wealth.
[see: Pushups for the Ladies, even if you are a man]
Almost 30 years ago, in Cambridge, the lady I consider to be my Chinese mother (I call her “Mommy”) taught me how to use chopsticks when we sat down for our first meal together. It was clear to me, having been a student of (Japanese) Karate and Indian music (mostly Rabindra Sangeet and a bit of Hindustani Classical), that technique and form needed to be blended with progression to achieve a reasonable level of mastery. Mastery, in this case, I defined as being able to use chopsticks for meals as well as my Chinese friends did.
Roll forward 25 years from that meal to when I lived with my Chinese family (unrelated to my Chinese mother!) I decided to teach myself how to use chopsticks with my left hand. I was inspired by my 4-year-old Chinese godson who was able to use either hand. I approached it with the same principles I describe below to achieve a similar level of mastery after a few weeks.
Why Bother with Good Form? [top]
The fact that you are reading this suggests that you are interested in good form. Here are some reasons why you chose well:
Injury: For some activities e.g. touch typing, poor form is unlikely to lead to an injury. For others e.g. squats it is almost guaranteed to. [top]
Performance Efficiency: With poor form, your long-term performance is highly likely to not be good compared to if you had excellent form. I see so many of my friends run fast, and even win races, despite having running forms that are not excellent. They would be so much faster with better form. [top]
Time Efficiency: If you proceed with the wrong form and have to reverse, spend time un-learning and then re-learning with correct form, you will have wasted a lot of time. And if you get injured because of poor form, your time efficiency has definitely gone for a toss. [top]
Aesthetics: Even if you cannot swim, you will be able to tell when someone’s dive into water is beautiful. Her aesthetically pleasing action is because of good form. And, if you see a city-dweller who spends most of his productive hours slouched at a desk resulting in the classic head forward of shoulders position, that static body contour is because of poor form when sitting. There is no reason why he cannot have an aesthetically pleasing profile even if he is sedentary. Not easy, but not impossible either! [top]
Bottom line? Good form is important!
Mindset and Philosophy [top]
Physical v Non-Physical [top]
The guidance in this article is for physical activities. There are parallels with activities you may do in the mental (and emotional and spiritual) domains e.g. mathematics, anxiety management, meditation – however, it is important to note that the details will be quite different. Topics for future conversation. [see: The Wellness Tree]
Defining Mastery [top]
Mastery is context dependent and partly subjective. That is one of the reasons that there are 3 judges for a gymnastic event at an Olympic event. However, broadly, for your chosen activity, there would be agreement, between those who are themselves good, on what they consider to be ‘pretty good’ and what is ‘not good’. At the very least, if you have a goal of ‘pretty good’, it would be best to ensure that you avoid form that is ‘not good’. To the extent that your personal choice of what you consider to be good form will not cause injury (e.g. to your lumbar spine during pushups) nor improper development (e.g. of triceps and chest muscles for pushups) you do have considerable freedom of expression.
Attitude for Life [top]
Whether it is my children, parents, co-authors, friends or those I mentor around the world, it is highly evident that the general attitude towards any one thing tends to translate into how they approach everything. Behaviour modification requires attitude modification. There is, however, a degree of ‘reflexivity’ i.e. by modifying your behaviour your long-term attitude towards life can also change. Of course, behaviour modification is no easy task! [see: A Better Life – Today and Tomorrow]
It would be great if we could use whatever we do in the physical realm to elevate ourselves in other realms. There is no other way for you to interact with those other realms other than in this indirect manner (along with your thoughts). So learning to improve form is an exploratory process with implications far beyond that specific, often banal, physical activity. Tried brushing your teeth with your other hand lately?
You may want to keep a note of the following. If you decide that you are going to fix your poor golf stroke or tennis serve from years of poor form, you may find that over time the actions you take to achieve that goal will beneficially impact your emotional health too! [see: Information and Your Happiness]
Simple Biology [top]
Move the Bones [top]
It’s your big and/or small bones that are moving in space whether you are learning to type or throw a frisbee. They move because the muscles make them move. But how do the muscles make them move?
With Your Brain [top]
To put it simply, the brain sends an electrical signal down your nervous system to your muscles to contract. Sometimes this is very conscious for you, when you are learning to hit a moving ball. Sometimes it is without you thinking very consciously e.g. when you speed type or swerve on your bicycle to avoid a pothole. What starts off with conscious focused thinking within one region of the brain, gets shifted to another part of the nervous system for long-term repeated use. There are 2 key lessons here:
- What you see as a movement (e.g. in your lower body and arms, hopefully not your head when you run) always starts off in the brain and spinal cord
- It is important that you store the correct movement pattern in long-term memory for repeated reuse
The Importance of the Master Instructor [top]
Whether your source is another human being in person, a live video lesson, a recorded video, an article with pictures, or some combination of sources, it is absolutely critical that you use an expert guide to provide the knowledge of what to do and how to do it. That is a necessary condition. It is not a sufficient condition.
Another necessary condition but not sufficient condition is a feedback mechanism, traditionally a human being, but increasingly Artificial Intelligence-based software, driven with inputs from sensors, to tell you where you are going wrong and what corrective action you need to take. For some things, e.g. assessing your left-handwriting, you can be your own judge.
These necessary conditions along with you putting in the appropriate effort between the continuous cycle of guidance and feedback are what will, all together, be a set of sufficient conditions.
Technique v Form v Progression [top]
Technique, in general, is relatively well understood. Within sports, the most widespread use is within strength training and relates to the way you perform an exercise with the aim of targeting a specific set of muscles. For instance, a narrow grip pullup would target your bicep muscles more while a wide grip pullup would target your back muscles more. You could zoom out one level and, using the example of swimming, think of the breaststroke as being a different technique from the front crawl. The general goal is the same, to travel through water. You may choose one over the other in a triathlon depending on how choppy the seawater is! Where it is up to you to choose the technique, the right choice will impact your results.
Form is to be paid attention to no matter what technique you choose. Form can best be described as the pattern of movement (and stillness) of the many different moveable parts of your body. Correct form reduces the risk of injury and ought to lead to improved performance both within an event and over time. (See below)
You have chosen a technique and have a guide for good form, what about progression? Progression is the process of increasing the intensity, frequency, and duration (or total volume) of activity that you do.
So, you have a 3-step process.
 A chosen technique can be very clearly defined and described.
 Good form can also be clearly defined and described.
 Progression is where there is a lot of room for a dynamic cycle of planning, execution, monitoring and adjustment. This is where you need to engage in a lot of thinking!
Tension between Form and Progression [top]
When your focus is on cranking out a large volume there is an increased likelihood that your form will suffer. This may be because you are not paying attention to form in the first place, or because the neuromuscular systems that produce the desired movement pattern get fatigued and do not fire appropriately.
Appreciating that this tension exists is paramount to following an optimal path towards mastery.
Learning Something New v Improving Something Old [top]
It will be a lot easier to learn something new than correct something old. The latter requires you to store a new pattern within your nervous system along with blocking the use of an old pattern stored. The old pattern does not get wiped out of your memory – you need to stop using it when doing the activity whose form you are improving. Hence, not only do you have to train your brain to store the new pattern, but you have to also train it to use that new pattern and to not use the old pattern.
So, you can see now that there are 2 parts to the nervous system re-training then. Do not assume that it will be twice as difficult as learning something new. It may be less or more difficult depending on the activity and the specific path you follow to retrain your nervous system.
Transfer Learning [top]
More often than not, what you are learning is related to something you have done before. It is important to break down both the activities in order to appreciate what may help or hinder, from that previous activity, for the one that you are now trying to progress with. This is common with racquet sports e.g. a highly experienced tennis player playing badminton for the first time may be tempted to use the wrist less and, instead, use the shoulder and the entire arm.
Emotional Conditions for Learning [top]
You will not learn well if you are tired, stressed or sad. So, ensure that you are not tired, that you are relaxed and that you are not sad. If you can be excited and happy, and also see the activity as fun, you are going to learn a lot faster.
This is something you should remember as a teacher, as a coach, as an employer and, most importantly, as a parent.
Start with a Break [top]
If you are looking to fix your form with something, in an ideal world, it would be good to take a long break from it first.
Very often you will be unable to take a break e.g. you are trying to fix your sitting posture.
At other times you will not need to take a break e.g. you are correcting your lying posture for sleep.
If you are learning something afresh then you can get started right away.
Start at zero! What would that look like? Here are some examples:
Riding a motorcycle – start with a small engine size motorcycle, perhaps even a moped, rather than a Harley. If you don’t know how to ride a bicycle, for heaven’s sake, please learn that first.
Squatting at the gym – first get it right with no additional weights, only your body weight (think of that as being ‘zero’).
Eating with chopsticks – once you learn the correct way to hold the chopsticks, and do what I call ‘chopsticks calibration’, start with something that is easy to grip with the chopsticks e.g. baby-bite-sized pieces of bread. Oily peanuts are not easy – they’re a good benchmark for when you are more proficient!
On day-1, keep it very short. Depending on what the activity is, that ‘very short’ will vary:
e.g. it might be just 30 seconds if you are learning to write with your left hand
e.g. if might be 30 minutes if you are learning to ride a bicycle
In week-1, depending on the activity, you will need to plan how often you will attempt the activity again:
e.g. it might be 3 times a day if you are learning to eat with chopsticks
e.g. it might be 3 times a week if you are learning to squat correctly
Depending on the activity, there will be other variables too. For instance, availability of location (e.g. indoor basketball court), weather (e.g. outdoor tennis) or even availability of instructor (e.g. Tue and Thu mornings).
One thing should be clear to you – you must ensure that the learning is spaced in time.
Example Observation for Runners: who are looking to fix their entire running form. There’s a reason that you did not learn to run correctly after a 2-day intense workshop on running form. A workshop of that kind will inform you of what you need to do. You will learn it only when you practice it at regular intervals. If your child did not become proficient on the guitar after a year of weekly lessons, that was not because of what was done during the lessons, it was because of what was not done between the lessons! [top]
Full ROM vs Breaking up the Pattern [top]
The decision to break up a movement pattern needs to be taken wisely.
Case of Incorrect Breaking up of Pattern: There are hundreds of physiotherapists out there incorrectly advising recreational runners that they need to do weight training at the gym in order to run without injuries. Just because running involves an action like bending your knees does not imply that doing squats will help. And, just because your heel moves towards your buttocks when running does not mean that doing hamstring curls will make any real difference to your running ability. [top]
Case of Correct Breaking up of Pattern: On the other hand, if you can hold what you think is a plank for a few minutes, but your groin area sags to create excess curvature in your lower back, you should sort out that component of the pushup before you include movement. Even if your triceps and chest muscles are very strong for pushups, you should do assisted pushups for a few sessions once you’ve sorted out your plank before you progress down to a floor pushup over many sessions. (see pushups template below) [top]
I cannot stress enough, the importance of visualization. You do not need to be performing at a world championship event to use this for your own progress with just about anything and everything. I used this when I went bowling for the first time (and we won!) and the first time I attempted a headstand (and I did it on my first attempt, thanks to the lady in the title image for this article, who thought I could!)
Competing against Others [top]
Just don’t! Unless it’s required for your profession i.e. you cannot put bread on the table unless you are better than others at that specific task. [see: Competing & Comparing – Targetting Happiness Maximization]
In either case, do examine the processes followed by those who are successful, to learn, so that you are better than you were yesterday. And, often, you can learn a lot from those who are not yet successful but are following good processes to get there.
The last thing you should do is to bash out a lot of volume because your peer group on social media is posting about how much they did. If their focus is on quantity and yours moves away from quality, you will be dragging your own mindset down a vicious cycle. [see: Why you need not run] [see: The Internal-External Divide]
Deliberate Practice, not 10,000 Hours [top]
If you start off with the vision of achieving mastery and practising deliberately (rather than with haphazard form) you will achieve your goal a lot faster than banging out large volumes of poor-quality repetitions. In fact, the more you repeat poor quality, the further down the wrong maze you will go. And you know what that means. You will take longer to come back up that maze and have to restart the process of learning the right form. That is a lot of time wasted! [see: I don’t care about your Ultra… How big is your ROTI?]
My favourite dimension – time. How long you will take to get to your goal? The best way to handle this variable is to make a guess first and then tell yourself that you will take twice as long (or even five times as long, it doesn’t matter). The point is to take the pressure off yourself to rush down a path that will encourage poor form. Rushing with poor form may even make it impossible to ever correct your form in the future for some activities. A relaxed gradual start with good form will reap benefits later.
The reason that things will take time is that your neuromuscular system takes time to learn. For some things, it may appear to be relatively quick to gain a decent level of mastery e.g. counting dollar bills with your left hand. For other activities, it may take a very long time.
If you aren’t sleeping enough you will not have what you want in the future for your health and you may get what you do not want. When it comes to learning, good sleep is a necessity rather than an optional component of lifestyle. What that means is that if you have sleep problems or need a sleeping pill to sleep, you will not learn. This is not simplistic. It is simple!
If you have been reading my articles over the last 6 years, you were expecting this section. It goes without saying that there’s almost no downside and a lot of upside to logging. Depending on your activity, you will have a different design for your log. You may want to see the example provided below (for pushups) to get started with your own activity.
The Case of Pushups [top]
Click on this link to download a spreadsheet template you can use for your pushups and the equivalent supporting activity of rowing. If you have not yet read my article on pushups, you absolutely must, before you attempt your next pushup! You may also want to read the article on 1-arm pushups.
FINAL TAKEAWAY [top]
Final Words – The Long-Race Winner [top]
As we now know, whatever you choose to do well will take as long as it will take. Knowing that life is a marathon not a sprint, it makes sense to have good form as you successfully run through it. How long you take does not matter. It is important that you are satisfied that it was a quality run!
As always, I hope you found this note useful. If you did, please share it with your family and friends.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.