on skill work and exponential progress

embrace the grunt work and plateau

better skill, better output

Strength is a skill. That's a powerful statement whose message is often missed. Let's probe a bit into the skill aspect required to get fit, eat better and all that in this post.

Playing the piano, for example, requires skill, practice, coaching, and steadily pushing into uncomfortable territory i.e. finding the upper limits of your current skill levels. This applies to playing a sport, to any musical instrument, to painting, to making pottery.

Improving our skill leads to better output in all these endeavours.

when we start

When you pick up any new thing, your skill levels are zero or thereabouts. Pretty much any little bit of practice or work you put in, however average, you quickly see results and improvements. As Coach Dan John says, anything works for 6 weeks.

The newfound infatuation survives for a while, as long as you are constantly improving. You pick up more and more obvious basic skills and get marginally better at them. That keeps you going.

Until you hit your first plateau

Then, it stops. Why aren't you magically improving every week by leaps and bounds? Well, welcome to your first plateau. You need to continue putting in the work. In fact, now's when you put in a lot of reps on some basic stuff.

In strength training, for example, the basic plank is where it is at. Even if you've got a 2-minute plank, you don't stop. Instead of going for longer, you now try and go for higher tension. Can you maximally tense your glutes and abs and entire body in the plank for just a few seconds? This is an incredibly hard skill. In fact, tension is the name of the game in strength training. The more tension you are able to create, the more weight you will lift.

But most of you are bored with the plank. You've already conquered it. So, when it is time to plank, you don't put in the hard effort. You just do it in a half-assed fashion.

Or you have to suck at a movement until you stop sucking at it - say the reverse lunge. You are stumbling all over the place. So, your coach tells you to just start by balancing on one leg for 30+ seconds. But pfft, that's boring. You instead lunge terribly and hurt your knees.

Now, that stupid coach got you injured. Or those darn lunges. Or they colluded together to do this to you and stop you from becoming the master athlete you were on track to becoming.

keep the goal the goal

A lack of good coaching where the plan is laid out is at fault. And well, quite a bit of not listening on your part. On failing to keep the goal the goal, as Coach Dan John says.

Quality repetitions are the magic cure. And patience. And learning to love plateaus.

We don't progress linearly. We progress in spurts and leaps and jumps. Maybe you spend 6 months at a plateau. But if you put in the quality effort, you will see a huge leap in output one day suddenly.

learn to break down the skills

Whatever you are working on, if you can break down the skills and honestly gauge your progress and effort, you will see the patterns emerge and see progress being made. For strength training, for example,

  • learning to create tension

  • learning to show up

  • constantly trying to improve technique

  • taking a video of yourself and improving your technique

  • getting coached or coaching yourself

  • learning to breathe and brace

  • learning to figure out and understand where your body and joints are in space

  • understanding movement and muscles

are just a few of the things that you work on. As you improve your skills on each aspect, as you improve your process, as you put in the reps, cool things start to happen.

skill work

Skill work is fun. You immerse yourself in the process, constantly trying to improve. But without being critical or an ass to yourself. You try to figure things out, you ask for an outside perspective, you assess and see if you are moving in the right direction.

Skill work can be boring. If you look at reps as boring. If doing the same thing daily is boring. If plateaus are boring. If trying to push yourself to the outer edge of your skill levels is boring. If failing is boring.

With anything, skill improvement means improved results. Whether it is more tools in your dieting toolbox, whether it is better form and technique in strength training, whether it better habits in your lifestyle, whether it is an improved sleep routine - skill is where it is at.

(Almost) everything can be improved and worked on. You will see exponential progress.

Eventually.