Trainees Don’t Know How to Learn

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Thanksgiving is right around the corner!11!1!  I’m excited because out of all the holidays we celebrate throughout the year here in the States – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, my birthday – it’s my favorite because there’s no pretentiousness to it. Sure, it’s getting a bit ridiculous with all of the Black Friday sales now starting on Thursday……

But in the end, Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and of course, FOOD!!!

I’m heading into the facility shortly to coach an abbreviated day, and then tomorrow we’ll open our doors early for our annual Cressey Performance Thanksgiving Morning Lift.

Think of it as our version of a 5K Turkey Trot, except instead of running, we’re lifting heavy things.  For a quick glimpse, check out this video from a few years ago – which may or may not include me flexing my bicep at the 0:33 mark.

HINT:  it totally does.

It’s kind of a big deal, with people signing up to attend weeks (even months) in advance.  You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

Afterwards, Lisa and I will be heading back to my old stomping grounds in New York to spend a few days at my parents house, so the likelihood that I’ll be posting anything from now until Monday is somewhere between not a chance in hell and probably not. But hey, you never know.

On that note, have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone. Eat a slice of apple pie for me. Actually, eat two!

Today’s guest post comes from personal trainer Jon Goodman. Jon has asked me to contribute on his site several times, and he offered to return the favor. I thought it was fantastic, and hope you do as well.

Trainees Don’t Know How to Learn

Every once in a while I step out of my boutique studio bubble and enter a big box gym to see how the rest of the World is training.

I know what you’re thinking – this is another rant about the evil empire and we need to burn the owners of big box gyms at the stake. (cue Darth Vader theme)

But hold on for a minute, I’m going to take this article in a different path. I didn’t see a whole bunch of meatheads, idiots, goombas (my personal favourite) lifting improperly. Quite the opposite:

I saw people dedicated to training. I saw people trying to get better. I saw people really trying to train the right way. And you know what? they weren’t doing a bad job. Coaches like Tony are becoming more prevalent and I can say with all honestly that mainstream media is doing a better job in giving the public researched information. I pick up an issue of Men’s Health and can proudly say that not only am I friends with but I also have respect for the majority of the writers in each issue.

So why are People Still Lifting Badly?

The majority of folks in the gym and probably every single person who reads this blog want to lift well. The Goomba squatting 3 plates to a 2.3inch depth doesn’t want to lift poorly, I promise you. In my eyes, the problem is two-fold:

1. Trainees don’t take the time to learn exercises properly before pressing beyond their capabilities (kind of like a fitness Peter Principle)

2. Trainees don’t know how to learn

Tony was nice enough to give me opportunity to help. I’m going to solve both problems for you in one with this short article by teaching you briefly about the physiology of skill acquisition and how you can quickly and effectively use it to learn new exercises fast.

Oligodendrocytes, Astrocytes, and Myelin… oh my

Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals

Hold your breath – Here comes the science talk. I listed a couple references below but I urge you to check out Daniel Coyle’s brilliant book The Talent Code as well.

I’ll start first by describing an action potential. Without it, movement would never happen. When your brain decides to squat, deadlift, push, pull, lunge, or twist it fires impulses to the muscle. That impulse travels along nerve fibres until it reaches a neuromuscular (joint between the nerve and muscle) junction (NMJ). Once it reaches the NMJ a neurotransmitter is released which crosses the junction to the opened receptors on the other side. Once there, the neurotransmitter enables the Myosin filament to grab onto Actin and BOOM! We have a muscle contraction.

The above is an incredibly simplified version of what actually happens but enough for the scope of this article. What I didn’t mention is that the transmission of the action potential travels along the nerve fibre to the NMJ via voltage gated channels. Speeds vary and the signal can leak out. Our body has developed a system of insulation (called myelin) to conduct the impulse better and avoid leakages.

That much has been understood for years. What wasnít understood was the incredible contribution the myelination system actually does.

In fact, myelination is the key to acquisition of skills and the more myelin you have, the better you are at that skill.  In Daniel Coyleís own words:

The revolution is built on three simple facts. (1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal travelling through a chain or neurons ñ a circuit of nerve fibers.† (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.† (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

The precise mechanism is completed by supporter cells called oligodendroctytes and astrocytes. They sense a nerve firing and wrap more myelin on the fibre that fires.


The beauty of the myelin system is in its simplicity. It makes sense that the more myelination we have, the better insulation our nerve fibers will have and therefore signals will get from one place to the next faster and more efficiently.

The last piece of the puzzle is how unbelievably precise this system is. Oligodendrocytes and astrocytes have no idea what you actually want to accomplish. Their job is to line the nerve that fired. Translation ñ If you fire a nerve fiber improperly, you reinforce that habit. To add to it, in the absence of aging or disease there is no human process to remove myelination. This explains why habits are so hard to break. Your only way to break bad habits is to re-learn new habits stronger.

Since Myelin is a Scienfitic Process How do we Do it Right? … or Better

struggling is not an option, it’s a biological requirement

Before I lay out the steps to better myelinate yourself allow me to drop some numbers on you:

  1. Neural traffic that was once travelling at 2mi/hr can accelerate to 200mi/hr
  2. The refractory time (wait required between signals) can decrease by a factor of 30
  • Together that makes for a 3 000X increase in information processing capability!

Personally, I wouldn’t mind being 3 000X better at something. So here’s how you do it:

1. Have a blueprint. I send my clients videos on new exercises and make sure they watch them before I teach them the movement. The first step in learning a new skill is having the proper form cemented in your brain. You should always be able to close your eyes and visualize what an exercise should look like. Put a video of the exercise on your ipod and watch it before and after each set constantly trying to emulate the form.

The better you get at visualization, the quicker you will learn

2. Fail better. Repeating bad habits is a sure fire way to keep your bad form. The minute form goes awry, stop the set, put the bar down, close your eyes and visualize the step you did wrong. When you pick back up the bar focus on your improper step (if possible only practice the one movement you screwed up).

Try ñ fail ñ fail better

Timing is everything

Consider the unlimited possibilities in movement that our bodies possess. Our neurons are unable to coordinate the timing precisely so myelin has taken on the challenge. Think of how many different movements are involved in a basic squat. If 100 nerves are firing to complete that movement all of the different fibres must be timed perfectly to interact with each other within milliseconds. That’s the power of myelin, it’s the timing mechanism. Visualization and failing with purpose are paramount. Thank me later when you lifts dramatically improve.


Yamazaki Y, Hozumi Y, Kaneko K, Sugihara T, Fujii S, Goto K, Kato H. Modulatory effects of oligodendrocytes on the conduction velocity of action potentials along axons in the alveus of the rat hippocampal CA1 region. Neuron Glia Biol. 2007 Nov;3(4):325-34. PubMed PMID:18634564

Fields RD. Imaging learning: the search for a memory trace Neuroscientist.†2011 Apr;17(2):185-96. Epub 2011 Mar 14. PubMed PMID:21403182

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle

Who’s This Jon Guy?

Jonathan Goodman is a personal trainer out of Toronto on a mission to help as many trainers as possible. In doing so he’s set up a collaborative free resource for personal trainers with some of the brightest minds in the industry called the Personal Trainer Development Center ( You can also find him at or on Facebook or Twitter.




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