In 2010 Arnar Sigurdsson had a deadlift PR of 200kg, although at the time, early in his CrossFit career it was a decent number, his form, as quoted by him ‘was absolutely horrible!’, ‘even though it was a good competition weight, it was shit’. When he looks back at a video of himself doing the deadlift he finds it hard to watch. Back in 2011 he decided to work on strengthening his core and fix the position of his back during the lift. For three years he didn’t get a new PR, in fact, in a good position he was struggling to get 150kg.

After three years he built back up to 200kg, and this number has been increasing ever since. He said that if he had of kept his old form he would not have been able to improve his numbers and would of injured himself, and is surprised he didn’t at the time.

If you had a snatch PR of 100kg (which according to most of the males in the box is a respectful number, even though Brooke Wells’ has a PR of 100kg ;), would you sacrifice that number, work on your form for three years, and then be able to beat that girl in CrossFit……..of course you would…... so why is form so often neglected, and why are most people in a rush to increase their weights and move on to more complex skills without the foundations?

In Arnar’s case if he hadn’t of worked on his form he would have experienced what is called a ‘negative learning curve’, which many people experience. This is where there is increase in performance at the start of learning a skill, followed by a plateau (leveling off), and in some cases a decline in performance, due to injury or over working.  

A negative learning curve is often seen in the snatch as it is the more complex weightlifting movement. When first learning the snatch you may be able to increase the weights to a certain point with poor form if, for example, you have good upper body strength. It will however get to a point where you can not see any more improvement, no matter how many times you come to open gym and practice. This is because the snatch requires the combination of good technique, timing, and strength, which can only be executed with ‘good’ form.

There are four basic learning curves; a positive learning curve is when we see at the beginning of learning a new skill poor performance (depicted by lots of errors and fails) and then followed by progressive improvement. A positive learning curve is what we want to see!! There are two other curves which you can see in the diagram.

Figure: Types of Performance (Learning) Curves, a. positive, b. negative, c. linear, d. plateau

Figure: Types of Performance (Learning) Curves, a. positive, b. negative, c. linear, d. plateau

When we are learning a new skill, for example; the snatch or double unders we develop motor programs which is a set of muscle commands allowing movement performance. Some people refer to it as muscle memory. When the muscle movement patterns are constantly repeated this is when we see success and the PR’s start rolling in. The amount of repetitions it takes to create muscle memory is up for discussion. While some say it can be as low as 300-500 repetitions, Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the book ‘Outliers’, states that 10,000 is the number of hours we need to practice to be considered an ‘expert’ in that skill.

You can however develop motor programs for the incorrect technique of a movement!!

The good news is that the brain is flexible and malleable, so we can change our movement patterns. This means retraining your motor programs and developing new ones.

How can you avoid developing motor programs for bad form? Think about all those hours spent working on your snatch and all you have been doing is ingraining a motor program which will not end with good results.

CrossFit thrives on quality coaching and efficiency through movement which you should get in every class you attend. Open gym is a great resource which should be taken full advantage of, it is a great time to work on your muscular strength and your weaknesses, however, it’s worth considering, is there someone there who is helping you with your form, watching that you don’t pull too early in the clean, or jump forward in your snatch? Do you have a workout partner who can pick up on technique or do you video your own performance and watch it back? Even the most elite athletes in the world have coaches who look at every aspect of their performance. Even Rich!

To see results, to progress, you have to be patient, you have to put in the time and the effort, there is no short cut. Very few people will be able to do butterfly pull ups after a month of CrossFit, walk across the floor on their hands, or get that 100kg Snatch, it will only come with patience.

There is said to be three stages of learning; let’s use double unders for example. The first stage of learning is called the Cognitive Stage (beginners stage), you pick up your rope, many failed attempts are made, lots of effort goes into them, you have to be constantly thinking about jumping off the toes, keeping the hands in close, flicking the wrists etc. After 10 minutes of practicing your exhausted, your body is covered in red marks, and you have thrown your rope and sworn 20 times. You can spend weeks and months in this stage until finally you reach the next stage called the Associative Stage (intermediate stage), in this stage it is about ‘practice’, putting the time into practising the skill, some days the double unders will come easy and others you will ask yourself if you ever had them in the first place. If you persists you will eventually move into the Autonomous stage (advanced stage), where the skill is automatic. You don’t have to ‘think’ about the skill anymore, you could be doing double unders and at the same time thinking about what you are going to eat after your workout.  

How much time it takes to move into each of the stages depends on a number of factors, including motivation, physical fitness, past experience, body composition, and in the case of double unders, pain threshold ;) Also, let’s not forget ability; which is basically what we are genetically born with. This last factor can be frustrating as some people will move through the stages a lot quicker and easier than you may, which is why we should never compare our progress to anyone else's.

The path of being patient may be frustrating, but the results will pay off in the long run.

Tianna Monea

Patiently awaiting that snatch PR