Motor Control, Motor Learning, and Why My Classes Suck

by Sam Martin

A wave of motivation has come over me recently to return to serious study. I’ve been sitting around this evening with my old friend, Dynatomy, reviewing some of the early chapters. I really enjoy this stuff, and even though I’ve spent time with this text before, the second reading is giving me new insights.

Nice false grip, brah.

One section in the first chapter caught my attention in particular; the authors outline the concepts of motor controlmotor learning, and motor development. I want to talk for just a sec about the first two.

Motor Control

…motor control refers to how the body’s systems organize and control muscles involved in movement. The system primarily involved in control is the nervous system… (Whiting & Rugg, p. 51)

This is what I call “the wobble.” When I make you do a hollow body progression in class and you get to that awful point where you’re trying to extend your hands and feet further apart and your whole body starts to shake? That’s motor control. Go a little deeper than you did before on a pistol, wobble, then fall on your butt? Motor control.

Motor control is when the muscles you’re trying to use are starting to “come online.” Your nervous system is telling your abdominals, hip flexors, and all the other core muscles to hold your pelvis and midsection in place, but the muscles don’t know how to do it yet. Wobble, wobble, shake, fall. But it gets easier every time! Until, of course, you’re too tired. Then we do three more.

Motor Learning

…motor learning involves several phases: the cognitive phase, the associative phase, and the autonomous phase. In the initial cognitive phase, a person must devote considerable conscious thought to the movement task and tries various strategies. … In the associative phase, movements are less variable, and the mover determines the best movement strategy. … In the final autonomous phase, the movement becomes automatic, or instinctive, and the mover can attend to other factors…

Let’s look at this through the lens of a kipping pullup.

Cognitive Phase

“OK, jump up to the bar. OK, stop swinging. Now how do I start again? Kick forward! No, that’s not it. Oh, yeah, feet back, chest forward. Now kick, now pull, then something else…oh yeah, push away at the top. Shit, this is hard.”

Associative Phase

“I got this. Swing, kick, pull, push, stay in rhythm, breathe, don’t lose grip, hang on, one more!”

Autonomous Phase

“This workout sucks. That girl has a nice butt, though. What’s her name, again? Shoot, what number am I on? I think that was 21. We’ll call it good.”

This is why it takes a while to “master” the movements you learn. Just remember–you never have it truly mastered. Keep practicing, though, because it does get easier.