What’s the Best Way to Teach or Learn a New Exercise – Q&A

Question: What’s the best way to teach/learn a new exercise in the weight room?

Answer: Arguably the most common recommendation for teaching someone a new exercise, or learning a movement in the weight room is to use light weights and high repetitions (usually 10-12 or even higher).  The idea is that the higher repetition count will force the use of light weight and allow the trainee to get in a lot of reps per set.

However, this approach has a problem, especially with relative beginners.  That problem is that, with such high repetitions, even with light weights, fatigue starts to set in towards the end of the set and form/technique deteriorates.  The set may start with good form but it will fall apart as they get tired at the end.

The reason that this is a problem is that at least one aspect of motor learning (and please note that this topic is much more complicated than I’m making it out to be) is that learning new skills is best done when the individual is rested and unfatigued.  And as fatigue starts to build up with higher repetition sets, the problem is that form tends to deteriorate.  You end up teaching the trainee bad habits.

In this vein, you will actually find that many top coaches stop their athletes when form starts to fall apart in practice; all it does by letting them continue in bad technique is to teach them how to do the movement poorly.  So when form falls apart, the workout, or at least that section of it is over.

I’d note that for more advanced athletes, deliberately practicing technique under fatigued conditions is often advocated.  This is because, in high level sport, athletes often have to perform when they are tired.  They need to have learned how to maintain proper technique while fatigued.  But this is only for advanced athletes who have already established technical mastery (or something close to it) and you asked about learning for newbies.

An alternative approach to learning new movements is to do multiple low-repetition sets (5 repetitions is a good number) but still with a fairly light weight. Done for 5 sets, you can get 25 quality repetitions without generating the kind of fatigue that you’d get with multiple set of 12 or 15 repetitions.  I talked about this topic before in The 5X5 Program.

With this approach, you might start a new trainee with nothing but a 45 pound bar (in some cases, you might use bars lighter than that for learning; for example, many Olympic lifting coaches start teaching the movements with pieces of PVC pipe).

The athlete or trainee would then do 5 repetitions, if a coach is available, they would not only explain demonstrate the movement beforehand but would generally be giving feedback on each repetition on what to fix or change.

If the 5 repetitions were done correctly, or at least mostly so, a small amount of weight would then be added to the bar.  Depending on the movement, this might be 5 pounds or less; for movements like squat or deadlift, it might be more than that.  This is a judgment call on the coach’s part based on their past experience.  With a 16 year old strong male squatting, you might put 10-20 pounds on the bar.  For a 45 year old beginner female, 5 pounds might be too much.   In any case, after adding a bit of weight, 5 more repetitions would be performed.

If those were still good technically and not too challenging, more weight would be added. If the weight started to get challenging, or form started to break down, you’d either stick with that same weight for the workout or possibly drop back down.  I’d suggest this last strategy as being beneficial.  I have a personal pet theory that the body and nervous system remember the last thing that you did on a movement and finishing with a weight that the trainee can do absolutely perfectly accomplishes at least two things:

  1. Let’s them finish with a final set of perfectly performed repetitions
  2. Lets them finish the workout/set on a high point

That second one isn’t me being facetious by the way.  For many athletes, ending a workout in what they perceive as failure can become a real negative feed-forward loop; they come into the next workout thinking about the last workout and it all starts spiralling down.

If you let them finish on a high point with something that feels like success, that also becomes a feed-forward loop; success breeds success because they come into the next workout remembering how well they ended the last one.

In any case, a beginner being taught the squat might go:

BarX5, 55X5, 65X5, 75X5 (let’s say that this looks challenging), 75X5 (or you might drop them back to 65X5 to finish on a perfect set).

in their first workout.

At the next workout, you might start them at 55 or 65 and pyramid up again.  So they might go 55, 65, 75, 85, 85 at the secon workout. Then 65, 75, 85, 95, 100 at the next. You get the idea.

Learning movements this way accomplishes several things.  The first is that they are accumulating a lot of good repetitions at each workout.  As well, since they are adding small amounts of weight, they see that they are progressing (a huge aspect of keeping them training is positive reinforcement).

Finally, many trainees find that movements are a little bit easier to perform with some weight on the bar; it can actually be more difficult if the weight is too light.  Adding some weight to the bar lets you find a weight that’s challenging enough to let them feel what’s going on without pushing them too hard and causing form to suffer.

It can be a real balance sometimes, finding a weight that is heavy enough for the trainee to ‘feel’ what’s going on but not so heavy that form falls apart.  That’s where a good coach and his eye and experience come in.

I should note that the low rep approach to learning new movements is not without its problems.  The big danger of approaching new movements this way, and this is especially true of males, is their impatience.  With only 5 reps per set and starting out very light, many trainees will try to increase their weights far too quickly and their form will go down the toilet.

If a coach is present, part of his job is to prevent this by only allowing appropriate weight jumps when the trainee is ready for them.  Left to their own devices, many trainees (again, more so males than females in my experience) will throw on far too much weight and get themselves into trouble.  In that case, sticking with the higher rep approach might be better just to keep the weights lighter.

I should note that this approach is described thoroughly in the excellent book “Starting Strength“, now in its second edition, by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore. I cannot highly enough recommend this book to any trainee or coach.

The only other aspect of motor learning I’d like to mention is that learning new movements tends to occur faster when they are trained more frequently. This is a big part of why I don’t like split routines for beginners, they don’t get as much practice with the movements as if they trained full body every workout.  I like to see new movements trained a minimum of twice/week and three times/week might be better. After 4-6 weeks, the frequency of training can be reduced (if desired) as the intensity increases.

A final note: for anyone reading this who is an expert on motor learning, I’m simplifying a lot of things and I know the topic is much more complicated than I’ve made it out to be with huge differences in approach for quick learning versus retention and all of that.  Feel free to comment but please keep in mind that I’m trying to make practical recommendations here, not delve into the minutiae of motor learning theory.  Thank you for your consideration.

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