How do you build skills?

I was chatting with my guitar teacher the other day and he mentioned how he couldn’t do any pull-ups. I asked him how often he practiced and he said, “well never, I can’t even do one.” For a brief moment, I became the teacher – “Imagine if pull-ups were a song. You need to learn to play the song, but you need to learn the components first, and you need to simply put in the time.”

I think there is a tendency for people to think that strength, flexibility, and fitness all operate outside the normal rules of skill acquisition. This baffles me.

Folks generally have the understanding that you need to practice things like music, sports, arts, habits in order to improve, but for some reason that when it comes to physical fitness, the rules no longer apply.

My music teacher is a prime example because he understands better than anyone how important it is to actually put in the time and practice (he’s an awesome teacher and can absolutely wail on the guitar). And yet conventional wisdom keeps him from applying these same principles to physical training.

Research shows that the one thing separating the average professional musician from the best in the world is that the best in the world spend more time working on basics and scales, while the standard professionals spend more time practicing songs. Following this line of thinking, ask yourself, “How much time do I dedicate drilling the basics and making them better/smoother/faster/more controlled?”.

I get it. It’s a sacrifice. It’s more fun to play songs than it is to just work on scales all day.
It’s more fun to get after some heavy lifting than “waste” your time focusing on flexibility.

It all comes down to how you are willing to invest your time. My thoughts on allocating time are discussed in Econ 101 for training and life

You can do pull-ups if you work on the individual components (shoulder flexibility and back strength) and then work on the actual skill of doing pull-ups consistently for a while.

This can be applied to any skill:
-Identify the individual components.
-Drill those components separately.
-Integrate those components.
-Smooth out that integration through practice and repetition.

This method can easily be applied to learning something like a backbend. In order to perform a solid backbend, you need hip extension, lumbar and thoracic extension, shoulder flexion and external rotation, and wrist extension.

These components need to be addressed separately in a safe environment where it can most effectively be trained. If you attempt to simply do a lot of backbends without addressing the individual components, any lack of flexibility is going to force the lumbar spine and wrists to compensate, and likely become injured. Once the individual components have been drilled appropriately, you can integrate those movements together into the backbend. Only once all of the prerequisites have been satisfied should you invest in lots of good practice and repetition.

In light of this, I want to give you one basic skill to practice every day for the next month that I think will give you a massive benefit.

December Challenge: The L-Sit

Week 1: Lets first look at the individual components:

1. Hip MobilitySeated floor leg lift 2 resized
In Ultimate Athleticism I use the floor hip lift movement to address this specific hip mobility. Start by sitting on the floor with legs in front of you. Bend forward trying to touch your head to your toes. Hold for a 5 count. While staying as close to that same body position as possible. Lift the legs up in the air as high as possible in a piked position. Repeat 5 times. You can move on when you can lift the legs with the torso leaned forward.


2. Scapular DepressionL sit support position resized
The support position is so often overlooked in the L-sit progression. It is imperative to set up properly with the shoulders before you worry about lifting the legs up. A lot of very strong individuals have a very difficult time keeping the shoulders down during the L-sit and they have the tendency to let them slide up and forward while performing the movement. Work up to a 1 minute support position and do not let the shoulders drift up toward the ears.




3. Core Strength
The seated floor hip lift is a nice core exercise all by itself, but we’re going to add another option. Hollow V-ups are a good way to build up core strength. Go from a Hollow position (low back touching floor only) to a toe touch (like the letter V). Returm to Hollow and repeat. Make sure you can do 10 and then it’s L-sit time.

Weeks 2-4: Check In
Crushed #1-3?
If so, you may be ready to go for the full L-sit in your daily practice. If you can’t do the full version right out of the gate, bend one or both knees.

Still working on #1-3?
Keep up the daily practice for another week and add L-sits in week 3 (bend one or both knees as needed)

The important thing is to take care of the individual components and be consistent–do it every day.


Share your progress and questions in the comments below.  Get after it!

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2 thoughts on “How do you build skills?

  • TC


    Great insight here.
    Most are surprised that physical capacity is like everything else – prowess takes practice. I've also found this an opportune time to educate clients about the differences between practicing and working out. Once the premise of skill building is understood, "practicing" as a method of training makes perfect sense.

    Thanks for the L-sit example of using individual component improvement and full movement practice.

    Keep up the superb work!