Technique is as important as working up a sweat when it comes to training, which is why a good personal trainer will apply the Stages of Learning when planning sessions for their clients.
As our bodies adapt to training to become fitter, faster and stronger, we get to a point where we need to apply a higher stimulus or overload to progress (see our blog on What is Supercompensation training?). This requires autonomous movement, which is developed by working through the Stages of Learning.
What are the Stages of Learning?
The three Stages of Learning were defined by PM Fitts and IM Posner back in 1967. They are: Cognitive, Associative and Autonomous.
Taking these in turn:
Cognitive – this stage is all about learning and carrying out an unfamiliar exercise. To start with, the client’s movements will be slow, inefficient and mostly consciously directed. Personal trainers should ensure that movements are performed in a controlled way with clear instruction to help the client make corrections and improve their technique.
Associative – in this intermediate stage, movements will become more fluid and reliable. The brain will have learned how to carry out the movements and parts of the exercise will have become subconscious. This is when the personal trainer can start to challenge the client, while continuing to give clear feedback to reinforce movement memory.
Autonomous – once an exercise has been carried out repeatedly, actions will become automatic. The client will be moving with accuracy, efficiency and consistency, and the personal trainer can challenge their motor control with uncontrolled exercises, for example reaching to catch a ball. This will help the client widen their range of motion and increase their speed.
Who are the Stages of Learning for?
They can be applied to individuals training at any level. If a personal trainer has a new client who has not trained before, they will need to work through these stages as each new exercise is introduced.
They are also relevant for intermediate and experienced clients as they advance in their training and are set new goals. Professional sports people and athletes can improve their technique by working through the stages and honing their movements until they become instinctive.
How do the Stages of Learning help us reach our fitness goals?
The Stages of Learning help us to progress towards our training goals by understanding the process by which we learn an exercise and helping us to improve how we carry it out.
What are the risks of ignoring the Stages of Learning?
Failing to follow the three Stages of Learning can result in poor technique, which can in turn lead to sub-max performance and increased risk of injury.
These stages also help us with the functional movements we carry out every day. If you work through the Stages of Learning to improve your speed, balance, flexibility and strength, you will find it easier to run for a bus, keep yourself upright if you trip or catch something you’ve dropped without injuring yourself.
What is movement memory?
Working through the three Stages of Learning during fitness training, allows you to develop movement memory. This is when your body learns a familiarity with a much-repeated movement, which it will remember even after a long break.
A personal trainer can use the three Stages of Learning to devise periodising programmes that will help a client to progress with their fitness training and to develop movement memory – powerful instincts to protect yourself when you need to call on fast, subconscious reactions when training, competing or simply in everyday life.