Skills Aren’t Pills


“Take two of these and call me in the morning.”

It's the cliché medical advice that, sadly, is still thrown around to this day. Feel better immediately; don't fix the problem long term. The pill mentality injects the “healing / getting better is easy” thought in our brain. Just down a few pills. That's all it takes.

And then there are skills. Tricking teaches me a lot about skills: one small tweak is sometimes all it takes to stick a trick, and it takes both time and practice to get good. We accept a long road with skills. You wouldn't expect to master the violin in one month.

We don't often think of strength (via barbell or body weight training) as a skill. I know I didn't until Dan John started talking about it, and I'm pretty sure he got the idea from Pavel Tsatsouline. Matt Perryman further mentioned it in Squat Every Day, specifically the wild idea that the more you squat at a maximal-ish level, the better you get at squatting maximally. Who woulda thought? Not me, to be honest. But squatting with no weight is different than squatting with some weight is different than squatting with near maximal weight, even though they all rely on the same simple “skill” of squatting.

But the squat is a movement skill. There’s also, I like to think, physiological skill behind a lot of things, and this is something that’s been in my brain for a little while.

Skills aren’t pills

The pill is popular because it's easy. It’s a capsule that solves problems and has simple, universal directions. Do “x” thing, get “y” result.

Skills are neither universal, nor “simple.” It’s not uncommon for a cue to be a godsend to one person in tricking, and for the same cue to be absolutely nothing to another person.

Pills are set paths. Skills are open avenues.

The more I fiddle around in this realm of physical training — dare I say  Myomutant training – the more I ingest everything as a skill. Not necessarily because I think everything is a skill, but because it helps me sleep at night.

There is no set path, only open avenues.

Skills take time. Skills take consistent, dedicated practice.

Skills take days of “this isn’t fun, and this kind of sucks.”

You don’t develop a skill unless you love the practice—unless you love doing whatever it is you’re doing.

Skills aren’t pills. Skills aren’t, “take two of these and call me in the morning.” They aren’t, “this exercise, this number of sets, this number of reps, and that’s the answer to everyone’s world.”

If it were, then the “formula” would have been known, don’t you think?  It takes experimentation to find your own way because we all have different “coordination.”

Your body is “coordinated” internally. Since you were a lad, you’ve been laying down myelin in the name of faster neural connections, you’ve been stimulating movement pathways, you’ve been teaching your body to work a certain way on every physiological front.

Got stubborn body fat?

You told it to be there.

Want to gain muscle?

Tell it to be there.

To change how your body works, you have to teach it how to rework. Just like you teach your fingers how to find their way around violin strings.

You’re permanently altering the way your body functions. If you didn’t do the training, the adaptations wouldn’t otherwise happen.

And the thing with this: everyone starts with a different level of coordination (from a combination of genetics and a life of experiences – the latter being just as out of control as the former, as no five year old consciously thinks about laying down myelin and altering internal physiology).

So you learn how to build muscle. You learn how to make your muscles more fast twitch. You learn how to mobilize stored body fat as your primary energy source.

Just as with a violin, you don’t learn overnight. If you're a bit more “coordinated” (if you have some musical experience) you might learn quicker. If you don’t even know what a G-clef is (I didn’t prior to googling it for this article), you’ll take longer. You have to create (or optimize) an entirely new set of neural pathways and slowly reteach your physiology to function in a performance-body fat burning way, as opposed to a sedentary-fat building way.


So although the act of squatting and mastering exercises is simple, your body and its physiology is learning how to coordinate all of the systems to work in a way that's best for your goals — it's gaining a skill. The body is an emergent system: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You’re not only learning how to contract your muscles more, you’re learning what muscles to relax, you’re laying down myelin for certain neural pathways, you’re learning how to release more hormones, you’re learning how to mobilize energy.

It doesn’t just flip overnight. Your internal workings don’t change upon “popping a pill.” Your body works a certain way during your first training session ever, and a completely different way during your firs training session of your second total year of your training.

You slowly learn how to coordinate a subset of procedural pieces to learn the “whole skill.” It's more than muscle, just as playing the violin is more than muscle.

So the question — the moral — is twofold:

1)  If I told you that you had to learn a butterfly twist, whatever trick, or even play the violin, how would you go about it? And then how does this differ than how you're trying to reteach your physiology for muscle building, fat loss, explosiveness, or whatever…? Is an eight week program really enough?

2) Given that everyone has a different initial level of “coordination,” are you relying on advice from those with a different initial skill subset — one that's totally different than what you have? Are you listening to someone about body composition that's been lean their whole life? Are you asking someone strong how to strength train for tricking that's never done anything in the realm of losing all visual-perceptual-kinesthetic awareness, and only hangs around a barbell?

It's about  learning, or, at least you should think of it as learning. Everyone learns differently. Everyone needs different tips, different methods.

Your progress is yours. You can't compare how fast you learn to how fast someone else learns. It takes some longer than others, and that's just life. That's coordination.That's skill.

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brandon July 30, 2013, 1:36 pm

    Nice. I totally agree. I have mastered the “Skill” of eating whatever my heart desires (when I’m not fasting). I have to “practice” to retrain my body. I’ve been working out consistently for 5 weeks now, but when I come off of a fast, I feel as if I ruin all the work with the stuff I eat. Exercise+fasting+eating right=results I’m looking for. Right now, that equation isn’t completely in line. But I have to “train” to change that. As with almost everything else….It’s All Mental. Thanks for the read.

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 12:03 am

      You’re welcome.

  • Yannick Noah July 30, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Hi Ant, i have one question. Does it mean that, for example, for back squatting you are still in the process of mastering the skill as you put on more weight from time to time, as when you squat maximally the skills needed is different than squatting with light weight? If the answer is yes, does this mean that exercise variety is not necessarily needed, as mastering the skill is the priority here? I am assuming that mastering a particular skill means a particular exercise as well. Please correct me if i am wrong. thanks!

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 12:04 am

      Exercise variety isn’t needed although it can help at times. I’m not sure I understand your question though.

  • Monty July 30, 2013, 2:43 pm

    Pavel mentions treating each training session as practice, not as workout. My best gains came when I embodied this mentality, with each training session lasting 30 minutes or less. The only equipment I had was a 40lb kettlebell, a chin up bar and my body weight.
    It was only when I gained access to adjustable barbells that my ego began to get in the way of the development of “strength as a skill.” I began to see the movement of the weight as an end in itself, rather than a means.
    Each rep trains the nervous system. Sloppy, rushed reps generate sloppy and rushed patterns in the nervous system. Calm, controlled reps generate calm and controlled patterns in the nervous system.
    Arthur Jones said it perfectly, “there is a difference between lifting more and actually getting stronger.”
    Treating my training as skill development allowed me to get stronger, while simply trying to lift more made me weaker and less controlled.
    Awesome post, thank you.

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 12:04 am

      Thanks for the awesome reply.

  • Traindom July 30, 2013, 3:57 pm

    It’s interesting that you mention how sometimes the process sucks. It makes me wonder about the whole “love the process, not the results” thing. Would people in love with, say, tricking just have days or even weeks where they think it sucks donkey ass, perhaps more so in the beginning? Does the brunt of the satisfaction come from progress?

    I wonder because I don’t know how realistic “I love each and every single day of the process.” is. Especially say in the beginning of skill-attaining. When I started the guitar, my fingers were all awkward. I wanted to quit. Thanks to my mother, I pushed forward and became a decent guitar-player. But the beginning sucked ass. If I had applied the process thing, I would have been led to believe I should quit. But I didn’t and I actually liked playing the guitar.

    I believe that with skill-attaining, there will always be initial awkwardness, which will suck no matter how in love. What are your thoughts?

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 12:05 am

      I think that all skills need deliberate practice, and that always involves showing up at times when you don’t want do.

      • Traindom August 6, 2013, 12:11 am

        I think that’s something people should be aware of because some ideals can be potent dream killers. It’s good to know.

        Thanks for the reply!

  • Jean-Luc July 30, 2013, 4:44 pm

    Thank you for this awesome advice. 🙂
    Love your way to see things!

  • Aaron July 31, 2013, 2:35 am

    Love this post Anthony. Read it today on break at work and it just really hit home. I work at a hospital and I cant tell you how many people come in expecting us to work miracles on them. Actually dealt with an 84 year old lady, not the sweet Grandma type, in the ER today right before reading the post who was saying she wants to live to be 100 as long as we don’t mess it up. Myself and all of us at work just had to roll our eyes back and bite our tongue because sometimes we can’t say how we truly feel. When i went back and read the post I just had a huge smile on my face like you were watching over me or something. Anyways, the point of this being, its not us who are the miracle workers, its yourself and how well you take care of yourself. Pills are definitely not the answer and can in fact make it even worse in the long term.

    I’m no angel though, love my pre workout mixes right before a good session, but to each his own. Keep up the strong work Anthony!

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 6:30 pm

      Thanks for the reply. Heh, old grandma.

  • Sebastian July 31, 2013, 10:46 am

    I’m curious about the implication of applying this logic to bodybuilding. Obviously it makes sense for sports (strength based and otherwise) to just literally practice what you’re trying to do. But how do you KNOW for example, that doing laterals a certain way is making your deltoids grow? Its not the same as strength where you either lift the weight or you don’t. Add in that most people only train each body part once a week and do three to four reps per body part and our chances of really knowing fall even further, I mean I know you’re going to know if your muscles are bigger in six months but in real time how can we truly know we’re mastering the correct skill and not ingraining bad habits?

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 12:07 am

      I’m not a bodybuilder, first off.

      For your main question, you’d have to think that there’s no “bad” habit, just something that isn’t conducive to your goal. And that would obviously take time to realize, or some kind of short term feedback like soreness. IE: do a lateral raise one way to exhaustion, see where you’re most sore.

  • Pelham32 August 7, 2013, 6:26 pm

    What are you saying Anthony?… That I’ll be able to dodge bullets?!…

    • Anthony August 8, 2013, 6:54 pm

      Why dodge when you can stop them with your teeth?

  • Abz August 14, 2013, 3:33 pm

    Well done. It’s kind of a Matrix type article. Forgive me if I’m being geeky here. This is a nicely articulated way of bridging the understand of the mind body connection. It’s all learned. Mind coupled with the body. Practice. All the things the saints, sages, mystics said but we just need a bit of science to prove it to ourselves. Yay! But it’s just becoming more obvious how individuals like you that get the big picture are linking it all back together in a way we can incorporate it into our lives. Just tells me the world is getting better not the latter like the rest of the world may think. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Best of luck.

    • Anthony August 14, 2013, 7:40 pm

      I try. And replies like these are the reason why, although I don’t think I have much figured out. I just spew nonsense and hope people resonate.