Do you remember the first time you squatted with a barbell? I don’t know the details of my first squat. I couldn’t tell you where I was, what weight I added to the bar that day, or if I had a friend to help me. I definitely can’t remember what my squat looked like, but the impression of its feeling has always stayed with me. The feeling of being confused, shaky, and unsettled. The feeling of not knowing how to place my body and how to stay centered. The feeling of falling through space without control.
I had a very rudimentary understanding of the biomechanics and the appropriate feeling of the movement because I was learning a new motor skill. I was in what’s been called the cognitive phase of learning a skill. In my mind, there was a rough outline of how to squat. I had to think about every step as I went through it consciously. The movement had no fluidity because I was trapped and slowed by my inner verbal direction.
In the first stage of learning a skill or movement, you can think only about the current and next steps of the movement. There’s no room for evaluating or feeling the quality of anything – not your body and not your state of consciousness.
How We Learn
In the study of motor learning as it’s traditionally taught in formal education, there are three phases to what’s called skill acquisition:
The first is the cognitive phase described as the stage in which someone is trying to understand what to do. The person is gathering information, both from verbal and visual feedback. Movement quality is inconsistent, stiff, and disconnected. The second is called the associative phase, where there is less of a need for verbal information and feedback. Here you begin to shift from thinking through each step to processing how to feel the movement itself. You are now able to put conscious effort toward improvement in quality rather than scrambling to remember each step. The action is still processing, but small improvements can happen in this stage. The last is called the autonomous phase. This phase is where movement is automatic, as the label implies. There is less conscious effort and more reflexive, natural movement during this stage. You don’t think about what you’re doing, you move fluidly through the action and feel the quality. These ideas of motor learning and skill acquisition have been more developed, but these original ideas provide an excellent framework to understand learning skills.
Learn As You Integrate
As with almost anything in this world, learning the skill to squat brings with it other layers of progress. Learning to squat is all about making connections in the brain and body as you move through that first phase of skill learning. But after this, you have to practice well and practice often to advance farther.
If you’re going to practice often, you need a place to do it and a group of people to support you. You need to practice with a community. This like-minded community will be a natural pull that you will feel. Those who don’t find their group hardly ever keep their practice long-term.
Once you reach the associative phase, you begin authentic practice. And, without being consumed by instruction, you can enjoy the experience of the practice with others. That’s where the camaraderie begins. Squatting becomes a social event.
Sometimes, when groups come together for this socializing, they join in a friendly competition. Sometimes they encourage each other as they share this practice. Other times, one or two of the more experienced lifters will try to perform for the less experienced. In this group, you share a passion and feel a sense of belonging toward a mutual pursuit. Here, squatting is no longer just physical mechanics, its about the spirit between the people sharing a focused experience.
Move Beyond Attachment
After years of consistent, focused training, you will have reached a state where people look to you as an authority in squatting. They’ll come to you with questions, admire you for your perseverance and ability, and give you a status in the community. You’ll have won confidence not just in your ability to squat, but in your competence to affect change in your own life. And when you build success and reach a goal in one area of your life, it compounds to more goals in all areas of your life.
You’ve built self-respect and self-confidence. Even more importantly, you’ve created a feeling of self-reliance, so you no longer need constant support and help from your peers. For the most part, you have mastery over the practice, and with this, a further grade of experience begins.
As you train, your mind can become still. It’s no longer frantically thinking and adjusting through the mechanics of squatting or of what your peers think of you. You can feel quality and make adjustments based on feelings, not thoughts. It’s a type of intuition that develops, and it frees the mind to turn off its thinking faculty and dissolve into a sort of still awareness. The movement integrates into your being. You don’t think about the facets of the movement, you understand them. This is an excellent place to be, but there’s more.
Immersed In the Feeling
As confidence and mastery grow, squatting becomes very elemental in your mind. Squatting is no longer anything but squatting. It’s not a demonstration of relevance or status; it’s the practice and expression of movement for its own sake. It becomes an authentic practice in this sense. A reflective discipline and gateway to reach a flow state, by definition, is a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity fully immerses in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.
How you develop in one area of your life is how you evolve through everything. You can reach a place where you are no longer trying to impress anyone, prove anything, or reach some status. Your only focus is understanding and attaining your potential. When this becomes your aim, your mind is relieved from the pressure of trying to produce a favorable outcome. The constraints you put on yourself because of that stress are gone. You become enthralled in the process.
This focus happens with all lifting and movement practices. It can be understood clearly and summed up in learning and developing in just one move, like the squat. Squat training becomes about the feeling of quality and freeing the spirit. And that’s a place where you learn happiness. This is the place where you’re not trying to control or perform for a goal or a prize.
You find out that all you need for this is in yourself, in the moments where you move your body without thought. You see that all the fulfillment and assurance you need is found in yourself, not in impressing others. Experience the moment—don’t judge it, don’t label it, be in it, and be at peace with it. Being present in the moment teaches you how you can live every moment and the potential in each of us.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.