4 Stages of Exercise Mastery
4 Stages of Exercise Mastery
For several months Karl and Jack, two of my young adult athletes, were working towards medicine ball push throws without my providing a visual prompt. In a session not too long ago, I pulled myself out of our typical throwing circle and let the guys push throw to one another. I stood back, only providing a count total for the throws each athlete performed. We’ve reached mastery. In fitness and movement, mastery means that we are able to take the skills developed and use them outside the confines of the gym, adapted PE setting, or wherever training takes place. There are four stages of mastery for physical fitness; Introduce, Improve, Master, and Generalize.
STAGE 1: Introduce
The primary goal when introducing exercise programs is to pair them with reinforcement, taking new and potentially frustrating tasks and adding a component of enjoyment. I don’t care how much of a strength or motor deficit my new athlete has when they begin a program, if they are motivated to participate we earn numerous opportunities (more time, more repetition) to strengthen, stabilize, and enhance. Introduction is where we say “Let’s try this,” and provide an opportunity to succeed by meeting the athlete at their current skill level.
The introduction phase is where we assess. In the PAC Profile approach we’re looking at physical, adaptive, and cognitive functioning as they relate to exercise. Within the first few hurdle steps we know whether an individual will require a regression (lower hurdles) or can perform some type of progression (higher hurdles or adding another movement such as a jump). Introduction is where we set up an environment that leads to success as much as possible, because each activity is specifically regressed or progressed based on what we learn of the athlete. Do they need extra incentive beyond behavior-specific praise (i. e. a break or access to a preferred activity)? What type of prompt do they need to successfully complete the activity?
STAGE 2: Improve
Once we have a baseline understanding of what our athletes can do, we can program accordingly. What will it take for this athlete to master a particular activity? Many of my athletes spend a long time squatting to an elevated Dynamax ball to improve their squatting pattern (low body strength, stability, and hip flexibility). Eventually we can lower the ball (I favor stacking the ball on cardio step risers) and increase the challenge of the activity. As the athlete becomes more proficient with the activity (strength, stability, and motor patterning improve), we can fade our prompts; the extra nudge we provide for them to get it just right. We can also begin increasing the demand (progression) by adding resistance, repetition, more movement, or a longer duration of activity.
Improvement is individual, many of our ASD and special needs athletes will need lots of practice at the same level of challenge before they can progress. The most insight I can provide on this aspect is to always meet the athlete at their current level and progress as they demonstrate improvement. This takes time, yes, but it’s all about them (incidentally I have my own coach, the Great Joe Olivo, to help me progress with squats and everything else).
STAGE 3: Master
When we are able to step back and provide as little coaching as possible is when we know our coaching has been successful. Mastering an exercise target means that the athlete can perform this skill on his/her own without extra prompting. I favor the “10 foot rule” wherein I can request an athlete perform an exercise and they are able to follow the directions and complete it independently. Want to improve chances that fitness will be a lifetime pursuit? Get to this phase.
There are different points of mastery, ranging from a stage of an exercise (being able to perform 10 push throws from 5’ away) to mastering an exercise all-out (being able to perform 10 push throws from 20’ away is always an accomplishment and proof of higher order adaptation). It has been my overwhelming experience that at mastery phase the individual oddly, mysteriously, actually enjoys that particular exercise. Hmm, we enjoy things we’re good at. New concept.
STAGE 4: Generalize
Among the ASD population generalization, or the performance of a skill moving from just one environment to several (appropriate) ones, is the pinnacle achievement. This is a common area of difficulty with social and movement abilities. There is also a parallel with the general population; the stuff we do in the gym should always, first, enhance our abilities outside of the gym. In addition to the health benefits of well-developed strength and movement training programs, the increased physical aptitude should translate or carry-over to real world situations.
Proper squatting can alleviate low back pain and help us pick things up/put them down, and negotiate a flight of stairs. Those push throws I keep mentioning can aid in carrying things around the house and in trunk stability for healthy posture. If success starts in the gym/adapted PE setting, it is proven everywhere else.
Introduce, Improve, Master, and Generalize: Each of these will be different among individuals and will likely vary for each exercise (astounding rope swings but regressed overhead throws are common). Use these as a flow chart or if/then contingency when deciding where to start, what goals to set, and how to make sure they are carried out effectively and as supportive an environment as possible.
Eric Chessen, M.S., is the Founder of Autism Fitness. An exercise physiologist with an extensive ABA background, Eric consults with families, educators, and fitness professionals around the world. Eric works with his athletes in the NY metro area and is the author of several E-books. Visit AutismFitness.com for more information.
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- Turning Physical Fitness into Fun for Life
This post originally appeared on our July/August 2016 Magazine