I consider most movements a skill. The vast majority of us do not squat, hinge, press, carry or pull with almost no teaching or cueing. Many coaches consider strength a skill as well. Why? Moving a significant load in any way inside the gym requires a firm grasp of form. You may see someone bench press 300 pounds but if you consider that their butt was so high you could drive a car underneath, they bounced the weight off their chest and the spotter grabbed it before lockout, can you really say that the movement was a bench press? Maybe a reactive sternum-bounce to hip-thrust and partner hand-off "press".
Now, these sort of form errors come from the body always trying to find the path of least resistance. Not strong enough to press 300? Well, maybe we can shorten the range of motion by bridging the hips. Ok, that helped. Now lets drop the bar so it bounces and we can use that momentum to help carry us through a sticking point. Nice, that worked also. What if we had someone stand over us and pull on the bar when we could no longer push it any further. Great, movement complete.
However, the ability to control the bar's descent, keep the hips planted and continue driving through tough sticking points requires awareness, practice, self-control, motor programming and some sort of audio, visual or kinesthetic awareness to know how to correct a compensation.
I would consider all of the above traits parts of the whole that make up a skill.
When most people want to improve a skill, it comes down to a certain movement, so lets consider all strength training barbell movements skills as well as pushups, pullups, bear crawls, handstands and heck, even planks.
One of the reasons the sled or Prowler is so popular is because it requires little skill to learn and is self-limiting. Most of us will inherently find a lower center of gravity to push under a heavy load, we'll stay on the balls of our feet (not everyone) and will simply STOP PUSHING when we can't anymore. It makes so much sense to use this equipment because it is wildly loadable, easy to learn, useful in groups and sort of fun and terrible at the same time.
However, in higher skill movements, there are a few enemies to proper movement learning and execution:
The number one killer in my opinion to learning a new movement or improving a skill. The first thing to take a hit while fatigued is motor control, followed by power, strength and then endurance. That's why you can keep pushing through with crappy form on pushups because your local muscular endurance can usually give "a little more". Combined with some sort of compensation, it can be typical to see someone accumulate 20 pushups despite not being able to perform ONE properly.
2. Improper Regressions or Progressions
Continuing on the above, most people cannot step into the gym for the first time ever a perform a quality pushup from the ground. Starting there is a sure-fire way to stay stagnant and never get stronger in the right areas. You know how your shoulder and low back always hurt? I would look here first.
3. Improper Loading
Not as big of a problem with women as men. I blame society for this one. Men expect themselves to be able to do anything, anytime. When we can't, it drives us crazy. It's why we blow out our backs when trying to impress friends after drinking a 6-pack. It's why my mom's co-workers ended up in our basement during a party bench-pressing because they wanted to see who was strongest. While they were drunk. Sigh.
Either way, choosing the wrong load will lead to a lack of motor control, some sort of movement compensation and performed over time, leads to a movement always being performed poorly, even when the weight is light, because that is how it was learned.
4. Too much too soon
This is the "i just watched the Olympics and want to start gymnastics training". So pullups, kips, handstands, rope climbs and anything else that may have been ok on its own is now creating a sum larger than the parts. This is the perfect storm of the above 3. And anyone training for a significant amount of time is usually guilty. Myself included.
I remember wanting to get better at sprinting and would sprint every day. Unbearable sore hamstrings and hip flexors? Aching arches? Fatigue that impacted all my squatting and deadlifting? Not getting ANY better at sprinting? Check to all.
How to Improve Skills (without destroying yourself)
By no means a comprehensive list, we'll at least tackle the above issues.
1. Be fresh
No, not eat fresh, Subway is gross. "Be" fresh. This means performing a movement or skill you want to learn or improve when you are NOT tired. It is why coaches have new clients squat before pushing a sled. New skills require focus, awareness, strength, stability and mobility all which can be adversely affected when tired.
I know, I know. There is always someone who can perfectly execute movements under fatigue. I guarantee that person learned them early, practiced them often, got very strong and made them a priority in their training to get where they are now.
2. Choose the proper regression or progression
I'll just be blunt. If you can't perform ONE pullup, trying to perform ONE pullup every time you want to practice pullups is akin to doing a 1 rep max. Not only will it frustrate you but you won't get stronger, you'll beat up your joints and almost certainly squirm around like you sat on a tack.
This may mean performing band assisted pullups, TRX Pullups or possibly just getting stronger at rowing variations first. If you can't perform a proper TRX row, a pullup just aint happening.
3. Proper loading
You know why the goblet squat is so great? It's JUST enough weight to help you learn good technique. Mel Siff describes loading as crucial in new skill development because loads that are too light do not activate enough musculature to fire stabilizing muscles and give feedback. Loads that are too heavy are often imbalanced and lead to compensations.
Goblet squats are great because you'll always be limited by what you can hold, so the load won't get too heavy for the lower body. But the load is enough to require proper thoracic extension, anterior core activation, foot position, good squatting mechanics and a "medium" amount of strength. My typical train of thought for a new person whom I've never assessed assumes they'll fall somewhere on the spectrum from TRX-assisted squats to barbell back squats (or overhead squats if you want to go all the way). Plugging them into the proper place on the spectrum ensures success from the start.
4. Not being the Jackson Pollack of training
Yeah, doing everything with no semblance of planning sounds great, but it looks like a complete mess.
Here's some great ways to improve a skill in and around your current training:
1. Practice with low loads on off days
Dave Tate has said that anything under 50% is considered skill work to him. For general strength training I agree. Somewhere in that ballpark % is like the goblet squat: enough load to build skill but not so much as to cause ugly technique.
Recently, a client at the gym needed some help with his deadlift form. We discussed practicing the deadlift on his off days at home with low weight, like 100lbs. Lo and behold, I don't see him deadlift for two weeks and when I finally do, it has drastically improved. He removed himself from fatigue and improper loading and got rapidly better. Go figure.
2. Implementing the skill on alternate training days
I love the pullup. I've done them daily, with heavy loads, high reps, you name it. I've found that if I perform them on most of my upper body days, the accumulated fatigue of all the pulling and rowing either hurts my pullup performance or fatigues my pressing. However, performing them more frequently on my lower body days leaves me feeling fresh and I know it is the ONLY upper body lift I have to do that day so I can give it full focus.
I also program exercise for clients similarly. If they need to really work on a movement like rows, they might get them between squats. If they need more squatting work, thy might get goblet squats after a DB press. There are no hard and fast rules. I simply pair an exercise that needs to be performed more often with an exercise they are already well-versed in.
3. Taking more warmups
135lbs and then working sets. Yep, this happens all the time. What happened to benching the bar? What happened to 95lbs? Once again, all the warmups contribute to skill building and motor programming, as well as exercise volume. If the surest way to get to my working sets was just throwing it on the bar from the get-go, I would. But you know, I also put my car in 1st before I put in 4th, and there is a reason for that.
The last powerlifting meet I attended, Vinny Dizenzo benched around 600lbs. And HE started with the bar. Now don't tell me you don't need to bench the bar when your max is 185.
If a lifter does not have a high max in a certain lift, there needs to be a way to build volume to learn technique, build some muscle and correct form errors. After all, who wants to find out their shoulder hurts when the first set you take is 90%?
Let's say you could deadlift 300. Your working weight for the day is 85%, which is 255lbs.
Warmup 1: 135lbs x 2 sets of 5
Warmup 2: 175lbs x 1 set of 5
Warmup 3: 215lbs x 1 set of 3
First working set at 255lbs
For a newer lifter, I might even have them perform a 4th warmup snuck in there somewhere just to hammer form. If the reps are low, you won't be tired by the time you get to your working sets. As you improve and get stronger, your jumps can be bigger and you'll inherently know which weights to take for warmups.
Utilize on of the methods above to start. Learning a skill is similar to learning algebra, picking up a foreign language etc. Practicing them often, while your fresh and not going too advanced too soon are some of the cornerstones of improvement. Be honest with yourself as well, if you know your form need work (as in someone always comments on it), then take the time to get it better, you'll be doing yourself a favor.
For bodyweight exercises, I do think they can be performed daily as long as the reps and sets are started in a manageable place and increased with common sense. I really like Chad Waterbury's PLP system for improving my pullups and pushups. I did find that daily pushups eventually fatigued me too much for my bench press but never had that problem with pullups.
The system basically has you starting between 1 and 5 reps of the movement on day one. If you can perform 5 pullups, you might just start with one. if you can perform ten pullups, you might start with 5 or even 6.
Each day has you repeating the movement but you add one rep every day. So if day one was 2 reps, day two is 3 reps, day three is four reps etc. The movement is usually performed in the last amount of sets possible, I always stopped the set if things got squirrely and finished my reps on the second or third set.
So, when the time came to perform anywhere between 25 and 35 pullups a day ( a couple weeks in), I would do sets of 8 or 9, even if I could bang out 12, just so formed stayed consistent and I didn't burn myself out the first set.
I think the system has merit, I'll just say a few things. One, if you can't perform ONE pullup, start with a different variation like TRX pullup or even rows. Don't hang at the bottom either, going that extra inch won't get you any stronger and you'll save your shoulders and elbows some stress. For either movements, if they start interfering with normal training, just stop. There is certainly a point of diminishing returns; don't dig yourself down into that hole.