Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training

By on February 18, 2020

I’ve made plenty of videos discussing the insane amount of physical training that someone would have to engage in to perform Batman’s feats in real life. But while his ridiculous bench pressing and endless endurance are impressive, perhaps what’s even more over-the-top in the comics is his sheer range of skills.

Batman is proficient in everything from lockpicking, to driving, to gymnastics, to engineering, to martial arts. According to some continuities, he’s supposed to know every single martial art in the world by the way. It’s these skills, more than his physical prowess, that allow him to take on far more powerful foes, and even go toe-to-toe with Gods and aliens.

Of course, Batman is a fictional character. But many of us would love to be able to draw from a huge range of different skills as the situation demanded, and to be genuinely prepared for anything as a result.

Many of us would love to be able to draw from a huge range of different skills

As someone who want to improve his martial arts, learn to flip, achieve full planche, increase his jump height, and more – I likewise need any help I can get in order to accelerate my skill acquisition.

So how would someone go about emulating Batman’s amazing skill acquisition in real life? Here, I’m going to discuss N powerful strategies for mastering new skills quickly, just like Batman.

The Basics of Skill Acquisition

Learning a physical skill essentially means forming and strengthening the requisite neural pathways. When we first begin learning a new skill, we must consciously consider every aspect of our posture and movement, resulting in awkward and stilted performance. Each small success results in a slight dopamine hit, which strengthens those relevant pathways with practice. Over time, this allows us to perform more and more of the movement entirely unconsciously and intuitively, which increase efficiency and reaction times.

Neurons brain plasticity

Various psychological models attempt to explain this process, ranging from the Dreyfus Model, which discusses the difference between the highly conscious and rule-oriented novice, and the intuitive and reactive expert. Another popular model used by sports psychologists is the “Process of Learning Motor Skills” postulated by P.Fitts & M. Posner in 1967. This describes three distinct phases: cognitive, associative, and autonomous.

Either way though, the point is that you must first learn the movement, then refine it, until it becomes second nature. Then it just hits all on its own…

Spaced Learning

The first concept I want to discuss is something called spaced learning. Spaced learning essentially means that you are dividing your learning into smaller blocks. Instead of sitting down to revise for an hour then, you would instead break that session into two 30 minute blocks, or four 15 minute ones.

Usually, this is employed when learning factual information, where it has been shown to significantly improve retention (study). The most popular protocol involves repeating the same content three times, but with two 10 minute breaks in between. It is thought that this works by allowing the memories to move from short term memory into long term memory, thereby ensuring that you are actually training your ability to recall that information, and strengthening your access to it. It could likewise have something to do with allowing neural networks to lower their resting potential back to normal again, before being fired up again.  There’s also the simple fact that spaced learning provides a break, allowing you to resume your learning later feeling fresher, as opposed to seeing your results trail off due to diminishing returns.

Spaced learning

What’s really cool, is that this approach also appears to work for motor skill acquisition. In one study, researchers attempted to train postal workers on a new typing task. They divided the participants into groups using various different schedules for learning. Spaced learning groups typically practiced twice a day, whereas control groups practiced once daily. It was found that the spaced learning groups learned the new task faster and achieved lower error rates – even when they studied for less total time (study)!

Spaced learning can help you to more quickly improve your punch technique, or master the planche.

In other words, it can help you to more quickly improve your punch technique, or master the planche. If you are going to be practicing planche progressions as part of a larger workout, it make sense to break up that training into blocks. This could work as part of a circuit, or it could just mean that you use your skill practice at the start and at the end of a workout (though of course, you will be more fatigued toward the end of the workout).

Turkish Getup

This also makes a case for splitting training into multiple blocks throughout the day, rather than doing it all in one go. This is something I’ve been experimenting with heavily lately, with pretty great results. I’ll discuss that more in a post very soon.

This could even benefit strength gains, by allowing a quicker neural adaptation – though of course recovery and overtraining should be managed carefully.

Greasing the Groove

If practicing skills in small blocks throughout the day sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of greasing the groove. Greasing the groove simply means treating strength and performance like skills that you rehearse over and over at any opportunity, without allowing yourself to become fatigued.

Install a pull up bar in your door, then do five pull ups every time you pass through.

The classic example is that in order to become amazing at pull ups, you should install a pull up bar in your door, then do five pull ups every time you pass through. The aim is not to fatigue yourself, but to gain the necessary muscle memory. Each time you engage in that practice, you like up those neural networks, improving your efficiency for intermuscular coordination and muscle fibre recruitment.

Crawls

Greasing the groove is advocated strongly by Pavel Tsatsouline, who recommends that the volume per session should be small, and the intensity light. You are practicing, not training! Sticking between 50-60% of your maximum effort is a good benchmark.

This can be applied to pretty much anything. I’ve used it with great success to improve my strict handstand, but you can also use it to improve your max jump height, your punching technique, your golf swing, your mobility, or pretty much anything else!

Mental Practice

If it’s the neural networks we’ve focussed on, then perhaps we don’t need the physical movement at all? Simply visualizing movement and or some choreography can actually trigger almost the precise same brain activity as though you were rehearsing the movement for real.

Perhaps we don’t need the physical movement at all?

I’ve posted about this in the past, but a great example given in the book The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, is ambidexterity. Imagine writing your name with your dominant hand, and then again with your non-dominant hand. You’ll find it actually takes longer with the non-dominant hand, even though it’s just imagination. This is because you are using many of the precise same neural pathways, in the precise same way.

You can therefore use mental practice as a way to further enhance greasing the groove and spaced learning, without placing more stress on the body. This makes a lot of sense for Batman, who should be severely overtrained.

Believe it or not, even watching people perform the moves you’re trying to learn may be effective in a similar manner. If you are dedicated to learning something quickly: immerse yourself in it fully.

Sleep

That brings me to the topic of sleep: an absolutely crucial process for the solidification of new neural pathways and skills. During sleep, our brain re-rehearses the skills we’ve practiced during the day, it culls unwanted connections, and it moves data into long-term memory. Countless studies support the notion that sleep is crucial for procedural memory formation and strengthening (study).

The future of fitness

This is why more and more athletes are focussed on getting huge amounts of sleep in order to accelerate their learning (see: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker). Of course, this is something that Batman would struggle with due to his rather busy schedule. The best he could hope for would be to maximize the quality of the sleep he got, possibly using methods to increase sleep spindles in the necessary relevant brain regions (study). The number of these high-frequency oscillations appears to correlate with rapid skill acquisition and activity in the motor cortex. Apparently, if we create an association between a sound and our skill practice during the day and then play that sound during the night, we can actually encourage more activation and spindles in the relevant region. Check out the TED Talk from Penny Lewis for more on this.

He might also use meditation techniques such as Yoga Nidra, and/or strategic power napping.

Neuropriming

If you are a regular viewer, you may know that I’ve been experimenting with a neuropriming device called the Halo Sport 2. This is a transcranial direct current stimulation device, that works by running a very low current through the motor cortex, thereby increasing the resting potential of that region. This theoretically helps to increase activity in that area, potentially improving proprioception, muscle fibre recruitment, and efficiency in movement. What’s more, is that it could put the brain into a “super-plastic state,” to thereby help accelerate learning.

You need a lot of height to land a backflip - I need more!

Transcranial direct current stimulation is supported by a lot of research, though the product itself is still relatively new. TDCS is also considered safe, with no studies finding any negative health effects – though there was a significant lack of longitudinal, long-term research. Reportedly it has been adopted by athletes and MMA fighters to positive results, but I’m still in the process of forming my own opinions on it.

Halo Sport 2 Halo Neuroscience

What I can say, is that since my trial period, I have had a number of “breakthroughs” in my calisthenics training that are starting to feel like more than coincidence. However, I can’t say with certainty that this was due to the device, and I definitely need to research more before giving a final review. Still, this is a pretty Batman-esque concept when it comes to enhanced learning!

Some Final Tips for Rapid Skill Acquisition

Here are a few more methods we can use to accelerate skill acquisition further:

  • Don’t get disheartened if you hit plateaus. This is actually a normal part of the learning process, as your brain needs to consolidate existing networks before forming new important connections. Check out my previous video on this subject.
  • Consider supramaximal training: how do you practice something you can’t do at all? The answer is to find ways to help yourself into the movement patterns, in order to begin to form those necessary neural pathways. For instance, you can use momentum to “swing” up into a planche.
  • Try slowing the movement right down, especially using quasi-isometrics. During the cognitive phase this will help you to be conscious of everything your body is doing. During the subsequent stages, this can help you to look out for sticking points, poor technique, etc. Try throwing a super-slow punch – it’s interesting!
  • Train for the traits as well as the skills. If you want to learn handstands for instance, you need shoulder mobility, core strength, shoulder strength, proprioception, and more. These things can be trained separately, and will greatly shorten your time to master the skill.
  • Keep learning: the more you learn, the more BDNF and dopamine your brain produces, increasing plasticity. Theoretically, learning a new skill could help you to progress faster with your regular lifts!

Of course, you are probably not Batman. Therefore, you likely don’t need to be an expert stunt driver AND know every martial art. But if you apply these strategies, then you may be able to progress more quickly than you think in more areas than you imagine.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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