The Contextual Interference Effect in Training, Learning, and Skill Acquisition

By on May 22, 2021
Contextual interference effect

Training of any sort can be boiled down to exposing yourself to stress, so as to prepare for real challenges that life (or sport) might throw at you. Learning, likewise, is committing to memory the information you may later require. In either case, this tends to involve “segmenting” and isolating specific activities and stimuli. The problem is that, according to the contextual interference effect, this may actually be limiting our gains.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Contextual Interference Effect and Why Does it Matter?

When strength training, for example, we tend to pick a single movement and rehearse it over and over. This can be useful for hypertrophy (building muscle) as it allows us to isolate a specific area and thus take it to the point of fatigue. It’s also a great way to initially memorize a skill and commit it to (motor) memory.

Contextual interference effect in training

But what this type of training doesn’t do, is truly reflect the way you use those muscles and movement patterns in the real world. The worst offenders are movements that also isolate a single muscle group. Slightly better are more compound movements, like the squat or the band press.

See also: Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training

But regardless of how “functional” the movement you’re performing is, we don’t typically use any movements in isolation in the real world. Instead, we flow and move between movements in response to the dynamically changing environment. And this is where the contextual interference effect comes in; instead we should try mixing up the movements and exercises during our workouts.

This extends to sports training: if you’re practicing shooting hoops for a 10 minute slot, a type of practice described as “chunking,” you risk learning only to throw those hoops under ideal circumstances from a standing position, while “primed.” This is why the “contextual interference effect” is so interesting. This shows us that practicing movements out of sequence is actually superior for skill acquisition and retention in the real world. So, perhaps you take a shot, practice some dribbling, take another shot, do some running, and do a bit more shooting.

What Does the Research Say?

A review of the literature surrounding the contextual interference effect (source) sums this up nicely:

The contextual interference effect is a well-established motor learning phenomenon. It refers to the interference that is experienced when practicing multiple skills, or variations of a skill, within a single practice session (Shea and Morgan, 1979). Low contextual interference practice typically produces better performance during practice, whereas high contextual interference practice leads to better performance during retention and transfer tests (for reviews, see Magill and Hall, 1990Brady, 19982004Barreiros et al., 2007).

It is worth mentioning, at this point, that studies find varied results when testing the phenomenon. This could be due to the complexity of the concept: what counts as “out of sequence?” The effect may also vary based on the skill of the individual (what stage of learning are they in currently?), the nature of the task, etc. It’s also interesting to note that performance during training actually gets worse where contextual interference is present. But that’s probably just because this type of training is harder (performance on the squat is worse when the bar is heavier, too!).

Another study (source) concludes that we should seek to “manipulate the contextual continuum.” In short, we should train both ways.

How the Contextual Interference Effect Enhances Skill Acquisition and Learning

The contextual interference effect could be explained partly by “spaced learning” – taking breaks between an activity actually helps us to better learn that activity. That is to say, that if you have 30 minutes to practice, you are better off dividing that practice into 3 x 10 blocks, with rest in between (study). This has been demonstrated in numerous studies, and could be due to focus and energy. Moreover, it might be that the act of “starting up from cold,” and bringing tasks into working memory, is part of the challenge. Frequency may simply be an important factor in learning.

cues in learning

The contextual interference effect can also be explained simply as the SAID principle in action (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). We get better at what we repeatedly do and we should train the way we intend to perform. Seeing as we perform “out of sequence,” we should therefore also train out of sequence.

A basketball player needs to be able to intercept a pass, dribble the ball, and then shoot for the hoop. To do this, they must switch between skills without incurring a “task switching penalty” and they must account for things like momentum and fatigue. THIS is what we need to train. This may help to build what Nicolai Bernstein refers to as more “robust” movement patterns.

(I don’t play basketball, so apologies if that was nonsense… you get the point!)

Finally, contextual interference may simply require more focus. Switching from one task to another is more challenging and less boring. That means you pay attention. And attention leads to plasticity, as Dr. Andrew Hunerman explains perfectly in his podcasts.

What Does This Mean for Your Own Training?

So, how do we apply this idea to training?

If we regard strength as a skill, as Pavel Tsatsouline says we should, then we could extend this logic to something like the squat. Those more interested in perfect form, and the strength that comes from that (rather than big legs or muscle endurance), might do better to train at the start and end of the workout, or in a circuit-like fashion.

Kickthrough Burpee

If you’re interested in learning to perform the handstand, consider mixing that practice up with your planche training and whatever else; rather than subjecting it to a single “block” of training. And athletes and coaches should certainly take note when providing drills.

This is also why I have been gravitating more and more toward hybrid movements and “flows.” If you’ve seen any of my recent videos, you’ll probably have seen me move from a kickthrough, to a burpee, to high knees… This type of training is not only more fun (IMO), but it may benefit from the contextual interference effect and thus help me become stronger in those movements, more quickly.

And of course, the contextual interference effect could also be applied outside of the gym. Whether you’re learning the piano, learning a language, studying for an exam, or anything else. Maybe you should try testing yourself on all your upcoming exams at once?

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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.

4 Comments

  1. Rayyan says:

    Hi, Adam I just wanted you to know that you have written Dr. Andrew “Hunerman” instead of “Huberman”.
    Thought it would help.

    Nice Blog!

  2. Rafael Bucker says:

    This is great, Adam! I’m changing how I train based on this principle.
    Greetings from Brazil!

  3. Nicodemus says:

    Your research is mind opening and helps give me new ideas on ways to train,thank you for that.Keep up the awesom work

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