Mind & Body

It's Possible to Practice Too Much

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Allen Iverson may have been onto something when he famously questioned practice. Practice makes perfect, supposedly, but new research suggests that too much practice may hamper performance, especially when it comes to physical tasks.

Practicing Pinching

A recent paper in the journal eLife explored a question with broad implications for sports, musical training, and physical therapy programs: can you over-practice a physical task? To find out, they used a simple physical activity: pinching. Though we rarely think of it this way, pinching is a physical task — it requires muscle activity and little else.

The researchers recruited 121 study participants and gave each of them a device that measured force — think a carnival grip test, but portable — and asked them to grip it between their thumb and forefinger. Then, the participants practiced varying the intensity of their grip to move a cursor across a screen.

Then they practiced...and practiced. On the first day of the test, one group practiced past the point of muscle fatigue — that is, past the point where their maximum grip on the device started weakening. Another group stopped before the point of fatigue. Ultimately, the two groups mastered the task at very different speeds.

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The Effects of Muscle Fatigue

People who worked to the point of muscle fatigue didn't learn faster because they practiced harder. It was actually quite the opposite — they mastered the pinching task more slowly than their peers, both on the day they worked to the point of finger-exhaustion and the day after. The fatigued group had to train for two extra days to catch up to their peers who had trained more moderately.

It's not exactly that fatigue damaged their pinching muscles. We've all felt sore after a workout, but this phenomenon was more than that. It had a mental component. When researchers used magnetic fields on the fatigued participants to disrupt their primary motor cortex — the brain region responsible for learning new motor skills — they learned faster than they did when their motor cortices were working normally.

In other words, muscle fatigue seemed to impact the brain's ability to learn. Perhaps the memory of the fatigue made the brain less open to or efficient at learning the task; it's hard to track the exact mechanism.

Interestingly, though, mental fatigue didn't inspire the same mental block as muscular fatigue. When researchers presented their subjects with a different task that required more mental attention than physical exertion — typing 10 keys in a designated sequence — the subjects who practiced past the point of fatigue didn't master the task any more slowly than their peers. Over-practicing was less damaging, researchers theorized, when it came to cognitive tasks.

Of course, this study isn't completely conclusive. For one, it only spanned a few days — working to the point of fatigue could have long-term benefits that the researchers didn't capture. The study also assumes some similarity between training for this pinching challenge and training for more complex physical tasks, but it's unclear how true this is. Basketball, for instance, requires a mix of physical prowess and strategic thinking. It doesn't map neatly onto this pinching or the typing challenge; it's more a mix of both.

Certainly, though, it's worth reconsidering pushing yourself to the limit — not only because there's the risk of injury, but because it might not even work. As Allen Iverson told us all, it's not a game. It's just practice. You can cut yourself some slack.

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For more on how to improve your skills, check out "Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better" by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice March 19, 2019

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