One of the distinguishing features of CrossFit is the amount of skills we practice and aim to master. Arguably, no other exercise routine has as many movements in its repertoire. This is, by far, my favorite part of working out because it challenges me in different ways than the traditional training (sitting on machines or moving free weights aimlessly, looking for physical changes in the body). But to master skills we must go through the 4 stages of learning.

If you are undertaking any new activity, going from beginner to master, you will go through these 4 stages. Obviously, it is not necessary to go to a “master” level on all activities but health and fitness should be a priority, and the more in tune you are with your body the more fitness potential you will have. And the best way to move up from stage to stage starts with acknowledging where you stand. Each stage requires different steps and have their own obstacles.


Stage 1- Unconscious Incompetence

This is where everybody starts when learning a new skil. Commonly referred to as “you don’t know what you don’t know” stage. The main goal here is introduction to new movements or actions, but mostly importantly, we want people to understand the importance and benefits of such movements. Beginning with foundational, or basic exercises, we want people to understand the basic mechanics of their bodies and how and why to move in certain ways.

People can get stuck in this stage if they do not see the benefit or relevance of certain skills, if they don’t know those skills exist or if they don’t know they are deficient in an area needed for that skill. Most of these can be fixed by awareness work. None to little action is actually needed to move on from this stage to the next one.

Most people spend way too much time on stage 1. Not because they don’t know what the skill is, but due to lack of knowledge of why they can’t perform such skill. Too often people are quick to say “oh, I can’t properly do toes to bar (just an example), therefore I will stick to hanging knee raises”. In this case, the person mentioned makes no effort in attempting to figure out why that skill is hard for them or what they can do to improve at it.


Stage 2- Conscious Incompetence

This is where magic happens. Stage 2 is characterized by knowing what you are not good at, and most importantly, knowing what to do to get better at that skill. The movement hasn’t become any easier than it was at stage 1, but now the athlete is actively working on improving those skills. They value what the movement would bring to their overall health and fitness and they understand the importance of mastering the skill.

It takes time to move from this stage to the next one. Creating competence on any given skill takes time, effort and knowledge. Most of the time spent on the way to the 4th stage will be spent here. That is because there are many obstacles that can keep people from moving to stage 3. Lack of strength, lack of body control, lack of endurance, lack of mobility, injuries, self-doubt, and lack of a good coaches are a few examples of those obstacles.


Stage 3- Conscious Competence

The athlete has now learned the skill and can perform it on command. They will be able to do them, but might have a hard time teaching the skill. They can perform the movements when rested, focused and not rushed. For most people, this is as far as they will go on most skills learned. Usually because many of us are okay with being competent and don’t bother to put in the extra time if we already know how to do something.

Olympic Weightlifting is a good example in CrossFit. We get good enough to where we can safely and efficiently move some lighter to moderate loads for a few reps, but when we attempt heavier weights or reps in a chaotic environment, technique fails us. The biggest asset to help you move to stage 4 is a good coach. Conscious practice of small details over a long period of time will get athletes to the last stage.


Stage 4- Unconscious Competence

The skill now has become “second nature”. Little concentration is required for the athlete to perform the movement. An example for most of us is driving a car. We can (but shouldn’t) perform other tasks while driving and it can be safely and efficiently done even if we are tired. When we reach stage 4 for certain skill, it has become an automatic response to a task.

Reaching this stage does not mean the skill will be mastered for life. Just like everything else, “you don’t use it, you lose it”. So it is important to keep working on all skills, making sure you are training them in a way that fits their position in the 4 stages of learning. The more skills you have in this stage, the biggest control and impact you will have in your health and fitness.


Each skill is in a separate stage of learning. Even for skills that are somewhat similar, like being¬† unconsciously competent in air squats but consciously incompetent in overhead squats. So it’s important to be self-aware in all movements. Just because you’ve been working out for years, it doesn’t mean you are competent in every movement, or most for that matter.

If you need help figuring out in which stage you are with certain movements, or how to progress to the next learning stage, come chat with one of your Celebration Crossfit coaches today!


by Coach Matt