4 People, 4 Stages


Jason is in stage one: Unconscious Incompetence.

Seventeen year-old Jason bench presses four days per week. He does three sets of everything to "hit all the chest muscles" including flat, incline, decline, flyes, dips, and push-ups. His chest workout takes two hours to complete. Meanwhile, his entire back workout consists of three sets of pulldowns.


Martin is in stage two: Conscious Incompetence.

Martin needs to lose 40 pounds. His love handles spill over his jeans and he's beginning to look eight months pregnant. Not a good look for a 35-year-old male. Martin hasn't seen a woman naked for a while.

But Martin is no idiot, and he's not lazy in the gym. He reads articles about diet and nutrition; he knows all about calories, macronutrients, TEF, satiety mechanisms, and the insulin index...

...but he eats tacos, french fries, and ice cream anyway.


But Larry will resist the fat-soaked flour and sugar-bomb dessert... barely. He's in stage three: Conscious Competence.

Larry is in Hell. And Hell, for Larry, is his local Olive Garden, sitting with his wife and family.

In front of him is a basket of steaming hot, butter-glazed breadsticks. Unlimited breadsticks. All-you-can-eat. And Larry has been known to eat a lot of freakin' breadsticks.

To his left is the dessert menu, a laminated fantasy list of culinary porn. Across from him is his wife... who will no doubt order from that dessert menu after she deep-throats a whole basket of those glorious, garlicy breadsticks.

Larry lifts weights and eats right to support his goals. He's lost 20 pounds of lard and he plans to keep it off. But shit, those breadsticks are speaking to him! And what is that on the dessert menu? Black-tie cheesecake with a crust made of chocolate chips? Are you fucking kidding?!


John is in stage four: Unconscious Competence.

John is on vacation. Five days in Ochos Rios at an all-inclusive resort. Sweet.

After check-in, John heads to the gym to check it out. He'll need to train three times while on vacation to keep up with his schedule. This doesn't bother him. In fact, he's looking forward to it. What would bother him is missing a workout.

Next, he and his lovely companion for the week hit the buffet. John loads up on chicken breasts and vegetables and skips the mountain of "all included" desserts. This doesn't bother him either. He's anxious to see how the Jamaicans grill up his chicken. And after that long plane ride, he's salivating for something green and perfectly steamed.

The 4 Stages Defined

Learning Ladder

Sometimes called the "Learning Ladder," the four stages illustrated above are borrowed from the field of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). This concept has been applied to everything from success in business to success with bedding supermodels. Here's a breakdown:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. You're doing something wrong and you don't even know it. Blissful ignorance.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. You're doing something wrong, you know it, but you either can't or won't change.
  3. Conscious Competence. You're doing something right or productive, but it's a struggle. You make the right choices and do the things that will lead you to your goal, but it's a daily mental battle.
  4. Unconscious Competence. You're doing everything right without really having to think about it. The right actions and decisions are now second nature.

Explication and Application for Physique Transformation

What can we learn from each stage? How can we progress to the last, most desirable stage? Let's find out.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

You're screwing up and you don't even know you're screwing up. Well, ignorance may be bliss, but it's also limiting and even destructive.

In the context of bodybuilding and physique transformation, this is often a newbie error. In the example above, 17-year-old Jason is just ignorant: He trains his chest and "mirror muscles" a lot more than he trains his back. He just doesn't know any better.

It's a common mistake, and most newbies learn pretty quickly to correct it. But there are exceptions...

The "Newbie-Vet"

Here's a guy who's been training for over a decade... and is still doing things incorrectly or suboptimally. In some cases this is caused from ingrained habits or the fear of stepping outside the comfort zone.

For example, the newbie-vet may always start his chest/back workout with the bench press and always use a narrower grip because he's a triceps bencher. It would be best if he sometimes began his workout with back training and switched up his grip. But he does it the way he's always done it. It's a habit he doesn't even realize he has, and it could be holding him back or causing imbalances.

This behavior is reinforced because he can bench a lot more with his grip choice. He's comfortable and emotionally safe; his ego is gratified... but his chest development may be suffering since the close grip isn't optimal for pecs. All of this, however, is below his level of conscious awareness. He's stuck in stage one, even though he's been training for years.

The Cure

The cure for unconscious incompetence is often a combination of several things. Education can cure some of it. If you're going to lift weights your whole life, crack a frickin' book occasionally and read this site.

There are 40-somethings out there training the same way their coach showed them in the 8th grade. Unless your coach's name was Vince Gironda, there just might be better ways to train for your current physique goals.

Next, seek an outside push. Get a coach and do what he says. Or adopt a program that's very different than how you've been training: different exercises, different sets and reps, etc.

Force yourself out of your comfort zone. You can't grow and progress without challenge and pressure. A diamond without pressure is a piece of fucking coal.

Even the best coaches, trainers, and nutrition experts in the world seek the teachings of others. Funny how Charles Poliquin and Dave Tate are open to the info and coaching of others in the field, while some shipping clerk on a forum thinks he's a training expert with nothing else to learn. And by "funny" I mean pathetic and sad.

For physique transformation and aesthetic bodybuilding, the cure for unconscious incompetence may involve a photo or video. How many times have "big" guys seen a photo of themselves and suddenly realized that half of their bigness is really just fatness? It's a harsh wake-up call, a cruel but beneficial slap in the face.

Stand up now and take an unflexed, non-sucked-in pic of yourself.

Hint: If you are, at this very moment, thinking of a dozen excuses why you're not going to do this, then what is that telling you?

The lesson here is to force the awakening. Step out of the comfort zone, learn something new, and apply it. There's no excuse for unconscious incompetence.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

You know you're screwing up, but you screw up anyway. In the example in the intro, Martin knew what his problem was and he knew what he had to do to fix it... he just didn't do it.

This is perhaps the most common stage. For example, fat people generally know why they're fat. No one really thinks that fast food and junk food is good for them. Ignorance isn't the issue. Most fatties are conscious of their problem and the things that cause their problem, but they're incompetent because they choose not to do anything about it.

This isn't just a fault of the typical, electric scooter riding, Wal-Mart land whale. It can affect the avid gym-junkie as well. He may know that a deep squat is the best exercise for his particular goals, but he doesn't do it often. It's hard, and he's embarrassed at the load he has to use compared to the half-squat in the Smith machine. He's consciously being incompetent.

He may also know that a properly formulated post-workout drink would greatly accelerate his progress, but he chooses to spend his money on video games and $4 Starbucks coffees instead.

Conscious incompetence is often justified by the individual who's choosing to screw up. He can't squat because he has a bad knee. After all, he tweaked it once playing freeze tag in the first grade. And he can't buy a post-workout drink because it's too expensive. Apparently, $4.25 is fine for a morning coffee, but $2.06 is way too much for a workout drink that would accelerate his gains.

This is known in the field of psychology as rationalization: the process of creating false but plausible excuses to justify negative behavior. I prefer my definition: self-bullshitting.

The Cure

So how do we fix conscious incompetence? I think this is the biggest issue in the fields of health, fitness, and bodybuilding. How do we help people do the things they already know they should be doing? It's like a Zen koan or something.

The solution is probably book-length, but a good first step is to understand the concept of rationalization since this is the most common roadblock. Once you see yourself rationalizing – making excuses to help yourself feel better – it's hard to un-see them. Learning to recognize this ego-defense mechanism was the single most important factor in helping me win the battle against obesity back in college.

The second part of the solution for many people is anger – self-directed anger. Those who fail to achieve their goals are often too soft on themselves. They console themselves, make thin excuses, and reward themselves at every opportunity when they don't really deserve it.

Boo fucking hoo. Get over yourself and get pissed. Recognize rationalization, accept that you're consciously making bad training or dietary decisions, and get mad. Only then can you make it to stages three and four.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

You know what to do, and by golly you're doing it. But man, it's difficult. Every friggin' day is a struggle. You have to really concentrate and work at it.

In our example, we talked about Larry, the poor schmuck stuck at The Olive Garden and trying to order the salmon and veggies while breadsticks and dessert carts are being rolled out in front of him. Larry resists, but it's not easy. He secretly hates those people who "just don't like sweet desserts." He likes desserts, a lot, but he chooses to reach his fat loss goals instead.

Larry is competent. He's making the right decisions, but he has to be conscious of it; he has to work at it. Hard.

The Cure

Most experienced Testosterone readers probably find themselves stuck in the stage of conscious competence. And that's not a bad thing really. They aren't failures at all, but the daily grind and struggle make it easy to slip back to stage two.

Time is often the cure. Avoid shitty foods long enough and you won't want them anymore. Sometimes this can be done in as little as 21 days: a time period most behavior experts agree it takes to kick a habit.

With diet goals, that means that cold turkey is best. Let's take that 21-day example literally (although there can obviously be differences among individuals and individual habits). Okay, so if you avoid fried food for at least 21 days, you'll begin to lose your taste for it. But what if you have a cheat meal of fried food once per week, you know, 'cause you "deserve it" and it "replenishes glycogen or somethin'"?

Well then, you never reach 21 days of cold turkey, do you? In fact, you reinforce the negative behavior by making it special – a reward for being good all week.

The alcoholic doesn't kick booze by rewarding himself with a 12-pack every Saturday. Food addictions work the same way, which is why I now disagree with the idea of all-out cheat meals.

Compliance to a training regimen can work the same way. Not many people enjoy leg training right away... or even a few years later. But you do it long enough and suddenly you don't want to miss a leg day. This is often related to the second progression method: reward.

It's simple: We're likely to repeat those behaviors that reward us. Once a woman grabs your ass and gives you a subtle compliment like, "I want to leave scratch marks on here, stud-boy," well, suddenly squats, deads, and lunges aren't that bad anymore. You've been rewarded, and you aren't about to atrophy those glutes by skipping leg training day.

The more we do things right, the more rewards we receive, and the longer we keep doing things right. Time and reward: the keys to making it past stage three.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

Now you're a "natural." You do the right things almost instinctively.

Our example guy, John, has no problem training and eating right, even on vacation. He prefers it. Bad foods not only hinder his progress, they make him feel awful. He'd rather feel good (reward). And he'd rather not miss a workout; he loves working out! Missing a workout would be punishment.

But John isn't thinking about any of this. He's unconsciously competent. He's making the best decisions because hard training and good dietary habits are who he is now.

To outsiders, he's a natural; maybe they even think he was "blessed with good genetics." But the truth is that John worked his butt off to reach level four. His behaviors, his patterned responses (sometimes called "engrams") are now part of his identity, his personality. He doesn't struggle to make the right choices, he just does... easily.

The Wrap

Hopefully this article was a "thinker" for you. It didn't say to train a certain way or adopt a certain diet, but it gives you some things to think about and apply to your own goals.

You may be consciously incompetent in some areas of your life and unconsciously competent in others. Recognize that and seek to progress from the lower stages where applicable.

The four stages of the learning ladder can be applied to any aspect of your life. It takes work to reach level four, and mental work can be harder than physical work. But it's also the missing element in most people's game.

Stage 4 is waiting.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram