The Matrix Guide to Rapid Skill Acquisition

“I know Kung Fu.”

Neo’s declaration is easily one of the most memorable lines from one of the greatest sci-fi/action movies in nerd history, The Matrix.

If you’ve seen it (and shame on you if you haven’t), I guarantee your head started swarming with possibilities when thinking about all of the skills you’d like to acquire if it were actually possible to download them instantly to your brain.

And come on, who doesn’t want to answer the question, “can you fly that thing?” or “do you know how to do that?” with “not yet!”

Although I’ve already taken a broader look at The Matrix, today I want to show you how I go about channeling my inner Neo to acquire skills as rapidly as possible.

It’s the method that allowed me to do my first muscle up in under an hour with no prior training.  I even give you video proof!

So, let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes!

Identify your desired skill


Neo learned every martial art skill in a matter of minutes by downloading it to his brain like a computer program.

Obviously, we don’t have the ability to plug a USB cable into the back of our melons and learn anything we desire, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a Matrix-inspired approach to skill acquisition.  Come on, we’re nerds. That’s just what we do!

So, start by making a list of things you’d like to learn:

Put whatever you want on your list – you’re only limited by your imagination…and I’m going to guess that you will have no problem thinking up things that make you say “hey, that would be pretty effing sweet if I could do that.”

After you create your list, try to put them into some semblance of an order based on desirability, difficulty, time required, and your current level of physical fitness (or education if it’s not a physical skill).  This might require some research on your part (watch youtube videos, read articles, talk to other people, etc.) to determine your order.

Life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss (whose 4-Hour Workweek was the catalyst for Nerd Fitness) usually picks one physical and one mental skill to master at the same time (so, learning a new language and a new dance style).  If you can handle (and have time) to try and acquire more than one skill, go for it.

However, if you live a full life of working, gaming, exercising, and hanging out with friends/family – you might only have time to learn one skill at a time.  That’s fine; put your focus there, take care of business, and then move onto the next one – there’s always another dragon to slay.

So – start by identifying the skill(s) you want to learn, and then pick one!

Find a mentor or teacher

Once you’ve identified your talent, it’s time to track down your Morpheus – the guy who will “show you the door” to walk through.

This will require research…depending on your budget, it also might require some extra work and creaitivity.

If you have money to spend, there’s no better way to learn a skill in my opinion than finding somebody that can already accomplish the task to teach you personally.

I wanted to learn how to do a muscle up, so last week I trained with Jim Bathurst of because he dominates muscle ups.  Like this. Wow.

Now, I understand that you might live in the middle of nowhere (and there’s no guru anywhere close), you have a very tight budget, and/or you just can’t find anybody to teach you or learn from.  That’s okay!

If you don’t have a teacher present, it’s time to utilize this thing called the Internet.  Apparently they have it on computers now:

  • Want to learn a new language? Start reading and find people on Skype who SPEAK that language and start speaking TODAY.
  • Want to learn parkour? Start reading EVERYTHING you can about it, watch every video you can, join parkour message boards, and so on.  Become a parkour information sponge.
  • Want to learn a gymnastics move? There are tutorials everywhere! EVERYWHERE! Obviously learning by watching videos is less optimal than training in a gym with a pro, but us nerds are pretty resilient and it’s amazing what can be learned without coaching if the dedication and proper effort is applied.

Try to find a coach, either in real life or online, or identify people already accomplishing what you hope to accomplish and learn from them.

Reduce the skill to bite-sized pieces

Most skills are not a single movement that results in an either successful or failed attempt.

Instead, they are composed of multiple parts of various levels of difficulty (that can be scaled) that all get combined to complete the task. 

Think about how Neo downloaded his skills – it wasn’t magic or the Force, but rather a systematic download of algorithms, lines of code, and systems.  And how does these things get downloaded?  One line of code at a time!

Your skill acquisition will take place in the same manner = Lines of code combined to form a final program:

  • A muscle up is composed of grip work, a chin up, a transition, followed by a dip.
  • Learning a new language is a combination of new vocabulary, verb conjugation, and sentence structure.
  • Cooking is a combination of identifying new ingredients, learning a recipe, operating your kitchen appliances, and synthesizing the different parts to form a meal.

A new skill that seems impossible to learn will remain impossible…you need to recognize that it IS possible by breaking that skill down into manageable goals that can be worked on individually.  Neo had to realize that “there is no Spoon.”  You have to realize that if somebody else can do it, chances are that with enough practice, determination, and and dedication you probably can too.  How difficult your skill is will determine how long and involved your training will need to be.

Like identifying your level 50 in life, you can do the same with skills, break it out into steps, and then work on each step one at a time until you feel proficient enough to either level up on that one part of the skill or move onto the next one.

This is where having a great coach comes in handy.  Working with Jim was awesome when trying to figure out how to do a muscle up because each step was broken down into smaller sections so I knew exactly what to do and where my weaknesses were.

If you don’t have a coach, you’ll have to make do with what you can find online for scaling the skill you’re after so that you can practice the smaller sections.  You’ll probably fail more, make more mistakes, but that “program” can still be downloaded 🙂

Combine the skills

Once you have your separate sections, it’s time to learn how to combine them.

Like with a computer program, there are lines of code that all need to work together in order for everything to work.  Your success with your desired skill will come from how well you can combine the different “lines of code” to make everything work.

Remember when Neo finally realizes “he is the One?”

He sees the Matrix for what it really, learning how all of the lines of code come together to form the world…and then starts kicking ass.  The better grip you have on all the different sections and how they intertwine with each other, the better chance of success you’ll have with the final movement.

You have a few options:

  • Learn all separate skills, then work on the transitions between them.
  • Learn skill #1, skill #2, then the transition between them. and then move onto skill #3 and its transition, and so on.
  • Learn skill #1, then transition, then skill #2, then transition, then skill #3

If that confused the hell out of you, my apologies – I just mean that there are different ways to connect the dots that will ultimately result in you successfully completing your skill.

For my muscle up training, I was able to do ring pull ups and ring dips, but the transition definitely presented the biggest challenge.

After breaking the transition down into smaller steps, I was able to see how all the puzzle pieces fit together, and then ultimately combine everything into a gloriously ugly muscle up.

Practice, learn, adapt, repeat

After you’ve learned all of the steps, it’s time to practice the hell out of them. 

This is probably the most frustrating AND rewarding stage…as you might spend weeks/months getting-close-but-not-there-yet.

A few pieces of advice:

  • If you’re doing a physical skill, record yourself while practicing – it’s amazing how different “what I feel like I”m doing” and “what I’m ACTUALLY doing” can be.
  • If you get stuck for weeks and aren’t showing any progress, it’s time to change things up – work on a different part of the skill, or attack the same part in a different way.

Here’s the video of my training session with Jim on completing my first muscle up (epic quest mission accomplished!)

With continued practice and work, I eventually cranked out multiple muscle-ups, while hanging off a boat no less!

And eventually, Jim and I even created a course specifically training people to get their first muscle up!

What skill are you trying to download?

So, that’s the skill I’m working on currently – muscle ups. 

I’m also working on Planches and Front Levers, but I’d imagine I’m YEARS and MONTHS away on those as well.

How about you: 

What skill are you currently working on?

Which skill would you LIKE to be working on?

More importantly, how can I help?


PS: If you want to learn step-by-step how to get your first strict muscle up, check out our NF Rings course!


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61 thoughts on “The Matrix Guide to Rapid Skill Acquisition

  1. I’m going surfing for the first time this summer in Hawaii. And I found a workout that helps with muscles specifically used for surfing. One of the moves is you’re sitting on your shins, butt on your heels, and you jump up to your feet. I CANNOT get it. I assume it’s lack of strength/conditioning. Although the training notes say to not think about it and you’ll get it.

    Anyway, no matter what I do, I can’t get it. I keep skinning my knees. So that’s the only thing I can think of besides conquering swimming (also for surfing).

    I guess I need a list!

  2. I studied Japanese for years in college and I lived in Japan for a year.  I managed to get pretty good at it, but since I graduated, I haven’t used it at all.  It’s time to step up, stop making excuses and just keep on learning and using it.  Thanks for the motivation!  Starting tonight I’m going to start studying again and find conversation partners!

  3. I want to review and then practice Spanish for my mental skill.  I’m going to Costa Rica in a few months, so I have motivation!  As for my physical skill, I play roller derby, and I am working on perfecting a solid lock on the person I am hitting out of bounds so they can’t escape!  Also speed skating position.  I can never stop working on that one.

  4. Backbend.  Not the press up kind, but the actual bending back backbend.  And handstand push-up.  And hanumanasana (the splits) with a bent back leg.

  5. I’m pretty good with handstands (played capoeira for a while) and the best advice that I rarely see elsewhere is this- learn how to safely bail out of a bad handstand! Once you know that you can get out of a handstand safely, your confidence level will shoot up, and you can practice more.

  6. Those muscle-ups wouldn’t be so hard if you weren’t weighed down by that terrible hat. 😉

    The skill I need help with and would love to see touched on NF – Swimming. Especially proper breathing technique. I can’t seem to get it down in competitive-style swimming and always get a mouth full of water.


    – JC

  7. Great advice, @stevekamb! One other way to quickly acquire skills is to befriend and hang out with people who are solid with the skills you want to acquire. This is probably the most fun way to quickly ramp up your skill level

  8. Thanks Peter! That sound great. The over the head part does give me headaches i.e. fear is a big issue for me. 🙁

  9. I would be interested in some swimming articles too. I am an ok swimmer I think but my technique is very sloppy and I am sure my breathing is not optimal.

  10. I am still working on my pullups. I am using an assist band but I think it’s not strong enough for my weight and I don’t feel I am progressing at all really although my biceps and lats are killing me.

  11. Hey Kelly,
    I haven’t seen you do these but I know the exercise you are talking about. Because your flat on your feet your knees and ankles are mostly taken out of the movement which means you need to generate A LOT of momentum from your hips. Therefore I would recommend working on your glute strength (think pilates style exercises and then things like KB swings and deadlifts). Also some plyometric work like squats jumps and box jumps should help too.

  12. I can’t find any videos for the trick I want!  I want to go from standing, into a bridge (back bend), then up into a handstand, then maybe a handstand pushup.  I am very far from this.  For now I’m just working on wall walking bridges.

    How can you help?  Show me someone doing it?  I’m sure Jim can…

  13. If you get enough momentum pushing off with the front foot, cartwheels get a lot easier – straighter, faster, less balancing involved. And all that helps with fear as well. 

  14. Great article Steve!  And congrats on the MU! 

    How’s your planche?  Working on what I told you?

    Kipping MUs are great.  But if you’d like to nail the strict MU I’d go back and really focus on the Baby MU.  That will help you to shore up some form issues and strengthen the components.  Then you can gradually work on raising the rings and taking your feet off of the ground.

  15. Backbend to handstand is tough because it’s a bad position to initiate the movement… But if you want to get it, use the tips Steve listed above. Master each component separately, then work on combining them and practicing the transitions. The transitions always take the most time to nail.

  16. I’m working hard on mastering hot yoga.  I love how the heat gives me an extra kick in the ass of intensity. After that though, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – planning.

    I need to work on my level 50 plan!

  17.  Practice rhythmic breathing by standing in the water, then leaning forward and putting your face in. Turn your head to the side far enough to get your mouth out of the water and inhale for a 3-5 count. Turn your face down and breathe out through your nose for a similar count.

    Once you get it down just by moving your head, do it with arm movements. Inhale as your same-side arm comes out of the water: it will lift your shoulder and make it easier to get your face clear of the water.

    When you get a solid grasp of rhythmic breathing standing still with arm movements, try it on the move. Do it with a kickboard if you have to. Just worry about smooth movements. The less you flail at the water, the less chop there is to get into your mouth.

    This advice brought to you by the Bare Hill Pond Red Cross Swimming Program. (I sucked at this and had to take remedial breathing lessons so I could get out of Advanced Beginners.)

  18. Two things I’d like to add about handstands also, when you’re in a handstand try to grip the ground with your fingers. It will give you more control over your handstand and. The other thing is clench your butt cheeks when your legs are up in the air vertically (Dead serious). That will give you balance and help keep your legs together when they are up in the air.

  19. That’s the plan!  Which is why I’m working on stand to backbend, then just holding the handstand, then transition.

  20. Hahah, I love the grunts and groans of pain around 0:50! And huge congrats on getting that muscle up! I’m amazed that your arms weren’t too tired after all the practice.

    I’ve been working on a whole bunch of skills since I started Crossfit in January. I’d say the one I find most intimidating is the handstand/handstand pushup. I can do headstands just fine, so I think it’s more of a mental issue with my head being farther from the ground – and thus more prone to injury if I face plant.

  21. I’d recommend checking out some yoga videos, possible Ashtanga-style. I know I’ve seen people do that in yoga. Let me see if I can find anything… In the meean-time, make sure you’re really working on your backbending with upward facing dog, wheel/bridge, camel, bow, etc.

  22. I stumbled upon your site from Anthony Mychal’s.  I can already tell I’m going to blow a few hours catching up on here, but for the pursuit of fitness and bad-assery–so that’s okay.  Very awesome, man.  Right now I’m working on two skills– kip-ups and strengthening my vision so I can ditch these glasses sans contacts or surgery. 

  23. A few things 

    1) learning japanese

    2) streamlining business

    3) learning about relationships

    The hardest part Deconstruction it when the it is something you have never seen before take between 3 to 6 months. 

  24. I am loose about the rights on my photos because I like people to see them. The rights agreement does read clearly though: ”
     Attribution, No Derivative Works “. 

    1) A crop is a derivative work.
    2) An anonymous “photo” link is an inelegant way to give attribution.

  25. This is a great article, but technically ‘Kung Fu’ means ‘skill acquired over time’. Maybe they meant it as a joke in The Matrix, but it always bugged me that Neo learned Kung Fu over such a short time.

  26. Love the breakdown Steve!  I can relate that directly to martial arts training.  In Muay Thai, you learn a few basic steps to throwing some punches and kicks, once you’ve mastered those techniques, you learn how to combine them into combinations, and so on, until you’re reacting defending with your tools and combining those other smaller methods (punching and kicking) to counter or return your attack!  You’ve written something hugely transferable to any skill, it’s awesome 🙂

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  28. I want to do Parkour . . . feels impossible to get started though, living in a small middle of nowhere town. I’m doing the beginner body weight routine you outlined to get into better shape in hopes that when I move later this year I’ll be able to find a Morpheus to help me on my journey. What is a good way to find pro in a certain field? I feel like I don’t even know where to start looking . . .

  29. I’m 53. About a month ago, I could not do a single pull-up. Now, using the methods I saw on this site, I can do 5 sets of 2 pull-up each. I am working to be able to do 20-25 consecutive pull-ups by the end of the summer. This is a great site. I have shared it on Facebook and Twitter. I hope that all of my age 50+ friends will come here to realize that it it never too late to get into shape, and no matter how weak you think you are, if you will try the intermediary exercises, you can regain your strength. Thanks so much to Steve for the site.

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