Self-Limiting Exercise—Naturally Correct Exercise

Excerpt from the book Movement

Click here to download a larger pdf of this self-limiting exercise chart

Self-limiting exercises make us think, and even make us feel more connected to exercise and to movement. They demand greater engagement and produce greater physical awareness. Self-limiting exercises do not offer the easy confidence or quick mastery provided by a fitness machine.

The earliest exercise forms were self-limiting—they required mindfulness and technique. Idiot-proof equipment and the conditioning equivalent of training wheels did not exist. Great lifters learned to lift great; great fighters learned to fight great; great runners learned to run great. Their qualities and quantities were intertwined.

Self-limiting exercise demands mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. In self-limiting exercise, a person cannot just pop on the headphones and walk or run on the treadmill, fingering the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor. Self-limiting exercise demands engagement.

The clearest example of self-limiting exercise is barefoot running. While running barefoot, the first runners connected with the sensory information in the soles of their feet. This works perfectly—this is the very reason the soles of the feet have such a uniquely dense distribution of sensory nerves. This provides a window to our environment, like the nerves in our hands, eyes and ears. The information provided by sensory nerves in the soles help all who walk on two feet continually adjust their movement, stride, rhythm, posture and breathing to meet changes in the terrain.

The modern running shoe allows us to ignore a sensory perspective of running that is only second to vision, and, as you know, the increase in running-related injuries paralleled running shoe development. When running barefoot, over-striding and heel striking is not an option—it produces jarring, discomfort and pain because it is not authentic. Is it not a bit peculiar that the quick twinges of pain refine the barefoot runner’s stride to help avoid running injuries, while the comfort of the modern running shoe later exchanged those friendly twinges for debilitating pain?

The modern runner uses braces to cover a weakness, often not taking responsibility to rehabilitate a problem, or dissatisfied with the rehabilitation process and its incomplete outcome. Christopher McDougall reveals this concept in an amazing story in his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a story that reminds us to temper all technologic advancements against historical facts and time-tested principles. He touches on medical and biomechanical issues, prehistoric man, exercise concepts and a detachment from the joy of movement we exchange for superficial results.

This book is highly recommended for trainers, coaches and rehabilitation professionals to help them see their respective professions through the eyes of the inquisitive, chronically injured runner. Christopher’s investigation and story connects important dots we can all appreciate. In his journey, he discovered rehabilitation and coaching wisdom that is logical and simple. The problem is that he had to dig to find it. Part of his digging was caused by our incomplete practices of movement assessment, exercise and rehabilitation.

Examples of other natural, self-limiting categories are governed by breathing, grip strength, balance, correct posture and coordination. Some exercises combine two or more self-limiting activities, and each has natural selective and developmental benefits. These exercises produce form and function while positioning the entire movement matrix for multiple benefits. As we train movement, anatomical structures model themselves around natural stresses.

Self-limiting activities should become the cornerstone of your training programs, not as preventive maintenance and risk management, but as movement authentication—to keep it real. The limitations these exercises impose keep us honest and allow our weakest links to hold us back, as they should.

Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.

Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.

A word of caution: These activities are not magic. They don’t automatically install movement quality. They simply provide the opportunity should the individual be up to the challenge. Each of these activities imposes natural obstacles and requires technical attention. There is usually a coordination of attributes not often used together, such as balance and strength or quickness and alignment. These activities usually require instruction to provide safety and maximize benefits. If you do not respect them, they can impose risk.

However, patience, attention to detail and expert instruction will provide a natural balancing of movement abilities. These do not have to make up the entire exercise program. Instead, they offer mental and physical challenges against natural limitations and technical standards. These activities will not only provide variety, but should ultimately produce physical poise, confidence and higher levels of movement competence.

Ready for more?
Download a pdf of sample self-limiting exercises

Listen to Gray’s self-limiting exercise lecture

Order Movement, available in hardcover, paperback and e-book.

Live from CK-FMS!

Brett Jones & Gray Cook

Live from Minnesota, Saturday, May 14, 2011!

Click here to listen to Gray and Brett discuss their work with the RKCs at the Certified Kettlebell-FMS workshop.

If You Can’t Imitate…

“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

Yogi Berra, When You Come to a Fork in the Road

Yogi Berra, When You Come to a Fork in the Road

This statement, one of the many by the famous Yogi Berra, should not be forgotten because it shines light on our professional successes, failures and confusions. A common theme among exercise and rehabilitation professionals is discussion, commentary and sampling protocols and programs. In rehabilitation, we call these protocols and in exercise we call them programs, but they are both essentially paint-by-the-numbers packages designed for a particular purpose. Discussing and test-driving protocols and programs designed by other professionals is not a bad practice when used correctly—it exposes new ideas and concepts. However, an adopted protocol or program should be scrutinized across a trial to see its practicality and appropriateness. The trial will provide a sample by producing specific data relative to a specific goal. It is this feedback that will answer the questions generated when we wonder if someone else’s package will work in our population.

My receptionist has often pulled me out of a clinic examination room because another physical therapist was on the line wanting me to send my protocol for low back pain. I don’t even know how to answer that question, but I try to be polite and explain that my protocol probably will not be what is needed. My protocol is to evaluate the situation and try to understand the relationship of movement dysfunction and the symptom of low back pain. Once the problem is outlined, I attempt to correct dysfunction, treat the pain and look at the progress with both—objectivity. The reappraisal directs my next move. This means I do what the situation demands, that I don’t treat every painful back the same way. The request for a protocol is too broad and therefore cannot be responsibly answered.

If asked, “What is your specific protocol for re-establishing core control?” it can still be just as hard to answer. The problem here is in the wording—it’s like asking how to mop up water while ignoring a water leak in the corner. The answer to the question will accurately explain how to mop a floor, but it will not fix what made the constant mopping necessary. Sometimes what we think is the problem is actually the symptom of the problem—the cause of the symptom must be clearly identified.

The foundational question is: If core control is poor, why is it poor?

Do we simply assume exercises will restore the lost ability of core control without us ever understanding why it has been lost? That was the way we rolled at one time but no more. Our newest observations of the movement screen data suggest in some cases the best way to re-establish core control might not even be a package of core exercises. A seven-week program of mobility and stability work targeting the lowest score and most fundamental problem—the weakest link—on the Functional Movement Screen provided the necessary improvement in two core tests to move core control measurements from dysfunctional to functional or acceptable. This means the core stability was improved when the most fundamental movement pattern was corrected. This is an instance where ankle mobility or T-spine mobility is attacked and yet core control seems to improve.

If the core is the weakest link, it should be addressed, but if some other problem is the weakest link, the core can simply test poorly as part of the compensation. In simple terms, individuals with core stability problems must address deficiencies in mobility before asking for more core work. To be more specific, the mobility problems in question are significant enough to produce movement pattern problems scores of one on the FMS, or asymmetries. These mobility deficiencies are most commonly present in the ankles, hips, t-spine and shoulders. In reality the core question is a whole-body question no matter how you slice it.

For more on this topic, look at the webinar at the top of the home page at There are also three corresponding podcasts that answer the three most common questions generated from the webinar.

Interestingly enough, I correspond with an elite group of fitness professionals and strength coaches who often report the same problem. They are regularly asked to provide or share their programs, even though their current programs are specifically designed for a particular group with targeted goals. These pros pick and choose the individuals appropriate for a particular program, and are as reluctant as I to share that type of general information. This hesitation is not because they don’t want to help, but because they have serious reservations about the appropriateness of the application.

When people ask for a program or protocol, they are asking for a copy, but the real question is, are they willing to imitate the other elements, the innovation, style, research and practical application that make the package successful. Furthermore, those who develop the programs and protocols use them as guides and templates, whereas once the packages are borrowed by another, they somehow become universal law. If they are not law for the individuals who produced them, they should not be law for those who copy them! I think I speak for many of us when I say we would rather have our style, systems and science imitated than to merely have our packages copied.

The professionals who create exercise programs and rehabilitation protocols rarely apply these to 100% of their professional situations, 100% of the time. This is because they know if they do not dictate the preliminary criteria necessary for the program, the success will be limited. Simply stated, they have minimum levels of movement competence and functional performance that must be in place for the package to be used successfully.

Some other examples…

Jon Torine, Strength Coach Indianapolis Colts

Jon Torine, S&C Coach, Indianapolis Colts

Jon Torine, S&C Coach, Indianapolis Colts

Perhaps one of the most difficult questions for me to answer regarding strength and conditioning is, “What’s your philosophy?”

It’s not that I don’t know how we go about training people and it’s certainly not to avoid engaging in a discussion about training. It’s that this question, even amongst what would be considered a homogenous group of people— in this case, professional football players—does not have the general answer some strive for, and no immediate application can be made from this general answer. This, in my experience, is at the root of the question.

When taking on a complex task or when presented with a monumental challenge that appears to have layer upon layer of possible solutions, some would suggest the strategy of breaking it down to its lowest common denominator or going back to fundamentals. This has proven time and again to be an acceptable and powerful means of improvement, as is evident in personal finance. Many get caught up in picking the right stock at the right time or some other get-rich-quick scheme, whereas if we would simply save more than we spend, we will never have to worry about money. As the saying goes, no one ever went broke saving money. Posing the question, “How do I get rich or wealthy?” is difficult for a financial advisor to answer. A good one will break it down to its lowest common denominator and evaluate the person’s income vs expenses and debt, and proceed from there.

As another example, losing weight is very simple when the question is, “How do I lose weight?” The answer is eat less and exercise more—create calorie deficit to a calorie burn. This is a proven weight-loss method. Now if someone has a specific goal such as lowering triglycerides or increasing HDL cholesterol, this would be an overlapping yet more focused and direct strategy.

When considering my philosophy on training, I am certain I want our people to move better, get stronger, more powerful, quicker, faster, improve body composition, gain anaerobic endurance, improve durability and support or enhance specific skills.

There is no single remedy to handle this, but make no mistake, we do have a template built over time with sound scientific principles, practical experience and tons of sharing of information from respected colleagues and mentors. That being said, this template has moving parts that move with the athlete. They don’t move based on the athlete’s wish to be entertained, but based on what are his most outstanding limitations and how can we improve upon those to enhance the above-mentioned general philosophies.

Now, we may have a way we like to train our offensive linemen. However, offensive linemen can have several specific and different qualities even though they are at a similar position. Tackles in many cases are different than guards and centers, for example. In the NFL, some are 22 years old and some are 36 years old, asked to do the same tasks. Each comes with a unique set of genetic gifts, strengths, weaknesses, training history, injury history and levels of physical qualities.

This is precisely the reasoning behind screening and performance testing to establish a baseline. The philosophy goes like this: We screen functional movement to establish that baseline. If this is acceptable, we work to maintain that. If unacceptable, this immediately becomes our lowest common denominator for attack. We cannot proceed up the pyramid until basic, symmetrical, pain-free functional movement has been established.

We screen body composition to see if lean mass, fat mass, percentage of body fat and bodyweight are where they need to be. If not, we jump on this and attack it with fervor from a nutritional standpoint. Our nutrition philosophy then gears toward what the composition needs are. If gaining lean mass is paramount, we use nutrition that way; if fat weight loss is the need, we strategize toward that.

We then establish performance baselines in strength, power, anaerobic endurance and other areas. Those who need enhancing will get the attention and the baseline markers that are in place will be maintained. If a player can bench press 500 pounds, but has excess body fat slowing his ability to change direction, our energies are certainly placed on improving body composition more than bench pressing. We can agree that this area is already plenty strong to play football.

With all of that, make no mistake team training is not personal training, and there is a methodology we prefer, with a template for strength training, power training and conditioning. For example, we favor a non-linear periodization approach in our training. This fits our goals and schedules, as team training encompasses several other areas such as meetings, skill improvement, position-specific skill, team-specific work, practice, travel, meals, therapy and others. But make no mistake, this template has moving parts designed to get the most bang for the buck by prioritizing the area with the greatest need for improvement from the lowest common denominator.

My friend, Jon Torine: “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

Another example:

Alwyn Cosgrove, author, lecturer and owner Results Fitness

Alwyn Cosgrove, Results Fitness

Alwyn Cosgrove, Results Fitness

I was recently asked to fly in to work with a top-level football player (soccer). I was asked prior to the meeting to send copies of some soccer strength and conditioning programs and to define my philosophy for training soccer players.

I don’t have one.

In my profession there is a big demand for copies of training programs. “What do you do with ‘insert x population here’?” This isn’t what I do. Granted there are certain similarities between exercise programs and certain commonalities between sessions, but that isn’t based at all on the fact that the individual in front of me is a soccer player.

Simply put, I don’t train soccer players. I don’t train fat loss clients. I don’t train MMA fighters.

  • I look at individuals.
  • I screen them.
  • I ask about their goals and I establish what the roadblock is that prevents them from reaching their goals.
  • Then I remove the roadblock.

Simple sounding, but removing the roadblock requires me to screen and develop programs with respect to goals and activity for an individual with a unique FMS score. Then we implement a drill, see the response and adjust accordingly, which could be as simple as increasing external loading the next week.

If you had the exact same person in front of you, scoring the exact same FMS score, with the exact same goals and timelines, with the exact same response to each drill or exercise within the exact same time frame, the programs would look the same.

But if there is one change, the programs are completely different.

Look for processes.

My friend, Alwyn Cosgrove: “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

The Functional Movement Screen is linked to corrective exercise programs and progressions. They work very well—if applied following a hierarchy of fundamental and functional movement patterns. This means if more than one movement pattern is considered dysfunctional, there is a hierarchy within the system that dictates the pattern that must be corrected first, implying that functional patterns build on fundamental ones.

The entire platform of the book Movement, Functional Movement Systems was not to copy functional movement patterns commonly observed in sports and exercise. It was designed to imitate the developmental progression all humans follow as they learn to move. It was created to imitate the natural way we gain and maintain the motor control that makes our functional movement patterns possible. The central premise is to identify dysfunction, not to imply we all must attain movement-pattern perfection. The newbie often assumes the goal for the FMS is to achieve a perfect score, whereas the seasoned vet manages the minimums and only attacks the priority dysfunction.

We all grow and learn from others. Even if we think our insight is totally original and unique, it is likely someone put us on our path to enlightenment. Imitation and modeling is part of how we develop, and that is a fact. We just need to make sure that if we are going to copy a plan, we imitate all the parallel professional behaviors and actions that actually make the plan successful.