Good Coaching Involves Some Cutting

Flowing water. Wooded land. Abundant wildlife.

That summarizes the time I spend with Neil Clarridge, a local football and track coach, who is also my hunting and fishing buddy.


Neil and I pride ourselves in creating the best possible environment out of what we’re given. We cultivate food plots and take other measures to benefit the wildlife. We can often be found walking the woods, finding the most desirable trees and working to eliminate unwanted competition.

If we have a tree that produces a certain type of nut or fruit, it takes precedence over a tree that may be too abundant to thrive or unnecessarily disadvantageous to the rest.


A lot of the timber property in Virginia has already been cut once or twice and it’s common to see a multi-prong tree growing from one old stump. If we cut some of those saplings and leave only the largest, healthiest and straightest specimens, then we actually make the tree stronger by focusing its growth in the most beneficial direction. We help it live as its ancestor did—a large, tall, well-producing, single trunk tree that lived for 200 or 300 years.

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We’re coaching up the land.

There are some great parallels to the way we should look at our roles as coaches or trainers.

By managing your exercise programs and even your exercise choices by a series of data points and personal goals, coaches can create a much better competitive model focused on first managing your weak links and then expanding your physical capacity. (The order is intentional: manage weaknesses first, then expand physical capacities.)

First of all, you need to know the group you’re competing against, whether it’s head-to-head with another athlete, or trying to be the best time or the best lift in your age group.BXP135671

What’s the average body composition of that group? What’s the average sleep of that group? The average nutritional requirement? The average vertical leap ? The average one-mile run time, sprint time or specific lift of that group? Do you know? Should you know? Unfortunately we often know much more about specifics than we do about general fitness.

If you knew the information about the group that you were getting ready to compete against, then you would know what was above average in every category for that group—strength measures, flexibility measures, endurance measures and body comp.

As long as you’re above average in those, then the best investment of your time is probably specific work on the skill that you’re trying to beat them at. However, if you fall below average in endurance and you’re above average in strength compared to the group, endurance could be a key factor for you. The more endurance you have, the more you can practice your skill and the better you can get.

Even in the world of strength, endurance has its role. Endurance offers you a wider time slot to learn your lifts and perfect your technique while managing fatigue. A good coach knows the group, knows the minimums and will eliminate unwanted competition in the weight room by focusing you on what you need—not on what you’ve already mastered. A good coach knows work capacity.

Every now and then, good competition in the weight room is healthy. Goals are good. But a record in the weight room means nothing on the football field, the obstacle course, a high-school wrestling match or in combat.

So we must make sure that the weight room is always a benefit and never a risk factor. That’s right. There are a lot of sports coaches who are petrified of strength-and-conditioning because they’re fearful of an injury. Why? Exercise has become a competition—and competition involves risk

There’s quite a bit of evidence to support their fear—the numbers of military personnel or firefighters injured in their attempt to stay fit in their recreational activity, in their sports or definitely in their weight room workouts. You could argue that some of these are unavoidable, but I know that some are - legpress

Training and practice, in most cases, are to develop you for the competitive arena—to enable you to best the environment or the opponent in front of you.

If your competition is in the weight room, a good coach will limit and constrict unnecessary competition. They logically and objectively keep their athletes focused on their goals and hold them personally accountable for any minimums in physical capacity and movement patterns (like a ‘1’ on the Functional Movement Screen).

Back to the outdoors. When I cut down a tree so it won’t compete with another tree, I’m completely removing that undesirable tree from the environment. When I restrict an activity or type of competition for someone, whether it’s in rehabilitation, athletics or simply training an exercise, I have a good reason for doing so.

I can now allocate your precious resources of energy and time to your weakest link so that you can manage your minimum. I often completely cut an activity because it has no benefit and could even offer complications.

I can also ‘prune’ people. ‘I don’t want you doing your deadlifts that way anymore. We are going to do them this way.’ The exercise can continue, but we’re going to go backward in the progression. Own your press in tall kneeling before you try to do it standing and before you convert it to a push-press and then a push-jerk.

The restriction of activity is one type of cutting and the modification of activity is another type of cutting. Anybody who works with trees will tell you that pruning the right thing at the right time will actually promote sustainable growth. Eliminating unwanted competition at the right time does the same.

Good coaches look at the short and long-term consequences of cutting, whether they’re pruning athletes or basically advising someone that they’re not ready for the level of competition that they’re considering. Remember, we can select a person into or out of a program or we can choose to modify the current program to best develop the individual.

Either way, the coach is not being cold, callous or insensitive. They’re simply protecting you from an environment for which you’re not ready. If you flunk out of military basic training due to a lack of physical conditioning, you’re not ready to protect yourself or the person next to you when it counts the most. You become a liability to the group.

Injury rates sustained during exercise while physically preparing for competition have probably reached an unacceptable level. It’s our fault, because as people enter the weight room, we must understand that it’s a time for personal exploration, the management of movement and physical capacity minimums, and ultimately the pursuit of better performance outside of the weight room.

If our physical conditioning does this for us, then we don’t have to tell people how much we bench press or how much we squat. We don’t need to post how long we were on the VersaClimber or how much wattage we generated on the rowing machine.

If I eliminate an exercise for you, it is a direct performance enhancement measure. You’re wasting time and not bringing benefit to yourself or honor to the action or activity. I am not restricting, modifying or cutting activity to hurt the entertainment value that your exercise program has come to provide. I want you to enjoy a higher level of entertainment value, which is excellence in your particular sport, hobby or competition.


Good Coaching

If you have the Assessing Movement DVD of the event at Stanford with Stu McGill and Craig Liebenson, you know I talked about coaching. Okay, I talked a lot about coaching. Recently, at my first StrongFirst event with Brett Jones, we taught many correctives . . . and we coached them a lot.

Coaching movement is where the science meets the art but I think most of us pride ourselves in the style in which we coach—probably a unique style that has contributions from many important people.

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An elite coach can use a verbal cue, a touch or even a nudge and we miraculously see their desired response, we can’t wait to go apply that in our own situation.

As a novice, we take that wonderful observation and apply it to our biggest bag of problems and our most difficult individual, hoping that the magic bullet will aim itself directly at their weakest link and make us look amazing.

Fortunately, the elite coaches and teachers among us go through a filtering process before they dispense their coaching advice.

A long, long time ago, a guy named Harvey Penick wrote a book about golf called the “Little Red Book” and it is a perfect example of elite coaching. There are no graphs, charts or biomechanical analysis. There’s simple instruction that’s filtered by an expert in strategically targeting the weakest link of a golf swing or even golf strategy. Supposedly, it’s the highest-selling golf book in history.

weakest link4Golf fitness and golf instruction have become complicated. TV shows, magazines and entire organizations have been developed to improve an individual’s golf ability and the fitness that supports it.

Yet, long before much of the science was available to Harvey Penick, he was the premier coach, choosing his words sparingly and making each one profound with an almost immediate and tangible result. He demonstrated his expertise not by his authority but through a quick analysis of an issue and observable resolution of that issue. He knew that his pupils’ confidence in him would be built upon the outcome of his first instruction.

This ability to instruct change is why I’m so passionate about movement. It takes time to lose weight, gain hypertrophy and develop strength, endurance and sport-specific skill.

Movement can change in a single session. Check it, screen it and test it, and this truth will be revealed to you.

Find the weakest link. Identify whether it’s a motor control or a mobility problem, because only one will respond to direct coaching—direct observation of movement.

From the coaching perspective, there’s a huge difference between mobility and motor control problems. It is almost impossible to coach a true mobility problem directly. If you’re able to change mobility with your words alone, you were probably observing a motor control problem that presented itself as stiffness.

Think about it. When the body feels vulnerable and out of control, it’s not concerned with efficiency and effectiveness. It is concerned with preservation and integrity of the structures that may not be ready for the loads you’re trying to impose.

A true mobility problem can be directly addressed with a hands-on technique by a qualified individual and this usually involves somebody with a clinical background. I am not suggesting that clinicians have better or more intuitive hands than some excellent body workers and massage therapists. I’m saying that a clinician has at their disposal a thing called a differential diagnosis.

A differential diagnosis is what we do first to make sure that another disease process is not actually the underlying cause of the musculoskeletal disharmony that we observe through faulty movement, mobility and motor control problems.

A differential diagnosis is the first filter that a clinician should employ. Mobility problems can be attacked directly but when you have a frozen shoulder, there is no coaching technique on earth that I can use to talk you out of that frozen shoulder in an efficient or effective manner.

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Pilates, Yoga and Feldenkrais have all offered techniques to gain movement through verbal instruction and cueing but when needed and appropriately applied, a manual technique to restore range of motion and mobility at a stuck segment or a high-tension area like a trigger point is one of the most efficient and effective ways to break through a mobility problem.

Recently, we’ve enjoyed a huge amount of self-help information for these same mobility problems. We use foam rolls, balls and sticks to manipulate the soft tissue, work through sore and tender muscles and even release some tension prior to workouts.

My critique: if you continuously use these methods, then they are not changing anything. They are simply placating the problem so you can assume that your training is more effective than it naturally is. A true change in mobility should have a program behind it that sustains the mobility and reduces the necessity of the direct technique.

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A coach improves mobility by appropriately identifying the location of the restriction and advising the athlete or trainee in a series of techniques to use as a warm-up in preparation for an activity that should help sustain the mobility.

When there is no underlying mobility problem but we see the knees collapse or the feet cave in or the back round under load, there is an opportunity for direct coaching. Remember, they’re doing this thing because of a lack of control—not because they’re forced to do so in compensation for poor mobility elsewhere.

There are three levels of direct coaching that occur when a motor control problem is objectively identified and observed. (My word ‘objectively’ there means that you have a test). The three levels are quite simple:

1. Coach the pattern without load—Mimicking the exact pattern that will be loaded or coaching the pattern with some degree of assistance. This could be as simple as a Goblet squat with a heel lift or it could be a complete change in body position like an overhead press from tall kneeling.

2. Assist the pattern—We often work with individuals who, because of a motor control issue, cannot even roll to one side. The verbal cues aren’t enough to get them to find the coordination path to perform the roll. However, a few Airex pads under the side of their body that they’re rolling away from enable rolling. Reduce the assistance to gain functional control.

3. Load the pattern and observe—Let them feel the correct pattern—that is learning. Verbal cues are a last resort to get them to the correct pattern. They’re learning from the movement, not from your cues.

Remember, both direct- and indirect-coaching fall under corrective exercise. Unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s a mobility or stability problem, you may be bringing an excellent coaching cue to an inappropriate position.

Elite coaches use filters but it took them a long time to build those filters and gain that wisdom. Objective tools like screening, testing and assessment help us gain those filters early in our career and achieve a level of expertise at a much younger age than those who came before us. All we need to do is identify good coaching when we see it and then find the filters that enable us to get there quicker.

For more on coaching movement for correction and improvement, watch Assessing Movement: A Contrast in Approaches and Future Directions.


This event took place in early 2014 at Stanford University, where Craig Liebenson moderated a day-long conversation between Stuart McGill and me. Dr. McGill is a back pain expert and researcher who has reviewed the current science covering the FMS and related movement screen research.

• Full event video—5 hours & 40 minutes
• PDFs of the lecture transcripts
• MP3 audio files of the full lectures
• Presentation slides PDFs
• Research material
• Pre-event study material
• Post-event reflections from the participants
• Bonus lectures from
• PDFs of the lecture transcripts
• MP3 audio files of the full lectures
• Presentation slides PDFs
• Research material
• Pre-event study material
• Post-event reflections from the participants
• Bonus lectures from

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How to Ask a Better Question

My article following the Stanford event with Dr. Stuart McGill discussed “It depends” as a correct answer to unclear questions. Many times during the question and answer sessions, Stuart touched on the tendency to ask general questions with the expectation of specific answers. I want to discuss how to formulate and ask a better question. I’m passionate about asking better questions myself and helping you ask better questions.

I remember a lonquestion signg time ago working as a young physical therapist. I would have a patient in my exam room and he would say, “You know, your treatment and your exercises really helped me with my low back pain. My wife has low back pain too. Do you think she should do these exercises as well?”

My answer was, “Absolutely not. I would prefer that she not do any exercise in regards to her low back pain because the potential of making things worse is equal to the potential of making things better. If I meet her, see her and evaluate her or if she goes somewhere else with a responsible individual, she may very well find out that she’s got the same type of problem you do or she may have a completely different problem.”

Either way, low back pain is a symptom—not a diagnosis. I can’t provide a treatment plan for a symptom. I can do things to cover up the symptom but I can’t cure the problem unless I first diagnose the problem.

I would much prefer to answer questions about people or groups of people than I would about exercises. If I make one statement about a certain exercise, I’m absolutely sure that what I say will get misapplied due to a lack of clarity.

First of all, asking a question about a training or rehabilitation program for an individual or group requires us to get specific. Begin by stating the primary goal—which in rehabilitation is often getting rid of pain. We add the goals of removing movement dysfunction and combating mobility and motor control problems to the goal of getting rid of pain.

Think about that. If we confront every functional issue, remove all mobility and motor control problems and they still have pain, then we, as musculoskeletal specialists, have done our job. The person’s pain is coming from some other part of this situation than their movement dysfunction.

We frequently see musculoskeletal pain presented and yet we find an underlying disease process. The fact that we go through a differential diagnosis every time somebody has musculoskeletal pain is a hallmark of a responsible therapist, chiropractor or physician.

The first thing we’ve got to do is make sure it’s not something else

With any question about a specific individual, we need a health history.

  • Have they had previous injuries?
  • Do they have a disability of some sort?
  • Is their goal realistic or are there multiple unrealistic layers to the goal?
  • Are there any time constraints?

Believe it or not, that’s still not enough information, which is why I’m so passionate about something like the Functional Movement Screen, the Y Balance Test or vital signs. I want to know if all the systems are functioning at an average level, at minimum.


How’s their cardiovascular system? Well, we could find that out just by simply doing some vital signs and seeing their response to a cardiovascular load. We could also do a number of strength tests on you to find out where you rate within your group in your age, your sex or in your particular sport or category.

Here’s where I’ll give you a shameless plug for the program that Lee Burton, Alwyn Cosgrove and I did last year on how to take movement screening information and some other information and put it directly into a program.

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How can we intelligently make decisions when more information is introduced? If I’ve got a 14-year-old cross-country athlete who wants to train with me in her off-season, I will typically have a complete and thorough past medical history. I will have had a conversation with her and her parents. I will have at least done some vital signs, body composition tests and a movement screen.

Her body composition shows me that she has far less lean body mass than other females her age. Obviously after meeting her, we see the ectomorphic physique and realize that part of this could be her nutritional plan. She might not be getting enough protein.

She could be growing a little more muscular than she currently is if her nutritional components matched her athletic goals and her growth spurt. I may impose a questionnaire and find out how much good source lean protein she gets every day and what her nutritional favorites, staples and dislikes are.

Her movement screen shows me that she’s got ‘2s’ on every test at least with no asymmetries and no discomfort or pain. A vertical leap test shows me that her power is extremely low. A few other tests of overall body strength show a strength measurement that is not average for her age. However on the treadmill, her endurance is impressive.

Obviously, I see some biomechanical errors in her running cadence but instead of trying to change those right away and become her running coach, I think—what would she be like with five extra pounds of muscle, stronger quads, glutes and abdominals, a more erect posture and reduced anterior head posture? Would she stand more erect if her self-esteem was higher and she didn’t feel so intimidated when she was in the weight room?


I’ve got a situation here where an athlete wants to perform better at an endurance sport but I have every reason in the world to challenge her assumptions about the benefits of a strength-and-conditioning program. The weight room is not simply for people who want to get stronger for the purposes of strength.

Strength is the single best way to hit ‘save’ on a good movement document. We often talk about motor control as a demonstration of  stability and strength—a demonstration of how we manage force. But strength is simply an outgrowth or an extension of superior motor control—the ability to both control motion and create motion.

I share the belief with most strength coaches that a fundamental strength quotient is the cornerstone upon which other athleticism is built. Can we achieve athletic goals without a good, strong base? Absolutely. Young children often develop impeccable technique long before they have impressive strength.

But as bodies get bigger, biomechanical stresses increase, sports loads and competition becomes more intense and that great technique possessed by the growing body all of a sudden starts to erode. The body changes, the lever arms get bigger and the stress gets higher.

If that same 14-year-old female athlete had had three ‘1s’ on her movement screen, regardless of where they were, I would put a hold on her strength training. I don’t want to hit ‘save’ on that document.

My goal is still to get her stronger. Her strength measurements are extremely low but I don’t know if her strength measurements are low because she’s weak or because she can’t move through the positions where I’m testing her strength. We’ve long thought of strength moves as being the defining factor of individual strength. In reality, weakness in some positions and strength in others, averages for the overall strength quotient.

Some powerlifters don’t look very strong by Olympic lift standards. Likewise, some gymnasts don’t look strong by powerlifting standards. To be called strong without reservation, someone would have to show me a battery of strength moves with both load and bodyweight and cover most of their functional positions and patterns.

How many of us does that apply to? The more functionally you work out, the more it probably applies to you. The more specialized you work out, the stronger you may appear in your comfort zone but the weaker you may appear outside of that comfort zone.

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Part of coaching is taking the athlete outside of their comfort zone, making them more adaptable and ultimately changing their environment. We may be training them in the same weight room but the exercises and the loads—everything is getting ready to change.

The best way to survive environmental change is adaptability and the best way to be more adaptable is to keep learning pathways open. Maintain a good range of motion. Keep adequate mobility. Motor control should be at least ‘good enough’ with body weight.

An intuitive, well-educated coach can systematically load that athlete until they’ve developed the strength reserve that can take them where they want to go.

In rehabilitation, we’ve got to ask a lot of questions before we discuss the injury or the treatment plan for that injury. In strength-and-conditioning, in personal fitness and in wellness, we’ve got a lot of information we need to consider before we take that focused isolated approach.

One of my favorite terms is ‘manage your minimums.’ If we could set minimum standards for movement, flexibility, motor control, mobility and strength within your particular group, then we could find out if you have any minimums. It is my philosophy to manage those first. From that foundation, try to grow and train in the direction that best suits your environment and your goals.

We’ve got to ask ourselves better questions and we’ve got to ask our mentors better questions. If we do both of those things, we’ll get better answers.

We’ll have better outcomes.

Come ask better questions at the Functional Movement Summit 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina – July 21 – 25.

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Interested in the video of the Stanford Event: Assessing Movement with Gray Cook, Stuart McGill & Craig Liebenson? 

Visit to see preview clips and video description.

Revisiting Athletic Body in Balance

In 2003, I had the honor of having my book Athletic Body in Balance published by Human Kinetics, and for the first time people could read a perspective I’d been toying with since the early 1990s. Now, just past the 10-year anniversary of Athletic Body in Balance I want to tell you what’s happened since then, and what I would add or change if I were to re-write the book today.


Before we do that, let’s take a quick look at the original premise. Think of the title first—Athletic Body in Balance. Imbalances are an indicator of disharmony and every philosophy that stands the test of time preaches balance.

For me, the entire secret sauce in my career is that I haven’t been pulled back and forth in the hypothetical debate of “Is this better than this?” when considering a horrendous imbalance.

Throughout my writing, beginning with Athletic Body in Balance, I nudge readers not to consider a parts approach to movement, but to instead consider a patterns approach. If we follow that logic, it would be more prudent to look at imbalances in patterns before we try to find imbalances in specific parts.

FMS Hurdle Step

Let’s peel this onion for a second. If there are imbalances in a movement pattern, we break down that pattern. If there’s a problem with a specific part, we’ll find it. But if there’s no problem with a part, we work on the pattern as a whole. The parts just aren’t working well together. The whole should always be greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s what movement is.

What are the benefits of working on a whole movement pattern? You have to create your own mobility. You have to create your own stability. We can increase or decrease loads, stresses and support to make the pattern a little easier to do, but working through an entire pattern is the natural way to acquire that pattern.

Nature shows us this every day. A baby learns to walk through reciprocal patterning and crawling. Those are still patterns—they’re whole patterns. They don’t do foot, ankle and hip exercises to become walkers. They crawl, and then they struggle through the walking patterns. There are a lot of falls incurred while learning to walk.

That’s all part of the plan. It’s a negative-feedback system. If they don’t do the right strategy, program and weight shifting, they don’t get a reward of movement success, and if they don’t get a reward, they don’t save that motor program into the brain.

Everything a baby does and everything nature provides us is self-limiting. This means our ability to pursue greater amounts of volume, intensity and frequency are limited by technical ability, attention to detail, mobility, stability, sensory input and interaction with the environment.

Here’s another thing I want you to walk away with: Fix movement through movement.

In Athletic Body in Balance, one of the things I wanted to do from the very beginning was to create an appreciation for setting a baseline. A lot of people talk ‘test–retest,’ but what they do more often is ‘trial–retrial.’ They try something, do something and try it again, but that’s not really test–retest.

I introduced the Functional Movement Screen in Athletic Body in Balance, but I realized since I was writing to the consumer, I had to have a self-done movement screen—something for the reader without a professional in the room.

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In this video, I’ll introduce the premise of self-movement screening and show you the original video we shot showing the self-done movement screen depicted in the book.

The self-screen is a way to gauge your own progress when you’re training yourself, and when the availability of a professionally mentored movement screen isn’t available.

That’s a quick summary of what I hope is the timeless information in Athletic Body in Balance, but you may be interested to hear about some of the additions I would make now. The best way to discuss these is through the people who influenced me in recent years.

I’d like to start with Dr. Ed Thomas, who confirmed many of the suspicions I had about learning movement. Dr. Thomas is a walking encyclopedia of physical culture, physical education and physical preparation history. He’s a Fulbright scholar; he’s a PhD. He’s accomplished in yoga and martial arts, and he’s an expert on club swinging.

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Throughout Athletic Body in Balance I was passionate about keeping the reader in touch with the importance of jumping rope. Jumping rope is a remarkable self-limiting activity for lower body, core, alignment, interval training, springiness and building a good power base.

Had I known about Indian clubs at the time of Athletic Body in Balance, I would have introduced club swinging as the upper body counterpart to jumping rope for the lower body. I can’t say enough about how important it is to get a command of club swinging.

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There’s a true movement difference in the upper and lower body. The upper body is mobility-driven, involving hand and eye coordination—in touch with circular patterns no matter what the sport or activity. The lower body is constantly in touch with the environment, often with a jarring impact. It’s transitional and most responsible for locomotion, whereas the upper body is mostly responsible for manipulation.

The activities of jumping rope and club swinging generate the same result—adaptability and physical resiliency—lubricating the wheels and truing the alignment. You have to stand up straight to turn Indian clubs, and you have to stand up straight to jump rope. You may think you’re standing up straight, but if you can’t turn the clubs or jump rope, you’re not.

True alignment is something many of us aren’t aware of. We determine this when we try to learn something like the Turkish getup, another activity that didn’t make it into Athletic Body in Balance because I didn’t know about it at the time.


Kettlebells weren’t introduced in Athletic Body in Balance, and yet I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying kettlebells with Pavel Tsatsouline and Brett Jones. I came to know Pavel’s work when I watched a DVD of him talking about deadlifting and found myself in total agreement with everything he said.

At the time Athletic Body in Balance had already been published and it occurred to me that I assumed everyone knew and used the deadlift. I’ve had a huge appreciation for the deadlift since my high school football days. I was wrong for assuming that because I appreciated the deadlift, my readers already did too. I consider jumping rope a fundamental move. I think the Turkish getup and the deadlift are also fundamental moves.


A few years ago when Tim Ferris asked me to suggest some of my favorite strengthening and corrective moves for his work in Section 8 of The 4-Hour Body, I gave him the deadlift and the deadlift variations, the Turkish getup and the chop-and-lift. If you pay attention to the way your body performs and use the obvious intentional left-right comparisons of chopping, lifting, single-leg deadlifting and the Turkish getup, you will gain strength, master movement and keep your body balanced at the same time.

If you want to make gains, you have to push forward, which takes us to the Turkish getup.

The Turkish getup expresses our mobility, stability and a basic level of strength, but it also gives us an opportunity to focus on breathing and to appreciate alignment. You get good at Turkish getups by becoming more efficient—not by doing a gut check and muscling through it. If you push too hard in the getup, you turn it into a bench press. If you don’t take it seriously enough, you’re sloppy. You have to find a groove, and you have to accomplish it well on both the left and right sides.

I thank Pavel for the introduction to kettlebells. I thank Brett Jones for his mentorship with kettlebells. I wish I had a way to go back and add kettlebells to Athletic Body in Balance.

Gray and Erwan

Next I’d like introduce you to a Frenchman named Erwan Le Corre. Erwan is the founder and developer of the art and science called MovNat, meaning move naturally.

A couple of years ago I packed up my pregnant wife and two teenage daughters and went to the mountains of West Virginia to spend five days exploring movement with Erwan. We learned to put our bodies in every conceivable position in nature—not for the point of working out, but to navigate a rocky terrain, climb an obstacle, swim across an expanse, run on changing surfaces, or to perhaps realize in this position in this environment, crawling was the fastest path.

Erwan let nature instruct and all he did was give us occasional bullet points. It fit with the new neuroscience that tells us we shouldn’t tell people to focus on their bodies and internal ideas. When I wrote Athletic Body in Balance, I didn’t tell you to engage your abs or fire your glutes, nor did I show you a technique to activate a specific muscle. Those are futile suggestions because the people who can engage already do, and those who can’t won’t find it from a verbal suggestion.

The language of movement is written in feel.

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If we can engineer a situation where people feel more, they can do more. Erwan brought that concept home for us when he made simple suggestions. We would be running, and he would say, “Listen to yourself. Can you hear yourself running?”

One of the other things Erwan taught was that our balance improved as we were fatigued. When we’re so fatigued we’re just trying to get our breath back, he took us back to a balance beam—2x4s laid on the ground. We let the body listen to the information coming up from the feet and exert only what’s necessary to maintain balance.

If you introduce balancing to people who are fresh, they try to over-think something they’ve been doing since they were two. I’ve since started incorporating the balance beam as a superset after any vigorous exercise. Erwan teaches with that external focus. He let us be frustrated by a task, and then he dropped a pearl of wisdom on us. He layered wisdom on top of, not over-instructing anything.

Along those lines, I wish I’d said something about the farmer’s carry in Athletic Body in Balance. As you become fatigued in your workout, save some activities that don’t require a lot of motor programming but that require fundamental programming. If I were your coach in a CrossFit gym or an NFL mini-camp, there are some activities we’d do under fatigue. We wouldn’t do anything that required a lot of skill, but we could still jump rope. We could do the farmer’s carry. We’d get on the 2×4 balance beam.

DanJohn - Farmer Carry

A heavy farmer’s carry forces you to align your ear, shoulder, hip, knee, ankle and foot on your stance leg, and take short, well-aligned strides.  The best way to carry that weight across a distance is with good alignment and posture. Once your grip is smoked, your workout is over because your grip is an indicator of the amount of stability and integrity you have in reserve.

These are little markers, external focus and low skill moves we’d do toward the end of your workout.

Most of us are far too verbal in our movement instruction. 

When I wrote Athletic Body in Balance, I didn’t introduce you to Indian clubs and Dr. Ed Thomas’ historical perspective, and I wish I had. Through Pavel, I re-embraced the deadlift, learned about the Turkish getup and was introduced to the kettlebell. Erwan moved the idea of training from the gym, dispensed with all the equipment and showed us how a natural environment typifies the self-limiting physical development model.

Don’t just tell me how much you lift. Don’t tell me how fast you are or what kind of quarter-mile splits you run. Tell me how well you move, too. Otherwise, this pursuit could be robbing from a fundamental base that will support a much longer and better experience for you.

I’m very proud of the influence Athletic Body in Balance has had in our field. On a personal note, if this is the first time you’ve heard this information, go get screened or screen yourself. The first thing you get is the confirmation: Am I on a functional track or have I been creating or allowing dysfunction on this path?

I want you to keep moving for a long time. I want you to grow strong and age gracefully.

Here’s an excerpt from Athletic Body in Balance for a little more information.

If you’re interested in more discussion on Athletic Body in Balance,
I fleshed this out in a 90-minute talk on 


Come see Brett Jones and me in June as we discuss the transition from assessment to strength training: Foundational-Strength


Coaching versus Correcting


Coaching versus correcting can be confusing if we don’t look at it in a proper way.

It’s absolutely amazing to watch someone like Pavel, Brett Jones, Mark Toomey or Dan John coach a movement. They can take a bad lift or a bad movement and with just a few well-placed words, make that movement better. We’ve all stood back in awe of how economical they are with their coaching cues and instructions.


That’s by design. We’ve learned this by watching an inexperienced golf professional stand on the driving range and give a student 45 things to think about in the golf swing. That’s not a good idea, and it’s not a good idea to do that in the kettlebell swing either.

We’ve learned from about 25 years of motor learning research that we shouldn’t give internal cues—we should give external cues. We don’t tell people what to engage or what to fire or what to relax. We give them an external cue, like ‘float the kettlebell.’

We could say ‘engage your lats,’ or we could just coach a movement that requires that to be done. If you’ve ever seen me put a little elastic tubing in someone’s arm pits, pull backward and let them reach down to try to deadlift a kettlebell, I’m articulating that same lat engagement cue with a tactile weight shifting, vestibular and proprioceptive cue.

Since I wrote Athletic Body in Balance, I’ve been saying that the language of movement is written in feel, not in words or pictures.

When we first learned to move, we did it by the way it felt. If toddlers lean too far forward trying to run, they land on their faces. When we run and don’t lean far enough, we don’t really go much faster than walking.

Natural movement

That forward lean is something that’s communicated to us through gravity and the environment. Whenever possible, we try to do those fundamental tactile, proprioceptive, feel-based cues, and then maybe just add a word to refine it. 

Now, consider coaching versus correcting. If I take an athlete to the ground and ask them to do crocodile breathing or ask them to learn to breathe or open up their chest when doing an arm bar, that’s different. I’m actually coaching a correction, and in those cases, we can give a little more verbal insight.

Often, when people are doing a corrective maneuver—and I’ve seen Pavel do this very well—we coach breathing. Pavel said in Simple and Sinister that two very complementary yet contrasting breaths are seen in the Turkish getup and in the swing.


We can use the breath to relax the neurological system, or we can use the breath to fortify greater strength in a very powerful, crisp movement. The breath can often be the driver.

Here’s my point: When I watch expert coaches coach, they always (or nearly always) get it right. They don’t bring the coaching cues that work to everyone, only because everyone is not ready for those cues.

When an individual can’t even bend over and touch their toes, they’ve got a problem, and not just a movement problem. It’s a sensory problem. They feel the kind of tightness most people feel when grabbing and clasping their toes, but they’re feeling that halfway through the range of motion. I don’t know if there’s anything I, or any of the other coaches, can say to make that better.

toe touch

We’re going to have to do a corrective. If we’ve cleared their leg raise or if we’ve cleared a lot of the barriers to that, I may do something like the toe touch progression or leg lowering. Now, these aren’t exercises in and of themselves. They’re just correctives because I’ve still got to get them touching your toes.

Once I get them touching their toes, I’ve still got to make sure they have proper alignment, balancing and coordination in deadlifting. Then, one day I’m going to convert that to a crisp hard-style swing.

The art of this is in knowing when to coach and when to correct. Using the movement screen as a strength-and-conditioning filter, your best investment is to try to correct first if somebody gets a ‘1’ on the movement screen. Break it down. Use a corrective strategy.

I think Mark Cheng, Jeff O’Connor and Brett Jones took this to the next level in Kettlebells from the Ground Up 2. They took what Brett and I did with Kettlebells from the Ground Up, a breakdown corrective view of the Turkish getup, and demonstrated that within the Turkish getup are corrective opportunities.


















Listen to what the getup tells you. Do the correction. Resume the getup. Is it better or not? More correction may be necessary, but if you listen to the breathing cues and the movement cues, you can easily get over some of these obstacles or speed bumps within the getup. These are two products I think will really help you get your head around correctives.

I want to add one bit of advice—when the people I work with and the people I train do correctives, it’s not a month-long thing. It’s a session thing. As a matter of fact, it’s a ‘couple of minutes’ thing. We drop a corrective that’s not so difficult that you can’t potentially see the benefit almost immediately.

If Pavel tells you a certain way to breathe, relax and to stretch, or we tell you a certain way to do a crocodile breath before your rib cage mobility efforts, these are going to get you a very big bang for your buck—tangible results in the opening part of a workout.

That is my definition of a corrective. I’ll run the entire loop, hopefully within five to ten minutes. If you’ve been to a previous event of ours, you’ve probably seen us do this. We do the corrective where it’s needed, but we don’t introduce unnecessary correctives.

We often see people in our workshops sampling a corrective they don’t need, only to look up at the instructor and say, ‘I really don’t feel much from this.’ Why should they? They don’t have anything that needs correction. They’re reading far beyond a third-grade level. If I hand them a third-grader’s book, they may not get much from that, but the person who needs it is going to notice a tangible benefit.

How? we’re going to go through the extra inconvenience to set a baseline beforehand with a simple move, a simple breakout, a simple corrective or even doing the screen. Then we’re going to revisit that to confirm the fact that the investment was worthy.

From there we go right back into coaching. If you’ve got ‘2s’ and ‘3s’ throughout your movement screen, there’s a good chance the biggest barrier to you doing a respectable lift is just technical precision, whether it be bodyweight, straight bar or kettlebell.

When the movement screen gives you at least a ‘2’ or ‘3’ on everything, you’re demonstrating the requisite mobility and motor control. You just need to learn to control your breath, own your alignment and have a good feel perspective of what that lift is supposed to do.

This is when the coaching cues change everything. I became a better presser the moment Pavel said, ‘Pull the weight down out of the air with as much energy as you used to press it up into the air.’ That helped me reset my scapula. I was standing there thinking, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’


It was because Pavel has spent a lot of time coaching pressing. The cue worked for me because I was at least ‘2s’ on my shoulder mobility at that time, maybe not now or maybe it’s better. Who knows?

The point is this: Had I been a ‘1’ on my shoulder mobility, I wouldn’t have received the benefit of that coaching cue with nearly the impression I did. A ‘1’ is a simple template that says we should probably correct this. In most cases, if the person is fit and otherwise ready to train, they should be able to go from a ‘1’ to a ‘2’ in the preparatory phase of a strength session.

When that ‘2’ is in play (a lot of the things we’ve done in the past tell us that ‘2’ is going to be available for about 30 minutes) that is the window of opportunity where most good strength-and-conditioning effect can occur in a single-dose workout. That means even though someone walked in with a ‘1,’ we’re going to be training with a ‘2.’ Now, if we overload them or let them have poor technique, we might insult the move and send them back to a ‘1.’

Let’s be honest here. What is a ‘1’ on the movement screen? In many cases, we might want to call it a mobility or flexibility problem, but flexibility problems don’t respond to stretching like we think because many times that ‘1’ on the movement screen isn’t just a tight muscle. It’s a strategically placed parking brake with agreement from the brain and the body suggesting ‘If we allowed any more motion, this idiot would probably injure us. We’re not going to allow this person’s drive to train or be fit actually sideline us and injure us in the process.’


When we see a limited leg raise, limited shoulder mobility, an inability to lunge on one side or a horrendous squat, instead of just thinking, ‘Let’s find that tight muscle and attack it with foam rolling,’ let’s figure out why the parking brake is on in the first place.

Sometimes, the biggest problem with  flexibility is that the person performs a few powerful moves—loading moves, sprinting moves or lifting moves—without enough motor control or integrity. They scared their body so bad or leaned against the edge of their ability that they imposed a parking brake, and that parking brake has been engaged since they’ve been training. Sometimes, the biggest performance gain comes from correcting the ‘1s’ and then re-coaching the ‘2s.’

This is a very important thing to consider going into the StrongFirst event that Brett and I are doing in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania on June 20-22, 2014. We’re going to breeze through the movement screen, but then show how everything is in play if you know when to coach and when to correct.

The Functional Movement Screen as a coaching asset does that for us. Don’t waste your valuable coaching cues on a ‘1.’ In many cases, you’re only 10 to 15 minutes away from a ‘2’ anyway. By using video or still photography, we can get quick feedback on how clean movement gets.

Save your coaching cues so you and the person you’re coaching can get immediate and tangible benefits from them.

If you’re standing there taking the coaching cues you’ve learned from the masters and putting them on somebody who has their parking brake on, or who has closed down learning pathways because of a few ‘1s’ on the movement screen, you’re not going to bring much honor to the wisdom of those coaching words.

Drop coaching cues where they belong and you’ll get the same benefit as the masters.

Know when to coach. Know when to correct. Come see us in June.


For more on correction through Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) listen to my lecture available through