Looking back over the Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums DVD I did with Dan John and Lee Burton, I realized how often we mentioned strength.

This could potentially be the most polarizing topic that I’ve ever approached, only because I feel that many will think I’m saying strength isn’t important.

I’m not.

I’m saying that the word strength does not have the level of communication and accountability that it should.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an abridged audio version of this article,
Episode 47 of Gray Cook Radio

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When a term as valuable to physical development as strength lacks clarity, vital signs and standards, it ceases to be actionable. It becomes something that every group discusses, but that each values differently. If strength is fundamental, then why can’t we have a normal value as with vision (20/20) or blood pressure (120/80). Why is it so hard?

It’s hard because we want to discuss specific strength before general strengtha short-sighted and unsustainable outlook. The foundation for long-term specific strength is a solid, general base.

When we look at words like strength or flexibility, they can be applied to a person in reference to will-power or your adaptability, or they can be applied to a physical attribute. For the purposes of this article, we’re definitely talking about the physical attribute of strength. Having said that, I’ve got a love-hate relationship with that word.

When you hear the word strength, do you think of lifting or do you think of work capacity? Be honest with yourself.

For a large portion of my life, I’ve thought of strength as lifting. But that wasn’t always the case.


Growing up in a rural community, I thought of strength as the ability to work. Then, I was introduced to the weight room in high school and college, and I thought strength was lifting. Now as a professional with a quarter-century of education, mistakes and meditation on the subject . . . I’m back to thinking that strength is the ability to work.

farmers carry 3

If you’re in a lifting sport (power lifting or Olympic style weight lifting), then I think you have to focus on lifting. If you’re in a sport that prizes work capacity, then lifts are not necessarily the only way to generate strength. They are, however a very important way to generate strength in patterns when it’s appropriate. Two questions must be addressed by the strength professional in a non-lifting sport:

What’s the vital pattern to be strengthened?
What’s the minimum effective dose to get there?

When I use the phrase work capacity, I could basically shop that term from the tactical athlete, to the senior golfer and even to the 10-year-old gymnast. Work capacity is the integrity of postures and patterns against fatigue across time. Every athlete or every enthusiast in a physical hobby has had to confront the point where their fatigue reduces their technical precision and skill development.

Let me simplify work capacity. If we’re talking about repetitions:
Any repetition with integrity should get you an A or a B on the qualitative strength-grading scale. Any repetition without integrity should get you a D or an F on the strength scale. If you can’t decide on integrity, you’re forever stuck at a C.

How many imperfect reps do you have time to do today? If you don’t have an integrity gauge or a quantity-against-quality gauge, you will never be able to truly value work capacity. You can quote me on that.

We want to strengthen athletes and active people so they can pursue the activities they want and develop the skills they want. You can’t pursue skill development—activities that require physical capacity or movement complexity—if you don’t have a general or basic resistance to fatigue. Once you start to fatigue, your proprioception, your concentration, your flow, your respiration and your physiology start to suffer. Everything suffers with fatigue.

That suffering state is a bad platform for practice. I use the word practice because when we’re developing skill, it’s more about that technical precision. When we talk about training, that’s taking a minimum level of technical precision and seeing how much volume we can put on it before we cross that line in the sand—integrity.


Don’t get me wrong. I think strength is a noble word, but we use it both so broadly and so shallowly that no single group that needs to discuss strength can agree on what it is. For lack of a better definition and in my humble appreciation of the word, strength is work capacity.

If it is work capacity, then quit calling it strength. 

Work Capacity

Strength, in my mind, is a sub-category that is integral to work capacity—probably the ability to use muscular tension to perform work or to protect spaceusing your muscles to protect your range of motion, your posture, the point at which you occupy space and the world around you. It’s that resistance to external forces that could damage you, knock you off balance or take you off your path. It’s also that muscular tension that allows you to perform work by moving your joints with maximum efficiency (the minimum effective dose I discussed earlier).

That work must have a certain level of integrity or it’s just wasted motion and nature does not appreciate things that aren’t economical. In the grand scheme of things, blasting out those extra five repetitions with a loss of integrity probably doesn’t get you much. You probably did more repetitions than your partner, but you crossed a line that the great ones try to never cross.

Outside of a lifting sport, what good is a lift if it can’t be valued or represented in some form other than a lift?

Somebody training, let’s say, to go into the military, heads to Parris Island to go through USMC boot camp. Believe me, I have a few buddies that went to that place and when they came back, they looked a lot different than when they left.


They all hit the weight room and they all ran hills and they all did different things to harden their body and get ready for the work ahead. However, what they went through at boot camp was more about lifting themselves and being competent with their bodyweight and that of the equipment on their backs, whether on a 10-mile hike, a 10-mile hike with a pack, or a bunch of pull-ups, push-ups or leg lifts. It didn’t matter.

Nothing in the weight room, where they got to decide how many sets, repetitions and muscle groups they would work on today, really distinguished them. The environment that they stepped into outside of that weight room was where they had to put it all together and they had to perform. If the reason you’re lifting is to create work capacity for something that is going to be valued outside of the weight room, never let your lifting schedule interrupt your development of work capacity.

One of the things that I chuckle about (maybe you do as well), is when I ask people, “Give me a representation of your strength?” They’ll all tell you a one-rep max or a three-rep max in a lift that they did five years ago.

I hate to say it, but what I was five years ago ain’t what I am now. That’s true for most people. Strength should be reported numerically and scientifically in different valuations of work capacity because I’ve always said, “if you practice the test that we’re using to gauge you, then the test becomes obsolete as a biomarker.”

A marathon is a light-and-long representation of work capacity and a farmer’s carry with substantial weight is heavy-and-short work capacity. Both activities make you own your postures and patterns in order to have success—the postures must have integrity, the patterns must have economy.

If we started training you for SAT-type testing in the eighth grade and ran you through SAT-type testing every month of your life until you were a junior in high school, I’m not so sure that SAT would represent your success in the first year of college—which is really all it was designed to do.

The minute you practice the test and then turn around and tell somebody, “I’m strong because my deadlift is this much,” they may say, “Well, how many hills can you run?” “What does your farmer’s carry look like?” “How many pull-ups can you do?” They’re not challenging your strength. They’re challenging your narrow definition of strength.

Most universal truths cannot be communicated in words, but with the right words, they can at least be valued as a common experience by almost everyone. If we could basically take the current way we use the word strength and literally kill it, nail it to the wall and let it die, then we would start valuing work capacity, which is the reason most of us lift in the first place. When that happens, I think we could come up with a better, more usable definition of the word strength—a word that never asked to be misused in the first place.

What do you think? We’ll talk definitions in Part II.

For another take on strength and work capacity read my archived article
Strong Does Not Necessarily Equal Tough.


This past summer, I had an opportunity to work with Dan John. You should know, by now, that I’m a big fan of Dan’s work and unique perspective.

Dan is one of those coaches who tries things more than he talks about them. After he’s tried them and found value, he almost can’t stop talking about them. When Dan gets a question, he talks to a few people and gains perspective. Then he goes into the gym. He enters a training situation and a coaching mentality and recruits feedback from multiple people.

DanJohn - Farmer Carry

Only then can he determine how and what he thinks about an exercise.

Dan has always implemented certain principles in the way he develops someone and that is why I wanted Dan standing next to me when we approached The Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Exercise Continuums. Last spring, I sat down with the FMS staff and we looked at ways to map out systematic thinking in the development of exercise continuums. People may think that we snap exercises together like puzzle pieces, but it doesn’t really go that way.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an unabridged audio version of this article,
Episode 46 of Gray Cook Radio

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First, let’s make sure that we all have the same definition of a continuum: A continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not particularly different from each other although the extremes are quite different.

When we introduce somebody to a series of exercises, hopefully we have a goal or a pinnacle exercise that demonstrates everything in fine working order. Once we know that end destination, it is our job to connect the exercise movements—from a very low level of complexity and competency all the way to the place that we want to go. But we need to snap those together in a sequence to ensure that the person performing the exercise will not have an unnecessary detour, all too often seen in current fitness development and athletic development.

My first order of business in avoiding that little hiccup or glitch is to develop a better forecast. When we just can’t get deadlifts going right, or can’t seem to get the sequence on a pull-up, or can’t do a kettlebell swing, we likely didn’t know our map well enough. Something occurred that we neither intended nor expected. We should have known the person a little bit better because a continuum is an environment that we create.

We step in—in place of nature, in place of the natural development that this person was going through—and we say, “We’re going to do this instead.” Returning to my recent articles on Physical Education, I’ll reiterate: I don’t think we can develop you better than nature. I think that some of the strongest, fastest and most skillful movers on the planet may have already lived out their lives, many of them without ever being coached.

I’m not going to assume for a minute that my small brain is wiser than the entire natural system that has developed us but I do feel comfortable in saying this: Even though I don’t believe I can develop you better than nature, I do think that I can do it quicker and I also feel like I can do it safer. Having said that, I feel comfortable piecing together an exercise continuum that will get you from Point A to Point B. I will base it on what I know about the activities and what I know about you.

While we understand the continuum—we get how one exercise seamlessly gives rise to the next more complex pattern—we don’t always understand the person we’re putting through it. That’s the biggest problem I see in continuums. If the person has fundamental mobility and stability issues, don’t be surprised later—get those off the table now.

In our pre-conference workshop for Perform Better this year when Dan and I explored continuums, I discussed some movement behaviors that must be managed. I talked about breathing, bending, balancing and bouncing—The Four Bs.

Even though it sounds like I’m getting ready to tell a story with Winnie the Pooh in it, that’s not what I’m talking about at all. I need you to have a quick way to remember that each one of these abilities builds upon the other. If your breathing is not right, any martial artist or yoga practitioner from the last 4,000 years of history will tell you that you missed the starting point. If your breathing is not correct at rest or with escalated activity, everything else will be broken. It is the one rhythm that you cannot do without.

Breathing is the one attribute that functions both consciously and at an unconscious or subconscious level. At any time you can manage your state by controlling your breath. Are you angry or over-exerted? There are ways you can breathe to make that situation better. If you don’t know that or don’t understand that and are a fitness or rehabilitation professional, quickly explore breathing, observe its responses to the loads you place clients or patients and don’t immediately try to coach it.

Bending follows breathing and is your ability to yield to your environment and create sensory information. I am passionate about mobility—not for the biomechanical necessity, but for the sensory input. Why do I obsess on changing mobility before I approach stability? I consider most of your stabilization to be just like your breathing—performed at a subconscious or unconscious level. Your stabilization runs most of the time at a reflexive level. You’re not thinking about ityou balance effortlessly while focusing on another task.

If your mobility is compromised enough to make you compensate, the sensory input that you have to your reflexive behavior is askew—you have an overload of information or an underload of information. Either way, you’re not receiving the information you need.

We all understand the biomechanical reason for compensation. However, if your mobility is compromised, I can test your natural learning loop. If sensory information is not converted to perception and perception is not converted to action, you’re not going to get better without embracing the idea of changing mobility. Even if mobility never becomes normal, don’t let that be an excuse—try to improve it in an appreciable way prior to going into stabilization, which takes me to balance.


Balance is far more than your equilibrium or the ability to stand on one foot for 20 seconds. You use your balance in a deadlift. You use your balance in a Turkish Getup, in a Farmer’s Carry, when you swim. You use your balance in nearly all movement situations—first to keep you aligned and then to gauge the amount of muscle contribution between agonist and antagonist.

Lastly, we arrive at bounce—the way you use your backswing to pre-load your golf swing or cock your arm back before you punch. Bounce describes the stored energy when one foot hits the ground and you create your own reflexive situation along with the elastic component of your muscle and tendon working.

If you watch babies, they don’t really do a lot of lifting. They move right through their patterns. They pick up things and carry them. Before you know it, they’re bouncing all over the place, running and sprinting around and swinging and throwing things. Babies skip the strength phase, which should make us ask ourselves, “Why are we so enamored with the strength phase?”

As Dan and I exposed the two continuums of the kettlebell swing or the push press, we thought:

pushpress2Edited_KBs_from_the_Center_-_Pages_final_version_1What does it take to do a push press?
You should probably have a good squat and a good press.

What does it take to do a kettlebell swing?
You should probably have a good deadlift.

We don’t see a lot of people with good kettlebell swings and we don’t see a lot of people with good push presses. If they do have a good push press, it’s likely a much better push press on their dominant side than their non-dominant side. There’s no reason for that asymmetry in a basic movement like a push press. We wouldn’t expect symmetry in a tennis serve or throwing a fastball, but if you can’t show me symmetry in a push press, something is wrong with your engine.

More information on the value of the push press and kettlebell swing can be found in the audio version of this article.

The moral of the story: Dan and I used both of these continuums to demonstrate that the lacking piece within most continuums is the carry phase. That is the number one reason why I wanted a coach of Dan John’s accomplishments and wisdom standing next to me. Dan has always had some type of carry as part of his personal development program and the development program that he does for others. Dan is the messenger for loaded carries.

I’ve tried to demonstrate how his wisdom actually works. Toddlers don’t do a lot of lifting but the things they do lift, they carry for a long time. When you carry, you must demonstrate alignment with integrity under load and this is reflex stabilization. If your carries are poor, if you dump your posture before you finish your task, we’ve demonstrated that the endurance of your stabilizers will not withstand power work because your prime movers do not really care if your stabilizers smoke out early or not. You will always squeeze out more repetitions. They just won’t be repetitions with integrity.

Therefore, we use carries (whether they’re a conventional Farmer’s Carry or a unilateral overhead to front rack to suitcase carry) to demonstrate your alignment with integrity under load and even your symmetry. If we can use your holds and carries to create integrity and alignment under load, then we’ve demonstrated that your stabilizers have the endurance, the feedback and the control to allow you to march along this power continuum without any unnecessary setbacks.


Most people go from patterning to lifting. They’re missing a step. By definition, the steps of a continuum should be almost unperceivable. They should meld together. Going from a pattern to a loaded pattern is not a continuum. Gain the pattern. Gain the alignment. Gain the integrity. Show me that you can carry things in different positions. When you can carry those things in different positions, I think you can lift with much better integrity, develop your strength authentically and move right into power without a hiccup.

In The Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Exercise Continuums, we broke down the continuum to show you that the missing link in most continuums is a lack of a carry phase, a lack of a holding phase and the lack of alignment with integrity under load in very simple patterns demonstrating work capacity. I choose the words work capacity over strength because you can consider yourself strong with a 1-RM but I may not want you backing me up climbing a mountain. I want someone with work capacity.

We lift and we train to have enough work capacity to pursue the skills that we desire to develop. If your work capacity is lacking, most of your skills will be practiced without integrity and alignment under load.

You need to know about continuums.


 To see holds and carries in action,
check out my new project with Dan John and Lee Burton:

Coaching DVD

The Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Exercise Continuums.

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It covers:
Exercise choices for power, work capacity and metabolic load
How to evaluate movement health, competency, capacity and complexity
The difference between an exercise continuum and a training progression
Minimum standards to progress, hold or regress
When to correct and when to coach
The metrics of the 4 Bs—Breathe, Bend, Balance, Bounce
What it means to play, practice or train, and who needs which
Postures and patterns, and drills to develop both

Don’t Give Up and Don’t Get Hurt – Physical Education, Pt. 3

I want to continue on the thread of Physical Education. My most recent articles have focused on the many shortcomings that have emerged in the educational environment. Please understand that my critique is based on the inability to create change and not the intent. I want to force us all to rediscover that intent and work together to accept this development in a systematic way—because life depends on it. What I hope to offer are the beginnings of a humble solution, while striving for clear communication and objective accountability.

Now, I’d like to talk about an environment beyond education. When we go into specialized jobs or activities or even professional sports, there’s an entirely different kind of physical education and development that needs to occur.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an abridged audio version of this article,
Episode 45 of Gray Cook Radio

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

When we try to introduce a new subject matter, like Functional Movement Screening, in an environment that already has an established physical culture, it’s going to make waves and send ripples. Chief Alan Brunacini from the Phoenix Fire Department embraced the fitness message and wanted his firefighters to benefit from that. But he understood that bringing in fitness experts to tell firefighters how to be fit enough to do their job better would cause problems.

People like to learn from people who respect their roles, knowledge and abilities. Chief Brunacini made a brilliant decision: instead of bringing in trainers, he sent out a few select firefighters to become acquainted with and educated on the most important facets of physical development. They focused on a fitness standpoint for injury reduction and increased physical competence and independence.

Let’s take people who know the intangibles and teach them some of the rules of fitness, some very smart rules of fitness. When trying to implement movement screening into athletics, it’s always great to have the team captain on your side. That’s happened to me in the NFL and in the NHL. When the veterans buy in, the rookies don’t have a choice. If the rookies buy in too quickly, you lose the veterans because they’re exposed to too many new fads every day. They didn’t become veterans by chasing every one of them.

Always think about who you’re pulling in when you’re exposing a group of highly competent, highly specialized and well-trained people to information. They would rather hear fitness information from somebody who knows what they know. Having said that, what if I were going to introduce movement screening as a physical management tool in the military? I would not have the people who do your rehabilitation administer the movement screen. That’s not the context with which we want it.

The people pushing you toward physical excellence, the same people counting your pull-ups and push-ups, should be the ones screening your movement.

The pressure cooker they perpetuate finds weak links and develops them in an accelerated manner. Those who understand what we are trying to do use the FMS to accelerate development for a competitive advantage. Remember—a deficiency on a test is not failure. It simply identified something to be associated with any future failure to develop. A deficiency on a screen or test is an opportunity to avoid failure by responsibly managing your weakness.

We should hold movement in the same proactive light as physical fitness, not in the reactive light of physical rehabilitation. Don’t do movement screens in rehab, in a rehab setting or even with rehab staff. Do movement screens with a staff that pushes physical excellence, and imparts, through both gesture and action, the concept that movement is a vital part of that excellence.

If you want to introduce the movement screen to highly specialized groups, take the extra time to find the leaders—the alpha wolves, the people who are in charge of and held accountable for physical excellence. I think our penetration in the NFL probably came more through strength coaches than through rehabilitation professionals. We’ve had a few rehabilitation professionals that had such a good rapport with the strength conditioning coach that they were able to get it through, but for the most part, the places where the movement screen is more sustainable in pro athletics is when it’s embraced by the strength coach. I think it’s appreciated by the rehabilitation staff—but should not be seen as rehabilitation or a remedial effort. It should be seen as one more thing to help you approach physical development, especially if a vetted test identifies you as below average.

When I visit an organization to do a seminar or work with athletes, there’s always that one person they want me to see. If I can convince that person—if I can generate a better diagnosis, a better plan of attack or create a better movement situation for that person—then their action and sometimes their verbal endorsement is all the program needs. If I can’t convince the team leader that I’ve got a good idea for your team, then I don’t deserve to talk to the team.

I have found that when I go into the arena of physical excellence, whether it be athletic or tactical, they’re not interested in my research projects. They’re not interested in the articles or books I’ve written.

They want to hear a practical, no nonsense explanation of why this system is better than what they’re currently doing. They want to hear about the fail-safes we’ve built in to help them avoid wasted time during physical development.

Also remember that the first part of physical education and development we let occur is natural selection, you simply don’t make the cut. If you can’t make it to pro football or if you can’t get on a college football team or if you can’t make the minimum requirements to get into the military, you probably wouldn’t have been successful there anyway.

Countless conversations have led me to identify a pattern in the development of our Navy SEALs. Sure it’s oversimplified, but it catches bad patterns and they definitely don’t want bad patterns: when someone goes to BUDS training (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training,) there are only two things that he has to do: don’t ring the bell and don’t get injured.

Number one: don’t give up.

Number two: don’t get hurt. Understand your limitations and function as close as you can to them. If you go beyond your limitations make it intentional development. Make it count. You should be getting a gold medal or saving your life or someone else’s.

You may not finish first, but you don’t need to finish last. We see too many injuries occurring in training and exercise. Inevitably, in the future, people who exercise will be more prone to injury than people who don’t. That’s going to make exercise look bad—like an unnecessary risk factor when really it’s the other way around. Just don’t take unnecessary risks in your physical development and exercise until it countsuntil makes a difference.

What’s the best way to not get injured? Know your capabilities, but push yourself. Know your weaknesses, and work on them. The work you do today is the foundation of adaptation.

I saw a great T-shirt at a cross country meet that said, “When you start the race, don’t be an idiot. When you finish, don’t be a wimp.” It’s the same message. Run the race you are meant to run. Run the race you trained to run. Do the things you are capable of and when it comes to those last four seconds or those last four minutes or those last four reps or whatever, don’t be a wimp. You’re already on the right path, work as hard as you can. Remember my premise: I don’t believe we can instruct physical development better than nature. I think we can do it safer and faster.

You will have a hard time proving that we can do it better than nature. Look at the example of how many athletes have emerged from obscurity to earn gold medals. They’re self-trained. They didn’t have the pedigree, the university backing or the sponsorships. They didn’t get to be a pro for four years before they competed in the Olympics. They overcame many unbelievable obstacles to get where they got. They made mistakes and they learned from the mistakes quicker than the rest.

This is why I think books like The Talent Code or Talent is Overrated are important. We need to know that the talent (we see in those people we want to emulate with our physical activity) comes from deliberate practice. Even if they don’t use word deliberate, that’s the way they practice.  Every one of us has that one thing we do pretty darn good. Look closely at the way that you embrace and refine those talents, you’ll see what other people do with physical art.

You quickly see the bottlenecks to physical development when you start with movement. If people don’t move well, they can’t benefit from the environmental stresses because they have no other play. Think SAID Principle—they can’t have any adaptation because they’re already in compensation. They don’t get to push their physical limits, yet because they’re in compensation they fatigue early anyway. They don’t get to spend as much time learning the skill and soon fall by the wayside and have less than optimal performance.

All because their movement was inefficient.

The inefficiency pointed them in a direction more toward an injury or more toward a general lack of physical development and not many of us will stay in an environment that doesn’t give us a lot of success or gives us continuous failure. Not all of us are built like Rudy, enduring for four years and hoping to get a start. Most of us will move on.

What is our job? Our job is not to create a situation that will end in major failure four years from now. We need to offer sustainable, little lessons. Small failures, if you will, that you can learn from and that will quickly keep you on track. Your pride, your agenda and your calendar—those may get injured, but your body won’t. Nature will let you get injured if you’re dumb enough to get injured.

Let nature provide the variety. You provide the “don’t quit and don’t get hurt” and I think you’ll do fine.

We Can’t Do It Better Than Nature – Physical Education, Pt. 2

I believe any opportunity to educate another human being should be a sacred moment.

In my sports medicine degree work, I was exposed to quite a few physical education classes because Athletic Training Pre-Physical Therapy or Sports Medicine are often taught within the Physical Education Department. When I witnessed the opportunity that physical educators have to develop people, I realized the sorry state of physical education.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 44 of Gray Cook Radio

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

tall kneeling PE2

The work of Dr. Ed Thomas and the Jeffco Fitness video I shared in my previous article display the positive influence that physical activity can have on a child’s grade point average. The benefits of exercise in academia, health and self-esteem are clear.

The end goal of an English class, a math class or a psychology class is a state of entry-level competence and functional independence.

What is the end goal of physical education of our youth? No, not the physical education that you had and not the physical education that your child may (or may not) be receiving now. Let’s go back to the physical education that was dropped on our parents—the baby boomers. Are these people physically independent when they make their health and fitness decision or do they basically just surf the internet or migrate to the first professional that seems to have the right credentials?


I have enough math skills to know that if I rely on someone for mathematical problems, they’re at least doing the basics right. It goes back to addition and subtraction, right? Put it this way: I’m not going to get taken advantage of buying a new car.

I have thought that my mom or dad might get taken advantage of at a physical therapy clinic, a chiropractic clinic or in a gym. I don’t think these people are trying to be underhanded—I simply don’t think that they’re the expert my parents believe they are. Every one of us has an ulterior motive for doing what we do, and any time we can sell somebody something that they’re confused about, we win. The insurance industry is built on fear. They charge you now for something you’re afraid of in the future. I want to make sure that health and fitness don’t have to be that way to be successful.

I believe that a Physical Education class, if restructured and rebuilt from the ground up, would physically empower kids to overcome obstacles. Real, physical obstacles. Today we’re going to climb, tomorrow we’re going to skip the next day we’re going to run and then we’re going to throw things, were going to lift things but the first thing we should probably learn to lift is you.


We’re going to experience physical obstacles and create challenges. Those challenges will in turn create failures. Not the kind of failures you’re going to obsess about—we want the kind of failures that tell us the exact type of development that you need.

We know that sometimes the fastest people might have the biggest flexibility problems. We also know that some people with no flexibility problems may not have the acquisition of strength they desire. We should scale the physical challenges away from games and more toward physical obstacles to allow those without an athletic affinity to have a physical presence in their lives. The most rewarding physical activity you can have is one that, by chance or design, is scaled to you—a challenge that involves full engagement. A bested worthy opponent.

Dr. Ed Thomas talks about this concept a lot and he talks about a physical culture, a culture that embraces its physical attributes as much as it’s academic, intellectual, or architectural attributes and I feel the same way. As physical rehabilitation and personal fitness professionals, we need to think of ourselves as educators.  How would we engineer a class to make a child feel independent with basic health and fitness decisions by the time they graduate from high school?

As a physical therapist, I often treat people who have already exhausted all of their insurance money. They come to me out-of-pocket and immediately expect me to do significantly more in one or two visits than the previous professional did after the twelve visits that exhausted all of their insurance resources.


I’ve accepted that challenge and many times I’ve closed their case in three visits spread over three weeks by having them listen to the right advice and do the right thing. Am I an educator or a therapist? Yes, I am. The effects of my treatment will quickly be absorbed into the rhythms and patterns of life, but pivotal education is a game changer.

What does that say for our medical and physical culture? We’re wasting a lot of time and not creating independence in our clients or our patients. Do we want them to be well and go tell others about their experience or do we want them to keep returning as continual consumers?

For my conscience, I would rather create independence, but that independence could easily start much earlier in our educational system. Why are we not independent with our healthcare decisions and fitness decisions? We’re expected to be independent with other decisions we make about finance, communication or business.


Tim Harford wrote a beautiful book called Adapt that focuses on how nature and the environment make us develop. Nature gives us lots of opportunities to fail. Not failing is how nature pats us on the back with success. Great—until you remember that failure in nature can sometimes take your life or injure you severely.

We often try to physically develop people better than the environment can. I want you to embrace the fact that we can’t do it better than nature. Often, when we’ve tried to develop one attribute better than nature, we’ve done it at the expense of another attribute or some other quality. There’s something about the way the natural environment develops us that will not let us go below a minimum accepted level of competency on another metric while pursuing the one of your focus.

That is exactly why we should try to develop a system based on nature. Start by following three simple principles from Adapt.

Number one: Variety. As in nature, you have to be exposed to a lot of variation to develop. Not every one of your interactions with new activity is going to be a success . . . or even rewarding. When you have a lot of variety, expect to have a lot of failure, which brings us to. . .

Number two: Failure. Make the failure survivable. We run into this frequently with the Functional Movement Screen. When I tell someone that I don’t think they should load their squat because their squatting pattern is really dysfunctional, they inevitably say “But tomorrow is squat day.” If your squat doesn’t have enough integrity to benefit from the load why do you persist in the load. I didn’t say don’t work on your squat. I said don’t load your squat.

Many runners misunderstand me in the same way. Their volume of running is so much that it will not allow change to occur in their fundamental movement. They need that dysfunction and compensation to maintain their mileage with all the other issues they have. If the compensation stays alive, then the reason for the compensation also stays. From the movement screening standpoint, we remove that by restricting a physical activity. We interrupt your program, we interrupt your groove and we interrupt your vibe. We steal the momentum from a dysfunctional pattern by not doing it. We interrupt that thing that you want, in order to replace it with that thing that you need. All we really injure is your pride.

Number three: Feedback. Make a clear feedback loop for non-failure and ensure that it follows a systematic development.

nature chart

Remember, the Rolling Stones told us that you can’t always get what you want . . . but you get what you need. If we’re in control of somebody’s health or fitness we should first concern ourselves with their needs. Help them see that addressing the need could get them a little closer to the want.

I’m forty-eight now (you probably figured that out from the Stones reference). I will always take an injury to my pride over one to my body. I’m not necessarily sure an injury to my body will make me better, but most injuries to my pride enlighten me in some way. If the failure doesn’t have a feedback loop built into it, then it’s not nearly as instructional as it could be. If we (as coaches, trainers, teachers, educators and rehabilitators . . . human beings) are going to step into the arena of development for health or fitness, then we need to remember that we can’t do it better than the environment.

I think we can do it faster and safer than the environment if we are principle-based.

I’m not trying to do anything in Functional Movement Systems to circumvent nature. Nature is where we came from and all growth is based on its principles. Physical problem solving abilities and healthy individuals with physical independence is what physical education should generate.

You need variety to grow. You’re going to have failure in order to gain perspective. Make the failure survivable for feedback and continued development.

More on Physical Literacy from Dr. Ed Thomas:
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Physical Education: Why Do We Make Kids Move?

Physical Education is losing traction everywhere in the United States, and this is probably a good thing. But let’s back up a little. . .


Physical Education should be the balanced presentation of physical challenges. These challenges are scalable and designed to create a healthy and capable human beingThey are new and varied and produce opportunities for failure.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 43 of Gray Cook Radio

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However, it is assured that the failure is manageable. Not only is the failure manageable, but there is an educational path for the student to uncover—a well-planned feedback loop.

The answers are not given, but they are just below the surface. With higher degrees of physical skill acquisition, greater challenges can be imposed, both to physical problem solving and physical strength.

Today’s environments offer asymmetrical challenges to the organisms that inhabit it. A physical presence is no longer necessary to be successful. However, a physical presence is necessary to be a balanced human being.

Balanced human beings do not need to rob from one activity to strengthen another. That only happens when the strength is achieved in an unnatural and unbalanced way. Challenges in every area build the whole in ways far greater than their singular effects.

Back to where I began . . . Physical Education is losing traction everywhere in the United States, and yes, I said it’s probably a good thing.

Physical Education is dying because it fails to meet its goal: physical independence. Dr. Ed Thomas calls it physical literacy, tying it in to education as a whole.

Why do we make kids add? Why do we make kids read? So that they can develop these essential skills in a way that they will continue to use them to benefit their lives.

But, why do we make kids move?

Think of Physical Education in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Most of the people who were introduced to Physical Education in these decades do not currently know how to manage their health and fitness independently. Many are overly dependent on others for basic health and fitness fundamentals.


It didn’t work.

What was the result of Physical Education early in their lives? Was it designed to promote physical independence and pro-active behavior to manage both health and fitness across a life span?

Or introduce somebody to the different sized balls that can be used in various sports?

If we invoke the best definitions of play, practice and train, we will see that early in life, play is the majority of our activity.


PPT400PlayHowever, most of that play is natural and instructional. It is instructional through failure and often accompanied by pain when falls, cuts, scrapes and bruises occur. Play is also interesting later in life, when retirement (hopefully) brings free time. We are again visited by pain, but not as we engage our environment. The pain is already therebecause of our unmanaged health, play is no longer an option.

Play, the one thing that could probably restore the body into a more harmonious balance and blend is not accessible, because pain alters motor control in an inconsistent and unpredictable way.

The same pain that is instructional early in our life as our environment hones our movement begins to creep back into our life. We choose not to manage it in a harmonious and balanced way. We suppress it, and by suppressing it, we ignore the signal. By ignoring the signal, inefficiency, dysfunction and disability impress their forces upon us. They mold our structure and break down our function.

If this unnatural process happens in a slow consistent manner, we barely realize the erosion that’s occurring. Then one day, an ability that we saw we had in a snapshot or a video is no longer available to us. The memory of it is crisper in the picture than it is in your head.

You lost the ability to move.

Somehow we got into fitness, sports performance, weight-loss, general physical preparedness, tactical training and all other forms of physical conditioning that are focused more on physical appearance than physical function. Had we focused on function, we would not see a consistent, unchallenged functional problem across the landscape in both health and fitness.

exercise bottle

. . . and call me in a month.

If exercise were the beneficial supplement that it’s supposed to be when life’s activity does not create balanced fitness, then why does it create such unfortunate side-effects?

Exercise itself is now a risk factor for injury! People who participate in more exercise are more frequently injured.

We could argue that they had more exposure and therefore that exposure would make them consistently more injured. Even if we count for exposure, I still think we see that movement behavior, when unmanaged and unrefined, could actually be bad instead of good.

That’s right, moving often before you move well could be problematic.

Why? Name one other physical attribute or activity that should have loads impressed and stress impressed on it when it’s not in harmonious balance. Our systems can actually thrive on stress once they are balanced and functioning well. But if they are stressed when they are not balanced and not functioning well, they can actually be challenged for too long, damaged beyond repair, or broken altogether.

Medical science has developed a battery of vital signs that does not involve movement. Why don’t we treat movement the same way we do other body systems?

We realized the importance of blood pressure 100 years before we had the ability to reliably and practically test it . We’re currently at a place in time where we can compartmentalize movement problems consistently and effectively. The skill set can be possessed at all levels of fitness education, and there are healthcare and performance models intimately attached.

The System is designed to generate movement health as a foundation on which movement fitness can be built . . . and movement fitness is the stuff of which physical education is made.

So why no movement vital sign? We can’t afford to continue to get this wrong.

Here’s how Dr. Ed Thomas gets it right:

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To be continued. . .sign up for the feed (top right) to receive the next article in your inbox.


For related thoughts, see:

A Glimpse into a Better Future

Play, Practice, or Train