Saturate, Incubate, Illuminate

We previously discussed how and where to start looking at movement.

Let’s revisit the three questions I presented and see how you feel now.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 50 of Gray Cook Radio

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  1. Can you guess an individual’s FMS?

If you can’t and you believe that the patterns have some merit, then you should probably be adding it to your toolbox and no, it should never, ever be your only test. As we simply say, “the FMS helps you decide the next test.”


  1. Can your client or athlete guess their FMS?

It’s interesting to know their perspective: If they overshoot or undershoot their movement abilities and limitations, it’s likely that they won’t understand the training decisions and programming decisions that you’re making.


  1. Do you have an objective feedback loop for a single session?

Even though many of us may use objective feedback loops for long-term gains or even moderate to short-term gains over a few weeks, do we really have a single session feedback loop?

Remember, my emotional state and the client’s or athlete’s emotional state feed into this single session. We could both be having a bad day and consider it a bad session. We could both be having a good day and consider it a good session. But is it really a good session? Can we build on this or was it simply just another day of burning calories without really changing or developing movement patterns?

Anyone can claim a good session, but it’s professionally rewarding to prove it to yourself. Professional confidence comes from being right, not claiming you’re right.

Basically, the FMS can provide a single session feedback loop. When we find the bottleneck (see Movement for the algorithm to help you find that), it’s great to use a corrective strategy throughout the routine, throughout the exercise program, to confront that problem. As they expend energy through a 30-minute, 45-minute or even an hour session, you’ll see how that corrective, designed to magnify the problem and force them to work through it, opens the movement pattern.

Let’s start with the worst-case scenario. If you have no change at all in the movement pattern, you know exactly what not to do on the next session. The neurological system did not give you a nod, did not give you a thumbs-up and say, “I like the direction you’re going.”

Whereas, if in a single session with only a small percentage of the time dedicated to the corrective you can change that movement pattern, then not only have you demonstrated that you can work a client or athlete through a conditioning session, you have developed a program because of your feedback loop that demonstrated that their bottleneck, their biggest movement dysfunction, was also improved while a conditioning session was underway.

That’s a two-for-one session deal because you boosted metabolism and demonstrated an objective change in movement quality.

Those of us who’ve been developing and refining movement screening have tried to create a functional testing battery that does not make everyone fail and force them to corrective exercise.

Our goal is not corrective exercise and our goal is not screening. Our goal is no negative results from conditioning and professional fitness coaching or athletic coaching. Unfortunately, no single program can achieve this every time for everyone, which is why data is critical to maximizing results through program modification.

the goal

In healthcare, wise clinicians protect themselves from subjectivity by understanding the clear difference between signs and symptoms. Obviously we value both and always want to monitor both. The objective signs are a more reliable gauge for treatment and dosage than are subjective symptoms.

Corrective exercise is very similar because our goal is not fitness (adaptation). Our goal is a favorable movement pattern response. The FMS provides that movement sign for feedback against the pre-corrective baseline.

It never ceases to amaze us how many individuals interested in fitness and how many athletes interested in athletic performance have been under the professional direction of a coach or trainer for 12 months and still score a ‘1’ on the movement screen.


Remember, a ‘1’ on the movement screen is the inability to perform a movement pattern that most untrained and uncoached children can perform. You don’t have to do the movement screen perfectly, but you at least need to be able to competently get through the movement regardless of the amount of imperfections that we allow. If the client or athlete can’t even get through the movement pattern, the trainer or coach is either:
Unaware of the problem,
Aware of the problem and doesn’t consider the dysfunction significant, or
Part of the problem.

If that is you, you’ve actually been loading a dysfunction and hitting ‘save’ on a very, very embarrassing document.

The movement pattern that you have with a ‘1’ on the movement screen is considered incompetent by screening standards. You have no competency in this pattern so you’ve been intentionally avoiding it because you don’t understand it. Or, even worse, you’ve been loading it and stressing it, which is probably contributing to the dysfunction instead of being part of the solution.

I’ll leave you with a really interesting book to read. It’s called, The Mission, The Men and Me – Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander by Pete Blaber. He talks about a meeting with a psychologist to help him through some problem-solving issues. The psychologist gave him three words (first proposed by Hermann Helholtz in the late nineteenth century) to describe creativity. These three words, saturation, illumination and incubation, would help the hemispheres of Blaber’s brain work together to help him problem-solve in a way that allows creativity within moderate structure.


The psychologist told him that the process of problem solving and the process of thinking start with saturation. Grab some information and pull it in—but consider all sides and not just the information that supports your opinion. Be open, objective and professional.

Once you feel like you’ve got the information that needs to be considered, cut off the information stream and go into incubation. Develop the information. Stop talking. Stop asking questions. Take what you’ve already consumed. Take what’s already been saturated and apply it. Don’t just admire your new tool. See if it works.

Most people who criticize movement screening have not applied it and have not checked the boxes on the questions I’ve asked. They are commenting on a tool that they are not good at using . . . and think that the tool itself if not good. That’s the number one problem we see.

Lastly is illuminate. On the other side of checking those boxes, your illumination would say, ‘that’s not a productive path’ or ‘that is a productive path.’


If you answer those three questions and don’t feel like the Functional Movement Screen provides value to you, then that’s fine. But make sure you go through the process of saturation, incubation and illumination.

Check those boxes. If you can’t, work on it and see if you can. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.






     Look to Movement for more information on corrective strategies and feedback loops
(as well as details on the philosophy and application of the FMS and SFMA).

Checking the Boxes: If You’re Going to Think About Movement, Where Should You Start?

I’ve been thinking about movement all of my life.

I consider myself an average athlete with average physical ability, but I’ve always had an eye for quickly spotting good movement patterns. My brain draws lines like vectors of gravity and triangulations of momentum. I can’t explain it, but I’ve spent most of my professional career trying to articulate that.

running man

When I became a professional, I felt that my intuition about movement needed to be checked. I needed quicker and better feedback to make sure that I was objective about what I thought I was seeing. To be honest with myself and those I was trying to help, I wanted to set a baseline—I never wanted to professionally trust my intuition. My intuition can lead, but before I take action, I make myself a few check boxes—boxes so simple that most would agree in principle. If we agree in principle, we must strive to practice our principles.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 49 of Gray Cook Radio

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As a professional, whether you’re educating, rehabilitating, training or coaching, it is your responsibility to help other professionals find value in your intervention. When I got into physical therapy, personal training and even coaching, I found out that everyone always thinks they can do it better than the other professional.

Go ahead and look at studies. Almost 93% of drivers polled feel like they’re above-average drivers. If that’s the case, then that’s going to be a bell curve like we’ve never seen before. Not every driver is above average. Many are average or below average, but the perspective is limited to extremely subjective criteria. This is illusory superiority in action. But what do the facts say?


If we could all have a little chuckle and realize that we still place ourselves in the category of above-average drivers while assuming that other people are incorrect in their appraisal of their skills. Now, we might be able to understand how this can also occur professionally.

If you’re wondering about movement and you’d really like to go on a journey of self-discovery that is going to give you some feedback, these questions are a good starting point:

1. Can you accurately guess someone’s movement screen just by looking at them, watching them exercise or seeing them move around in activity? 

2. Can your client or athlete, or even the patient you just finished rehabilitating, guess their own movement screen? 

3. Do you have an objective feedback loop for a single session?

I’d like you to mentally check the boxes by these questions if you feel very strong and confident about your ability or the situation. First, we need to agree on a baseline.

I’m going to use the Functional Movement Screen, but I don’t need you to agree or disagree about the movement screen. Just realize that in most research studies, it’s considered a reliable baseline. (The discrepancy comes when people try to value what the movement screen means to them. We see many, many assumptions and omissions in their appraisals, but let’s just go back to the fact that it’s a more reliable baseline than your own subjectivity. The research on reliability can be found here: Interrater Reliability of the Functional Movement Screen.)

check box2

1. Can you accurately guess someone’s movement screen just by looking at them, watching them exercise or seeing them move around in activity?

If you’ve already answered the question, you’ve made a mistake. Look at someone move, guess their score and then do a movement screen. (If you know somebody who can do a movement screen, that’s even better because now you’re not interfering with the objective data.)

If you can’t guess someone’s movement screen, then you either feel that it’s unnecessary information or you just admitted that your eye for movement needs to be trained and needs to have a feedback loop that it does not currently have. If you guessed correctly, the follow-up question is: How often does your guess agree with the screen?

check box2

2. Can your client or athlete, or even the patient you just finished rehabilitating, guess their own movement screen?

You might be surprised here because just like driving, people will either overestimate their movement abilities or far underestimate their movement abilities. Some unfit people assume they move poorly and some fit people assume they have no movement dysfunction.

Both are guessing while standing 10 minutes from the truth.

As we already know, some individuals we have to push while we hold others back. The guidance we do on each independent movement pattern may be different depending on the way they screen.

Let’s get a touchstone on which we can both agree. Let’s hold to this anchor of objective movement appraisal—looking at patterns.

From a scientific standpoint, if your patterns are good, we shouldn’t break down your parts and processes, unless you have a history to show that the breakdown is prudent. If we observe no dysfunction in your behavioral patterns, including your movement behavioral patterns, then we could easily break things down—but why would we?

Why wouldn’t we move forward to more complex patterns if the basic patterns are competent?

If your patterns are good, we shouldn’t break down your parts and processes. Bad patterns deserve to be dissected, good patterns deserve not to be dissected.

bad patterns

Logically, there’s no reason to go down the rabbit hole of reductionist thinking if the behavioral patterns are average or above average. This does not suggest that movement cannot be improved, it simply suggests that if you are not where you want to be, movement is probably not your chokepoint or bottleneck. Go into more complex behavioral patterns like performance, sport specificity or higher levels of physical conditioning.

If the basic patterns are out, why would you go more complex? There’s no foundation for the building that you’re getting ready to build.

check box2

3. Do you have an objective feedback loop for a single session?

Body composition, muscle hypertrophy, development of the physique or even sport skills take weeks and even months before we can measure true change (remarkable adaptation) – tangible change that’s going to have an obvious effect.

However, the human neurological system will often move better (improved quality) in a single five minute session. We’ve done case studies all along. When we use the movement screen or our medical movement screen, the SFMA, to find the bottleneck in movement, we attack a single pattern, knowing well that the single pattern does far more than simply change itself. It can change other patterns as well—if it’s the weakest link it can affect the entire chain, and that can be measured.


When we throw the right corrective at the right pattern at the right time, movement changes in a single session. I hope you can check this box one day.

The question always arises, “Well, how long will it hold?”

That depends on what you do to reinforce it. If negative movement behaviors or unproductive movement behaviors (i.e. too much overhead lifting with too poor a technique) is what you’re doing, then the first order of business in the movement screen is to remove the negative (insulting action on a bad pattern)—not to add a positive (corrective effort on a bad pattern).

Apply the rule Protect before Correct. Hippocrates said “First, do no harm,” Protect before Correct accomplishes that goal.

protect before correct

Why would we try to correct something that’s probably environmental? We’ve often said that unless somebody has a compelling past medical history or pain on the movement screen that would demand a medical second opinion before they exercise or stress their body to a certain degree, we’re not going to consider the organism to be broken.

In biological terms, we all have to make a decision: Do we choose to modify the organism or do we choose to modify the environment? When I’m trying to activate a muscle that I don’t feel is firing, I am literally trying to manipulate the organism.

In most cases, when an organism is broken or not responding, they’re not going to do better without some form of holistic and systematic medical intervention, regardless of the environment you put them in.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll always find a medical problem, but we will find something that should be evaluated medically to reduce inappropriate stress on a vulnerable body system.

Remember: Protect before Correct

If you simply have dysfunctional patterns in your movement screen, it is the knee-jerk reaction of the trainer and coach to automatically assume that the organism is broken. I compel you to look at a different place: in my opinion, if the individual doesn’t have a past medical history or pain with movement, I would encourage you to change the environment first.

Environment equation

The best-of-the-best trainers and coaches should tweak and adjust the environment—the practice session, the lifestyle (rest, recovery, regeneration, unnecessary stress and unnecessary laziness). If you’re going to make these changes in somebody’s training or conditioning program, you’ve got to base them on much more than your own opinion—to make sure you’re on the right track, but also to demonstrate to them that their confidence in you is well-placed.

In Part II of this article, we’ll look further into these three questions with some problem-solving tips in mind.


Strength Defined

Our previous discussion of Strength ended with a challenge to develop a better, more applicable definition of the word.


When we look at the definition posted by Merriam-Webster for strength as a noun, the very first meaning is “the quality or state of being strong, capacity for exertion or endurance.” If we look deeper at exertion and endurance, we wind up using the words work capacity.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 48 of Gray Cook Radio

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Dan and Gray

The reason I challenged the word strength in the first place was because I found myself working with Lee Burton and Dan John on Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums and pulling in commentary from strength coaches like Jon Torine and Alwyn Cosgrove on the entire concept of taking strength, pressing it hard and seeing if work capacity comes out. I think we can all hold ourselves to a better standard of communication and accountability if we use strength that way and don’t simply value it as a series of lifts.

Unless you are lifting because powerlifting is your sport, you’re lifting for some other benefit. Whether it’s simply fitness, preparation for ski season, preparation for boot camp or some other hobby or physical activity, we should be able to agree that work capacity will allow you to develop more skill because you have more resistance to fatigue—your practice time will be not only filled with volume but integrity as well.

If you could test work capacity without lifting then you could make a great case for lifting. If you need to lift to test work capacity, then you eliminate some strong non-lifters. If you need to lift with good technique, then you eliminate lots of gym rats as well.

You take a test to know what to practice—not so you can practice the test.

When Dan and I approached this topic in Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums, the biggest problem area, obstacle and point of controversy that emerged is the fact that following bodyweight competence and movement pattern competency, we go into loaded patterning.


Biologically, that’s not what happens. Babies carry things before they try to lift their max load. Sub-max lifts with carries are actually preferred by nature and biological development over simple repetitions of lifting things in newly-acquired loaded patterns.

When people with a dysfunctional pattern on their movement screen do corrective strategies and jump right into a lift that looks like that pattern, there’s a “hiccup.” If I’ve done anything to make that glitch, I apologize for it publicly—because we should not arbitrarily impose loads on a pattern that has only been vetted at body weight.

We should see what your endurance and your integrity look like under load in a very low complexity movement, like a Farmer’s Walk, a front rack carry, an overhead carry or even a segment or the whole Turkish Getup. If we can value these vertical and horizontal carries, these symmetrical and asymmetrical carries, then I think we will demonstrate how long someone’s integrity will last under load.

From that base of carries, we can pursue the appropriate lifts that are needed to make the individual balanced in the left and right side of work capacity, the front and back side of work capacity and in the upper and lower allocation of work capacity. When we go for a balanced body, we quarter the whole thing. Look at the Y Balance Test and you’ll see where we’re coming from.

Y balance

I challenged the word stability quite some time ago in my book Movement, stating that all we were doing with the word stability is really strength—sets and repetitions to small muscle groups. That’s not what stability is.

Stability is more about timing than it is about strength so we substitute the words motor control and they work very well. It keeps you on the mark and it helps you hit the bull’s eye because when you find a lack of motor control, you do the things that foster motor control. When you find a lack of stability, you simply ask which muscle group controls this movement and how many sets and repetitions you think it will take to regain it.

How many sets and repetitions of finger flexion do you think it will take to get you playing a piano?


There is no answer because it’s the wrong question. Playing the piano creates the timing and coordination that create the motor control to allow you to play a piano. It’s not about strength at the motor control level. It’s about alignment with integrity under load.

That’s what carries do for you—almost automatically if the posture is correct. If the starting posture is correct, your job is to gauge a carry cycle that lasts between one and three minutes. Adjust the loads appropriately. Adjust the postures appropriately. Make sure that they don’t have any ‘1s’ on the movement screen—if so, you’ve probably got a severe motor control problem or an underlying mobility problem. With these, you shouldn’t even be pursuing motor control until you know what you’re shooting at.

If we kill stability and replace it with motor control, and we kill strength and replace it with work capacity, then hopefully no one will be offended. The whole point of strength is not to create a word that’s a golden calf and let it become the thing that we strive for.

Work capacity is what we strive for in our human endeavors and strength is a key attribute that helps work capacity. At the right time and the right place, lifting is one of the most effective things to promote work capacity, but if lifting creates inappropriate side effects or somehow undermines work capacity, then strength is an empty word. Anybody can say they have it.

Let’s protect the nobility of words like strength and stability. For a short time, let’s impose a more correct title to what we want to gain by doing stability work or strength work. Let’s call them motor control and work capacity. Let’s not hide behind a term that doesn’t have metrics and values that enable us to demonstrate our improvement or effectiveness in one attribute without unnecessary or complicating side effects.

I hope that I haven’t offended anybody. If I’ve challenged you to think outside the box, it’s the same challenge that I imposed on myself when I started confronting this term, trying to be more truthful with myself and the work that I do.



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