The Hardest Checklist You Will Ever Do

I want to give you a checklist that I’ve been working on for quite some time and it pulls together a few of my recent posts. I’m sure the checklist has made me better because it’s made me become a more objective critic of my work—both when I succeed and when I fail. It’s helped me to develop a systematic approach that brings clarity to my decisions as an exercise and rehabilitation professional .

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an abridged audio version of this article,
Episode 53 of Gray Cook Radio

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Whether you’re rehabbing somebody from an injury, an illness, a disease or a surgery; whether you’re physically training them for fitness, athletics or some other type of performance enhancement or tactical goal, you’re using movement to do what you do.


You’re using exercise to (hopefully) complement movement, not so that they can continue exercising but so they can get to an activity that they’re focused on. Most fitness enthusiasts have a goal or a fitness activity that engages them. Hopefully, it’s not just burning calories, but an experience of connection and engagement. You’ll hear phrases like “I’m looking forward to the next time I get to do this!”

Helping someone find the best path to that place is my motivation. If it’s that important and I’m a professional, then I need a checklist to keep me on that path:

1) Am I creating independence?

2) Is what I’m doing sustainable?

3) Am I following a developmental approach?

4) Do I have a tight, objective feedback loop?

Now, let’s look at Question #1 and discuss independence. If somebody needs me in order to remain fit for the remainder of their life, then so be it.

There are some people who are going to need maintenance physical therapy or chiropractic for the rest of their lives. There are some people who, without a personal trainer (for some reason, whether it’s motivation or self-sabotage) would probably not be able to maintain fitness.

But let’s look at the big picture. If the fitness backbone—the healthy foundation on which our country should be built—needs to change, then we can only allow a few fitness enthusiasts and a few people who need rehabilitation to be completely dependent on the system. First, it’s not sustainable and secondly, it’s not really helping them to manage themselves. Remember, the goal of education is independence.

In every other facet of education, we talk about literacy and competency but do we graduate high school with physical literacy? Even if somebody throws a book in your face that you’ve never seen before or maybe a concept you’ve never thought about, you have the reading skills to at least ingest that material and find out if you like it or not. You have the mathematical skills to pay your taxes, pay your bills and to buy things you need without being taken advantage of.

But when it comes to physical literacy, I think the healthcare system and the fitness system take advantage of all of us because nobody is really fitness literate or health literate. When dropped in a new environment, most of us don’t know what to do, and I think that problem starts because most of us poorly gauge our own ability. We either overshoot and fail or undershoot and don’t get results.

I think one of the biggest issues on the current fitness landscape are people who far undershoot their physical ability and never get into the skill:challenge ratio that creates a workload or motor control challenge.

They never get better so they quit exercising or working.

Gait Analysis Clinic helps improve running, prevent injuries

Another large percentage probably overshoot their physical ability and bounce back and forth between injury and recovery until they die. We either bite off more than we can chew or not enough to sustain us. Therein lies the biggest problem.

We talked about a skill:challenge ratio and The Rise of Superman in a previous article, and I think we need to continue that thought. One of the best ways to keep people motivated in activity is to find something that gets them into or close to their flow state where they are engaged. At that point, they’re either an expert at what they’re doing and can explore boundaries or we’ve engineered a challenge to get them closer to that goal.Rise of Superman

The skill:challenge ratio is vital. I think it should be our ideal goal to try to make people who go through rehabilitation completely independent whenever possible. Even if they’re not back to normal, they can maintain health by following a routine or clearly understand what can improve and what cannot. They’re independent. They don’t need me unless they have another accident or some unfortunate relapse.

Secondly, I would like to think (being a strength coach or a personal trainer) that if my client or athlete wanted to go on a sabbatical or was taking a safari to Africa, they could get along fine without me. I’m here to help them evaluate where they currently are, better gauge their skill:challenge ratio and then put them on another fitness path.

I think the trainer of the future won’t be so much counting repetitions or reminding people to book three appointments a week. They’ll be managing hundreds of people—some with only three visits a year, some with three visits a month and some with three visits a week—depending on what their financial ability, goals, needs and lifestyle.

Question #2: Is what we’re doing sustainable? Even if time and resources are taken away from this individual, can they still sustain their level of fitness? In hard times, most will cancel their gym membership or their personal trainer’s fees. They’ll do those long before they’ll cancel cable or internet—I promise you that.

Can your health and fitness survive in lean times? When you have no significant time or money to dedicate to fitness, can you still be fit? Talk to a retired Marine. They’ll figure it out with push-ups, pull-ups, air squats or jogging—anywhere they can find a little space and time. It doesn’t cost a dime, just a little bit of time in between other activities.

Many of us spend more time going back and forth to a gym than actually in the gym. Moreover, the time in the gym doesn’t really make us that adaptable—it enables our current limitations and allows us to practice within them rather than confronting them. Figure out how to work out in any environment or figure how to be active in any environment. Then, anytime you want to check your workout, demonstrate that your activity level has kept you more than fit.

Question #3: Is what you’re doing fitting a developmental model? Do you have a scientific rationale for doing what you’re doing? Did it work?

Coaching DVDIn The Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Exercise Continuums, I talk about mapping continuums. A continuum is about progressing somebody safely through a simple movement pattern to a complex movement pattern. Question #3 covers all of the background wisdom, that when married to an individual’s specific history results in well-planned, thoughtful development.

Our last, Question #4: Do you have a feedback loop so you don’t believe your own ‘BS?’ This will not only make you better . . . it’ll keep you from selling it to someone else.

I built Functional Movement Systems, first and foremost, to make my team and me better. A few young guns in the fitness and rehab world challenged ourselves and our education with higher feedback loops. We got better—not because we had been given greater resources, but because we were more resourceful with the limited resources we had. We never let our budget limit us.

If I’m not helping someone make their goals, I want to know it. If they can’t do this independently, I need to know so. I need to know if it’s unsustainable and when it departs from a developmental approach.

I want to know my mistakes before anybody else finds them. To achieve that consistently, then I have to professionally and ethically raise the bar on myself. I have to have a tight feedback loop, and I have to own those mistakes even if it hurts my pride some days.

Let’s revisit the questions:

1) Is what I’m doing creating independence? Did I achieve it?

2) Is what I’m doing sustainable? Did it work out that way?

3) Am I following a developmental approach? Did I follow through? 

4) Do I have a tight, objective feedback loop? Am I answering questions with as much professional integrity as possible?

Start asking yourself these four questions. They’re the hardest checklist you’ll ever do, but you’ll be far better for it.

Diet and Exercise

There was a time when the words diet and exercise said enough.

Diet was something that was good.  We didn’t have many bad food choices.  For much of history, we were working just to get enough.

Some cultures reached a balance between their needs and their environment. For them, the word diet never needed the word healthy placed in front of it.

If we hadn’t destroyed a good food economy (also, a good food ecology), we would never have to say healthy diet.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an unabridged audio version of this article,
Episode 52 of Gray Cook Radio

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Exercise (and the broad term activity) share a similar history. In a hunter-gatherer culture or a balanced agrarian culture, there probably wasn’t much need for supplementary exercise. The activity level required to sustain life maintained a fitness level matched with the challenges that environment could provide.


Henry Ford said, “Chop your own wood.  It will warm you twice.”  We know we need physical activity.  We also know that we have self-preservation needs.

Anytime that you can blend physical activity and self-preservation, do it!

I was raised in a small town in Virginia where activity was very high for the farming families. Exercise wasn’t necessary and was often considered frivolous—a mindless way to expend energy.


I have had to balance this culture with my education in exercise science and my pursuit of credentials, both as a strength coach and a physical therapist, knowing that exercise—physical movement—is one of my tools. I have always encouraged clients and patients to work through correctives until they can resume a lifestyle that’s physically active enough that exercise will only be a supplement, not a requirement.

Supplementation is required for some people, who—due to a genetic problem, an injury or an ailment that’s long-lasting—might not absorb what they need from an otherwise balanced diet.  For these exceptions, be thankful that we have supplementation.

Likewise, when people have injuries, ailments or disease processes that somehow compromise their movement—either the sensory input and perception end or the motor output end and motor control end—we might need to supplement flexibility or a pattern to help them simply remain at a functional level.

The beginning of the current problems: we looked at diet and exercise and assumed that if we could do supplementary things to get you back to normal, we could use those supplementary things to supercharge you.

I often see up-and-coming exercise professionals fall into the same trap that I did: “if we just had more exercises or if we just did certain exercises more, it would fix everything.”

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.”

Haven’t we inverted that?  We’ve witnessed poor movement patterns and, without trying to understand where they came from or what caused them, rushed right into local kinesiology and simple biomechanics with a solution.  “Oh, I know how to get that hip to extend.”

If the hip is not extending, then there’s either something wrong with the organism or something wrong with the environment.  If there’s pain, disability, ailment or impairment that can be medically measured and intervened on, then we must agree that there’s something wrong with the organism.

There’s no environment—no amount of bridges, planks or rolling exercises that will reset whatever is wrong with the organism.  We must look for that reset button.  We must determine if it’s an arthritic joint, a neurological problem, an avoidance of pain or instability?

If there is no sign or symptom indicating that there’s anything wrong with the organism, yet hip extension is not occurring on one or both sides, why shouldn’t we look at the environment?  We may learn that this person sits a lot. Except for when they run. When they do run, they can’t develop that beautiful erect posture that natural runners have.

Too much sitting forces them to realize the need to move and they jump into an activity—a lift, a press, a run, a sprint, a bear crawl. Whatever functional activity they believe they’re doing, they’re probably not bringing much integrity to it.

Your environment reinforces what you bring to it and before you know it, you’re a runner who sits all day and can’t even straighten up when you want to.  You’re a kettlebell presser who sits all day but can’t achieve that top alignment you so badly want.

The Functional Movement Screen serves me very well as I make those organism/environment calls. If you have pain—a ‘0’ on the movement screen—it is my job, ethically and professionally, to ensure there’s nothing wrong with the organism.  When you have pain on one of those seven simple movement patterns, in my opinion, you have a medical problem until a healthcare professional looking at all the different patterns, parts and processes says that you don’t.


The screen puts on the brakes until we have more information. If you don’t have a past medical history or an injury within the last six months to a year, and you don’t have any pain on the movement screen at all but you do have what we call dysfunctions or scores of a ‘1’ on the movement screen, the very first thing I’m going to do is challenge you about your environment—not just your exercises.

How much are you sleeping?  Tell me about your diet?  Are you getting plenty of rest?  Do you understand the whole recovery regeneration cycle?  Are you bringing integrity to your exercises?  Are you doing a significant amount of patterning in one exercise but avoiding or ignoring another complementary pattern (that serves to balance posture)?

Einstein’s quote directs us you think deeply about why people move so poorly.  Is it because of a lack of an exercise science model or a lack of an activity level?  In my opinion, I would love to uncover the person who has such a high activity level that they appear fit on testing, yet they don’t exercise.

Bamyan province emerges as a model for Afghanistan’s potential

If you live in an urban environment and have to perform a sedentary job, that achievement may be impossible.  But if we could replace some of our exercise time with activity time, it doesn’t necessarily mean we wouldn’t meet our fitness goals.

We may actually find a little more joy, a little more commitment, a little more artistic value and a little more integrity with the energy we do expend.

When we’re going to move, it’s very biologically important to be engaged in our movement.  If we look at the natural environment around us, animals are 100% engaged in the moment and in their current activity.  When we have two electronic devices on our hip just so we can run—one so we can text and the other so we can listen to music—I’m not sure that many of the lessons that running in the environment could teach us are even accessible.

The exercise industry will always ask for new books, new articles and new discoveries of different exercise patterns that will somehow create a magic bullet for an entire lifestyle that’s broken.As_seen_on_TV

People tell me they don’t have enough time to screen, test or assess . . . because it won’t leave them with enough time to exercise. If they did their testing right, it’s likely there would be far less need for quantity of exercise and that the specific quality or type of exercise that’s needed would be identified.

Remember the carpenter’s rule:  Measure twice, cut once.  When we develop exercise programming to influence our client’s and patient’s environments, we are cutting.  We are cutting through their natural inclination to do something and making that decision for them.  We should make sure that decision does no harm and creates safety and economy in their endeavor.

I don’t think we can do things better than the natural environment.  When one person seeks to design a diet or design an exercise program for another person, it’s our charge to do it faster and safer than nature would—to do it economically. Nature can be harsh sometimes and people’s knowledge of their ability to do certain things can be skewed—too conservative or too aggressive.

How can we use the most efficient means possible to restore a harmonious diet and health or a harmonious exercise and activity level with fitness if we don’t have baselines? For a food industry that has inundated us with non-nutritive filler and a myriad of supplements, the baseline should be whole foods.

Our baselines should show us that we have taken clients and patients into fitness and function and not just made them endure exercises.

Exercises have been the product of the fitness industry for far too long. The product should be fitness—fit people. If the focus remains on exercise instead of achieving fitness, I fear that we will get worse before we get better.  Let’s shift that focus to the biomarkers of health and fitness. Then, we’ll find that exercises will emerge in a new way that complements activity level.

Pandora and Exercise

You use Pandora, right?


If you don’t, I’ll explain: Pandora is a music experience that allows you to customize your listening. You pick an artist who has songs that you like and you then create a radio station named for that artist. You will be offered music from that artist but also music from other artists (whether you are familiar with them or not) that is very similar to your original choice.

Pandora is able to do this because behind the scenes they have figured out a way to look at patterns in music performance—patterns in lyrics, patterns in rhythms, patterns in performance style. If you simply pick a Pandora station and never interact with it, you may only like half of the songs you hear.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 51 of Gray Cook Radio

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With Pandora, you “thumb up” or “thumb down” songs depending on whether or not you like them. Once you tell Pandora your musical tastes, Pandora will start to play your music. Pandora makes note of your choices and refines the information.


The title is Pandora and Exercise, but I’m not telling you to listen to music while you work out.

I’m saying that Pandora does a better job of entertaining than we, as trainers and rehabilitation professionals, do of developing your movement. That’s because Pandora listens to your patterns and refines the information.

Pandora’s process also has its pitfalls. If you’re too picky and refine the information too much, you will not have a rich variety of music and may never be exposed to potential future favorites. If you don’t interact with Pandora at all, you won’t get much more than is currently being offered to you on satellite radio.

But if you give Pandora input and don’t try to completely control it, your experience will introduce you to music by other artists. It will give you opportunities to create more stations and further refine them. What if we treated exercise the same way?

In the book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler takes us on a journey with action and adventure athletes. These are the men and women who are breaking records in their respective sports at an accelerated rate, as has never been witnessed before.

Are records being broken simply because it’s a new sport and there’s a lot of improvement to be made?

Rise of Superman

Not necessarily. Think about the way a snowboarder, surfer, rock climber or skateboarder might practice. It looks a lot more like play than it does sets, repetitions and focused training based on body parts and metabolism. We don’t have to beg these individuals to practice. They play and in their play, they will “thumb up” and “thumb down” certain activities. They will want to reinforce some activities by practicing.

What’s the difference in play and practice?

Practice is when we pick one aspect of what we’ve been playing and expose ourselves to greater failure opportunity. It could be in a risky move or it could be in the presence of an expert. We can imagine the skateboarder pushing their own limits, the martial artist throwing a punch or kick in front of a master, or the weightlifter getting real-time feedback and then applying that feedback to the next repetition.

Anytime we expose ourselves to a master or a challenge, we’re practicing. We took that object of play and asked for more failure opportunity. If the failure opportunity you get is not survivable, you won’t be here tomorrow. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. But please bite off something that will require nothing less than full engagement. If you’re disengaged or detached from the activity you’re doing, you cannot get into a flow state.

Flow is where records are broken and the intrinsic value of movement can be realized.

The extrinsic value of movement is looking better, feeling better and having people pat you on the back and say, “Wow, you’re looking great.” The intrinsic value that the action-adventure sports prize is complete engagement in the moment—a mind-body experience where there is no past, there is no future and there is no internal critic.

When we talk to professional athletes about the flow state, they don’t necessarily talk about themselves as superhuman. They just say everyone else seeming to be in slow motion. If we looked at your movement life as three slices of pie intersecting in a circle, we could call the slices play, practice and training.

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as fitness professionals, performance professionals and even rehabilitation professionals is that we have focused so much on the metrics of training—the sets, the repetitions, the periodization—that we’ve forgotten that the main reason people move outside of simple preservation is to play or become engaged in their environment.

Once engaged, they practice to intensify engagement. They go down the rabbit hole and, whether they realize it or not, practice seeking greater opportunities for feedback. That feedback usually comes at the end of failure rather than at the end of success. If the failure is survivable, and if the failure is acceptable, then we can get better every day. Improvement is the result of gauging your skill to a challenge at the “possible-but-far” edge of your potential.

Functional Movement Screening and the varying levels of performance testing can expose you to failure or to metrics and numbers below the norm, indicating possible failure. In those endeavors, we only injure your pride (and only then if you’re self-absorbed in metrics). Our goal is not to injure your knee or your back or see you lose valuable training time because you didn’t gauge your skill to your challenge in such a way to grow your skill with acceptable risk.

Since the late 1990’s, we’ve been focusing on the best way to develop and forecast this skill:challenge ratio. If you think about it, the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) can be divided right down the middle with specific adaptation being the role of the organism and imposed demand being the role of the environment. I will offer two enlightening points here.


First, when we seek to develop the appropriate skill:challenge ratio for ourselves or for somebody who has hired us to do it for them, what systematic tool do we use to find out whether the bottleneck is with the organism or the environment?

Don’t take the cop-out answer and say, “Oh, we’re going to work on both.” Surgeons, paramedics, pilots and umpires make ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions every day.

As fitness and rehabilitation professionals, I implore you. If you don’t know which is more broken—the organism or the environment—you’re not professionally capable to make a suggestion. I think we are paid to be snipers, not carpet bombers.

Second, if you do know which one is broken, what are the systematic categories and vital signs within each category you will consider to make sure that you are doing no harm?

It is both refreshing and enlightening to embark on a journey. The journey I am on says that I cannot do this—physical development—better than nature. Natural selection has been working in the background for all of our existence. I don’t think I can develop you better than the natural environment.

My role as a professional is simply to develop you safer and faster. To do that, we will need a systematic approach and we will need to identify vital biomarkers at each level of your development. With those, we can point you effectively at a skill:challenge ratio optimized to get you out of your head and into your body . . . and out of the extrinsic motivators of fitness and into the intrinsic motivators of fitness.

Please read the book, The Rise of Superman. It will help you personally and professionally. I could not give it a higher recommendation.





Thanks for reading. Here’s an exclusive clip and a coupon code for 25% off Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums (with Dan John and Lee Burton)  - coupon extended through 2/8/2015


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?

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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.

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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.