On Seeds and Soil

A country boy’s attempt at logic

“Do you understand the interplay between seeds and the soil?” Can you imagine going to a lecture on movement screening, corrective exercise and injury prevention and hearing that come out of the instructor’s mouth? Well that’s exactly what happened. Read on…

Seeds and soil

I try to leave time in most of my lectures for a question and answer session. A few weeks ago I was speaking to a large group and noticed all the questions were directed toward exercise topics without any qualifying information. The participants were asking questions with what seemed an absolute undertone. They did not comment on the particulars of a situation; they wanted unconditional responses to questions like—

  • Which exercise is better, Exercise A or Exercise B?
  • Are squats better than deadlifts?
  • Which core move most activates the deep abdominal musculature?

Instead of attempting to answer these, I challenged the audience to ask better questions. My intention was not to offend, it was to educate. Straight answers to those questions would not help as much as they thought.

I often use metaphors to make my points. My friends call these Cookisms. On this day, I used one as I directed a question back to the group: Would you categorize exercise as the seed or the soil? I’m sure more than a few thought I was crazy, but I asked that they humor me for a moment.

After some discussion, the consensus was that the seed was the exercise—the specific activity—and the soil was the body and its fundamental movement patterns. The thinking was that the body and its fundamental movement patterns support a vast array of complex abilities for activity and exercise.

As infants we follow a very predictable path of fundamental movement acquisition. The crawling and climbing patterns give rise to the reciprocal action of the arms and legs with toddling, walking and eventually running. Once we master the basics, we use the fundamentals as a foundation for the pursuit of activities that most engage our individual interests.

Regardless of where we end up, ultra-marathons or recreational golf, we cannot deny our common movement pattern foundation. This being said, we often ask questions about exercise that assume all bodies are created equally and therefore the only variable to discuss are the available exercise choices. This is not the case—it’s not even close!

Although we have the same common movement fundamentals, they are rarely preserved in their pristine or authentic forms. Injuries, poor posture habits, poor training choices and many other circumstances distort our fundamental movement pattern foundation. Movement screening and assessment does not assume we have all maintained our fundamental movement patterns. These systems set out to establish the level of fundamental movement competency that is currently present, because without the fundamentals, the desired functions will be somehow compromised.

Early agrarians understood that not all soil was the same. Through the mistakes of their ancestors, modern farmers have learned soil is a complex organism that can be easily mismanaged and depleted.

It was once thought soil could be perpetually productive if we simply gave it three supplements. The three primary macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are the most common symbols in modern fertilizer. The overuse and abuse of soil with these incomplete fertilizers also brought forth the modern organic movement. Once we only looked at short-term crop yields and productivity, and it seemed just adding the three macronutrients was sufficient. We now know soil and its quality are as important as the seed. Soil quality cannot be authentically reinstated with the addition of only three additives.

Likewise, we cannot impose generic exercise packages and expect all bodies to perform equally. We have recently learned that physical performance does not represent physical durability. If we discuss soil and seed separately, we demonstrate our ignorance of the subject matter. However, if soil quality is established, seed specificity can then be discussed intelligently. In parallel, if we always consider movement pattern competency as a prerequisite to exercise and activity, we will display a more comprehensive understanding of the body and its potential productivity.

Back to my lecture: With this perspective I then dropped the bomb, “Do you understand the interplay between seeds and the soil?”

Some seeds deplete the soil; some seeds rejuvenate the soil, and it is sometimes necessary to alternate crops on the same soil to preserve its productivity. Some soil is not ready for work and some soil has greater potential productivity than initially realized. The only way to know is to test the soil and know the potential of the seeds. Those who take the time to understand the connection are the true professionals.

Ultimately, you must agree you can change the seeds, but you are stuck with the soil you’re on. And unlike land, which you can sell, you’re stuck with your body and those you must help. Logic dictates that we discuss the soil and seed together, and never expect a complete answer if we insist on only discussing half of the relationship.

Western Movement

The term western movement is not used here to indicate westward relocation. Unfortunately, it is used to describe the way westerners are starting to move, and that movement doesn’t look good. Ironically, non-westerners who have adopted a western lifestyle will probably start to move the same way as they experience an erosion of fundamental movement patterns.

To be clear and more specific, we could discuss western-type movement patterns the same way we discuss the western-type diet. Both are likely components of the so-called western diseases. The western diseases are actually chronic health consequences associated with a lifestyle of the typical citizen of the United States as well as cultures that mimic our diet and exercise habits.

Breast cancer, prostate cancer, coronary heart disease and colon cancer are at the top of the list of western diseases. Our lifestyle could also serve as the best recipe to produce all-time record numbers for obesity and diabetes—a disease we now share with our children. Researchers mainly focus on our diets and in this they are completely justified, but the problem seems to be associated with a complete lifestyle, intake as well as output.

Natural movement

Our lifestyle is generations removed from the natural limitations that forced balance and moderation. Our exercise and rehabilitation mistakes equal our poor dietary choices, but as yet are not as well documented. Even though we seem obsessed with diet and exercise, we do not practice either in accordance with time-honored fundamental principles. Our success on this planet has less to do with our intelligence than our adaptability, and we are now losing that unique quality.

We are known as omnivores, meaning we can eat a large variety of either plants or animals and receive vital benefits from that diversity. Moderation, balance and variety are basic components of our success. The greater the balance and variety, the greater the benefit, and for most of our time on this planet, natural obstacles produced moderation for us. Those days are over, and our obsession with convenience, comfort and speed has actually reduced the benefits of all three factors. Our food quality and variety continue to decline, but the quantity of things we like is always in reach.

We could also be called omni-exerceos since “Omni” in Latin means all or everything and “exerceo” means to train, exercise, practice, cultivate and generally keep at work—basically… exercise.

Our exceptional anatomical structure controlled by a highly adaptable brain allows us to perform a variety of fundamental and vital movement patterns. Over time, environmental stresses produced a body that could crawl, climb, walk, run, swim and fight. We can lift, throw and swing things.

We have the perfect blueprint to adapt and succeed. The way we learn, produce and maintain functional movement patterns are at the heart of our triumph. Those early adaptive days are over, though, and our obsession with expediency and convenience reduces variety and therefore compromises adaptability. Our exercise quality and variety continues to decline. Some may argue that our exercise choices are vast and they would be correct, but once we select an exercise from our infinite menu, we specialize and move away from variety. We focus on one or two items and that is all we do.

Our exercise mistakes seem to migrate to both extremes. Some do little or nothing, while others intensely focus on a solitary physical endeavor. Some even take shortcuts in the name of the physical ideal or athletic performance, but shortcuts leave telltale signs and side effects. Nature does not allow shortcuts. Instead, it imposes necessary limitations that produce holistic, complete and adaptable outcomes.

However, specialization is not the problem. We all have specific activities that interest us and we should pursue them. We simply need a gauge to indicate when specialization erodes the quality of fundamental pattern or patterns. The best way to understand the implications of exercise on authentic movement patterns is to screen or test them. If they are compromised, exercise is not the problem— fundamental movement patterns are the problem, and both intense activity and inactivity will reinforce it. Conversely, if a particular lifestyle does not produce dysfunctional movement patterns, that does not imply an individual is fit, but suggests a pursuit of fitness with minimal risk of injury. However, if a particular lifestyle produces dysfunctional movement patterns, the pursuit of fitness could actually increase risk of injury.

It is no longer a case of just get out there and move. We must establish that movement is fundamentally sound because it can no longer be assumed as a birthright of every human. Our lifestyle no longer forces physical adaptability, and therefore the fundamental mobility and stability that allows us to easily adapt to natural and physical changes has been compromised.

We eat, work and recreate differently than our ancestors and populations without our conveniences and sedentary lifestyle. Many of us are overfed and undernourished at the same time. That concept strikes at the heart of our food quality and is largely undisputed. A focus on food quantity and convenience instead of quality has produced this result. Unfortunately, the same argument should be made for our exercise.

When bodies move poorly, people question the quantity of movement opportunities and incorrectly assume that quality is adequate. It the book Movement, we develop a logic-based system that weighs movement quality against our current knowledge of movement quantity. We demonstrate methods to help the exercise and rehabilitation professional rate and rank movement-pattern quality and understand the implications and remedies when dysfunction is discovered.

When the quantity of food consumed is extreme or restricted, the results are obvious. The effects of poor food quality are more subtle, but can be equally damaging. The same is true with exercise. We can quickly identify the quantitative exercise problems of too much or not enough, but we do not currently have a gauge for the subtle effects of poor movement quality compounded by exercise.

Current evidence suggests that risk of injury is associated with poor movement quality, yet we have failed to establish standards and minimums to guide us to more effective management and programming. Movement: Functional Movement Systems challenges the exercise and rehabilitation professional to understand and implement the logic and systems that consider movement quality alongside quantity.

Western diseases are reversible and we do not need to look any further than the western lifestyle for guidance. If we manage the quality and quantity of our intake and output, we will return to the authentic balance of our ancestors.

A New Way to Look at Balance

I wrote my first book, Athletic Body in Balance, in response to what I witnessed in the first part of my career. As a sport and orthopedic physical therapist and a part-time strength coach, I was well-positioned to see all kinds of bodies doing all kinds of activities, and discovered all kinds of unexpected findings. In particular, I noted a lack of evenness when performing evaluations on athletes, patients and clients.

In using the word evenness, please understand this covers all of the following for both form and function—

  • Upper body overdevelopment —lower body underdevelopment
  • Lower body overdevelopment—upper body underdevelopment
  • Significant limitation in some regions with little limitation in others
  • Significant limitation in some movement patterns, but not in others
  • Overdeveloped anterior muscles—underdeveloped posterior muscles
  • Overdeveloped posterior muscles—underdeveloped anterior muscles
  • Well-developed pushing movements—poorly developed pulling movements
  • Well-developed pulling movements—poorly developed pushing movements
  • Left- to right-sided asymmetries

Of these, the left-to-right asymmetries seem to be the most associated with risk of injury according to the evidence. As a matter of point the bulk of my lectures regarding movement screening and movement assessment revolve around discovery of asymmetries and motor control problems as risk factors for injury or re-injury.

Even though my professional work must stay close to the evidence and research, I still notice all the other elements, too. So let’s discuss it.

The physical presentation of differently trained bodies often provides a signature of the type and style of activity that developed it. Those who are exclusive in their activities seem more often be molded to their activities, and sometimes actually over-molded. These individuals can actually lose movements and muscles that would make alternate activities much easier.

Some choose this path, and some are just victims. Specialization can rob us of our innate ability to express all of our movement potential. This is why I encourage highly specialized athletes to balance their functional movement patterns. They don’t so much need to train all movement patterns, they just need to maintain them. When a functional movement pattern is lost, it forecasts a fundamental crack in a foundation designed to be balanced. The point is not that specialization is bad—it only presents a problem when the singular activity over-molds to the point of losing balance.

Some of the best strength coaches seem to concern themselves with balance of power. Their focus may not be on movement pattern balance, but at least they are concerned about balance. They identify more of a performance balance, a fundamental balance that can be seen by pushing and pulling abilities. This is intuitive, because our movement patterns grow out of opposing patterns. Physical therapy school described how the spiral and diagonal proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) patterns represented feeding patterns—diagonal patterns coming toward the head—and protection patterns—diagonal patterns going away from the head. It is easy to see how punching, throwing and swinging can grow out of these basic patterns.

Brett Jones, two-hand kettlebell swing

Brett Jones, two-hand kettlebell swing

The best strength coaches and trainers can also see how well-developed pushing and pulling patterns can create fertile soil to support more specialized patterns that incorporate a mix of both. I have always tried to categorized lifts into pushes, pulls and combinations for no other reason than to keep me out of the “single muscle lift” mindset. In a very basic way, pull movements and push movements incorporate the same muscles in different ways. The roles of the movers and stabilizers are often reversed. The best lifts always incorporate the entire muscular system, but we still tend to name them by the prime movers, the same way we complement a quarterback without mentioning the offensive line.

Balancing pushing and pulling strength can create a stable platform for power regardless of the sport of activity. My only caution is to get movement patterns acceptable first. This is my habit because as professionals we should not discuss exercise without a movement base or minimum level of movement-pattern capability. This means we don’t assume that adding extra pushes and pulls will offer corrective benefit. These exercises should be considered conditioning exercises placed upon a fundamental base of acceptable movement patterns. In other words, own your movement screen minimums—a score of two on each test with no asymmetries. If this does not make sense yet, your next assignment is to read Movement: Functional Movement Systems.

Pushing and pulling on a good base
Some exercises incorporate a push in the lower body and a pull with the upper body. Take the straight bar clean, for instance, a great exercise with a moderate-to-high learning curve since most can’t learn it in a day or a week. Compare this to a push press, where a lower body push complements an upper body push. The push press is much less complicated and can easily be learned in one session. It’s actually just cheating your press, isn’t it? We are born learning how to cheat, so why not use it?

When I suggest this option, I often meet resistance or skepticism, “We got to teach the clean because we need the power and quick leg action.” Then we video just the legs for each lift and sure enough, if you can’t see the upper body, you cannot tell which lift is being performed—the push press and the clean have nearly the same leg action. If we are doing the move to create power and quick leg action, why not pick the less complicated movement? Push presses can be performed with dumbbells, kettlebells and straight bars, just like cleans. The benefits can be equal and the learning curve is less (push on push), and the stress on the wrist is less, too. Safer and easier with equal benefits—no brainer!

Here is the cake recipe
1.    Make sure squat mechanics are acceptable.
2.    Find the maximum stiff-knee press weight (one arm or two arm).
3.    Add a little weight and allow a little cheat up.

Brett Jones, double-overhead press

Brett Jones, double-overhead press

Here is the icing
1.    By using a weight higher than the basic concentric press, you set up eccentric lowering.
2.    The eccentric work, if performed correctly, will create a stabilizing reaction in the shoulder and core, two places where it is often needed.
3.    Using a dumbbell or kettlebell will expose asymmetry. Look for it on the push move and on the lowering.

Push muscles incorporate prime drive from the anterior chain musculature, where pull movements incorporate prime drive in the posterior chain. Remember, however, not to get caught up on this. The drive side does create movement, but the non-drive side is the brakes. Good driving requires the gas and the brakes… used at the correct times. For some reason, though, pull movements are less popular at the corner gym. Maybe that’s because the anterior chain musculature is easier to see in all those mirrors.

Either way, real strength enthusiasts know the power of having pull movement competency. Pullups and deadlifts are pulling fundamentals often overshadowed by bench work and squats. The kettlebell swing and snatch have become popular, but these are not new, and no one alive today invented them no matter what they say! They are old moves being both honored and dishonored depending on where the information originates. The primary drive for the pull movement in both the swing and the snatch are found in the deadlift. We often introduce the deadlift as a first gear to show its importance… a starting point. Try putting the swing and snatch on top of a good deadlift and see how much better things are. Present it like a manual transmission—

Gears
1.    Deadlift
2.    Heavy deadlift—for most, this can be improving their good-form original DL by 25-50%
3.    Swing
4.    Heavy swing—for most this can be improving their good-form original swing by 25-50%
5.    Snatch

The kettlebell snatch is a flashy, fast and sexy overhead lift and most want to do it day one, right after they first see it. We must remember most of the muscles that put the kettlebell nicely overhead can be found below the waist in the posterior chain. Simply stated, if you own your deadlift and your swing, the kettlebell will float into place overhead when you learn to snatch.

A recipe for a great foundation
Turning a good squat movement pattern into a lift and then turning a good squat lift into a push press can develop a great push foundation. Turning a good deadlift pattern into a lift and then turning a good deadlift into a swing can develop a great push foundation. Whether you are training a high school football team, working with clients or just trying to balance your push pull performance,  this is a great starting point, and it is safe and simple.

Brett Jones, double-kettlebell front squat

Brett Jones, double-kettlebell front squat

Find your push- pull balance
Most of us will have a natural affinity toward pushing or pulling—one will just feel more natural. The reasons are never singular; body dimensions, angles and limb length are at the beginning of the discussion. Posture, muscle orientation, activity history and injury history also play a role. Pay particular attention to breathing between pushing and pulling movements. Note how the movements that look and feel good will have a particular breathing pattern. Also note how proper breathing and pressurization can improve the ones that seem awkward and disconnected.

Putting it all together

Dynami, Kettlebells from the Center

Dynami, Kettlebells from the Center

Recently, Brett Jones and I returned to the Old Gym at Averett University to try to regain a little old-school wisdom. We initially shot Kettlebells from the Ground Up and Club Swinging Essentials at this same location. Our third installment on this old-school theme is Dynami, the Greek word for power. In this DVD project, Kettlebells from the Center, we discuss balancing pushing and pulling form, adding strength to that form, and then adding power to that strength. Hopefully you will learn from the project just as we did. Done correctly less can be more!

You’ll find an extensive review of our new DVD project, Kettlebells from the Center, here.