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Function?

If you can’t logically define it, don’t talk about it.

We should all own a little of the famous Forrest Gump saying Stupid is as Stupid Does. I like that little saying because it keeps me in check. It makes me consider if what I’m doing is consistent with what I believe. We can all use a little dose humility sometimes, and I have a great example for you. We’ve all spouted out the term function at some point in our careers—the stupid part is in not clearly defining function first. Whether for or against the term, we’d better define it before we champion or bash it. It’s our professional responsibility and personally I’m not satisfied with all our inconsistencies.

The term function as it’s applied in functional exercise, training, rehabilitation and testing fits nicely as an adjective for our attempts to help people reach their movement goals. It’s a convenient way to say that our approach is in some way more practical, appropriate efficient and holistic. Besides all the marketability that function provides for us, what have we done for the concept in return?

  • Have we helped adequately define the term before using it?
  • Have we developed standards that foster clarity and communication between the many who provide a functional service?
  • Have we used the functional approach objectively to advance our profession and enhance the lives of those who depend on our knowledge, direction and abilities?
  • Have the national organizations that provide our certifications and licensure provided us with or endorsed organized objective and standardized tools to manage functional movement patterns?

If you are having trouble with any of these answers, let me help: Not even close.

This article runs long. If you’d like to download the pdf to read later, click here.

We started selling functional exercise as a wonderful solution before we clearly defined the problem. We proposed an alternative to classical exercise long before we had metrics to demonstrate function or dysfunction with regard to movement. The irony is that the oldest forms of exercise were not sports-specific and did not isolate body parts. The old exercise forms are now regaining popularity specifically because their functional merit. The sports specific and isolation stuff started in the ’60s, continued into the ’70s and ’80s, and we still have not fully recovered.

The big problem: We deviated from authentic functional exercise when we placed physical form and individual muscle training over earlier forms of exercise that targeted general-purpose movement patterns. Some noticed this and tried to reinvent exercise under a term that seemed to fit the needs of all. The term ‘functional’ was simply placed in front of whatever we were doing at the time—functional exercise, functional training and functional rehabilitation. In reality, we invented a solution and went looking for a problem we hadn’t clearly defined. Don’t feel too bad—drug companies do it every day, but I would like to think we have higher standards—the kind that compel us to right our wrongs as soon as they are exposed.

When the focus on functional training first started achieving popularity, its utility was in creating more realistic movement patterns as opposed to isolated strength or muscle development training. Functional training sprung from some degree of intuitive inadequacy with strength training and rehabilitation. It most likely grew legs in conditioning when we saw athletes looking more muscled and getting stronger in a particular exercise without quantifiable benefit in a particular sport or activity. They looked better and exercised better—they just didn’t perform any better. That’s when we started saying things like—

“Weight room All-American—game day disappointment”
or
“Looks like Tarzan—Plays like Jane”

Some probably wondered if we were training for the poster or the playoffs. We saw the same things in fitness. Fitness ads sold better figures, not better movement capability. From there, some started to ask, “So why were we doing this exercise? What is its benefit?”

In rehabilitation, professionals also experienced a little ah-ha moment when we realized our high-tech muscle dynamometers indicated normal strength around a knee even though that knee had less-than-optimal practical function when it was unstrapped from our fancy apparatus and put into a real-life situation.

Today, most trainers, coaches and rehabilitators use a constructive blend of classic isolation training and functional training in a vain attempt to leave nothing out. It’s like eating fast food and taking a multivitamin—a random paranoid blend of what we find comfortable and convenient, and what we think is good for us. Our intentions and intuitions are good but without standards we are just making up the rules to fit what ever the day throws at us.

Unfortunately, there’s still quite a bit of confusion when you look just under the surface. What we do each day is more influenced by what we did yesterday than the latest emerging evidence on movement and motor control. It’s not a black and white issue. Not all things that seem functional have been proven good, and not all isolation or classic weight training has been proven bad. Today’s professionals sit in their comfort zones of training and argue for their favorite methodologies without much evidence either way. It’s like we’re all riding in a car with a broken speedometer, all riders commenting on how fast we’re going—much more opinion than fact. Unless we have a gauge to measure the correctness of our opinions, we should find another way to objectively calculate the speed of the car.

The problem is simple to articulate, even though it will take time to fix. We have moved forward with opinions about functional training and testing without defining function. We’re trying to buy equipment and copy programs to reinforce optimal function, rather than creating an operational definition of function and letting natural selection tell us what works. If a definition for function were established, the debate would cease because the merit of a new piece of equipment or a controversial program could simply be measured by its influence on a defined functional baseline. The end!

The word function is a dividing line in the professions of coaching, exercise instruction and rehabilitation. This is because most professionals with an opinion on one side of the line or the other have independently defined function as it applies to their specific interests as they forgo the responsibility to consider general principles across the landscape of our professions. The specific approach to function has done little to produce universal general functional standards. Simple solution: Develop general functional standards.

Without this foundation, we have no business pursuing more specific standards, because specific skillful movements grow out of fundamental general-purpose movements. If general-purpose movements are flawed, the foundation of specific skill will be flawed. We are hard-wired to be movement-learning machines. We learn basic and fundamental stuff and it prepares us for higher levels of specialization. Unfortunately, there is nothing in our current practice that systematically forces us to revisit the basics when we encounter problems with the special stuff. Most attempts set the bar much too high or far too low to create real change. Function should be viewed as a basic competency. Some turn functional measurement it into an Olympic event while others wrongly assume that if you can dress yourself and make it to the gym you are good to go!

First and foremost we are made to move, and if you don’t believe me check this out—


If the video above doesn’t appear in your mobile, device, here’s the link to video on the TED site.

We all seem to start with the same movement platform. Once we master the fundamental general platform, we create the foundation for more specific and individualized pursuits of movement that helps define us in a more personal way. If we skip a step or lose part of our movement foundation, we are obliged to regain it before expecting more advanced skill acquisition, because the movement foundation is part of the learning software. Natural law requires a foundation under basic function and basic function under specialized function. This law is broken everyday in gyms and fitness centers… but babies never break the law and make bigger daily gains than the best strength coaches on the planet could hope to produce!

Learning to crawl before walking is common sense; we require a degree of competence on four limbs before two limbs should be considered. Unfortunately, we do not have standardized functional movement measurement tools to establish movement competence once we’re walking. Without a fundamental movement competence measurement tool, we cannot put our common sense to good use, and that is the big problem. Half the information of any trip is knowing your starting point and the other half is your destination… We head for the destination without knowing our starting point – the baseline functional competency at the start of the trip.

Historically, we rushed straight into measuring the pieces of movement without looking at the whole pattern. We wrongly assume that if strength and flexibility is adequate, movement patterns are atomically normal. Instead, we should only investigate fundamental strength and flexibility issues within patterns that seem limited or incomplete. Without logical general standards of functional movement patterns, we haven’t adequately defined our professional scope or our statistical influences on the way people really move.

Although muscle isolation training proved to be successful in bodybuilding, coaches noticed that big bulging muscles looked better than they performed. Old-school coaches had no problem with good muscle—muscle gained through practical movement. These coaches prize muscle developed through big natural movements, not small, focused joint bends targeting isolated hypertrophy. Natural muscle development is good enough, and the extra bit of hypertrophy gained by isolation does not yield extra movement performance for the extra work and time it consumes.

In other words, we want adaptable strength that can work in changing environments. Adaptable strength is developed though complex movement patterns, not over-rehearsed, over-coached lifts in a never-changing environment. The athlete, warrior, outdoor enthusiast or physical adventurer embraces change and challenge, while the gym rat needs comfort and consistency for a happy workout. If you believe this, you may want to read Strong is Not Necessarily Tough.

In response to the isolation trend of bodybuilding misapplied to general-purpose training, well-intentioned trainers, coaches and rehabilitation professionals suggested we not focus on extra muscle work with hypertrophy as a goal. They said to keep the focus on movement and movement patterns, and introduced new things and brought back some old things, too.

There was only one problem: They did not set functional standards to prove the benefit of their innovations. They did not introduce screening, testing and assessment to create a bell curve of functional movement attributes to check progress against. It is the nature of the exercise industry to dispense with objective baseline testing and just start developing programing. Without a reliable functional baseline, it has been very easy for trainers to argue whose program is more functional. Mike Boyle recently introduced me to a book that articulates our problems in exercise and rehabilitation perfectly. The Checklist Manifesto shows us how standardization and little checklists make monumental differences in surgery, aviation, and other specialized professions, but exercise and rehabilitation are lagging behind.

I highly recommend the book, as it articulates the same message of two more of my favorite books, Why We Make Mistakes and Blunder.

These books did not cause me to create the FMS or the SFMA, but they helped me understand how these were my way to creating a standard checklist approach as I observed inconsistency in my own practice.

The oversight to develop functional standards wasn’t intentional; I rather think it was a passionate plea to, “Stop the madness even though we did not understand it.” Early proponents of the functional movement wanted us to make training more practical, and that was good.

If training and exercise do not have practical carryover to things other than exercise, why do it? Think about it for a minute—the average person does not exercise today in order to just exercise tomorrow. They assume that other aspects of their physical lives will be enhanced as well. Exercise should have practical carryover, and most expect that even if it is simply assumed and not measured.

At that point, a new exercise movement began—a movement toward better movement, if you will. The pioneers of this new movement were armed with concepts of proprioception, multi-planer movement, spiral and diagonal patterns and movement efficiency. Their ideas were good, and their observations were more holistic. They simply wanted to build a better exercise model.

Then the mistakes started to multiply, because when you don’t have standards and checklists, that’s what happens. The passion and desire for a better exercise model was present; objective functional metrics were not. These professionals did not prove isolation programs were producing lower levels of function; they simply assumed it. They assumed we had an epidemic of bad function and decided everyone needed a vaccine for dysfunction. That kind of thinking creates a problem, because in an epidemic, we assume everyone is sick and we treat everyone without testing or diagnosing each individual.

The testing and diagnostic process reveals interesting information that shouldn’t be disregarded. It’s possible for some people to remain functional on non-functional programs, while others become more dysfunctional performing accepted functional programming. We can logically say it’s not really about the program at all; it’s about how each individual responds to the program, just like it’s not the nutrient value of the food, but the nutritional absorption rate of the individual.

Some people who didn’t understand higher-level problem solving assumed they had a solution to make training safer and more effective. They thought they had developed a vaccine to make movement more functional, to guard against dysfunction. From there, other assumptions were made, such as functional training required abandoning classic forms of heavy weight training to adopt new, lightweight multi-planar movements.

The sad truth is most exercise and rehabilitation professionals define the functional value of an exercise by what it looks like, and not by what it produces. This is not good, but unfortunately, it is true.

Others go a step further and define functional exercise by the type of equipment used. And some even give extra credit for using more pieces of equipment in a single exercise.

I do my shake weight curls, standing on my BOSU, wearing my spandex core engagement body suit—it’s awesome!!!

I don’t mean to bash creative applications of exercise; I’m just having some fun. The issue is to create a functional standard or truth in advertising, if you will. If we want to work without a functional standard, we just need to issue a disclaimer statement, for our programs that goes something like this:

We cannot prove this exercise will improve the way you move. It has not been shown to make you more functional. It has not been proven to create better performance or metabolism. It is simply the result of your trainer’s creativity and a surplus of time and equipment. It is an unscientific attempt to reduce your boredom with your current training program. This combination of equipment and movement is a way to entertain you and will distract from the objective tangible results you may not be getting. Please do not try this at home—we have no way to charge you for it.

Anyone not concerned about the baseline influence of a particular exercise is just selling a product or program. I test functional assumptions all the time using slides of exercises in my talks and ask the audiences if the exercises I show are functional. Everyone responds to the pictures and videos. No one ever asks what the exercises produced or how they changed function. We’re prepared to comment on function by superficial appearance, and not by its influence on objective functional metrics. It is a flaw in our professional logic and education will not change it—standards and checklists will!

Individuals respond to the programs differently. Some need to work hard to maintain strength or speed, while some barely practice and thrive. Some stay lean without work, and some work continuously to maintain what they have. Some never focus of flexibility and stay flexible, while others maintain strength with little focus on strength. We already know the same dosage of anything produces different results across a group; those who ambitiously seek a universal functional solution are heading for disappointment. The investigation should not be on exercises and programming. It should be on the current functional status of the individual in front of you. Once you have a baseline, you can see how your program improves that.

Any good journey has to have a starting point. The starting point of the functional debate has nothing to do with equipment, exercise programs, testing or screening. It has to do with a clear definition and scope of purpose. Until an acceptable definition of general function is developed, the question can never be answered or appropriately addressed.

In logical and philosophical terms, if the definition of function seems to be too broad and all encompassing, the next best thing to do would be to define its opposite. The opposite of function would be dysfunction, and that must be now defined. If we have the definition of dysfunction it gets easy because the absence of dysfunction would be considered function, and this might actually be easier.

What is the absence of dysfunction? The honest and logical approach is to produce functional standards and create minimal acceptable levels. Anything below those levels would be considered dysfunctional. The minimal acceptable level of competence is important to consider. That is the way it works for other body functions like vision and hearing. However, when we measure movement, we just measure as if we are trying to find a world record. We look for superior performance and poor performance, and ignore the natural distribution of things.

At some point you are legally blind. At some point you are legally deaf. But at what point does your movement get labeled dysfunctional? Someone please make the call!

Exercise and rehabilitation professionals should be concerned with the functional tipping point—the point at which an individual or group crosses the line into dysfunction. Maybe we could get Malcolm Gladwell on the job, who wrote the great book, The Tipping Point. We became so busy measuring strength, flexibility, fitness and sports performance that we forgot to establish a minimum level of movement competence. Remember, individuals with significant variance in strength, flexibility and fitness can actually have similar functional abilities.

We use the attributes we have to create function, so we should first test the level of functional competence. If we then determine this is lacking, we can break down the attributes of function to localize the problem. Functional competence is the important marker, because everything above it is functional and everything below it is dysfunctional.

Here is my logic: If movement competence is below a minimal acceptable level, higher-level testing can incorrectly reveal deficiency that might look like a fitness or performance problem when it’s a movement competence problem. On this mistaken path, a well-intentioned professional might recommend more performance or fitness training when the problem is a fundamental movement issue. Minimal acceptable levels of function should not be set by opinion, nor by strength or flexibility standards.

Two simple concepts in the form of a checklist can put us on the right track when we seek to understand movement competence. These concepts are risk and limited adaptability.

  • Elevated Risk—research has shown that previous injury is the number one risk factor for a future injury. Additionally, motor control limitations such as balance, stabilization and basic coordination, plus asymmetries like right-to-left imbalances in muscle activity and flexibility are the next highest indicators associated with risk of future injury. Since previous injury is unavoidable, we should focus on motor-control limitations and asymmetries as priorities for prevention or reduction or risk factors. In my opinion, the reason previous injury is the number one risk factor for elevated risk is because we as exercise and rehabilitation professionals define recovery from an injury as the absence of pain—not the return of a previous level of function. This is because we have no objective baseline and no one ever checks your function when you’re feeling fine.
  • Limited Adaptability—It is universally accepted that the same exercise program across a large group will yield a bell curve of results. Some individuals will achieve higher levels of change than others. A large number will have change, but to a lesser degree, and some will have little or no change. This means some will have significant adaptation in the presence of stress. It also means most will adapt to the stress with some success, and some will not. Why do some not adapt in the presence of what we consider constructive stress? Many factors can play a role, but the most obvious is fundamental movement-competency issues. These people are obliged to compensate because it is their only option. Fundamental and functional movement issues can distort body awareness and proprioception, and can also cause compensation. These issues, along with pain, distort or retard optimal motor development and successful, efficient adaptation to stress.

You may want to lump a lot of other things onto what’s minimally acceptable, but I think you will find these two labels capture our most fundamental problems in fitness, performance and rehabilitation. If your movement competency is so low that you are at higher risk of injury even in structured activities we are dysfunctional. Likewise if our ability to improve with conventional physical education, fitness and performance programming, we are also dysfunctional. This is not a discriminating or politically incorrect label—it’s a necessary management title if change is desired. Once the label is assigned, we need to see if the situation can be improved, but by putting them category of dysfunction, the subject has been protected for increased injury risk and the frustration of limited progress with programming toward more functional individuals.

The first order of business is to make sure fundamental movement patterns reach minimal standards. When these patterns are not sound and don’t reach minimal standards, investigate the basic constructs of mobility and motor control that provide the foundation for these patterns. Unfortunately, we have done the opposite with our research; we investigate mobility and motor control looking for a magic number, but people can make acceptable function with infinite combinations of mobility and motor control. Researchers should look for patterns of dysfunction and not just the impairments associated with dysfunction.

To fix function, we must define what is functional, and standardize general testing for movement that produces meaningful information—movement competency. Next, we should define the extra movement capabilities necessary for specific function in sports and other specialized occupations and activities. This process would produce minimum risk and adaptability standards for general movement function and specific movement functions.

General movement standards should be satisfied and maintained before specific standards are pursued exclusively. For example, soccer, baseball and rock climbing should have the same general movement base: fundamental mobility, stability, motor control and movement patterns, and also require more specialized and unique attributes on top of the general base. There is no need for sports-specific movement screens—the movement screen should be general; sports-specific skill testing already exists.

General abilities of function means the human neuromuscular and musculoskeletal systems are in a state of ready adaptation. The system can learn; the system can become something more than it is. That is a functional base, gross physical preparedness in the functional realm.

Levels of function that provide individuals with a particular affinity in a given sport or activity would reflect sports specificity demonstrating a functional level, with an affinity toward specificity of activity.

What would define a minimum level of movement competence? It would either need to speak to risk of injury, which is a safety issue, or lack of a minimum level of efficiency and adaptability. These two categories demonstrate both risk with training and inadequate motor control within patterning below a certain level of efficiency.

The first is most important because when we suggest direction or programming, the first order of business should be to minimize risk – or do no harm. If certain movement patterns lend themselves to higher risk, identify these quickly and address them efficiently.

The other issue would be if a particular movement pattern were limited, with obvious inefficiency. Compensation would be the result when training in that deficient movement pattern.

Dysfunction should be defined as movement patterns that lack a minimum level of movement competence Unfortunately, we also lack standards for dysfunction.

When compared to other body systems, the musculoskeletal system lags far behind in our ability to be proactive. The renal system, the cardiovascular system and the visual system all enjoy tests that demonstrate a tendency toward dysfunction prior to advanced degeneration. We look at these systems for early warning signs of risk— we’ve defined normal and abnormal function.  We have largely failed to do this in the musculoskeletal system.

Instead, we still take a reactive approach. Many of our attempts to create functional systems are in response to injuries. We measure the injured to try to reverse engineer health. Wouldn’t it be better to investigate those who seem successful, adaptable and resistant to injury and map out their specific data to engineer that?

Most discussions of functional training are geared toward performance, but we already have clearly defined performance testing and training. This pushes potential, whereas functional basics—fundamental testing—should require minimums.  Those who don’t perform at the minimum level of functional competency should probably spend time gaining function, not hammering performance or skill. Once function is addressed, they can target performance and skill and expect to adapt efficiently to the training.

My definition for functional training and testing doesn’t limit me to the frou-frou exercises many strength-minded individuals consider functional training to be. I totally agree with the strength coaches who don’t like the soft side of functional training. I’ve demonstrated on multiple occasions how my pitchers and quarterbacks at the high school, collegiate and professional levels can receive more functional gains from deadlifting and deadlifting variations than internal and external shoulder rotation with an elastic band. I’m not saying one is better – I’m saying they got deadlifting because the checklist said they need more robust integrity in the deadlifting pattern. If the checklist said they needed more cuff work they would get the elastic band.

My definition of function doesn’t limit me to certain forms of equipment. It simply defines a functional deficit and offers a remedy, followed by a retest to see if the deficit is still present. If the deficit is still present after my efforts were targeted at function, my outcome wasn’t functional. I can live with that, and I can learn from that. I’ve been bouncing my opinions off of a functional standard for years and learn something from every attempt.

My current expertise in corrective and functional exercise comes from 10,000 hours of testing, training and retesting. However, when most hear me lecture, they just follow my advice on training and forget that testing and retesting frame my picture of function. If I’m supposedly an expert, and I still test and retest, why wouldn’t you?

Here is the history of my 10,000 hours: In 1997, because no operational definition of function or dysfunction existed to encapsulate what I was seeing as a strength coach and physical therapist, I offered the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) as a way to baseline and define general function. I saw the FMS as a way to numerically capture our departure from authentic movement. My intent with the screen was to improve communication and reliability of measurement with regard to movement pattern function.

In 1998, I was fortunate enough to present the FMS at both the NATA and NSCA conferences. My first words from the platforms at each event were as follows:

“We need some sort of movement baseline. My colleagues and I have been doing this functional movement screen. It does not replace anything we currently do. It simply offers a movement-pattern-based perspective against our other information. As soon as a better movement screen is introduced, I will be its biggest fan, but until that time I will use this little FMS tool. It seems to be working pretty well.”

To date, neither organization has decided to adopt the FMS or any other movement screen into standard practice for their certified professionals. Fourteen years later, we still don’t have a standard operating procedure for looking at movement and we still don’t have a general definition for function.

But we’re closer than we’ve ever been. A grassroots movement of forward-thinking professionals has decided to be more professional than current certification require. Like them, I still push myself to do my part and continually ask myself if I’ve accomplished the goals outlined in the opening bullet points.

The reason I have pushed this line of thinking is because my profession did not really own function or have a practical tool to baseline movement. I was more compelled to change my profession and myself than defend the comfortable status my credentials provided. I want tomorrow’s PT, PTA, DC, MD, ATC, personal trainer and strength coach to collectively be more than we are today. This starts with standards, clarity, defined purpose and communication. If pilots and surgeons use checklists to save lives why don’t we you them to improve the quality of those same lives. I did not write this to be popular—I wrote it because it’s important…10 years from now.

Just remember, we are defined by our actions—just ask my man Forrest Gump.

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

To download the pdf to share with others or for later reading, click here.

The Secret

There’s an overlooked piece of information when we consider the success of the experts in our field. Whether you’re a coach, trainer or rehabilitation expert, this element is so compelling that I’ll refer to it as a secret.

I first started this thought process while working with a few of my favorite strength coaches. The statement that emerged in my head to encapsulate this idea was, “The best strength coaches I know are actually weakness managers.” The concept also applies to physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, personal trainers and sports coaches.

The best of the best don’t simply exploit the strengths of the individuals they train and educate, they also identify and expose their weaknesses. They don’t stop there. The best even prioritize weaknesses and create a hierarchy of actions to remove the limitations. They strive for completeness and balance by focusing on weakness, flaw or dysfunction.

This doesn’t mean some attention is not directed at maintaining strength or developing an average ability into a superior or elite ability. It just means the things that limit athletic performance, fitness achievement and complete rehabilitation are usually weaknesses or limitations that go unidentified or are identified but remain unmanaged.

Many know Pavel Tsatsouline as the face of Dragon Door’s Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC). As you explore the art and science of kettlebells, you will more often than not see the face of my Russian friend. However, Pavel’s coaching, teaching and overall wisdom goes far beyond the use of a kettlebell.

Pavel Tsatsouline

I often ask my readers to look into Pavel’s work, The Naked Warrior, where he deconstructs athletes to reduce them to single-limb symmetrical competency. He also proposes the concept of a “naked warrior” as an athlete or fitness enthusiast who trains without weight or the individual who develops fundamental competence in all four quadrants of the body. This individual will focus on symmetry and movement achieving competence with bodyweight before ever lifting a weight. Pavel requires us to work toward a single-leg pistol or a single-leg squat on each side, as well as a single-arm pushup on each side. What a wonderful example of a wise coach providing a self-limiting activity that results in balanced development.

Whether you do or don’t achieve these feats of balanced strength is not the goal. To quote Dan Millman in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, it is the way that makes the warrior. Getting on a path to create bodyweight competence, symmetry and working through your limitations in a progressive manner is the goal… the way.

Pavel laid out consistent feedback. Can you do these maneuvers or not? If you can, move on to weight training. If you can’t, you are the weight. Develop better competence, then you can ask the next question.

Rachel & Alwyn Cosgrove

Alwyn Cosgrove and Rachel Cosgrove of Results Fitness easily blend movement information and metabolic information from screening and tests into programming that addresses the metabolic needs of their clients as they perform corrective strategy. They realize that most individuals who need to lose serious amounts of weight will probably experience an orthopedic issue or a musculoskeletal setback on the path to achieving greater metabolic efficiency.

Their attention to detail with movement—screening, training and correction—eliminates a potential problem before it interferes with programming. The brilliance in their programming is not necessarily tied up in the sets, reps or even exercise choices, but in their ability to anticipate weakness, limitation and problems before they occur.

Mike Boyle

Mike Boyle’s enthusiasm for single-leg strength closely parallels Pavel’s recommendation in The Naked Warrior. Mike has a completely different methodology for achieving single-leg competence, but his message is a voice of logic and reason because he’s a strength coach who truly develops athletes. He realizes that single-leg competence contributes more to injury prevention in athletic performance than adding 50 pounds to a back squat.

My first exposure to Mike revealed a coaching intuition and programming perspective that consistently yielded higher scores on the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) even though he had no idea what a Functional Movement Screen was. This told me his attention to movement competency—asymmetries, limitations and fundamental weaknesses—was already in place even though he didn’t possess a tool like the movement screen to make analysis easier for his interns and more reliable across larger groups.

Jon Torine

Jon Torine and Jeff Fish, who are very close friends and also happen to be NFL head strength coaches, are more obsessed by what their players can’t do than what they can. They strategically use data gathered from screening, testing and performance statistics to hone in on the weakest link for each player. They constantly mine their data and look for players whose movement and performance marks do not meet minimum standards. They identify a problem and introduce a strategy to create a positive change—and they are really good.

Jeff Fish

Their players instantly know they are in the presence of a higher level of coaching as these guys go to work on them. They remind me of the quote I used to close my first book, Athletic Body in Balance.

“No coach ever won a game by what he knows. It’s what his players learned.”
Paul “Bear” Bryant

Not too long ago, strength coaches dispensed pre-packaged exercise programs based on an athlete’s particular position or role. This seemed completely logical at the time. However, in the National Football League, players are occasionally moved to different positions. Does this mean their workouts instantaneously change so they can play a different position? They wouldn’t even be placed in the alternate position if they couldn’t be successful, and they were originally successful without the pre-packaged workout that was intended to ready them.

What we’ve learned is that an individual’s training needs should fundamentally be addressed toward weaknesses and not some nebulous opinion about physicality. Once weaknesses have been resolved, we should seek a more sports-specific or activity-specific platform based on specific goals. How many of us can really say our weaknesses have been effectively managed, our limitations have been removed and our asymmetries have been balanced? Until then, sports specificity and activity-specificity training is not the best platform for improvement.  Fundamentally removing weakness and keeping it suppressed is a permanent job, so make it part of the program.

Removing the crack in the foundation is the best way to progress the strength of a structure —not simply adding another floor to the building, but strengthening the foundation before the new construction starts.

As I’ve developed my clinical skills in physical therapy, I’ve tried to apply this philosophy. I do not only address the patient’s complaint, but I look for other limitations that could be causative factors and impede progress in rehabilitation.


Craig Leibenson

Dr. Vladimir Janda instructed us that many undetected dysfunctions are evident in the modern human that are either related to the symptoms or reduce the effectiveness of our rehabilitation efforts. His student Dr. Craig Liebenson continues the message today. Shirley Sahrmann pioneered perspectives of muscle balance and efficiency within rehabilitation. Dr. James Cyriax showed us methodical ways to consistently deconstruct human movement and arrive at a specific tissue problem he referred to as a lesion.

Greg Rose

Today, chiropractors and physical therapists are working together, agreeing on the same movement perspective called the Selective Functional Movement Assessment. Dr. Greg Rose and Dr. Kyle Kiesel were essential to the development of the SFMA. These men have completely different backgrounds —one being a chiropractor and one a physical therapist. However, they put their treatment methodology preferences and their respective educational backgrounds aside and arrived at common movement perspectives and principles in total agreement.

Greg has access to the most advanced biomechanical analysis tools in the world. Kyle uses diagnostic ultrasound to look deep into the body and relate movement to muscle activity. However, they both arrived at the deconstruction of movement deficiency when performing the most efficient efforts toward rehabilitation.

Kyle Kiesel

In short, these two clinicians don’t simply seek to resolve symptoms. They seek to not only identify the movements that provoke symptoms, but also the dysfunctional movements that do not immediately seem related to the patient’s complaint. They consider dysfunction in the human system just as important as the symptom. By doing this, they not only manage symptoms, but they also remove some of the risk factors that could perpetuate a poor outcome, slow rehabilitation or cause a relapse.

This science is called Regional Interdependence, the scientific name for how dysfunction in one part of the body can create symptoms elsewhere.

In short, these clinicians don’t simply attack their area of responsibility. Clinicians are supposed to get rid of pain. Weight loss experts are supposed to help their clients drop weight. Strength coaches are supposed to make us stronger. However, each of these not only focuses on the goals of their professions, but they arrive at attaining those goals by managing many of the things we fail to consider. The little things make big differences and the great ones get it. As we all strive to emulate the individuals at the forefront of our professions, let us remember their subtle secret.

In summary, the best trainers, teachers, coaches and clinicians I know are fundamentally weakness managers. They identify a fundamental limiting factor and manage it!

And that’s the big secret.

The Secret

There’s an overlooked piece of information when we consider the success of the experts in our field. Whether you’re a coach, trainer or rehabilitation expert, this element is so compelling that I’ll refer to it as a secret.

I first started this thought process while working with a few of my favorite strength coaches. The statement that emerged in my head to encapsulate this idea was, “The best strength coaches I know are actually weakness managers.” The concept also applies to physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, personal trainers and sports coaches.

The best of the best don’t simply exploit the strengths of the individuals they train and educate, they also identify and expose their weaknesses. They don’t stop there. The best even prioritize weaknesses and create a hierarchy of actions to remove the limitations. They strive for completeness and balance by focusing on weakness, flaw or dysfunction.

This doesn’t mean some attention is not directed at maintaining strength or developing an average ability into a superior or elite ability. It just means the things that limit athletic performance, fitness achievement and complete rehabilitation are usually weaknesses or limitations that go unidentified or are identified but remain unmanaged.

Many know Pavel Tsatsouline as the face of Dragon Door’s Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC). As you explore the art and science of kettlebells, you will more often than not see the face of my Russian friend. However, Pavel’s coaching, teaching and overall wisdom goes far beyond the use of a kettlebell.

I often ask my readers to look into Pavel’s work, The Naked Warrior, where he deconstructs athletes to reduce them to single-limb symmetrical competency. He also proposes the concept of a “naked warrior” as an athlete or fitness enthusiast who trains without weight or the individual who develops fundamental competence in all four quadrants of the body. This individual will focus on symmetry and movement achieving competence with bodyweight before ever lifting a weight. Pavel requires us to work toward a single-leg pistol or a single-leg squat on each side, as well as a single-arm pushup on each side. What a wonderful example of a wise coach providing a self-limiting activity that results in balanced development.

Whether you do or don’t achieve these feats of balanced strength is not the goal. To quote Dan Millman in the Way of the Peaceful Warrior, it is the way that makes the warrior. Getting on a path to create bodyweight competence, symmetry and working through your limitations in a progressive manner is the goal… the way.

Pavel laid out consistent feedback. Can you do these maneuvers or not? If you can, move on to weight training. If you can’t, you are the weight. Develop better competence, then you can ask the next question.

Alwyn Cosgrove and Rachel Cosgrove of Results Fitness easily blend movement information and metabolic information from screening and tests into programming that addresses the metabolic needs of their clients as they perform corrective strategy. They realize that most individuals who need to lose serious amounts of weight will probably experience an orthopedic issue or a musculoskeletal setback on the path to achieving greater metabolic efficiency.

Their attention to detail with movement—screening, training and correction—eliminates a potential problem before it interferes with programming. The brilliance in their programming is not necessarily tied up in the sets, reps or even exercise choices, but in their ability to anticipate weakness, limitation and problems before they occur.

Mike Boyle’s enthusiasm for single-leg strength closely parallels Pavel’s recommendation in The Naked Warrior. Mike has a completely different methodology for achieving single-leg competence, but his message is a voice of logic and reason because he’s a strength coach who truly develops athletes. He realizes that single-leg competence contributes more to injury prevention in athletic performance than adding 50 pounds to a back squat.

My first exposure to Mike revealed a coaching intuition and programming perspective that consistently yielded higher scores on the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) even though he had no idea what a Functional Movement Screen was. This told me his attention to movement competency—asymmetries, limitations and fundamental weaknesses—was already in place even though he didn’t possess a tool like the movement screen to make analysis easier for his interns and more reliable across larger groups.

Jon Torine and Jeff Fish, who are very close friends and also happen to be NFL head strength coaches, are more obsessed by what their players can’t do than what they can. They strategically use data gathered from screening, testing and performance statistics to hone in on the weakest link for each player. They constantly mine their data and look for players whose movement and performance marks do not meet minimum standards. They identify a problem and introduce a strategy to create a positive change—and they are really good. Their players instantly know they are in the presence of a higher level of coaching as these guys go to work on them. They remind me of the quote I used to close my first book, Athletic Body in Balance.

“No coach ever won a game by what he knows. It’s what his players learned.”

Paul “Bear” Bryant

Not too long ago, strength coaches dispensed pre-packaged exercise programs based on an athlete’s particular position or role. This seemed completely logical at the time. However, in the National Football League, players are occasionally moved to different positions. Does this mean their workouts instantaneously change so they can play a different position? They wouldn’t even be placed in the alternate position if they couldn’t be successful, and they were originally successful without the pre-packaged workout that was intended to ready them.

What we’ve learned is that an individual’s training needs should fundamentally be addressed toward weaknesses and not some nebulous opinion about physicality. Once weaknesses have been resolved, we should seek a more sports-specific or activity-specific platform based on specific goals. How many of us can really say our weaknesses have been effectively managed, our limitations have been removed and our asymmetries have been balanced? Until then, sports specificity and activity-specificity training is not the best platform for improvement. Fundamentally removing weakness and keeping it suppressed is a permanent job, so make it part of the program.

Removing the crack in the foundation is the best way to progress the strength of a structure —not simply adding another floor to the building, but strengthening the foundation before the new construction starts.

As I’ve developed my clinical skills in physical therapy, I’ve tried to apply this philosophy. I do not only address the patient’s complaint, but I look for other limitations that could be causative factors and impede progress in rehabilitation.

Dr. Vladimir Janda instructed us that many undetected dysfunctions are evident in the modern human that are either related to the symptoms or reduce the effectiveness of our rehabilitation efforts. His student Dr. Craig Liebenson continues the message today. Shirley Sahrmann pioneered perspectives of muscle balance and efficiency within rehabilitation. Dr. James Cyriax showed us methodical ways to consistently deconstruct human movement and arrive at a specific tissue problem he referred to as a lesion.

Today, chiropractors and physical therapists are working together, agreeing on the same movement perspective called the Selective Functional Movement Assessment. Dr. Greg Rose and Dr. Kyle Kiesel were essential to the development of the SFMA. These men have completely different backgrounds —one being a chiropractor and one a physical therapist. However, they put their treatment methodology preferences and their respective educational backgrounds aside and arrived at common movement perspectives and principles in total agreement.

Greg has access to the most advanced biomechanical analysis tools in the world. Kyle uses diagnostic ultrasound to look deep into the body and relate movement to muscle activity. However, they both arrived at the deconstruction of movement deficiency when performing the most efficient efforts toward rehabilitation.

In short, these two clinicians don’t simply seek to resolve symptoms. They seek to not only identify the movements that provoke symptoms, but also the dysfunctional movements that do not immediately seem related to the patient’s complaint. They consider dysfunction in the human system just as important as the symptom. By doing this, they not only manage symptoms, but they also remove some of the risk factors that could perpetuate a poor outcome, slow rehabilitation or cause a relapse.

This science is called Regional Interdependence, the scientific name for how dysfunction in one part of the body can create symptoms elsewhere.

In short, these clinicians don’t simply attack their area of responsibility. Clinicians are supposed to get rid of pain. Weight loss experts are supposed to help their clients drop weight. Strength coaches are supposed to make us stronger. However, each of these not only focuses on the goals of their professions, but they arrive at attaining those goals by managing many of the things we fail to consider. The little things make big differences and the great ones get it. As we all strive to emulate the individuals at the forefront of our professions, let us remember their subtle secret.

In summary, the best trainers, teachers, coaches and clinicians I know are fundamentally weakness managers. They identify a fundamental limiting factor and manage it!

And that’s the big secret.

Golf Combine?

Golf Digest recently asked me to design a combine that would reveal fundamental athletic deficiencies in people who want to improve their golf athleticism. The magazine is on the stands now— it’s the September 2011 issue of Golf Digest. The piece starts on page 101, with a bit of story background in the editor’s letter on page 12.

Some people are surprised when they hear I work with golfers and tennis players. Somehow I have gotten typecast as a strength coach and physical therapist who focuses more on football. It’s the nature of the beast that as a rehabilitation specialist I’m sought after more in sports with a higher incidence of injury, but in reality I absolutely enjoy consulting from the conditioning aspects of many different sports. My role is not so much a sports specific specialist, but more like an engineer looking at the foundation and skeleton of a building before the building takes on a specific design.

To continue the construction analogy, once you hang all the covering, it’s really hard to see the integrity of the structure. Likewise, once an athlete is practicing a specialty, it’s hard to see fundamental flaws. I use screens, assessments and tests to expose these flaws, and then make the corrections competitive, challenging and interesting. It’s also important to expose the athlete’s deficiency both by example and if necessary, by verbal background information.

When asked to develop a combine for Golf Digest, there was a specific back story to the challenge. To learn more about that, go to Episode 18 of Gray Cook radio where I discuss it; you’ll also find that on iTunes, where you can subscribe to the podcast feed.

The combine was designed to be self-administered, and even though we perform a version of this combine on some golfing athletes, the instructions and the information gained from the combine is purposely user-friendly. This means that with very little fitness background, the tests reveals any fundamental flaws. Doing an exercise that mimics a test or is in the same movement pattern as a test can serve as a basic correction when an expert is not available for consultation.

Side note: Coming up with tests is easy. Coming up with tests that mean something and that have solutions attached to deficiencies gets a bit harder.

Functional testing often gets a bad wrap because many times it turns into a battery of tests that don’t  have a reason or a logical system to help understand which deficiency is the most important to address. A combine is simply another way to screen to find out both the things the individual is good at and those that are not so good.

Take a look at the NFL combine the next time it’s on ESPN or the NFL Network. It’s a combination of football history, football science and the latest technology, all in an attempt to find out who has the most athletic potential and, more recently, who also has the greatest amount of athletic durability and longevity.

So, I did not take the challenge from Golf Digest lightly, and offered a screen that has three different tiers to it—a basic movement competency tier, a core stability tier and a power tier. This represents a balance of the powerful forces that come together to create the golf swing.

Now, this combine is designed to expose deficiency. If you have deficiency in movement competency, it probably wouldn’t be a great idea to jump straight ahead to power balance or core stability. The combine was designed in a hierarchy so the self-tester could understand that one level creates the foundation for the next, and I was pleased to see in the final display that Golf Digest got it right.

There is always a small amount of pride when you get your work in print, but the thing that impressed me most about this issue was not my work. It was a piece from an interview with Gary Player. Gary Player is respected not only for his golf ability or the amount of time he has given back to the sport, but also for his raw athleticism. Gary and Guy Yocom lay out 10 rules for being an athlete on page 116 of this issue, and I couldn’t have described athleticism better.

On an adjacent page, there’s a photograph of Gary Player training in 1965. Obviously in 1965 there weren’t a lot of movement screens and assessments. Instead, movement quality and physical capacity went hand-in-hand as a part of sound programming. Gary lays out some of the fundamental tenants of what he considers sound programming, which makes a lot of sense because since 1965 we have experienced so much bad information and fads that no one knows where to start. From that alone, I’m absolutely sure that through most of Gary’s career and even into his senior years Gary could have done well on the combine in the same issue.

Gary possesses an athletic intuition and a love for movement. In his daily exercise and exploration of movement, he was able to challenge his deficiencies and overcome them. When he overcame his deficiencies from a physical standpoint, he probably saw one more piece of his golf game fall into place. He had the observation of a problem and the reinforcement of his correct solution to create a momentum to sustain him throughout a lifetime of athleticism.

As you read Gary’s piece, remember he’s an athlete, not a conditioning consultant. You may see some of his advice as simplistic or you may even disagree with some of it, but I really don’t know if many of us will possess the abilities Gary has in his later years. Gary is 75 now and I would challenge any of us to match his current physical abilities when we’re 75. Sometimes we need to keep it simple, keep it real, expose ourselves to our deficiencies and admit when we need help in fixing them.

Enjoy Gary’s article in Golf Digest. If you have some extra time, read the little combine I presented in the same issue. This is an opportunity for me to apply a much larger concept to golf and golf fitness. It is yet another opportunity to create movement competency before pursuing physical capacity or athletic specialization.

That, I think, is the art of coaching.

A Glimpse into a Better Future

I’ve been teaching, training and rehabilitating movement since 1990 when I became a physical therapist and a certified strength coach. Since then I’ve accumulated many other letters behind my name, but all the credentials don’t mean much if they don’t change you or improve you in some way. I’ve always tried to get the most of my education.

Wise teachers tell us to empty our cup so we can capture something new. To this end, each time I learn I become a student again. I listen, I look goofy, I feel humble, and I try not to take myself too seriously.

A step outside ability

If I learn a better way to do something, I easily put down my old method, opinion or tool—and move forward in new light. I always try to find the common theme that connects all good teachers, coaches and mentors. The bulk of my work has not been to develop methods to build the best program. My work has simply been to target things that work with strategic observation and testing.

This objective feedback breeds honesty in both teachers and students, and produces systems… not programs. Systems are better, because they allow for scalability.

On July 4th 2011 I found myself a student again when I attended the 5-day MovNat experience in West Virginia with my two teenage daughters (13 and 16) and my pregnant wife (5 months). If that sounds a little crazy, how about this? I was scheduled for right wrist surgery two days after the experience. Yes, I’m crazy!

The MovNat Experience

Now that we have that out of the way, let me explain. My family forgives my eccentricity and strange ideas—it become part of having Cook as their last name. Bringing my family just seemed like the right thing to do. A conversation with Erwan also gave me faith in him, and in his instructors’ ability to scale anything. So we put them to the test. Saying they passed is like saying U2 puts on a nice little rock show!!

Erwan, Vic, and Cliff were fantastic. They were kind and tough and interesting, and made me glad I introduced them to the ladies in my house.

I wrote a book on movement. It’s actually called Movement and it scientifically supports the MovNat principles and methods in every way. However, in the presence of these great instructors I was humbled… in a good way, a way that gave me hope for my children’s future children. I’ve been looking for a tribe of modern fitness professionals who appreciate the raw adaptability of the human flesh and spirit.

  • A tribe that seeks to nourish both in a process that looks more like play and exploration than working out or posting points on a board
  • A tribe that creates natural movement with superior fitness as a favorable byproduct

These concepts are in total contrast to the other tribes that sacrifice the integrity of natural movement in an attempt to expend an extra calorie while remaining totally comfortable in the process.

In my book, I talk about how a richer sensory experience can produce better movement behavior. As a physical therapist I have a few tricks to improve dysfunctional movement. However it was totally refreshing to see other movement experts replace unnatural movements with natural ones.

Haulin' Logs

MovNat is an art, practiced with integrity, based in natural science, and wrapped with some sweat, smiles, fresh air and laughter!

All great teaching improves our inner and outer environment. If not, how can it be great?

Nothing in the modern scholastic physical education, training or coaching directs professionals toward experiences like MovNat, and that is a shame. Our society produces PE teachers and fitness professionals who cannot move themselves and think nothing of it. I am in a position to make this statement because I test movement on these individuals every time I teach a functional movement screening workshop. MovNat is a wonderful educational experience, and hopefully one day it can be part of our schooling so my daughters will not have to take their children any further than their elementary school to find MovNat.

Jawing with Erwan

In the meantime, Mark Twain reminds us that we should not let scholastic limitations interfere with our education—even our movement education.

Thanks again, guys!

Why We Move Poorly… and What to Do About It

Recently while reading the book Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, I could not help but draw a parallel with my work with movement dysfunction. Why We Get Fat is well researched by the author, Gary Taubes, who presents the basic case that we can become leaner by avoiding certain foods— and not just consuming the latest advertised “low-fat over-processed prepackaged, take-our-word-for-it solution.” This simple logic is almost too basic for today’s health-obsessed consumer. We want fast, sexy and cheap, but we can’t give up anything. That’s just crazy!

First and foremost, lean does not necessarily mean healthy, and it is only one marker of health. But consider that our biggest mistake while trying to lean up is not one of inclusion, but of omission. Here is the “why we get fat logic” in a nutshell.

  • If you are not as lean as you want or need to be, what you are currently doing does not work.
  • Therefore you should change something.
  • Your first changes should be deletions, not additions.
  • Once all responsible and logical deletions are managed, add some stuff if needed.

In the case of why we get fat, the absolute deletions should be all refined sugars, most all starches and liquid calories. You might say, “OUCH! Not going happen!”

Actually it’s not that bad, and if you think it is, I’m going to punch you again. I’m going to compare you to a seven-year-old who still needs a pacifier. Think of the humorous comparison for a minute: A pacifier is not necessary for life and really only offers habitual comfort. When it’s taken away, you think serious damage has occurred based on the reaction that follows, but soon even the most stubborn brats will eventually give up the habit if the pacifier is not available.

Just like the brat, our society has grown up with habitual comfort on daily soft drinks and desserts, two things that were once reserved for special occasions and before that nonexistent. Some say giving up the sweet stuff seems almost un-American. Personally, I think childhood obesity and constantly lowering military physical intake standards are un-American. However that’s just me and I’m not running for office, so I’ll just leave it at that. My point is that the solution to fat is simple in most cases, and it’s been overcomplicated to the point of absurdity. Delete foods that can potentially cause insulin fluctuations before you try to add any new diet foods or modify your exercises.

Certainly you can see where I’m headed with this nutritional diversion, which is to make a point about the way we move using the same simple logic. I have often made a habit of creating logical parallels between the way we look at our nutritional ideas and our exercise ideas. Innovation and better thinking occur in nutrition ahead of exercise and rehabilitation—the exercise paradigm of challenging conventional wisdom lags the nutritional paradigm by about 10 years.

Why We Get Fat shows how nutritional research is poorly constructed with embedded special interest agendas. Movement science for exercise and rehabilitation research is worse. Researchers attack small movement questions that don’t really make a difference, even though they use nice statistics and laser precision. We once just looked at food and applied the calories in/calories out math to explain fat. We were stupid! Now we look at movement and assume that exercises under a functional marketing label automatically produce function.

In both cases reductionism is the obvious flaw and the big error is simple: Researchers were studying inputs (food) and outputs (movement capability) without really looking at the complex systems of hormonal regulation (food) and movement perception and behavior (movement capability). Thermodynamics does not explain why we get fat, and kinesiology and biomechanics does not come close to explaining why we move poorly. It’s a movement perception and behavior problem—see the book Movement for more on this and check out movementbook.com.

So let me apply the same logic used by Gary Taubes to the issue of why we move poorly and see what can we discover.

  • If you do not move as well as you want or need to, what you’re doing does not work.
  • Therefore you should change something.
  • Your first changes should be deletions not additions.
  • Once all responsible and logical deletions are managed add some stuff if needed.

Pretty simple, huh?

Unfortunately, the knee jerk reaction of the fitness and rehabilitation industry to movement problems is to give us exercise corrections to fix movement problems. Hell, that’s what I did, but sometimes it seemed like I was just treating the symptoms of dysfunction, not the underlying cause.

I needed to think outside the box. If you need a nutritional example to draw a movement and exercise parallel, here you go—

Let’s let our clients, athletes and patients eat like crap and sell them supplements the rest of their lives. Wait a minute—Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and most of us agree, at least in principle even if we don’t practice maxim. If corrective exercise is the pound, what is the once?

I’ll give you that in a moment, but follow this questioning first.

Why do smart, educated professionals who actually know better ask for the pound of corrective exercises when a well-placed ounce of X will do? Corrective exercise is cool, vogue, technical and we can charge for it… and before you think I’m bashing it, just remember I’m one the biggest proponents of the corrective exercise movement. However, I did not design Functional Movement Systems to be an exercise supplement company. Sure we teach the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA) to exercise and rehabilitation professionals around the world. These systems are designed to identify movement dysfunction in physically active populations at all levels (FMS) and those who wish to return to physical activity following illness and injury (SFMA).

So it might be easy to assume—

  • …we designed our screening and assessment systems for the sole purpose of dispensing the remedies
  • …and the only remedy to movement dysfunction is corrective exercise.

Neither assumption is true. We are passionate about a systematic movement philosophy that often involves corrective exercises. We are in the education business and we do teach, publish and produce materials that feature new innovations in corrective exercises. However, the central premise with the FMS and the SFMA are the systematic identification and management of dysfunction.

It’s easy to assume our screening and assessments capture the sedentary and unfit among us, but our systems don’t seem to be that impressed with our current definition of fitness and athleticism. Otherwise, we would not catch so many individuals who would seem fit by all other standards. Our systems find movement dysfunction in the fit and unfit. This makes many of us wonder if we should broaden the modern definition of a physically prepared and fit individual. Pro athletes, marathoners, high school superstars, personal trainers, fitness instructors, gym rats and bodybuilders can all do poorly on the movement screens and assessments. This is mainly because we have not historically agreed on the basics of movement and physical readiness. We do not have minimal acceptable movement standards – and it all spins out of control from there. Obviously, we will have different aspirations in our sports, hobbies and favorite activities, but we should also have a common foundation in movement competency—a necessary movement aptitude all of our different activities build upon, like a non-negotiable foundation.

The lack of activity in one’s life can definitely cause erosion in fundamental movement patterns, but other things can be equally damaging. Some examples are—

  • Poor postural habits
  • Poor work ergonomics
  • Poor quality and quantity of sleep
  • Limited recovery between workouts and exercises
  • Unbalanced workout and exercise practices and loads
  • Poor coaching, training and instruction
  • Poor nutritional habits and food quality
  • Workouts and exercises that do not introduce a variety of movement patterns
  • Programming lacking a balance of perspective of quality and quantity
  • Exercise volume that compounds poor form and fosters compensation
  • A misunderstanding of movement competency compared to physical capacity
  • Exercise program design without movement baselines and retesting for effectiveness
  • Injury followed by incomplete rehabilitation and cover-up medicine
  • Continue the list if you like, but you get the point…

Deleting any one of these from your personal list can have positive effects on your movement profile. If we are honest, we could all do a better job of managing these in ourselves. Likewise, we could also educate those who depend on us to see the big picture and support their exercise goals with some sensible lifestyle management. Logically we should seek to remove a negative before we add a positive. It just makes good sense. Find the leak, then get the mop.

It’s easy to misappropriate corrective exercise and assume it will fix all. In some cases it’s like mopping up the water and assuming the problem is solved. However, managing the water on the floor only gets the representation of the problem under control. Fixing the leak is the real solution. Movement dysfunction is actually the same. The identification of dysfunction is the spill—the external indication that something is wrong. Corrective exercise, stretching and foam rolling clean up the spill, but if they are constantly necessary to keep dysfunctional movement patterns at bay, they are just mopping up the water. The first step is admitting you have a leak and systematically devising a way to fix it or at least manage it.

If something is causing dysfunction and your best professional efforts are only providing a temporary solution, this does not mean you abandon those things that are providing a temporary solution. It means you should have no illusions that you have gotten to the root of the problem. You are managing the problem, but you are not making lasting changes. When I teach and hear professional frustrations about corrective exercise it goes like this—

“Gray, the correctives are a great way to prep someone for exercise, but the client seems to go back to movement dysfunction by the time I see them again. Can you give me some more advanced corrective exercises?”

To me that is the equivalent of asking for a stronger dose of the wrong medicine to get the desired affect. If the corrective exercise has temporary benefit on movement pattern dysfunction but no lasting influence, we need to logically dissect the problem.

Lifestyle influences are pushing dysfunction harder than our programming can inject corrections that target acceptable function. Identify the potential things that can reinforce movement dysfunction and reduce or remove them. Things that produce movement dysfunction today can be potentially damaging and destructive tomorrow.

Corrective exercise compliance is not acceptable. Corrective exercise is not a workout, and needs to be performed a lot in the beginning of a workout. Think of the minimal effective dose. It needs to be performed on workout days and non-workout days until it is no longer needed.

But how do you know it’s not needed? Rescreen without prep!

Both scenarios apply and lifestyle management coupled with corrective exercise is the obvious solution. You can default to this because this blended scenario is usually the most compressive answer. However, it’s rarely a 50/50 distribution, so be prepared to attack the behaviors that foster the most efficient and effective change toward more acceptable movement.

The best place to practice this is with yourself. What’s your FMS score? What corrections were you assigned? If we cannot practice this logic on our dysfunctions, how can we hope to have the confidence and professionalism to be the guide for another? Life’s little surprises constantly make me go back to my logic and fundamental principles. It’s human nature to be impatient and look for shortcuts, so entertain the thought that the rules don’t apply to you for about five minutes and then be a professional and figure it out… and realize they do. The best professionals are examples of their own advice. Work on your own FMS, but get someone else to screen you and let them score you—own what they find and work on it! If you are sidelined with a problem, attack your SFMA with a rehabilitation expert.

If you are into self-help options and you have movement dysfunction, try learning and owning the Turkish getup. It has lots of traps to catch you, and in Kettlebells from the Ground Up, Brett Jones and I mapped out some cool corrections to help. Unfortunately, you will need to do your own lifestyle analysis and delete all the stuff that could potentially be hijacking the mobility, stability and symmetry necessary to perform successful getups. If you already own Kettlebells from the Ground Up, you may want to apply it more thoroughly. If you don’t, you might want to check it out. We will soon be releasing the sequel to the original with lots of new material and some surprises, so get acquainted or reacquainted with the original as a way to own your own dysfunction and get ready for the new information in our sequel.

My recommendation is to follow the instructions for one month. Dedicate a minimum of two sessions to the corrective or movements that present you with challenge. Train for symmetry and own each stage before moving to the next. At the same time, look at the movements where you have problems and look at your lifestyle and workouts to see if you can find places where you compound problems, put quantity over quality, or lack a balanced approach. Most exercise and rehabilitation professionals are not free of movement dysfunction and can therefore practice an individualized blend of lifestyle management and corrective exercise themselves. It’s the surest way to really understand the power we have to help others when we apply the correct systematic approach.

We afford some degree of respect to those individuals who have successfully lost weight and maintained a lean physique because they took action. Fix yourself first—it’s the most impressive part of being an expert.

Any fool can know. The point is to understand. ~Albert Einstein

Author’s note —Now I guess I’ll go work on my T-spine mobility and stiff lower back. I’ve been leaning over my poorly positioned laptop for too long and it’s killing my neck.