Self-Limiting Exercise—Naturally Correct Exercise

Excerpt from the book Movement

Click here to download a larger pdf of this self-limiting exercise chart

Self-limiting exercises make us think, and even make us feel more connected to exercise and to movement. They demand greater engagement and produce greater physical awareness. Self-limiting exercises do not offer the easy confidence or quick mastery provided by a fitness machine.

The earliest exercise forms were self-limiting—they required mindfulness and technique. Idiot-proof equipment and the conditioning equivalent of training wheels did not exist. Great lifters learned to lift great; great fighters learned to fight great; great runners learned to run great. Their qualities and quantities were intertwined.

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Self-limiting exercise demands mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. In self-limiting exercise, a person cannot just pop on the headphones and walk or run on the treadmill, fingering the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor. Self-limiting exercise demands engagement.

The clearest example of self-limiting exercise is barefoot running. While running barefoot, the first runners connected with the sensory information in the soles of their feet. This works perfectly—this is the very reason the soles of the feet have such a uniquely dense distribution of sensory nerves. This provides a window to our environment, like the nerves in our hands, eyes and ears. The information provided by sensory nerves in the soles help all who walk on two feet continually adjust their movement, stride, rhythm, posture and breathing to meet changes in the terrain.

The modern running shoe allows us to ignore a sensory perspective of running that is only second to vision, and, as you know, the increase in running-related injuries paralleled running shoe development. When running barefoot, over-striding and heel striking is not an option—it produces jarring, discomfort and pain because it is not authentic. Is it not a bit peculiar that the quick twinges of pain refine the barefoot runner’s stride to help avoid running injuries, while the comfort of the modern running shoe later exchanged those friendly twinges for debilitating pain?

The modern runner uses braces to cover a weakness, often not taking responsibility to rehabilitate a problem, or dissatisfied with the rehabilitation process and its incomplete outcome. Christopher McDougall reveals this concept in an amazing story in his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a story that reminds us to temper all technologic advancements against historical facts and time-tested principles. He touches on medical and biomechanical issues, prehistoric man, exercise concepts and a detachment from the joy of movement we exchange for superficial results.

This book is highly recommended for trainers, coaches and rehabilitation professionals to help them see their respective professions through the eyes of the inquisitive, chronically injured runner. Christopher’s investigation and story connects important dots we can all appreciate. In his journey, he discovered rehabilitation and coaching wisdom that is logical and simple. The problem is that he had to dig to find it. Part of his digging was caused by our incomplete practices of movement assessment, exercise and rehabilitation.

Examples of other natural, self-limiting categories are governed by breathing, grip strength, balance, correct posture and coordination. Some exercises combine two or more self-limiting activities, and each has natural selective and developmental benefits. These exercises produce form and function while positioning the entire movement matrix for multiple benefits. As we train movement, anatomical structures model themselves around natural stresses.

Self-limiting activities should become the cornerstone of your training programs, not as preventive maintenance and risk management, but as movement authentication—to keep it real. The limitations these exercises impose keep us honest and allow our weakest links to hold us back, as they should.

Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.

Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.

A word of caution: These activities are not magic. They don’t automatically install movement quality. They simply provide the opportunity should the individual be up to the challenge. Each of these activities imposes natural obstacles and requires technical attention. There is usually a coordination of attributes not often used together, such as balance and strength or quickness and alignment. These activities usually require instruction to provide safety and maximize benefits. If you do not respect them, they can impose risk.

However, patience, attention to detail and expert instruction will provide a natural balancing of movement abilities. These do not have to make up the entire exercise program. Instead, they offer mental and physical challenges against natural limitations and technical standards. These activities will not only provide variety, but should ultimately produce physical poise, confidence and higher levels of movement competence.

Ready for more?
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Movement Principle # 9

This is part nine of our 10-week series in which Gray further develops the 10 movement principles he presented in Chapter 15 of his book, Movement. If you missed the earlier parts, start where you left off: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven and Part Eight. We’ll finish up this series next Tuesday. This material was also covered in depth in his live workshop DVD, Applying the FMS Model.

Principle 9: Our corrective exercise dosage recipe suggests that we work close to the baseline at the edge of ability with a clear goal. This should produce a rich sensory experience filled with manageable mistakes.

Our actual goal is silent knowledge—no words, just better movement perception and behavior. In The Voice of Knowledge, former physician Miguel Ruiz discusses the silent knowledge of the body with eloquence and clarity. He states, “Your liver does not need to go to medical school to know what to do.”

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We can expand that brilliant and simple statement across the movement systems as well. These systems naturally use their perceptions to create their behaviors, and their behaviors to refine perceptions. Your abdominals, diaphragm and pelvic floor know what to do and how to work together if you let them. This is why we don’t need to do core work with toddlers. Their curiosity drives exploration and their lack of control demands movement coordination if they are to explore. The exploration requires movement, and they work at movement to achieve exploration.

When your clients and patients arrive on the scene with movement dysfunction, you can’t leave it to Mother Nature, because for a long time they have been working against her. To help them, you might need to break a behavior and reset an experience. From the experience, you will have to develop a corrective strategy.

Manageable mistakes means mistakes managed by the individuals doing the corrective. The mistakes aren’t managed by our holding up a red flag every time they teeter or wobble. Manageable mistakes mean that even though it doesn’t look pretty, they’re not going into dysfunction.

The whole purpose of doing corrective exercise is to improve movement quality within a particular pattern. Why even do it if you don’t set a baseline or have a qualitative standard?

This goes back to my history. I was on the lecture circuit teaching functional exercise and corrective exercise before I invented the movement screen. All of a sudden, a light bulb went off in my head. I looked out at the 50 faces looking back at me for advice on functional training and corrective exercise and thought, ‘Oh my God. They don’t have the same gauge to rate movement quality.’

What I was saying to the front row meant something completely different to the second row and yet again to the third row. I was showing how to play golf and I hadn’t given the rules of golf. We’re never going to enjoy a great game of golf that way, because there’s no defined qualitative standard.

What I said to myself was, ‘I have this idea of what good movement is, but I haven’t even standardized it for myself.’ We have to standardize a minimum movement quality.

There’s a lot of research that supports the movement screen. Most of the evidence states that you should be able to balance without a lot of postural movement — 10 to 20 seconds on a single leg. Well, it only takes three to five seconds to do a hurdle step. If you can’t even do a hurdle step, I’m pretty sure you have dysfunctional single-leg stance or not enough mobility to go over the hurdle.

It doesn’t matter which of those problems you have — you have a problem in that movement pattern. If I’m going to correct that movement pattern, now I know how bad the problem is and we have a grading scale for your issue. Everything I do in hopes of improving your stance on one leg or your stepping on the other leg is targeted at whether it changed hurdle stepping.

One of the questions that comes back to me often is, ‘Where did you get all of these exercise innovations? Where did you get all of these exercise ideas and how come I’ve never seen people use chops and lifts or single-leg deadlifts like this before?’

It’s not because I started thinking this way. I used to do everything we were all taught to do. But once I had this movement baseline I was trying to stay close to, I realized something was supposed to change the squat, but it really didn’t. Something was supposed to improve shoulder mobility, but it didn’t last. I had this genie on my shoulder saying, ‘Hey, you have this movement screen. You’re throwing all these neat, well-defined exercises to the screen, but they aren’t changing movement.’

So I reached a professional dilemma. I either had to trash the screen because it’s telling me the wrong thing, or I have to question the exercise philosophy of the current state of our profession. And do you know what? I don’t think the screen is really asking people to do that much.

We often have a lot of difficulty with the screen, but when we look at it theoretically, it shouldn’t be that hard. Lift a leg. Squat down. Step over a string. Lunge. Scratch your back. These things aren’t that hard.

We’ve become so myopic in our training or so highly specialized and lost a certain aspect of physical mobility. All of a sudden, ‘Oh my gosh. How do we get it back?’

If you really consider what improves and what doesn’t improve, you would actually develop exercises the exact same way I did. I kicked out everything that didn’t give me a quick or appreciable change in a movement pattern.

We’ll present the final principle, Principle 10, next Tuesday. To continue your study in the meantime, please consider the book, Movement and the live workshop DVD, Applying the FMS Model.

Movement Principle # 8

This is part eight of our 10-week series in which Gray further develops the 10 movement principles he presented in Chapter 15 of his book, Movement. If you missed the earlier parts, start where you left off: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six and Part Seven. We’ll post a new segment each week on Tuesdays. This material was also covered in depth in his live workshop DVD, Applying the FMS Model.

Principle 8: We must develop performance and skill considering each tier in a natural progression of movement development and specialization. This is the pyramid model of the competency, capacity and specialization part.   

Try to keep it simple even when using the pyramid model. First direct the conversation away from perfection and exemplary performance and redirect the focus to minimums using blood pressure as an example. When we screen a group for blood pressure ranges, we’re not looking for a perfect blood pressure number—we’re looking for red flags. Without much thought, we will probably separate the group into high risk, borderline and low risk.

Why can’t we just start our movement conversations the same way? Throw out three terms when discussing the topics of rehabilitation, exercise or training: Are we talking about competency, capacity or specialization? This usually gets a confused look, but it’s a great way to start. It forces perspective. It forces a consideration of principles.

Each of these levels of movement must be cleared for minimum competency, and in a progressive order.

Competency

Capacity

Specialization

Competency

This we test with movement screening. If screening reveals pain or dysfunction in the form of limitation or asymmetry, there is a movement-competency problem. Alternatively, there is a basic movement-aptitude problem—pick your term, but make the point. Adequate competency suggests acceptable fundamental-movement quality.

Capacity

Capacity is measured using standardized tests for physical capacity against normative data specific to a particular population or category of activity. Football players are compared with football players and golfers are compared with golfers. If movement competency is present and if testing reveals limitations in basic strength, power or endurance, there is a fundamental physical capacity problem. Adequate capacity simply suggests acceptable fundamental movement quantities.

Specialization

Coaches and experts grade skill with the use of observation, special tests, skill drills and by previous statistics when available. If capacity is present and if testing and statistics reveal limitations in the performance of specific skills, there is a specialization problem. Adequate specialization simply suggests acceptable specialized movement abilities.

This is a way to discuss the performance pyramid without a diagram. It’s also a great way to see if someone has an appreciation of the natural developmental continuum that produces human movement.

A few words of caution: We cannot become movement pattern snobs demanding total perfection on screens. Practice balance and look for deficiencies at each level of movement. Our ultimate goal should be to identify the weakest link, because sometimes the problem is not movement quality. It is a deficiency within physical capacity or a shortage of skill or specialization that is causing problems.

I first introduced the pyramid concept in Athletic Body in Balance. I simply used it as a visual vehicle to discuss the logic behind getting fundamental movements down first, doing a lot of these movements and developing some degree of physical capacity and endurance. Then, we would target these specifically…running, jumping, climbing, throwing and kicking.

The hierarchy just demonstrates how one fundamental activity supports the next, and how the next activity of strength, functional patterns, explosiveness and endurance supports the acquisition of skill. The acquisition of skill in throwing, kicking, dancing, spinning, tumbling, gymnastics and fighting moves all require practice.

If you only have enough stability, integrity and strength to hit a small bucket of golf balls every day, you’re never going to be a good golfer. You need a lot more time. If you only have enough wind to practice two fighting moves a day, you’re never going to win.

Developing efficiency first in your movement where you’re not fighting yourself—fundamental mobility and stability—and then developing some degree of physical integrity where you can lift, turn, twist, jump, manage your bodyweight and maybe even manipulate things is the next tier.

Now you’ve developed a big enough gas tank so you can enter the skills arena and explore gymnastics or mixed martial arts, dance, golf, tennis or catch 50 passes in a row and learn to develop your skill.

It’s not that these motor programs just set up safety, durability, alignment and integrity. They also literally provide the physical reserve to do multiple repetitions with integrity before posture starts to falter, shoulders start to droop and ankles start to roll. Any practice you do beyond that means you’re learning to move that way.

When I talk about these tiers, it doesn’t mean if your true interest is golf, you can’t start hitting golf balls right away. However, don’t invest three hours in hitting golf balls when you only have the physical capacity to hit 30 of them correctly. Let’s also invest time in developing that support system of physical integrity so you can train.

For example, say I were to analyze you using some performance tests, some skill tests and the Functional Movement Screen, and found your movement screen information was horrendous. You really can’t move that well.

But your strength is pretty good. You can jump pretty high. You’re definitely explosive. You have some moderate endurance. You’re shooting the eyes out of your three points. You’re a pretty good basketball player. You can do a lay-up, and some people could argue why we even worry about the movement screen.

The Functional Movement Screen first tells us, from most of the research we have, that without having the integrity of these fundamental movements, you’re giving up something. You’re giving up the durability that comes with having fluid movement. There’s a durability rating, meaning injury risk increases when you have a poor movement screen.

Secondly, there’s physical adaptability. We see great athletes who don’t have great movement screens. However, we see one of two things: It’s hard for them to change their game and adapt to new things, or they have elevated injury risks. Both of these point back to cleaning up the foundation, and what we’ll find is greater efficiency.

You’ll go longer into your sport or practice without fatigue. The increased resistance to fatigue will allow you to practice with more integrity. Practicing with more integrity reduces micro-trauma, the chance of injury and the chance of an accident.

These tiers constantly play with each other. If you review the Movement book and Athletic Body in Balance,you’ll discover the different profiles of the overpowered and the underpowered individual.

These create metaphors a lot of our clients, athletes and patients often fit into. It gives us a good logical construct and template that tells us exactly what to do here. We have to go back and get them a better foundation.

On the other hand, it could be that the foundation is great, but we’re not practicing skill enough so that becomes the problem.

We’ll present Principle 9 next Tuesday. To continue your study in the meantime, please consider the book, Movement and the live workshop DVD, Applying the FMS Model.

Gray Cook Radio, Episode 27

In a follow-up to the earlier segment on stability vs motor control, in this episode Gray explains balance, and how it relates to motor control.

You’ll be looking for Episode 27 here on Gray Cook Radio.

Movement Principle # 7

This is part seven of our 10-week series in which Gray further develops the 10 movement principles he presented in Chapter 15 of his book, Movement. If you missed the earlier parts, start where you left off: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six,. We’ll post a new segment each week on Tuesdays. This material was also covered in depth in his live workshop DVD, Applying the FMS Model.

Principle 7: We should not put fitness on movement dysfunction.

It is possible for fit people to move poorly and unfit people to move well. We measure basic fitness quantity and basic movement quality with different tools. We forget this and assume that fitness is the fundamental baseline, but it is ­not.

Fitness and physical performance or capacity is the second step in a ­three-­step process. As you discuss the information in this book with peers, other professionals, clients or patients, keep it simple at first. Make sure you establish agreement on the fundamentals. If there is a problem understanding the basic logic of functional movement systems, you will have little chance creating weight and appreciation for the corrective parts of the model. People must understand the basics of the pyramid ­approach.

I’ve used this statement; I’ve heard a lot of people repeat it and they attribute the statement to me. I think I made it up one day, but I got the sentiment from many people in addition to my own ideas.

The only practice that’s worth anything is practice that doesn’t rehearse continual, unmanageable mistakes. If you have a bad lunging pattern on the left and I load that up, moving way past the challenge and into just difficulty, your brain shifts to, ‘I have to survive this.’

Your brain forgets to move with integrity and balance and just goes into survival mode. You survive the load, but you don’t benefit from it. You don’t learn to engage or pressurize from the load. You don’t get any motor benefit.

We see a bad lunge and think we have to get that lunge better. We load it, and all of a sudden, the extra load triggers engagement. We think we’re benefiting in some way, but what we’re really what we’re doing is rehearsing compensation under load.

The load we’re talking about is weight, core impact, velocity or excessive range of motion. If you don’t have a minimum level of competency or some degree of integrity, when we stress or load unnecessarily, we reinforce whatever you have. Stress reinforces things in biological organisms. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it can make you stronger in the wrong direction.

If you’re squatting wrong and it’s not killing you, it can make your hip flexor spasm stronger. It can make your swayback worse. It can make your rounded shoulders harder to bring back.

When you go into your workout with underlying dysfunction, remember this: Exercise is trial by fire. We want to optimize the situation and then temper the steel. We don’t do it the other way around.

That’s sort of what’s behind the statement. It’s not a contradiction. When I’m talking corrective exercise, there’s not a lot of stress or load, because we should be learning to manage bodyweight. Managing balance without a load is natural. Everybody does that as they’re learning to walk.

What’s unnatural is to load a squat that doesn’t have any integrity to it. There’s no situation where a baby would think, ‘I can’t really squat that good right now. Maybe put a mini backpack on me and see if that helps my balance?’

This is another form of what we’re doing at the gym when we throw on quantity to clean up quality. If you want to clean up quality, clean up quality. If you want to reinforce quality, then throw on quantity.

This brings me to another thing.

When Brett Jones and I dissected the Turkish getup in Kettlebells from the Ground Up, our intention was not to make everybody do light getups. The idea is if you have less-than-optimal integrity in your getup, go light until you recapture integrity. Then get heavy again, because that’s the best way to see if you can hold integrity and manage quality.

Once quality has an acceptable base, start exploring greater levels of quantity—strength, speed, stamina, endurance—and see if you can maintain a minimum level of quality.

We’ll present Principle 8 next Tuesday.  To continue your study in the meantime, please consider the book, Movement and the live workshop DVD, Applying the FMS Model.