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To Stanford, with Stu McGill and Craig Liebenson

The upcoming Stanford event with Stu McGill and me is the brainchild of Craig Liebenson. It probably came from an issue Craig observed in his position lecturing, publishing and mentoring young clinicians in functional rehabilitation. Craig noticed people thought Stu and I were at odds about concepts like screening, assessment and spine stabilization.

Assessing Movement square
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Craig is a shining light in the chiropractic world, showing that a blend of good rehabilitation, good conceptual physical therapy and exercise choices are equally as important as manual therapy, manipulation, dry needling or soft tissue work. If you’re not doing one at an expert level, the other will barely get you halfway.

Craig proposed for us to get together so people can hear what he was able to glean from our work, and we jumped into making it happen. Stu and I are probably both in the process of paring down the most important concepts we’d like to be recognized for. Two of the concepts that polarize people are spine sparing and spine stabilization. We’re both passionate about these, and I want to elaborate at bit.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s a longer audio version of this article,
Episode 41 of Gray Cook Radio


One of Stu McGill’s original concerns in his work was spine sparing. That means if you’re trying to rehabilitate, stabilize or train a spine and you haven’t looked at all the reasons a spine may have to compensate—lack of hip extension, lack of medial rotation on one hip, poor balance on one leg, poor thoracic spine mobility—you’re not doing a very good job at sparing the spine. You’re trying to add a positive to a situation that would do better if you removed a negative.

Only in a few situations will spontaneous stabilization emerge from creating mobility in the system. Some stabilization training has to occur, but if you look at what we say about stabilization, if you neglect the screening and evaluation process, and you don’t identify the things that could be causing the spine to compensate in the first place, you failed to recognize the spine isn’t the problem. The spine is the victim. Until you attack the problem and then rehabilitate the victim, you’ve done nothing.

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It’s believed that 50% of back patients will probably get better regardless of what we do.

When you have an episode of low back pain that inconveniences you or disables you in some way, without someone to responsibly evaluate and rehabilitate you, you could very easily recover from that episode.

But here’s what you’re going to do: You’re not going to play golf anymore. You’re going to give up running. There are lifts in the gym you no longer do. You’re in constant search of a mattress to make you more comfortable.

In many cases, you just pare down your life and limit it so you’re more comfortable, but in no way are you more functional. The pain is gone, but it’s because you don’t agitate it—not because you rehabilitated it.

Stu’s concept of spine sparing is the most important concept in this entire body of work. My contribution was in trying to create a filter in both our movement screen (the FMS) and in our medical equivalent movement screen (the SFMA) to say, ‘You don’t just have a stability problem. You have multiple mobility or movement problems.’

gray2013If your action isn’t affecting a movement pattern, what is your action doing?

In concept, Stu and I are in total alignment in responsibly attacking the weakest link, but remember, one of the things people debate about our work is low back pain, and low back pain is not even a disease or a dysfunction. It’s a symptom and it can come from everything from tight hips to poor lifting mechanics to bone cancer.

The most responsible action in back pain is not to reach for a remedy, but to thoroughly, objectively and consistently attempt to map out the contributing factors before pursuing spine stabilization.

This leads me to a second point where I feel people think we’re in opposition. Stu and I are in pursuit of biomarkers—biomarkers that help predict problems and progress people. These are biomarkers that set baselines so you can appraise the value of your work and the amount of progress you’re offering to the people who train and rehabilitate with you.

Stu and I have also been asked if we find a valuable biomarker, ‘Can you move it? ‘Can you help it?’ Stu has adopted some remedies, as have I, but we came from two different incubators.

I’m a clinician coming out of a small clinic in Virginia with a very small education budget and no research budget. I’ve never been completely attached to a university and I’ve never had a research grant. All I had to work with were the tools I had, to be resourceful and see if I could make a simple filter to help me and my staff be a little bit better at what we did.

PavelwithStuStu has had an unbelievable research window into the inner workings of the human body with EMG, force plates and biomechanical analysis. He’s gone deep into the anatomical structure of what the spine should and shouldn’t do. And he’s also looked at the functionality of what the spine does in our most vigorous activities and during rehabilitation.

In recent strength and conditioning culture, Stu has become somehow married to the side plank. But really, he simply identified the side plank as a biomarker. Many people then took that side plank and used it as an inoculation—not as a remedy, and not as a treatment when warranted.

Many people assumed if they just add side planks to a rehabilitation or functional exercise program, they by default stabilize the spine…because Stu has a body of spine stability work and they saw him write about the side plank. Therefore, if everybody in their program hits the side plank, by default they’re stable.

That’s not Stu’s message at all. Anything Stu does, he’s going to precede it with a test and follow it with a re-test. Those tests will show him the appropriateness and benefit of the activity.

Sometimes people doing some of the exercises we discuss may trust us so much, they neglect to do the pre-test and post-test that validates they were in the right place at the right time with the right person.

What it boils down to is this: Stu and Craig and I get questions about dry needling, active release (ART), PRI, DNS or ways to get the body and the central nervous system and the movement patterns to line up. We have opinions about these, but you don’t need to ask our opinions. Run these things through our filters. If you’re correctly doing dry needling, you will change movement. If your approach to PRI or DNS techniques is on board and preceded and followed by objective evaluation, you’ll have your answer without asking.

I don’t want to be remembered for my contribution to exercise nearly as much as my contribution to assessments, screens and evaluations used so we don’t waste time with the wrong exercise.

We want to be better marksmen with our exercise choices.

We have many wonderful remedies to improve movement, restore mobility and improve stabilization. These remedies are often applied because they have value to the experts who invented them, but it’s hard to create that same value without perspective. People often take the right medicine to the wrong situation, and therein lies the need for screening, research-based biomarkers, assessments and medical intervention when warranted.


Ultimately, the people who attend this Stanford event or get the audio, video or text transcript will realize if you lean a little bit closer and dismiss the idea of a magic bullet, you’ll discover our careers have been heading on a collision course of collaboration and support—not conflict.

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In the meantime, if you’d like to hear more from Stu, Craig and me, here are a few of our conversations.

 Craig Liebenson & Gray Cook: A Dialogue on Function

Stuart Mcgill & Craig Liebenson: From The Lab to The Trenches

Craig Liebenson & Gray Cook: Misunderstandings About The FMS and SFMA

Craig Liebenson & Gray Cook: Hat Tip to Professor Janda

Pavel Tsatsouline: Simple and Sinister



Simple and Sinister, Pavel Tsatsouline’s new book, is eloquent in its simplicity. People try to overcomplicate a position by adding more where it’s unnecessary, but the true artist sculpts, whittles and pares things down to leave something that’s absolutely beautiful—not by adding more but by taking away.

To those of us experienced in kettlebells—if we have a background with Pavel or a background in strength training—in Simple and Sinister he’s telling us things we know, but need to hear again.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s a longer audio version of this article,
Episode 40 of Gray Cook Radio

And if this is your first introduction to kettlebells, I can’t think of a better starting point than Pavel revisiting some of his most profound philosophical statements about strength training.

Yet here he goes one step further: He writes the entire program for us, and he does an excellent job of building a case for his exercise choices.

docgetsupHe discusses the beauty and simplicity of the Turkish getup, and shows that done right, it’s the slow, posturally correct, proprioceptively rich checking of left and right symmetry in multiple movement patterns and multiple positions—a sort of triplanar functional exercise.

The swing is an exercise that’s often bypassed in kettlebell work. People quickly move to snatches and cleans, bent presses and other complicated lifts, and don’t realize the engine that drives Pavel, Brett Jones, Mark Toomey, Dan John, Mark Cheng and other the folks working with StrongFirst is that they never get away from the foundation.

That simplicity is what we need from our modern palate of exercise. We don’t need more variations and more options. We need a simple linear progression to get us to an exercise that has more benefits at minimal risk.

What Pavel has done is given us a program minimum, and that’s the same philosophical standpoint I’ve gotten to with the Functional Movement Screen. I don’t care how good you are, but please don’t leave a dysfunction or a deficiency. That’s what Pavel is doing, too: This is your minimum.

We know life is going to throw you less training time. Your occupation will add stress. The commitments we have in life outside of our personal fitness will often cause us to pare down our chosen exercise program.

Unfortunately, often turn to a specialty. Runners don’t have time to stretch and lift, but they have time to run. Lifters do the lifts that give them positive feedback and probably avoid those that are their weakest links.

What Pavel says is, ‘I’m going to give you a couple of exercises done a certain way. When in doubt, do that. Get better at it. There are some variations. There are some progressions you can do, but be satisfied with the amazing results.’

That couldn’t be more perfectly stated.

GrayCook-LongBeach2013 When I lecture to young exercise professionals, they want more variety. They want more options, more variations of exercises.

Are you sure? Are you asking me for more deadlift variations? Doing more variations of a deadlift isn’t going to make you a better swinger. It’s just going to give you more functionality in the deadlift.

Yet we love to progress your deadlift into a swing. The deadlift is a beautiful foundation, but for fat loss, metabolic power generation and athletic movements, it’s the swing that’s going to bring everything to the surface. The swing will mutually benefit one person who wants to get stronger and one who wants to have more speed and power.

I have just too many good things to say about Pavel’s new book. I downloaded it as an audio book, and have listened to it twice. Now I’m going to go back and thumb through the pages because I want to see his photographs and explanations.

Naked-Warrior It’s a work I’m going to lay right next to his previous work, The Naked Warrior. Pavel creates a constrictive program, and I’d like to elaborate on that. He’s giving us two contrasting and complementary exercises. These are going to present difficulty. You can control some of that by how much weight you use, but at no time do you have the option of using poor technique.

Pavel has a certain way he likes to train his explosive movements, which he calls hard style. It’s the safest and most well-thought-out way to deal with power moves and moving weight. The steps he gives to build a swing and to build a getup are constrictive. They’re going to run you right up against your problems.

He’s doing that because he can’t be in the room with you. The best coaches in the world can design a program not with restrictions, but with constrictions. These constrictions force you to have better form, force you to do the right amount of work at the right time, and force you to rest on a certain day and work harder on another day.

Constrictions are one of the reasons I designed the Functional Movement Screen, so we’re not putting a bad pattern under load. What Pavel has done is given us a beautiful way to get under load and at the same time to enhance movement quality, precision and progression at all costs.

If you’re already a fan of kettlebells, if you’re a fan of strength culture, in Simple and Sinister you will hear what you’ve heard before…in a refreshing, new and simplified way to reassure you that you’re already on the right path.

If you’re new to kettlebells, there isn’t a better starting point than Pavel’s unbelievably simple. Yet, the workouts and work that can be derived from this is absolutely sinister. It’s a concise read, with so many pearls. I’m on my second pass through and I will definitely do a third.

When an author, a coach, a philosopher or somebody who’s immersed themselves in physical culture like Pavel has with his presentation of the StrongFirst community and some of the previous work he’s done, when he takes the time to simplify his knowledge into clear, concise statements, you better put that on your shelf.

Don’t just read it and then run out to sell this information to your clients, because you’re just renting it. Do what he’s telling us. Embrace it. Just pick up the kettlebell, follow the rules and let it teach you. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift for some of my closest friends and the people in  my family who like to train than for me to pick up a copy of this and get it over to them.

I would encourage you to do this read. It requires a lot of work to take something that produces significant results and turn its application into something so simple.

Well done, brother!

Audio Lectures for Your Continuing Education

It’s been over a year since we went live with the site, and we couldn’t be happier with the results. There are currently 194 audio and video learning opportunities on the site, 16 of which are mine. If you haven’t heard these yet, here’s the list (some free), with a few more in the hopper.


Revisiting Athletic Body In Balance
What’s The Big Deal About The Toe Touch?
The Three Rs
Isolation, It’s Totally Natural
Duke University Student Q&A
Movement Principles Talk, CK-FMS
IFOMPT Keynote Address
Hat Tip to Professor Janda, with Craig Liebenson
Schooling Vs Education
VCU School of Physical Therapy
Developing A Movement Philosophy
Self-Limiting Exercise
Gray Cook with Craig Liebenson
Gray Cook with Joe Heiler
Myths & Misunderstandings About The FMS & SFMA
Dry Needling With Edo Zylstra

Fit to Serve

As often occurs in the fall, I fly in late on a Saturday night after teaching a workshop with Lee. It’s a scramble, but Sunday morning, I’m sitting in church because the rest of my family’s there, but also because my dad’s the guy standing at the front of the church. My dad’s a preacher, if you didn’t know.

photoThis Sunday there was a responsive reading at the beginning of the service because it was Veteran’s Sunday. A very powerful reading was in our church bulletin, and the service was wrapped around that. I want to share that with you.

It was very timely for me to see Dr. Ed Thomas’s new video this morning. The video, entitled Fit to Serve, is something I think everyone needs to watch, and then simply think about. If it compels you to take action in some way, that’s fine, but at least just think about it. We owe our veterans and we owe our wounded warriors that much consideration.

ed-thomasIt never ceases to amaze me when I talk with Ed Thomas, or get to hear him narrate some unbelievably profound visual images. He’s a wordsmith in the way he communicates a message. What we have in Dr. Thomas is a physical educator, someone who took physical education to the doctoral level.

This is not a guy who chose physical education, teaching and coaching so he could take summers off. This is someone who realized his way to better humanity is in physical culture, in the physical arts, and in physical development.

I think about how our country would take action if we saw the illiteracy all of the sudden just stay on an decline. What would we’d do if we had children who couldn’t do simple math in their heads? The actions our government would take if we couldn’t read or intelligently work with numbers would be immediate, and all-encompassing.

military squatYet we’ve had a physical decline in our fitness and culture for quite some time.

obstacle-climbEd captures this by looking in the petri dish of the US military. Everything that’s happening in our military—or was happening in our military—is literally a sign of the times, and is just a picture of our overall population.

When we post fitness articles and interviews and videos on the internet, let’s be honest: Most people are interested in those because of a physical aesthetic they’re trying to achieve or an athletic goal they’re trying to bring about.

But when we talk about fitness, when we talk about fire fighters or the military, the police or some other public service like first responders, these are people who sacrifice their lives, their health and sometimes their fitness to perform  a service.

Those of us who get the opportunity to train those people should feel an extra degree of connection to this. Every one of us can do something to foster the integrity of physical culture, not just in the military or first responders, but all the way to the school system.

As you watch Ed’s video, and as you review other fitness or athletic development articles, consider this: How much of this information is making it into the military, or into our 7th grade PE classes?

This is where I think our true physical fitness model must be present and demonstrate effectiveness in the way we prepare people to defend our values, and in the way we decide to grow our children. I think Ed Thomas speaks intelligently to both those.

Now I’m going to embed some other videos from this brilliant man, who has served us both as a veteran and continues to serve us with his insight today.

Click here if using iPhone, iPad, or you cannot see the video player

Isolation vs Movement Patterns

I have no real animosity toward isolation exercises, but in my past I found many people tried to use an isolation exercise to enhance a movement pattern. When I investigated why they picked a particular muscle group, let’s say the quads to address a fault where the trunk is wavering back and forth in the lunge, people often make a few assumptions. They automatically think it’s the front quad, that there’s no strength there.

gray-half-kneel We could do some other assessments or some other movements and show that it could be trunk control. It could be an ankle awareness problem. Maybe the person had multiple sprained ankles and just doesn’t have a lot of sensory information. We might need to train that first. Isolation in many cases follows an assumption of what we think is kinesiology.

Sometimes we see somebody who has a quad that’s two inches smaller on one side than the other. The hamstring seems to have adequate strength. There’s nothing wrong with the calf, but there had been an injury. The person learned how to move around without that quadriceps, and now when trying to do some form of squatting or lunging, it’s done without the quad.

There’s an actual medical term for this called ‘quad avoidance syndrome.’ But there are many other areas in the body we can selectively stop using if things haven’t been correctly managed after an injury.

In the instance above, there’s nothing else in the lunge pattern that needs to be trained. The person needs to reconnect the quad with the body map in the brain. We may actually start with some good ol’ knee extension exercises. Those knee extension machines are becoming more and more rare, but in this instance it would have a place.

The problem is that you have to be in a position to really test muscle weakness if you’re going to isolate. In this situation, isolating the quad would probably benefit the whole movement pattern. If you’ve had surgery, there’s a good chance if you’re my patient I may have to isolate something in your rehabilitation process.

We may also see a particular muscle group is deficient. When we look at function, everything else looks good. In that instance, it would be okay to isolate, but don’t assume isolation alone will make a movement pattern good.

long-beach-alwyn-cosgrove Remember, you have an excellent way to check it—just do some type of movement screening or look at the pattern after you’ve done a cycle of strengthening on that body part. You may have made it stronger, but that doesn’t mean it’s reintegrated into the map. Alwyn Cosgrove covers this well in our new Exercise Program DVD.

Now let’s talk about body sculpting for a minute. Maybe we have areas we’d like to see develop, and we have other areas that don’t seem to need a lot of work. For a lot of people, that means wanting to sculpt the body in a different way.

Here’s an interesting point: About 75% of the time, the worst movement patterns run right in line with the deficiencies we see in symmetry and development.

I worked with a lot of bodybuilders early in my career and it used to blow me away to discover the muscles they had the hardest time developing were also prime movers of patterns they didn’t do well.

I can spend time helping you re-pattern, and you can actually do something a little more functional and hit more muscle groups. Unless you’re at the elite level of bodybuilding, there’s a good chance we’re going to have greater gains working this movement-pattern deficiency.

Even in the extreme circumstances of wanting to develop a body part, the only way I’m going to agree with only doing isolation is if your movement screen is fairly clean and you have no movement deficiency.

We should still follow that movement map, and only after it’s clean would we attack a deficiency with specific isolation.

When we take a functional approach and really attack movement deficiencies with movement corrections, I would expect all kinds of new soreness you’ve never had because certain movement patterns were sort of turned off. They have the parking brake on a movement pattern.

Opening up movement patterns first changes everything. Once that muscle is activated, let’s go ahead and put it on isolation.

If you’re really intense on physique development, having somebody run a movement screen every two or three months when you’re training hard is not just this nice little test. It’s a GPS. It’ll point you in your next direction.

My big problem with isolation is not isolation. It’s the assumption that isolation will change movement without adequately checking strength to see if it’s only a single group problem, and without revisiting some type of movement map to see if it really did change something.

Isolation is an excellent tool to have. We just can’t lay assumptions on it.
For more on Gray’s thoughts about the pros and cons of isolation,
check out his talk,
Isolation: It’s Totally Natural.