Archives for December 2014

Checking the Boxes: If You’re Going to Think About Movement, Where Should You Start?

I’ve been thinking about movement all of my life.

I consider myself an average athlete with average physical ability, but I’ve always had an eye for quickly spotting good movement patterns. My brain draws lines like vectors of gravity and triangulations of momentum. I can’t explain it, but I’ve spent most of my professional career trying to articulate that.

running man

When I became a professional, I felt that my intuition about movement needed to be checked. I needed quicker and better feedback to make sure that I was objective about what I thought I was seeing. To be honest with myself and those I was trying to help, I wanted to set a baseline—I never wanted to professionally trust my intuition. My intuition can lead, but before I take action, I make myself a few check boxes—boxes so simple that most would agree in principle. If we agree in principle, we must strive to practice our principles.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 49 of Gray Cook Radio


As a professional, whether you’re educating, rehabilitating, training or coaching, it is your responsibility to help other professionals find value in your intervention. When I got into physical therapy, personal training and even coaching, I found out that everyone always thinks they can do it better than the other professional.

Go ahead and look at studies. Almost 93% of drivers polled feel like they’re above-average drivers. If that’s the case, then that’s going to be a bell curve like we’ve never seen before. Not every driver is above average. Many are average or below average, but the perspective is limited to extremely subjective criteria. This is illusory superiority in action. But what do the facts say?


If we could all have a little chuckle and realize that we still place ourselves in the category of above-average drivers while assuming that other people are incorrect in their appraisal of their skills. Now, we might be able to understand how this can also occur professionally.

If you’re wondering about movement and you’d really like to go on a journey of self-discovery that is going to give you some feedback, these questions are a good starting point:

1. Can you accurately guess someone’s movement screen just by looking at them, watching them exercise or seeing them move around in activity? 

2. Can your client or athlete, or even the patient you just finished rehabilitating, guess their own movement screen? 

3. Do you have an objective feedback loop for a single session?

I’d like you to mentally check the boxes by these questions if you feel very strong and confident about your ability or the situation. First, we need to agree on a baseline.

I’m going to use the Functional Movement Screen, but I don’t need you to agree or disagree about the movement screen. Just realize that in most research studies, it’s considered a reliable baseline. (The discrepancy comes when people try to value what the movement screen means to them. We see many, many assumptions and omissions in their appraisals, but let’s just go back to the fact that it’s a more reliable baseline than your own subjectivity. The research on reliability can be found here: Interrater Reliability of the Functional Movement Screen.)

check box2

1. Can you accurately guess someone’s movement screen just by looking at them, watching them exercise or seeing them move around in activity?

If you’ve already answered the question, you’ve made a mistake. Look at someone move, guess their score and then do a movement screen. (If you know somebody who can do a movement screen, that’s even better because now you’re not interfering with the objective data.)

If you can’t guess someone’s movement screen, then you either feel that it’s unnecessary information or you just admitted that your eye for movement needs to be trained and needs to have a feedback loop that it does not currently have. If you guessed correctly, the follow-up question is: How often does your guess agree with the screen?

check box2

2. Can your client or athlete, or even the patient you just finished rehabilitating, guess their own movement screen?

You might be surprised here because just like driving, people will either overestimate their movement abilities or far underestimate their movement abilities. Some unfit people assume they move poorly and some fit people assume they have no movement dysfunction.

Both are guessing while standing 10 minutes from the truth.

As we already know, some individuals we have to push while we hold others back. The guidance we do on each independent movement pattern may be different depending on the way they screen.

Let’s get a touchstone on which we can both agree. Let’s hold to this anchor of objective movement appraisal—looking at patterns.

From a scientific standpoint, if your patterns are good, we shouldn’t break down your parts and processes, unless you have a history to show that the breakdown is prudent. If we observe no dysfunction in your behavioral patterns, including your movement behavioral patterns, then we could easily break things down—but why would we?

Why wouldn’t we move forward to more complex patterns if the basic patterns are competent?

If your patterns are good, we shouldn’t break down your parts and processes. Bad patterns deserve to be dissected, good patterns deserve not to be dissected.

bad patterns

Logically, there’s no reason to go down the rabbit hole of reductionist thinking if the behavioral patterns are average or above average. This does not suggest that movement cannot be improved, it simply suggests that if you are not where you want to be, movement is probably not your chokepoint or bottleneck. Go into more complex behavioral patterns like performance, sport specificity or higher levels of physical conditioning.

If the basic patterns are out, why would you go more complex? There’s no foundation for the building that you’re getting ready to build.

check box2

3. Do you have an objective feedback loop for a single session?

Body composition, muscle hypertrophy, development of the physique or even sport skills take weeks and even months before we can measure true change (remarkable adaptation) – tangible change that’s going to have an obvious effect.

However, the human neurological system will often move better (improved quality) in a single five minute session. We’ve done case studies all along. When we use the movement screen or our medical movement screen, the SFMA, to find the bottleneck in movement, we attack a single pattern, knowing well that the single pattern does far more than simply change itself. It can change other patterns as well—if it’s the weakest link it can affect the entire chain, and that can be measured.


When we throw the right corrective at the right pattern at the right time, movement changes in a single session. I hope you can check this box one day.

The question always arises, “Well, how long will it hold?”

That depends on what you do to reinforce it. If negative movement behaviors or unproductive movement behaviors (i.e. too much overhead lifting with too poor a technique) is what you’re doing, then the first order of business in the movement screen is to remove the negative (insulting action on a bad pattern)—not to add a positive (corrective effort on a bad pattern).

Apply the rule Protect before Correct. Hippocrates said “First, do no harm,” Protect before Correct accomplishes that goal.

protect before correct

Why would we try to correct something that’s probably environmental? We’ve often said that unless somebody has a compelling past medical history or pain on the movement screen that would demand a medical second opinion before they exercise or stress their body to a certain degree, we’re not going to consider the organism to be broken.

In biological terms, we all have to make a decision: Do we choose to modify the organism or do we choose to modify the environment? When I’m trying to activate a muscle that I don’t feel is firing, I am literally trying to manipulate the organism.

In most cases, when an organism is broken or not responding, they’re not going to do better without some form of holistic and systematic medical intervention, regardless of the environment you put them in.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll always find a medical problem, but we will find something that should be evaluated medically to reduce inappropriate stress on a vulnerable body system.

Remember: Protect before Correct

If you simply have dysfunctional patterns in your movement screen, it is the knee-jerk reaction of the trainer and coach to automatically assume that the organism is broken. I compel you to look at a different place: in my opinion, if the individual doesn’t have a past medical history or pain with movement, I would encourage you to change the environment first.

Environment equation

The best-of-the-best trainers and coaches should tweak and adjust the environment—the practice session, the lifestyle (rest, recovery, regeneration, unnecessary stress and unnecessary laziness). If you’re going to make these changes in somebody’s training or conditioning program, you’ve got to base them on much more than your own opinion—to make sure you’re on the right track, but also to demonstrate to them that their confidence in you is well-placed.

In Part II of this article, we’ll look further into these three questions with some problem-solving tips in mind.


Strength Defined

Our previous discussion of Strength ended with a challenge to develop a better, more applicable definition of the word.


When we look at the definition posted by Merriam-Webster for strength as a noun, the very first meaning is “the quality or state of being strong, capacity for exertion or endurance.” If we look deeper at exertion and endurance, we wind up using the words work capacity.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 48 of Gray Cook Radio


Dan and Gray

The reason I challenged the word strength in the first place was because I found myself working with Lee Burton and Dan John on Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums and pulling in commentary from strength coaches like Jon Torine and Alwyn Cosgrove on the entire concept of taking strength, pressing it hard and seeing if work capacity comes out. I think we can all hold ourselves to a better standard of communication and accountability if we use strength that way and don’t simply value it as a series of lifts.

Unless you are lifting because powerlifting is your sport, you’re lifting for some other benefit. Whether it’s simply fitness, preparation for ski season, preparation for boot camp or some other hobby or physical activity, we should be able to agree that work capacity will allow you to develop more skill because you have more resistance to fatigue—your practice time will be not only filled with volume but integrity as well.

If you could test work capacity without lifting then you could make a great case for lifting. If you need to lift to test work capacity, then you eliminate some strong non-lifters. If you need to lift with good technique, then you eliminate lots of gym rats as well.

You take a test to know what to practice—not so you can practice the test.

When Dan and I approached this topic in Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums, the biggest problem area, obstacle and point of controversy that emerged is the fact that following bodyweight competence and movement pattern competency, we go into loaded patterning.


Biologically, that’s not what happens. Babies carry things before they try to lift their max load. Sub-max lifts with carries are actually preferred by nature and biological development over simple repetitions of lifting things in newly-acquired loaded patterns.

When people with a dysfunctional pattern on their movement screen do corrective strategies and jump right into a lift that looks like that pattern, there’s a “hiccup.” If I’ve done anything to make that glitch, I apologize for it publicly—because we should not arbitrarily impose loads on a pattern that has only been vetted at body weight.

We should see what your endurance and your integrity look like under load in a very low complexity movement, like a Farmer’s Walk, a front rack carry, an overhead carry or even a segment or the whole Turkish Getup. If we can value these vertical and horizontal carries, these symmetrical and asymmetrical carries, then I think we will demonstrate how long someone’s integrity will last under load.

From that base of carries, we can pursue the appropriate lifts that are needed to make the individual balanced in the left and right side of work capacity, the front and back side of work capacity and in the upper and lower allocation of work capacity. When we go for a balanced body, we quarter the whole thing. Look at the Y Balance Test and you’ll see where we’re coming from.

Y balance

I challenged the word stability quite some time ago in my book Movement, stating that all we were doing with the word stability is really strength—sets and repetitions to small muscle groups. That’s not what stability is.

Stability is more about timing than it is about strength so we substitute the words motor control and they work very well. It keeps you on the mark and it helps you hit the bull’s eye because when you find a lack of motor control, you do the things that foster motor control. When you find a lack of stability, you simply ask which muscle group controls this movement and how many sets and repetitions you think it will take to regain it.

How many sets and repetitions of finger flexion do you think it will take to get you playing a piano?


There is no answer because it’s the wrong question. Playing the piano creates the timing and coordination that create the motor control to allow you to play a piano. It’s not about strength at the motor control level. It’s about alignment with integrity under load.

That’s what carries do for you—almost automatically if the posture is correct. If the starting posture is correct, your job is to gauge a carry cycle that lasts between one and three minutes. Adjust the loads appropriately. Adjust the postures appropriately. Make sure that they don’t have any ‘1s’ on the movement screen—if so, you’ve probably got a severe motor control problem or an underlying mobility problem. With these, you shouldn’t even be pursuing motor control until you know what you’re shooting at.

If we kill stability and replace it with motor control, and we kill strength and replace it with work capacity, then hopefully no one will be offended. The whole point of strength is not to create a word that’s a golden calf and let it become the thing that we strive for.

Work capacity is what we strive for in our human endeavors and strength is a key attribute that helps work capacity. At the right time and the right place, lifting is one of the most effective things to promote work capacity, but if lifting creates inappropriate side effects or somehow undermines work capacity, then strength is an empty word. Anybody can say they have it.

Let’s protect the nobility of words like strength and stability. For a short time, let’s impose a more correct title to what we want to gain by doing stability work or strength work. Let’s call them motor control and work capacity. Let’s not hide behind a term that doesn’t have metrics and values that enable us to demonstrate our improvement or effectiveness in one attribute without unnecessary or complicating side effects.

I hope that I haven’t offended anybody. If I’ve challenged you to think outside the box, it’s the same challenge that I imposed on myself when I started confronting this term, trying to be more truthful with myself and the work that I do.