Archives for February 2015

Diet and Exercise

There was a time when the words diet and exercise said enough.

Diet was something that was good.  We didn’t have many bad food choices.  For much of history, we were working just to get enough.

Some cultures reached a balance between their needs and their environment. For them, the word diet never needed the word healthy placed in front of it.

If we hadn’t destroyed a good food economy (also, a good food ecology), we would never have to say healthy diet.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an unabridged audio version of this article,
Episode 52 of Gray Cook Radio


Exercise (and the broad term activity) share a similar history. In a hunter-gatherer culture or a balanced agrarian culture, there probably wasn’t much need for supplementary exercise. The activity level required to sustain life maintained a fitness level matched with the challenges that environment could provide.


Henry Ford said, “Chop your own wood.  It will warm you twice.”  We know we need physical activity.  We also know that we have self-preservation needs.

Anytime that you can blend physical activity and self-preservation, do it!

I was raised in a small town in Virginia where activity was very high for the farming families. Exercise wasn’t necessary and was often considered frivolous—a mindless way to expend energy.


I have had to balance this culture with my education in exercise science and my pursuit of credentials, both as a strength coach and a physical therapist, knowing that exercise—physical movement—is one of my tools. I have always encouraged clients and patients to work through correctives until they can resume a lifestyle that’s physically active enough that exercise will only be a supplement, not a requirement.

Supplementation is required for some people, who—due to a genetic problem, an injury or an ailment that’s long-lasting—might not absorb what they need from an otherwise balanced diet.  For these exceptions, be thankful that we have supplementation.

Likewise, when people have injuries, ailments or disease processes that somehow compromise their movement—either the sensory input and perception end or the motor output end and motor control end—we might need to supplement flexibility or a pattern to help them simply remain at a functional level.

The beginning of the current problems: we looked at diet and exercise and assumed that if we could do supplementary things to get you back to normal, we could use those supplementary things to supercharge you.

I often see up-and-coming exercise professionals fall into the same trap that I did: “if we just had more exercises or if we just did certain exercises more, it would fix everything.”

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.”

Haven’t we inverted that?  We’ve witnessed poor movement patterns and, without trying to understand where they came from or what caused them, rushed right into local kinesiology and simple biomechanics with a solution.  “Oh, I know how to get that hip to extend.”

If the hip is not extending, then there’s either something wrong with the organism or something wrong with the environment.  If there’s pain, disability, ailment or impairment that can be medically measured and intervened on, then we must agree that there’s something wrong with the organism.

There’s no environment—no amount of bridges, planks or rolling exercises that will reset whatever is wrong with the organism.  We must look for that reset button.  We must determine if it’s an arthritic joint, a neurological problem, an avoidance of pain or instability?

If there is no sign or symptom indicating that there’s anything wrong with the organism, yet hip extension is not occurring on one or both sides, why shouldn’t we look at the environment?  We may learn that this person sits a lot. Except for when they run. When they do run, they can’t develop that beautiful erect posture that natural runners have.

Too much sitting forces them to realize the need to move and they jump into an activity—a lift, a press, a run, a sprint, a bear crawl. Whatever functional activity they believe they’re doing, they’re probably not bringing much integrity to it.

Your environment reinforces what you bring to it and before you know it, you’re a runner who sits all day and can’t even straighten up when you want to.  You’re a kettlebell presser who sits all day but can’t achieve that top alignment you so badly want.

The Functional Movement Screen serves me very well as I make those organism/environment calls. If you have pain—a ‘0’ on the movement screen—it is my job, ethically and professionally, to ensure there’s nothing wrong with the organism.  When you have pain on one of those seven simple movement patterns, in my opinion, you have a medical problem until a healthcare professional looking at all the different patterns, parts and processes says that you don’t.


The screen puts on the brakes until we have more information. If you don’t have a past medical history or an injury within the last six months to a year, and you don’t have any pain on the movement screen at all but you do have what we call dysfunctions or scores of a ‘1’ on the movement screen, the very first thing I’m going to do is challenge you about your environment—not just your exercises.

How much are you sleeping?  Tell me about your diet?  Are you getting plenty of rest?  Do you understand the whole recovery regeneration cycle?  Are you bringing integrity to your exercises?  Are you doing a significant amount of patterning in one exercise but avoiding or ignoring another complementary pattern (that serves to balance posture)?

Einstein’s quote directs us you think deeply about why people move so poorly.  Is it because of a lack of an exercise science model or a lack of an activity level?  In my opinion, I would love to uncover the person who has such a high activity level that they appear fit on testing, yet they don’t exercise.

Bamyan province emerges as a model for Afghanistan’s potential

If you live in an urban environment and have to perform a sedentary job, that achievement may be impossible.  But if we could replace some of our exercise time with activity time, it doesn’t necessarily mean we wouldn’t meet our fitness goals.

We may actually find a little more joy, a little more commitment, a little more artistic value and a little more integrity with the energy we do expend.

When we’re going to move, it’s very biologically important to be engaged in our movement.  If we look at the natural environment around us, animals are 100% engaged in the moment and in their current activity.  When we have two electronic devices on our hip just so we can run—one so we can text and the other so we can listen to music—I’m not sure that many of the lessons that running in the environment could teach us are even accessible.

The exercise industry will always ask for new books, new articles and new discoveries of different exercise patterns that will somehow create a magic bullet for an entire lifestyle that’s broken.As_seen_on_TV

People tell me they don’t have enough time to screen, test or assess . . . because it won’t leave them with enough time to exercise. If they did their testing right, it’s likely there would be far less need for quantity of exercise and that the specific quality or type of exercise that’s needed would be identified.

Remember the carpenter’s rule:  Measure twice, cut once.  When we develop exercise programming to influence our client’s and patient’s environments, we are cutting.  We are cutting through their natural inclination to do something and making that decision for them.  We should make sure that decision does no harm and creates safety and economy in their endeavor.

I don’t think we can do things better than the natural environment.  When one person seeks to design a diet or design an exercise program for another person, it’s our charge to do it faster and safer than nature would—to do it economically. Nature can be harsh sometimes and people’s knowledge of their ability to do certain things can be skewed—too conservative or too aggressive.

How can we use the most efficient means possible to restore a harmonious diet and health or a harmonious exercise and activity level with fitness if we don’t have baselines? For a food industry that has inundated us with non-nutritive filler and a myriad of supplements, the baseline should be whole foods.

Our baselines should show us that we have taken clients and patients into fitness and function and not just made them endure exercises.

Exercises have been the product of the fitness industry for far too long. The product should be fitness—fit people. If the focus remains on exercise instead of achieving fitness, I fear that we will get worse before we get better.  Let’s shift that focus to the biomarkers of health and fitness. Then, we’ll find that exercises will emerge in a new way that complements activity level.

Pandora and Exercise

You use Pandora, right?


If you don’t, I’ll explain: Pandora is a music experience that allows you to customize your listening. You pick an artist who has songs that you like and you then create a radio station named for that artist. You will be offered music from that artist but also music from other artists (whether you are familiar with them or not) that is very similar to your original choice.

Pandora is able to do this because behind the scenes they have figured out a way to look at patterns in music performance—patterns in lyrics, patterns in rhythms, patterns in performance style. If you simply pick a Pandora station and never interact with it, you may only like half of the songs you hear.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 51 of Gray Cook Radio


With Pandora, you “thumb up” or “thumb down” songs depending on whether or not you like them. Once you tell Pandora your musical tastes, Pandora will start to play your music. Pandora makes note of your choices and refines the information.


The title is Pandora and Exercise, but I’m not telling you to listen to music while you work out.

I’m saying that Pandora does a better job of entertaining than we, as trainers and rehabilitation professionals, do of developing your movement. That’s because Pandora listens to your patterns and refines the information.

Pandora’s process also has its pitfalls. If you’re too picky and refine the information too much, you will not have a rich variety of music and may never be exposed to potential future favorites. If you don’t interact with Pandora at all, you won’t get much more than is currently being offered to you on satellite radio.

But if you give Pandora input and don’t try to completely control it, your experience will introduce you to music by other artists. It will give you opportunities to create more stations and further refine them. What if we treated exercise the same way?

In the book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler takes us on a journey with action and adventure athletes. These are the men and women who are breaking records in their respective sports at an accelerated rate, as has never been witnessed before.

Are records being broken simply because it’s a new sport and there’s a lot of improvement to be made?

Rise of Superman

Not necessarily. Think about the way a snowboarder, surfer, rock climber or skateboarder might practice. It looks a lot more like play than it does sets, repetitions and focused training based on body parts and metabolism. We don’t have to beg these individuals to practice. They play and in their play, they will “thumb up” and “thumb down” certain activities. They will want to reinforce some activities by practicing.

What’s the difference in play and practice?

Practice is when we pick one aspect of what we’ve been playing and expose ourselves to greater failure opportunity. It could be in a risky move or it could be in the presence of an expert. We can imagine the skateboarder pushing their own limits, the martial artist throwing a punch or kick in front of a master, or the weightlifter getting real-time feedback and then applying that feedback to the next repetition.

Anytime we expose ourselves to a master or a challenge, we’re practicing. We took that object of play and asked for more failure opportunity. If the failure opportunity you get is not survivable, you won’t be here tomorrow. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. But please bite off something that will require nothing less than full engagement. If you’re disengaged or detached from the activity you’re doing, you cannot get into a flow state.

Flow is where records are broken and the intrinsic value of movement can be realized.

The extrinsic value of movement is looking better, feeling better and having people pat you on the back and say, “Wow, you’re looking great.” The intrinsic value that the action-adventure sports prize is complete engagement in the moment—a mind-body experience where there is no past, there is no future and there is no internal critic.

When we talk to professional athletes about the flow state, they don’t necessarily talk about themselves as superhuman. They just say everyone else seeming to be in slow motion. If we looked at your movement life as three slices of pie intersecting in a circle, we could call the slices play, practice and training.

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as fitness professionals, performance professionals and even rehabilitation professionals is that we have focused so much on the metrics of training—the sets, the repetitions, the periodization—that we’ve forgotten that the main reason people move outside of simple preservation is to play or become engaged in their environment.

Once engaged, they practice to intensify engagement. They go down the rabbit hole and, whether they realize it or not, practice seeking greater opportunities for feedback. That feedback usually comes at the end of failure rather than at the end of success. If the failure is survivable, and if the failure is acceptable, then we can get better every day. Improvement is the result of gauging your skill to a challenge at the “possible-but-far” edge of your potential.

Functional Movement Screening and the varying levels of performance testing can expose you to failure or to metrics and numbers below the norm, indicating possible failure. In those endeavors, we only injure your pride (and only then if you’re self-absorbed in metrics). Our goal is not to injure your knee or your back or see you lose valuable training time because you didn’t gauge your skill to your challenge in such a way to grow your skill with acceptable risk.

Since the late 1990’s, we’ve been focusing on the best way to develop and forecast this skill:challenge ratio. If you think about it, the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) can be divided right down the middle with specific adaptation being the role of the organism and imposed demand being the role of the environment. I will offer two enlightening points here.


First, when we seek to develop the appropriate skill:challenge ratio for ourselves or for somebody who has hired us to do it for them, what systematic tool do we use to find out whether the bottleneck is with the organism or the environment?

Don’t take the cop-out answer and say, “Oh, we’re going to work on both.” Surgeons, paramedics, pilots and umpires make ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions every day.

As fitness and rehabilitation professionals, I implore you. If you don’t know which is more broken—the organism or the environment—you’re not professionally capable to make a suggestion. I think we are paid to be snipers, not carpet bombers.

Second, if you do know which one is broken, what are the systematic categories and vital signs within each category you will consider to make sure that you are doing no harm?

It is both refreshing and enlightening to embark on a journey. The journey I am on says that I cannot do this—physical development—better than nature. Natural selection has been working in the background for all of our existence. I don’t think I can develop you better than the natural environment.

My role as a professional is simply to develop you safer and faster. To do that, we will need a systematic approach and we will need to identify vital biomarkers at each level of your development. With those, we can point you effectively at a skill:challenge ratio optimized to get you out of your head and into your body . . . and out of the extrinsic motivators of fitness and into the intrinsic motivators of fitness.

Please read the book, The Rise of Superman. It will help you personally and professionally. I could not give it a higher recommendation.





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