Exploratory Exercise

Not long after the Perform Better Summit in Long Beach, I got the following question from Laree, my publisher and partner at movementlectures.com. I had a few people ask the same question, so let me take a few minutes to collect my thoughts.

Gray, it was great seeing you at the Perform Better Summit in Long Beach—loved getting the chance to film your workshop again. I had to leave early and missed the question-and-answer session of the expert panel. I know Vern Gambetta was there, and I have the impression he’s not a fan of yours, or at least not of screening. Did you two interact at all, and how did it go?

Key Functional Exercises You Should Know—Workshop DVD, forthcoming!

It was great to sit on the panel with the other folks and hear their answers. Interestingly enough, the topic came up less than 10 minutes into the discussion. A question was asked about screening and assessment, but it was specifically asked in a way to keep Lee, who was on the panel also, and me from answering it. That really got the expert panel to comment on their level of utility and practicality for screening and assessment.

Now, really, Vern’s message is one that, if you listen closely, I agree with. Vern has a lot of faith in expertise and intuition. He talks about developing an eye and having intuition. Basically, Vern says within three exercise sessions he pretty much knows what he’s going to do…and I don’t discount that.

So many wonderful coaches have been able to do that. If they have that intuition, somewhere they’re grabbing onto information that maybe some of us overlook. I think what Vern is saying is to not lean so heavily on the screening and assessment that you lose the ability to coach.

Yes, I do believe in screening and assessment. I also believe attention to detail in exercise is good. This was the topic of Key Functional Exercises workshop we just filmed for DVD. If you pay attention to functional exercise, you’ll get feedback. As a matter of fact, I talk about how when applied to a deficit, corrective exercise and functional exercise magnify that deficit, making it more tangible and obvious to the client, athlete, coach or trainer.

As far as intuition, that’s hard because intuition is intense familiarity with a subject, almost so we think the intuitive person is skipping steps. This goes back to what Malcolm Gladwell talked about in Blink—pattern recognition.

We’re not really obsessing on details, but instead we capture the pattern. That pattern has some meaning and history. We know exactly what to do because these human movement patterns do repeat themselves.

Here’s the thing. I’m trying to elevate the standard operating procedure and effectiveness of both young and experienced trainers and coaches. Some people are gifted and intuitive—I definitely think Vern falls into that category.

But if we rob people of objective testing—the stuff that has been proven—we also rob them of feedback. When you have a mentor, you’re getting constant feedback. However, there’s this transition period where you leave your mentor and become an independent trainer or coach.

If you have some objective criteria with which to measure the effectiveness of your programming other than just the programming itself, you continue the mentorship process. This is because you have something outside of your own opinion to justify your efforts. I think that’s very important.

I’ve had many mentors, but one day I found myself without that direct feedback. I realized if there were valid tests, I wouldn’t be blindfolded if I’m not making progress even while being complimented or even if my athletes were performing well. For example, they could stand out in a competition because everybody else didn’t perform well. That’s a false sense of security.

I think Vern has this methodology or this system he goes through, but it’s going to be hard for us to follow because we’re not inside Vern’s head. I wouldn’t go to a surgeon who hadn’t tested my problem but said, “We’re going to run two or three exploratory surgeries. I’m sure we’ll find what’s wrong.”

Now, that’s an extreme example of an amount of pressure I apply to myself. But I used to do the same thing, “Just let me work you out a few times and I’ll find out what’s going on.”

Four generations ago, that worked better than it works now because of one startling fact: 20-25% of those who pass a pre-participation medical physical before exercise or sport have pain with one of the movement patterns in the Functional Movement Screen, which I consider a moderate movement threshold test. But, most of their exercise will be moderate to high threshold, and it’s going to use functional patterns.

Even if you don’t believe in the need for a scoring system or a rating or ranking system of functional movement to identify mobility and stability problems before exercise, could you at least agree that if there’s going to be pain with a movement you’d rather find it in the confines of safe, organized testing? Or would you rather find it at repetition 10 with load, ground reaction force or tri-planar stress?

That’s all I’m saying. I’m not really calling Vern out, even though he may think I am. I’m just saying that in order to follow in his footsteps and to become as intuitive as he is, we need to either hang out with him for about 15 years, or we need to listen to what he said back when he was saying, “Hey, we’re making them stronger, but that strength is not functional.”

I heard that message.

People will try to create programs to counteract that without first identifying the extent of dysfunction. See, that’s a problem. Dysfunction is not this absolute thing. There are varying degrees of dysfunction, just like there are varying degrees of hypertension. We have to draw a line somewhere. At what point do we stop obsessing on movement quality and get people stronger?

The goal of the movement screen is not a ‘21,’ and the goal of the movement screen was not to create more tests. It was to grab a tangible biomarker, similar to the vertical leap, blood pressure or vision tests that tell us if there’s a pre-existing deficiency we want to know about before exercise starts.

Once we start exercise, once we start attacking a movement screen or a performance deficit, I totally agree with Vern: You have to pay attention to exercise. Every repetition, every set and every interval will tell you if a person is efficient if you know what to look for.

As a matter of fact, I’ve seen people develop a better eye for movement by getting movement-screen certified. Learning to screen forces you to rate and rank movement in a way you’ve never done before.

The screen has intense criteria, so it exposes valgus collapse in a squat much easier than watching a landing. We slow the movement down. We restrict the movement. We look at seven different movements, the same things you’re going to see in exercise—an unpacked shoulder, valgus collapse of the knee, intense pronation, an upper-body balance strategy instead of a good base of support. All of those things you’re going to be looking for in exercise as you become intuitive and as you become an expert, you will be able to see at a slower, more remedial level during movement screening.

I don’t disagree with the idea we should all become better coaches. We should all pay attention to exercise. The first bout of a new exercise is an extension of the evaluation process. However, if there are valid biomarkers we can easily and inexpensively grab before we start our journey, why wouldn’t we use them?

Are we screening and assessing to dial in exercise and become more efficient with our programming, or are we doing exploratory surgery or exploratory exercise? Are we running people around the floor hoping to expose deficiencies and letting the program build from there?

That’s almost like practicing a test. I could give you a bunch of SAT tests over the course of your junior year in high school and you could become more proficient at taking the test. However, the better you became at taking the test, maybe the less predictive it is of how you’re going to do in college.

I want to find a test that shows me a biomarker, not to practice the movement, but to attack the exposed deficiency. I want to not only see the deficiency resolve in the exercise set, the exercise arena or in the athletic arena, but I also want to see the biomarker go up. That’s true feedback. That’s how you step away from your mentor and use objective information to mentor yourself.

I don’t disagree with Vern. We need more people paying attention to exercise. Some people have taken the whole test, measure and screening thing to a wrong place—basically paralysis by analysis.

However, if the test is meaningful, if it’s a biomarker and if it tells me something I need to know to make it a safer, more effective and efficient environment, I’m going to practice it like an economist. I’m going to realize that the client’s time and my time is a valuable resource. The management of valuable and scarce resources is economy.

That’s all I’m really saying with the movement screen. I’m not disagreeing with Vern. I’m saying if it’s a meaningful biomarker, slap it in at the front end. His original intent was to show us we were training, but becoming less functional. All I did was to create a test that exposed that, because the methods we choose to get more functional are varied and controversial. Many of them do work. However, the way we identify this can hopefully one day become standard operating procedure and will demonstrate how things work.

Intuitive and experienced coaches like Vern Gambetta, Mike Voight, Mike Boyle and Mark Verstegen probably generate higher movement screens than average coaches and trainers. They may not even feel they need that gauge anymore, but the gauge simply demonstrates that what they’re doing is right. However, if we choose to follow in their footsteps, we may need to watch more gauges and get more feedback until that intuition matures.

I hope that’s an answer. It’ll probably make some people mad. It may make some people happy. That’s not my job. My job is just to seek the truth.


  1. Well said, Gray. I’ve been in the fitness industry in India for 26 years now and my growth and learnings have come from people like Vern Gambetta, Paul Chek, Mike Boyle,Micheal Clark Etc, all of whom are exceptional teachers/coaches. But to raise the bar of our industry, having standards to adhere to is the way forward. Depending on a persons’ instincts for the ‘right’ way does not set a clear path of progression, especially for new-comers into our field.

  2. I believe we all have a true intent to help others and we take different roads to get there. Excellent post on seeking the truth and following the road you believe in.

    “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
    ― Flannery O’Connor

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