Play, Practice or Train—Which Comes When?

As many people who follow me here, through FMS and on Facebook know, my parents were involved in an automobile accident during their 50th wedding anniversary road trip to Montana with their best friends, Henry and Linda Maxey. They were hit by a drunk driver and were hospitalized for quite some time.

It was almost Thanksgiving before we got them home. Once here they started a second rehabilitation process and it was almost Christmas before they were really in the clear with their physicians. I recently posted a picture of my Dad preaching the Easter service at our church—not from a wheelchair but standing up. It was quite a day for us all.


If you’d prefer to listen instead of read, here’s a longer version of this article,
Episode 32 of Gray Cook Radio


Last summer, before the unfortunate happenings in August, I worked on two projects — one in Long Beach, the Key Functional Exercises DVD, and then I came home and shot a bunch of footage with Erwan Le Corre from MovNat for another DVD we call Exploring Functional Movement.

There’s a little bit of contrast between the projects, which we’ll talk about another time, but we spent the winter massaging those two DVDs. They’ve both been recently released, and give people a lot of new information going into either a new personal training or professional training season.



There’s a lot of misconception about training these days. Let’s take three terms—let’s think about the words play, practice and training, and see what they mean to us.

Play is something we mostly associate with either playing a sport, or children doing random activities on a playground in any environment—randomly running around doing stuff, climbing, spinning or anything they want.

Then we have the play connotation in sports, everywhere from a pickup basketball game to weekend golf to professional sports.

The idea of practice is pretty easy. We usually practice things that require something more than natural ability, meaning that it requires a skill and we have to practice that skill.

Now let’s think about the way we look at play and the way we look at practice, and just realize that neither of those really have a lot of the same guidelines as what we conventionally call training. We’re not really talking sets and reps in play or practice. Basically, we play until we get bored with a certain activity, and then we go pick another activity.

Play is emotionally driven and very random. Yet there’s full engagement—quite a bit more engagement in play than there is in a person’s gym workout.

Let me expand that. When children are on the monkey bars in a playground or on a balance beam, they’re randomly playing. They’re not trying to be a world-class gymnast. They’re totally engaged in that balancing activity, far more engaged than somebody who considers training something done at the gym plugged into a headset while drudging through a treadmill jog.

The engagement part of play is absolutely amazing. That mind-body experience is part of the neurodevelopmental system as we grow and learn to use our bodies in differing environments. Play is what we’re engineered to do until we find activities we love so much that we want to practice them. Once we’ve practiced them, we want to elevate our status and have organized training for them. Play is where it all starts.

Practice, on the other hand, is one of those things where we do have to again be engaged. We learn from the best of the best that it’s not so much the talent for the activity, as it is the talent for the way they practice the activity. Look up the term ‘deliberate practice.’ It’s practice with the right kind of feedback, the right kind of time and attention to detail.

Play and practice are two things we need to bring to our training. As a matter of fact, I reserve training for the organized approach to elevating someone’s physical capacity.

But if we don’t set baselines, there’s no organized approach.

For baselines, we engineered the Functional Movement Screen and the Y Balance Test. We use performance tests. We use one-rep max. We use three-rep max. We use sprint speed tests, agility and endurance tests. We have all kinds of tests, but how many people are grabbing their bags right now and heading off to the gym to train? Really? What are you training? Are you working against a baseline?

Nobody ever says, ‘I’m going to the gym to practice or play,’ but I think there are a lot of people who show up at the gym every day and just pretty much…play. They get engaged in an activity. They see somebody doing something new and decide they’re going to go play with that for a while. The side effect is a workout, but they’re actually just playing.
We see a lot of workouts posted on the internet, but we don’t know if there’s a training effect because they didn’t post any baselines. They didn’t tell us what their goals are. It’s just random activity or there is a number. “I did this many. How many can you do?”

That’s probably not the best application of science.

On any given day, you may head to the gym, a training facility or outdoors, but you have to ask yourself: Are you playing? Are you practicing? Are you training?

All three have a much greater meaning to me and all three have a very important place in our physical development.

As Ed Thomas told us when we were developing the Club Swinging DVD, people used to go to the gym to practice a skill, and the workout was the side effect. That’s what we see when kids truly enjoy playing an activity. The conditioning is a side effect, whereas in training conditioning is the focus.

What if we engineered a workout one day a week where we went to practice a lift or a Turkish getup? It’s not about how much or how many we do. It’s literal perfection— working with somebody who knows what they’re doing or getting with a partner and videoing each other, looking back at the video, watching an expert on video and practicing the activity.

It’s not just doing the activity, but practicing it. The precision and the technical aspect, all of that is going to get better. There’s going to be a workout as a side effect, but the whole point is to get better at something.

The other way to do it is to create a scalable situation, a self-limiting situation. Erwan and I did a bunch of that in our Exploring Functional Movement project. That’s an area where I think Erwan is a genius. It may look like a lot of what Erwan does at MovNat is just adult play in nature, but it’s not. Erwan has that ability, like a lot of other coaches I know, to instantly size up the group and then turn an activity into a completely scalable situation so everyone involved gets what they need.

I’ll be talking more about this in the future, but for now, just think about it. Maybe we could use a play day as our recovery day. Maybe we ought to give up one of our training days and have a practice day for those activities where we’re not as proficient or where we wish we could do better.

It was such a disappointment to see kettlebells make it into someone’s training program before making it into that person’s practice program. That person is missing the precision, attention to detail, alignment and technical proficiency—all of those things were what the RKC was about.

The snatch test was just to see if you’d actually done some practice and to see if you were efficient with the movement. One or two look really good, but when you’re in 30 deep, form starts to break down. What do you do? Do you lean back on your guts? Do you bite your lip and gut through it? Or do you lean back on your efficiency thinking, ‘Okay, pick it up. Stay aligned. Stay technical’?

Here’s my challenge as we go into the spring, dust off those winter muscles and train yourself and train others: Do what I’m going to do this year. I’m going to have a day where I play. It is going to be a workout. It might even look like I’m practicing some skills, but I’ll randomly move from one activity to another and just enjoy myself.

paddleboardIn play, standup paddle boarding is constantly challenging and totally engaging. Yes, I’m playing, but I won’t be racing anytime soon. My racing days with a paddle are behind me, but I love the paddle board.

In practicing, I am working on my deadlift. Even though we just released the Key Functional Exercises DVD in which I gave a lot of pointers for deadlifting, that doesn’t mean I’m a perfect deadlifter. I have some goals for deadlifting, but the first one is to dial in my form. I’ll be seeing Brett Jones at the CK-FMS soon and I’m sure I’ll get some critique there.

Then in training, pick either some movement patterns you need to correct or some physical capacity goals you’d like to elevate. Set a training day or a couple of training days a week to really push those margins. Try to become better in a movement pattern with quality, or try to become more proficient in a lift, speed work or endurance work.

Think about it. Play, practice and train. You should be able to define each of those with respect and integrity for both the people you train and for yourself.


  1. Great post! You raise some intriguing questions regarding the ‘class’ our activities and workouts might fall under. I like the idea of designating certain days for play, practice and training. As an RKC, I know how important it is to focus on all three elements in order to hone the craft and meet your fitness goals… Thanks Gray!

  2. Fantastic as always Gray! I emphasize play as a large part of my clients’ programs! Great article and yes Erwan is the man I just completed the MCT 1 a few weeks ago, it compliments the FMS nicely. Side note last time we spoke in person I believe our discussion was turkey hunting, let’s get a GRAY COOK article on the modern day sportsman!!

    Mark Smith

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