Moving Beyond the Movement System

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

The quote is from Albert Einstein. He’s got something like 10 million likes. 

To me, the quote above has traditionally signified the need to step back and look at things from a distance. However, distance often signifies detachment. It’s important to recognize when a solution exists in the distance, it’s not always because it’s a separate entity. Sometimes it’s a higher version of the same thing.

A recent workshop with Jiri Cumpelik of the Prague School made the concept of a higher version or purpose abundantly clear to me. He is someone who has clinical training, experience working with the entire continuum of patients and what seems to be a very high level of yoga practice. If there was one message that he seemed to espouse over all others, it was to look behind movement and toward its higher purpose.

I’ll be honest, if someone else were writing about a higher purpose to movement, I would be concerned that things would start to get a little airy-fairy. Don’t worry, I’m talking about concrete stuff.

Instead of saying that movement has a higher purpose, I’ll just say that movement has a goal that exists beyond the confines of movement itself. In other words, we cannot solve a movement problem with movement alone. We need a different level of thinking. In Chinese martial arts, the word is “yi” and it means intent. It is the difference between a fluid series of attacks and parries and someone who is simply flapping their arms around. Intent is everything.

A baby might reach for a shiny toy. At no point, however, will the baby think about planking for time. In the same way, an athlete will not enter a 100 meter race to activate their gluteal muscles or maximize flexion at their metatarsal phalangeal joint.

Outside of the worlds of exercise and therapy, human beings move because something drives them to do so. There’s an emotional component and a tangible result. These components are so frequently missing from training methodologies that I wanted to spend some time talking about it to help you (and me) get things back.

Let’s take a specific example.

I interviewed a a bright, young coach recently. This guy is already a step ahead of the game. However, when we started to talk about exercises and movement, the components I described above became conspicuous in their absence. The discussion was the split squat. The missing piece was why? Here were some of his answers:

* It’s a lunge pattern
* It’s a compound joint movement
* It’s a partially de-loaded unilateral movement
* It’s closed-chain
* Um … we go up and down. With a lean?

None of these are incorrect. Yet, none of them (alone or combined) is enough to create a powerful, effective movement. This forces us to ask the question of what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re training. Is it a specific training effect? Is it a particular movement skill? For me, the answer is typically yes to both. However, it is never for the purpose of checking a box that says “single-leg, quad-dominant (or was that hip-dominant?) movement”. There has to be something more. 

To make a detailed list of qualities I would like to see in a split squat, I would need several pages. Suffice it to say that there’s a requisite amount of tension required through the musculature of the core; there’s a requisite amount of stability required through the lead foot and upward to the knee; there’s a need for dynamic mobility via the trailing foot. The hips should move a certain way, the trunk should tilt a certain way, the eyes should look at a certain point and onward and onward and onward. We haven’t even begun talking about the musculature used or the sequencing of activation.

Are you really going to cue each one of these things? Really? 

I’ve seen personal trainers try to do this. Sometimes because they’re well-inentioned and sometimes because they simply have to fill up an hour and don’t want to talk about Game of Thrones. I’ve made the mistake (countless times) of over-cueing myself. Even if this worked, however, it would be unbelievably inefficient. There are simply too many moving parts. Yet …

If we treat the split squat as a transition to from a 1/2 kneeling pattern, things begin to make sense. A transition to what? That is the question. It could be an assisted pattern to transition to standing, it could also be an unassisted pattern to transition to running. Intent is everything. So much so that setting the proper starting position and effectively communicating the purpose of the movement may be all that is required. 

The level of intra-abdominal pressure, the angle of lean, the distribution of weight … all of these things suddenly make sense because they conform to an existing motor engram. If someone has a fully-functioning set of respiratory muscles, do they really need to be told to contract their core musculature in a certain way? Or will that happen automatically when a legitimate need presents itself?

If we are not successful with the above approach, we have to begin thinking about why. Do we actually have a motor control issue or simply a lack of clarity as to what to do? The answer is probably messy. 

Somewhere within that mixture, though, you can break out your toolkit and eliminate barriers to fluidly manifesting intent. This often means regressing the pattern. If you’re an exercise professional, you know all about regressing. You know how to remove weight or stability demands. Yet you may not know how to maintain the integrity of a pattern — the very objective — while reducing the number of things going on.

How do you do that? Well, I’m not going to give you all of the answers. Not that I have all of them anyway. You’re going to have to look to your own approach to figure things out. However, the first place you should look is toward the higher purpose — the objective that exists beyond the level of the movement itself.

Finding Discomfort

Strength training makes people better. Not just stronger; better in general. That’s something we believe … Strongly.

Strength training is supposed to be difficult. But perhaps not in the way you think it is.

To really respect the process and to treat strength as a skill, you have to deal with your weaknesses. You have to get downright uncomfortable.

Many people are taken aback by how much mental work goes into training at Bang Fitness. If you’re the kind of person that just wants to crank through things unthinkingly, you’re going to struggle a bit. Posture, joint mechanics, breathing … you can’t be on Mars to get all of these things. You have to be firmly planted in the here and now.

As coaches, it’s our job to help ensure that the mistakes you make don’t cost you. That they don’t eat away at your joints or chew up your ligaments. We give you the opportunity to make mistakes that help you learn and get better. On your end, it’s your job to try. Everything else will take care of itself.

Doing the counterintuitive things, the uncomfortable things is, very simply, good. It’s practice. Practice means making mistakes and generally just being bad at things for a while. And while you may not have the luxury of being bad at your job or being a terrible parent, you do have the luxury of making tons of mistakes here with us. We don’t judge. You’re putting yourself out on a limb and we think that’s cool.

Some people are great at intensity. They can crank things out like demons. We make them go slowly. Momentum masks instability and compensations.

Some people love excruciating detail but never seem to hit high gear. We make them push hard and fast. Theory is great but discussion is limited and the rubber has to meet the road somewhere.

Some people have tremendous strength at their disposal when things are stabilized for them. Take them off a machine, though, and things change. Lengthen them out, or make them move laterally and smoke starts poring out of their ears.

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This guy is solid but just ask him to dance the Charleston.

Some people have  miles worth of range of motion. Ask them to demonstrate control at the midpoints, though, and they crumble. For them, we shrink down the range of motion and add load. They earn their range.

When we systematically attack the missing pieces, we begin to create an organism that has no weak links. Our pal, Dr. Kathy Dooley doesn’t like to refer to these chinks in the armour as weakness. She calls the issue “leakness”; places where stability leaks out. You can be plenty strong but still exhibit leakness.

When we go after the things we’re not comfortable with, we confront our own idiosyncrasies and issues. Working too hard or not hard enough. Focusing narrowly on our competencies or ignoring our strong points. The common theme, though, is digging in … Working hard even when we’re feeling weak or unmotivated. When we do this, we myelinate the same pathways that help us in life. We actually get better at life. We become better people.

Putting 500 on the bar is still pretty sweet, though!

Marketing to Chumps

Are you in charge of marketing for your company or personal brand? If so, you’ve probably had to spend some serious time thinking about who you market to. You build a picture: age, geography, personality and so on. You create the image of a person so that you can hone your message. Let me ask you something important, though: is the image of the person you’ve created a chump? 

A chump will not be up to date on best practices in your industry. A chump will fall prey to buzzwords. A chump will get distracted by variations of the same nonsense instead of looking beyond the standard marketing approach. 

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Being a chump doesn’t mean that someone is stupid. All of us are chumps at something. All that it really means is that you haven’t done your homework yet. Well, more specifically, it hasn’t yet occurred to you that there’s homework to do. In the context of the Four Stages of Learning put together by Noel Burch, a chump would be part of the first category.

Stage 1 – Unconsciously unskilled. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are inept and unaware of it.

Stage 2 – Consciously unskilled. We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.

Stage 3 – Consciously skilled. Trying the skill out, experimenting, practicing. We now know how to do the skill the right way, but need to think and work hard to do it.

Stage 4 – Unconsciously skilled. If we continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier, and given time, even natural. 


In the world of poker, the first category is the guy who is unable to spot the sucker at the table but hasn’t contemplated the fact that it might be him.

On one level or another, you’re choosing a spot on the above continuum to market to. 

There’s clearly money in the first and second categories and sometimes even fame. On that half of things, your work has a lot less to do with research or exacting details  and a lot more to do with the presentation. And while this usually gives me the heebie jeebies, I don’t think that it is inherently evil. It can be a great way to reach across the divide for some beginners. 

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That is, unless you’re putting them at unnecessary risk 

I don’t actually think there’s an inherent (im)morality in choosing to market to chumps. The  ethical question here is whether they’ll still be chumps by the time you’re done with them.


GG

Coaching and Cueing in a Semi-private Environment

Here’s my warning to personal trainers: once you’ve gone semi-private, it’s tough to go back.

Semi-private training, for those who don’t know, involves training multiple clients (typically 3-5) at the same time. The difference between semi-private and small group training is not just semantics. It distinguishes between individual programs, multiple people and one program, multiple people. The former is like personal training with more people and the latter is like group training with fewer. Similar, not same.

If the sentence sitting on the top of this page seems hyperbolic, it’s not. Certainly not for myself or for any of our coaches. This approach does not allow you time to babysit, get chatty, count reps or sit idly by. In other words, it eliminates your ability to engage in the behaviours of a mediocre personal trainer. It forces constant movement. It also forces you to keep your head on a swivel.

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Once you’ve trained people in this fashion, you will realize some very important things about semi-private training:

* It is a far more efficient use of everyone’s time
* It improves the self-efficacy of clients
* It works better than personal training for the vast majority of the population
* It can accommodate limitations such as severe detraining, injury or someone feeling legitimately uncomfortable in a training environment (although a combination of more than one of these issues will likely require a 1-1 approach)

To become an effective coach in a semi-private environment, you have to understand both the strengths and limits (weaknesses would be the wrong word) of this training structure.

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First things first
Remember when I told you that it was more like personal training? I lied. It’s a mistake to treat this like personal training in series. What I mean by that is that you must avoid the desire to zero in on one client at a time, coach them exclusively and then move onto the next one. This is a common tendency among people new to the semi-private format but it doesn’t work very well. At no point can you have your back turned to anyone in the room. This isn’t because they’ll shank you (I hope). It’s because you need to see everything!

How you manage the amount of information you have coming at you will depend on a few things.

Learning must be blocked
If you’ve decided that your client’s most common (and problematic) compensation is a tendency to hyper-extend the lumbar spine, all other cues are subjugate to that. Is their foot pronated? Their knee demonstrating valgosity? Have they failed to pack their neck, shoulders or suitcase? That many not change anything. One target at a time.

It’s your job to articulate that target clearly to your client. So clearly, in fact, that what you say doesn’t matter; it will simply me a reminder of what they already know they need to do.

Blocking motor learning out in this manner will allow you to stand by one client, perhaps providing tactile feedback while shouting at someone else. You will most definitely do a lot of shouting. 

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What if the other issues are too serious to ignore?

If the other issues are too serious to ignore, that’s a programming problem, not a coaching problem. Those things shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Programming must support the semiprivate training process. To paraphrase Gray Cook, clients need to be given the opportunity to make non-catastrophic mistakes. Your programming choices must reflect that requirement. When safe parameters are put onto exercise choices, movement no longer has to be perfect.

Think of it this way: If someone came to you with a decade of questionable movement but the wheels haven’t fallen off yet, they’ll probably survive another week of the same. If a movement is going to increase risk beyond a reasonable level, the programming choice is the problem, not a lack of intensive coaching.

If someone lacks the ability to perform a hinging movement cleanly and without compensation, why would you give them a loaded deadlift? The answer is either a) you’re dogmatic; b) you feel compelled to teach people things beyond their current level; or c) you don’t know any better. This is a multiple choice test where every answer is a fail. Instead, build up movement competencies and strengths in parallel. This is what Charlie Weingroff would call lateralizations. These things will converge in their own time.

It needs to be stated: we’re assuming any issues here are sub-clinical. It’s not your job to manage pain.

Efficiency of coaching cues
As I mentioned above, yelling works. I’m not talking about 10 minute mini-lectures on spinal mechanics while someone next to you is trying to squat. I mean punchy one-word cues. “HIPS!” “FEET!” “DRIVE!”

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There will be times where you have an opportunity to expound on concepts at length. This is your opportunity to build rich metaphors and really communicate. You can talk in detail about the posture of the foot and how equal weight distribution must be maintained during the eccentric portion of the lunge. You can definitely do that! However, if you find yourself across the gym with another client, the acid test is whether all of this will be communicated when you yell “FEET!”

Q&A
“Walk me through your set-up process, one point at a time.”
“Tell these guys what it feels like to leave two reps in the tank.”
“Everyone, watch Buju walk like a champion.”

Ask questions. You will have different people at different ability levels, working on different things. Not only can they learn from each other. If you enlist their help in teaching, they will learn things better. The better the learn, the quicker they can progress and the happier everyone is.

Triage
This concept extends beyond merely prioritizing coaching cues, it extends to the prioritization of goals in a session. A newbie needs to feel at ease more than they need to come in guns blazing. On the other hand, someone who has a squat PR planned may not need to also set a foam rolling PR. Manage your time to ensure that everyone gets what they need when they need it. Don’t be afraid to say, “Wait for me before your final set” in order to ensure you’re there for the meat and potatoes of the training session.

Summary
As you can see, you’re in constant motion during a semi-private training session. There is very little wasted time. This process forces you to be sharp and succinct. Yet, if you can master it, you can deliver a product that is more effective than personal training yet costs less. Better for you, better for everyone else. Tough? Yes. But even tougher to go back from.

Measuring Progress: Alternatives to Load

 There are few things in life as satisfying as seeing the amount of weight you can pile onto a bar go up, up, up. Until that progress stops. And then there are few things as frustrating. In fact, the only thing worse than a plateau is a long plateau. When that happens, it’s time to ask some questions, starting with whether you’re butting your head up against the wrong metric.
 
External load is a great way to quantify progress. One of the reasons is that there’s not much room for ambiguity. You throw a bunch of plates on the bar and you can move the thing or you can’t. Simple. However, when loading is the only thing you focus on, other areas of your training may fall behind. And, when that bar stops moving, it’s important to know what those areas are. More to the point, it’s important to know that there’s more than one way to measure progress.
 
Vae Victis
History’s most successful conquerors knew better than to constantly try to expand their territory. Once new lands were invaded, they took the time to secure their footing before moving on to the next invasion. Sometimes this was a complete cultural takeover, making the conquered adapt new language, religion and culture. Other times, it was enough to just scare the bejeesus out of everyone. I’ll leave you to find your own style of brutal reign. No matter what, though, pushing the boundaries of strength requires the same rhythm of expansion and consolidation. When you think about the physical adaptations required to get stronger this makes perfect sense. 
 
A certain level of intensity is required to stimulate improvements to connective tissue and tendon strength, let alone the raw muscle behind the lifts themselves. Likewise, a certain level of volume is required to make those changes stick.
 
These physiological changes likely create a buffer for imperfect movement and decrease the risk as perceived through various mechanoreceptors. In other words, the furthest reaches of your nervous system would like some assurance that what you’re about to do isn’t going to snap you in two. When that assurance is in place, the parking brake comes off and motor unit recruitment comes closer to true potential.
 
While pristine technique is always something to strive for, things will sometimes fall out of the groove. Being able to pull them back is one of the essential features of consolidating your territory. This is the difference between needing the planets to align for you to hit a PR versus showing up with the physical platform already well in place.
 
Canadian strength legend Doug Hepburn put together some effective protocols that broadened the base of your pyramid. In short, you worked up to a weight that you could perform eight sets of 2 with and stuck with it until you could perform eight sets of 3. Not complicated. Not even that grueling. But definitely not easy. This approach requires a fair bit of mental discipline, especially as the length of the training session drags on. A new program that feels old is Pavel’s Right of Passage, where ladders of overhead kettle bell presses are built up in a similar fashion. Take the same weight and do more with it.


 A simple way to consolidate strength is to perform the following program:
 
Choose a weight that you can perform eight reps with. Your goal is to perform five sets of five reps. After a warm-up, your training sessions might wind up looking something like this:

 


Load is based roughly on your 8RM. The weight will not change until you can perform all 25 reps. At that point, you can de-load and then either re-test or simply add another 5-15 lb.
 
Training Density
I’ll probably be the first guy to tell you that 5x5 training is gold. Bill Starr’s legacy of smart programming lives on in many of the best things out there today. Most recently, you may remember 5x5 from such hits as The Program I Outlined Three Seconds Ago. However, I’m likely to be the last guy to tell you to start the training process that way. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of guys who come in after stalling on one variation of 5x5 or another. The system itself is great but a certain baseline of strength and structural integrity has to be in place before it becomes productive. While this issue can be addressed fairly simply with some higher-rep work, this isn’t a guarantee. Strength may actually be less of a factor than recovery. That means that the aerobic system might be lagging behind and needs further development. 
 
I realize that this is sacrilege. Generations of hard-gainers have been told not to burn any more calories than absolutely necessary and aerobic training has been a dirty word to many for a long time. However, every person has a particular dosage requirement for training to be effective. If they are unable to meet that dosage, they just won’t get bigger or stronger. For example, one set of three reps at 90% of your max may make you feel like the king of the world. However, if you’re the type of person that adapts best to 30 reps at 80%, you’re a long way off from the minimum effective dose. No matter how you break those 30 reps down (10 sets of three, 6 sets of five … whatever), you need to hit those numbers without stretching your session out to absurd lengths or openly weeping at the extremes of your own discomfort.
 
A well-developed aerobic system gives you a strong enough waste management system to shuttle out metabolites, shuttle in nutrients and generally keep your looking sharp after even modest rest periods. The metabolic cost of developing this is worth it.
 
Besides, if you don’t know how to squeeze another 200 Calories into your day to compensate for extra energy expenditure, you should be eating a sandwich, not nitpicking the details of a hypertrophy program.
 
Here’s another example of why general aerobic qualities might be important: if you’re the kind of person who requires the brutality of regular 20-rep squat sets to move forward, anything that helps you get the job done is welcome. Not passing out mid-set is one of those things. That’s where an efficient aerobic system comes in.
 
Think of the reps themselves as a demonstration of strength and the time between the reps a demonstration of recovery. Aerobics aren’t for jogging (I don’t know if it’s pronounced jogging or yogging . . . it might be a soft J). Aerobics are for squats. You heard it here first.
 
Fortunately, there’s a way to combine strength and aerobic development. To work these goals in parallel, you have to be willing to let go of body-part splits and get ready to make every training session full-body. Not in the way you might think, though. You might call this upper or lower-body emphasis. Everything gets worked but not in the same way.
 
When we talk about consolidating strength with volume, we’re talking about open-ended time parameters. In other words, you take the time you need to recover properly and get the job done. The downside to this is that sessions can run pretty long. Switching the target over to the amount of work done over a fixed period makes the program density-based. Do what you can with the time you’ve got. A pretty good philosophy, actually.
 
Charles Staley’s Escalating Density Training (EDT) is arguably the best-known density based protocol out there. Pick two exercises, such as curls and triceps push-downs, put 20 minutes on the clock and get through as many reps of each as you can. Don’t pause when you’re tired, just switch. Watch your buffering abilities shoot through the roof. Try not to puke.
 
To pursue more general qualities, we can open up this type of format into what I call hybrid density.
 
Adding a time constraint can hold back strength development for some due to incomplete rest periods. However, the same approach can expose the limitations of aerobic fitness for many others. Again, this isn’t aerobic fitness for its own sake but for the greater good of strength. Once you’ve brought up your recovery abilities, it will be far easier to up total training volume.
 
Here’s a typical set structure:
 
1A: Strength work (moderate intensity)
1B: Aerobic work (low-intensity)
1C: Core stability work (low-intensity)
     
Practically speaking, this might shake out to the following:
 
Lower-body emphasis
15-minute block
1A: Front squat: 3 rep reserve
1B: Battle ropes: 30 seconds
1C: 1-arm farmer’s carry: 30 seconds/side
 
Upper-body emphasis
Sample 15-minute block
1A: Military press: 3 rep reserve
1B: Stationary bike: 30 seconds
1C: Side bridge: 30 seconds/side
 
A few details:
Loading is only really important for the first exercise. Even though we’re not really talking about weights or percentages of 1RM here, we can bend this rule a bit to get a ballpark of 75-80% of your max. Once that has been established, the loading will stay the same for the entire training cycle.
 
The rep reserve refers to how many reps you have left in the tank. The goal is always leave the same buffer. As soon as you’re about three reps away from failure, you move on to the next exercise. The number of reps it takes to get you there is 100% subjective.
 
There are times where you’ll only hit three or four reps in a set and other times where you bang out more than theoretically possible.
 
The concept of a reserve can also be applied to the aerobic component of the training. In this case, however, you’ll use time instead of a fixed number of reps. For example, if you have 30 seconds of work with a 30-second reserve, you’ll chose a level of intensity that you can see yourself maintaining for about 60 seconds. In this case, however, the work period will remain consistent but the output will vary.
 
Since loading will be consistent, you’ll measure progress by adding up the total number of reps in the first exercise (for all sets).

 
Summary
There we have it. Get stronger by focusing on volume or density. Quick progress by either metric should be a sign that this was the piece (or at least one piece) of the puzzle that was holding you back. Conceptually, this is simple stuff but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frequently ignored in the pursuit of progressively heavier weight. Put the load on hold and go after an alternative metric single-mindedly. When it’s time to test things out, you are likely to find that you’re ready to up the weight on the bar as well.
 
  

Lessons from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

I’ve learned a lot from Brazilian jiu jitsu. After close to two years off, I was really starting to miss training. Dropping in on a class last week helped to reignite some of my fire. It also reminded me of some of the lessons I’ve picked up over the years, many of which work just in well in life.

 Another person’s talent has nothing to do with you

There is an exhaustive list of things that I wish I were better at. I don’t think that makes me unique. Pick an area important to you, be it financial success, physical performance, expertise or anything else and it can be rather disheartening to look over at someone who is light years ahead of you. In these moments, it’s helpful to remember that someone else’s talent has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t make you less and it doesn’t make you more. It also doesn’t change the path that you have to take. 

 Your next logical steps will be the same no matter what happens. You can’t speed things up but you can certainly slow them down by focusing on anything other than those exact steps.

 Trying does not correlate 100% with doing

Yoda wasn’t off-base here. All-out effort does not actually yield the best results. Jiu jitsu, counter-intuitively though it may sound, translates as the gentle art. This means deliberately avoiding the temptation to fight force head-on. It means taming or redirecting force with better mechanics and better reactivity. And to do all of that, you need to feel what’s going on. Clamping down on something, whether it’s a long-term goal or another human’s neck disrupts your ability to feel what’s going on. It slows you down and makes you less responsive to subtle changes. 

 "Nice belt, now get in the ring."

That’s a quote from “Judo” Gene LeBell. If you haven’t heard of him, look him up. I’ve certainly seen combat athletes with supposedly high levels of technical ability struggle against raw athleticism. However, I would also point this at the online experts and armchair quarterbacks out there. You can wear all the trappings of an expert and look the part. The only real metric, however, is performance. 

Black and white

You’ll frequently hear that you need to train with black belts if you want to get better. I would humbly disagree. 

 The tiny margin of error you have when training with a black belt ensures that your game is at its most conservative and most guarded. This type of training is challenging but not exactly fertile for exploration or creativity. That type of work is done when you have the ability to make non-catastrophic mistakes. In other words, you need to try something new, make small adjustments and drill it until it is second-nature. Getting punished every time you’re slightly off-course doesn’t really help you expand the scope of what you do. For that, you need a margin of error.

In jiu jitsu, your best learning often takes place with people who are not as advanced as you. You get the opportunity to experiment in real-time. In the real world, this learning takes place where not everything has to be perfect and where the pressure is low. You have to seek these opportunities out. This might be through volunteering, assisting or any other form of practice that doesn’t require you to put your own reputation on the line. Learn what you’re really working with before you do that.

 Once you’ve developed and refined your technique, that’s where black belts come in. They are your litmus test. If something doesn’t work, refine it. If the opportunity doesn’t even come up, that might be telling you something too.

 Black belts don’t make you better; they tell you what you really know.

Be ready to suck

The best jiu jitsu players are almost universally humble. That’s because they have lost thousands of times to get where they are. They know that there is always someone who can beat you, someone who is more talented or more athletic.  The trick is to go back to Lesson 1 and focus on what you need to do. Nobody expects you to be great after a week (or a month or a year). They only expect that you will come in, work hard and be a nice person. That’s enough to get going. Every further step toward expertise is simply a matter of time and focus.

State of the FMS: a 2013 recap

The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) came under criticism from several sources late this year, both in the academic world and within the ambit of my social media channels. While all of these criticisms should be taken into account, I would urge trainers and strength coaches to read this before making the decision on whether or not to learn and utilize this particular tool.

What we we do as professionals should be heavily research-influenced. However, that doesn’t mean that we should discard something altogether before a superior solution has been offered. In the words of my eight grade science teacher, don’t give me problems, give me solutions.

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I’ve been integrating the FMS into my assessment process for about five years now. I don’t have a specific emotional attachment to it, nor would I hesitate to replace it if something better were to come along. Yet, I just keep on screening. This is very simply because it’s useful. I’m going to use this post as am opportunity to explain why.

Before we can really discuss the predictive value of the FMS for injury or whatever else people think it’s supposed to offer, it’s important to, first and foremost, view it as a tool for critical thinking. If it performs this role, it is valuable.

If you’re skeptical of the FMS, the first question I have for you is a simple one: do you believe that it’s a good idea to examine global movement patterns? In other words, does the ability to perform a pattern, such as a squat, without pain or significant compensation, provide us with important information? 

If your answer is no, then we can amicably part ways here. If your answer is yes, then let’s continue.

We’re going to deal with the details of the movement patterns specific to the FMS later. So, for now, we’ve simply agreed that examining movement is useful. A good sprint coach will be able to speak volumes about a hitherto unseen athlete just by watching them run. A good swim coach will be able to do the same once they see someone in the water. That global information is more meaningful to them than a collection of measurements of joint range of motion. 

Does that mean that whipping out the goniometer or muscle testing protocols can’t be helpful? Not at all. However, in the context of the FMS, these tools would be used to explore an issue exposed by faulty movement pattern. It is simply more time-efficient to first identify potential issues  (the FMS only takes about 10 minutes to execute) and then explore them in greater depth. 

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Easy there, cowboy

Once again, the FMS simply helps us ask questions about movement. Once you know what those questions are, you can use any set of tools you have at your disposal to answer them. 

Why do we have to look beyond a competitive movement? This is necessary if you believe that a lack of competency in one fundamental movement pattern (again, we’ll talk about the details later) may have an impact on overall performance. In other words, if a person is unable to perform a lunge pattern properly (perhaps symmetrically), could  that have an impact on their squat pattern? What about a larger apparent gap? For example, if someone is unable to perform a push-up without their trunk sagging into extension, could that lack of core stability negatively impact an overhead press?

Again, if you don’t think that this is the case, then the rest of this conversation must be confidential. Would you wait outside?

The next concept is something that I personally find very interesting. If we can agree that there are a number of fundamental movement patterns and that they share enough in common to impact one another, we can then begin to unravel which ones take priority over others. For example, if someone lacks the stability to bring their elbow to the opposite knee in a quadruped position (rotary stability in the FMS), could that impact their running? It’s not a guarantee but it again introduces a great place to start asking questions.

If these two movements are related, we can expect that improving one will positively impact the other. We can also reasonably expect that cleaning up the variation with fewer moving parts (joints in play, stability demands, speed demands, etc.) will typically be more efficient. Is this guaranteed? Of course not. Test, perform your intervention, retest. If you have something better, use it and share it with the world! The FMS is, once again, just a good way to focus your gaze.

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Do I need to watch this lady press a barbell overhead or perform a deadlift to know that she’s going to tend toward lumbar hyperextension?

I have enormous difficulty finding fault with the thought process that has brought us this far. I think that the only real room for debate is what constitutes a fundamental movement pattern and whether the movement baselines are accurate.

These are fair questions and, while I don’t have suggestions for improvements to the current screen, I would submit that if there’s room to improve, it will be in that direction. 

For now (and the foreseeable future) FMS takes its cues from the developmental motor learning process. As neonates, we have mobility first and little stability. We then learn to look up, roll crawl, reach, stand and so forth. Each developmental stage forms the foundation for the following one. This is what I would describe as the most fundamental example of periodization. It is the basis of how the movements are formulated and prioritized. As I’ve said before, ontogeny may not turn out to be the most significant driver but it’s as reasonable and elegant a theory as I’ve come across. To be critical of it mandates offering something better. 

To sum up the screen looks at symmetrical stance, asymmetrical stance, single leg stance and more “broken” down aspects of these patterns, such as mobility. It then prioritizes things in the order of the developmental motor learning process.

Once we’ve prioritized movement, we can create subcategories. The FMS does so simply by asking whether the movement is symmetrical and whether it’s pain-free. The screen is scored between 0 and 3. Painful movement scores a 0 because of its unpredictable impact on motor control. An inability to perform the movement (albeit without pain) scores a 1. The fat end of the bell curve is occupied by 2s (quality varies quite a bit). Superlative movement scores a 3. The goal is not to obtain 3s; it is to have symmetrical 2s. This will not guarantee performance and has never been claimed to do so. It will merely ensure that the barriers to progressive overload have been removed.

Those numbers are important. Not because of their precision, however. Once again, if a movement pattern is problematic, this is your time to measure more carefully with your best tools.The hope is, simply, that the FMS helped you pinpoint how to spend your time the most efficiently.

At this point, I’ve screened well into the four digits and I cannot say that I worry about score totals. Frequently, I don’t even worry about the individual scores. I take the information I see and formulate a game plan. 

The real utility of the scores is, in my opinion, that you can communicate succinctly with anyone else familiar with the screen, including your extended health care network. You can also) quantify movement to your athlete or client. You can, in other words, help communicate what you see and what you want to improve. 

When you have to take people off of “mainstream” programming — especially when they have an emotional attachment to it — you had better be able to explain why this is best practice. You will also have to give them a clear idea of what you need to see for them to earn their way back to squatting or benching or whatever hallmarks of your approach that they want to train.The FMS allows you to do that. In fact, it helps provide a sense of purpose to what might otherwise feel like arbitrary corrective exercises or regressions.

Finally,one of the most frequent criticisms that I’ve heard (from both legitimate experts and … well, other people) is that they are able to obtain all the information they need from watching other movement patterns. That may be true for some. However, the  eye of a spine mechanics expert that has been developed over decades of research simply cannot be the standard. Most strength and conditioning coaches will never develop that power of observational acuity. Yet almost anyone can learn to run an FMS from a weekend course. 

Naturally, learning to run a screen and learning to utilize that information effectively are two different things. However, the FMS provides a logical, consistent starting point. It will not contradict anything you learn before or after it. It will simply give you the opportunity to marshall your resources efficiently. Future successes or failures will not be based on the screen but how you respond to the information it helps illuminate. 

The Periodization of Movement

Periodization, at its best, is a detailed strategy for bringing the world’s finest athletes to their height of their abilities on a world stage. 

Periodization, at it’s worst, is an arbitrary collection of abstractions and complexities that distract from the real purpose of training.

It’s a pretty big divide.

What are regular folks to do? If you’re not an elite athlete and are simply trying to get leaner or stronger (or both), how seriously are you supposed to differentiate between sport science and mumbo jumbo?

I’m going to offer a simple concept that is the foundation of everything I do, from program architecture to coaching: nothing is more important than great movement.

Every rep scheme, every wave of intensity, every exercise variation, to be effective, needs to develop movement.

I’m laying out some thoughts on this because I’m going to be starting up a class tonight based on developing movement. Strength, conditioning … all that other good stuff will come directly from movement. And that’s why I think a movement-based class may be the most effective way to address everything else people want to achieve on a general level.

If a verbose blog post is the kind of thing to motivate you, here’s the link:

bangfitness.com/superhero-101/

We’d love to see you tonight.

Onto the questions:

What about the development of strength? Only focusing on movement seems limited. We’re talking about athleticism, not the hokey pokey.

Arguments that fall apart under legitimate scrutiny are not good ones. I would argue that movement that falls apart under load is just as wanting. Real movement requires the ability to coordinate co-contraction of the core musculature in a meaningful way. It requires impeccable timing of everything from tension and relaxation to the recruitment of motor units and the loading of muscle and fascia. It requires singular focus and a high degree of mental discipline. Great movement does not require load but it also does not crumble beneath it. 

Sometimes, and this is the counterintuitive part, load will improve movement. Load can be, as Charlie Weingroff says, facilitatory. In many respects, this is my favourite part of the equation. When you can make someone better simply by adding weight, every strength coach and personal trainer rejoices. This doesn’t work all the time but the feeling you get when it happens usually makes your day.

If we do not prioritize movement, we are ice skating uphill.

Complex approaches to reps schemes and loading are only useful because they improve movement. We vary up the afferent input for this reason alone. 

I would go so far as to argue that someone with inconsistent movement in a given exercise, such as a squat does not need variations in load or exercise for the sake of change. Until the movement is perfected, each repetition will be slightly different. Again, changes in approach can be very effective but not because they cater to underlying physiology so much as the development of movement itself.

That’s bullshit. There are concrete physiological changes that take place. This is evidence-based and that is why loading parameters and rep schemes look the way they do.

Are you sure? Are you absolutely certain that specific cellular adaptations aren’t just a byproduct of a more important processes?

Nobody in major league baseball cares how much you bench if you can’t hit. No sprinting coach wants to discuss your V02 max if you run like a wounded penguin. Consumers pay for gold, not the quality of the sprinkler system at the smelting plant. Don’t mix up support systems with the end goal.

What about body composition goals? 

Body composition goals are best served in the long-term by developing impressive levels of strength and work capacity and minimizing the statistical likelihood of downtime due to injury or other issues. There are some exceptions to the rules in terms of short-term bodybuilding or fat-loss pursuits but that’s for another discussion.

Are you suggesting that conditioning and other hallmarks of general physical preparation (GPP) aren’t relevant?

Not at all. Any physiological development that will support motor learning (by way of decreasing recovery time or perceived load on the system) will be hugely beneficial. Again, not because they improve specific physiology so much as they increase an individual’s opportunities for learning and developing movement.

So now you’re contradicting yourself. You said that things outside of movement development are less important. Yet we may need those systems for movement development. This is your blog and you’re making up the questions but can give me that one, right?

Until we have strained the capacity of GPP, pretty much everything we do toward increasing movement, conditioning and strength will be interrelated. For someone new to training, an improved squat will very likely improve their overhead press and a better front plank will probably help them perform chin-ups. The rare air where special strength training is actually needed can probably be defined as the crossover point away from GPP. This is where development of a particular biomotor or bioenergetic ability no longer feeds into organism strength. 

So, what am I supposed to do with this information?

Go after great movement. Another way to look at GPP is everything you can squeeze into regular training without having to undertake specialized approaches. That certainly makes sense semantically. Build up your general strength in every fundamental human movement. Build up your aerobic functioning sufficiently to allow you to train often. Learn to get tight. Really, really tight. And then to relax.; Fully. When all of this is done, you can start to worry about bands and chains and horrendously detailed protocols. Until then, instead of choosing your exercises according to abstract concepts or convention, choose them according to what helps you take apart a movement and put it back together even better. 

Until we have pushed at the boundaries of GPP from every direction, the only periodization anyone needs to worry about is the periodization of movement.

Preparing for SFG I

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As of tomorrow, we will be four weeks away from hosting the StrongFirst Level I certification at Bang Fitness. I’ve been preparing for it alongside four of our other coaches. Here’s a very brief intro and what I’ve learned so far:

StrongFirst, for those who don’t know, is the collective helmed by Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is largely responsible for popularizing kettlebells in North America through his previous partnership with Dragon Door. Kettlebells have been in circulation in Russia since the 1700s as use by physical culturists, circus strongmen and — later — the Russian army. SFG I is StrongFirst’s flagship certification program. I consider it to be the gold standard for kettlebell training and believe that the biomechanical concepts taught are congruent with the best of what I’ve learned elsewhere.

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What I like about StrongFirst is its simplicity. Here are a few things; now perform them exceptionally.

Mastery of the basics is a concept that I really learned to appreciate through martial arts training. The best fighters in the world don’t typically differentiate themselves by the scope or novelty of their techniques. They possess a depth of skill that is difficult to counter — even when you know exactly what’s coming. Mastery allows for subtle variations and micro-adjustments that appear complex but are really only basics stacked on top of basics (on top of basics).

There is definitely a subsection of the population that prefers novelty over refinement. However, you can really only chase shiny objects around for so long before finally admitting that your training isn’t very productive. At that point, you can either add depth or move on.

In the SFG I, the standard movements performed with a kettlebell are the swing, squat, clean, press, snatch and Turkish get-up. Some with a single bell, others with doubles. That’s it. Here are a few things; now perform them exceptionally.

The certification is known for being physically demanding in and of itself. The practical testing includes demonstrations of excellent technique and, of course, the infamous snatch test. For myself, this is the most daunting part of the weekend — at least as far as the known quantities go (who really knows what the weekend will bring?) The size of the bell used for the snatch test depends on gender and body weight but, like most men, I will have to snatch a 24 kg (53 lb) bell 100 times within five minutes.

There are a lot of people who would argue that rigorous physical demands are unnecessary for an instructor’s certification. To them, I would say that there are many other terrific certifications out there that have no such requirements. However, the process of working up to a certain level of performance creates insights that may not otherwise exist. Coupled with excellent theoretical training, I expect a higher degree of understanding to emerge. There’s something beyond that, though …

Imagine a Brazilian jiu jitsu school where people talk about a great instructor who can break down any technique for anybody.

"What’s it like to spar with him?"

"Oh, I can beat him up any time I want."

Not very inspiring, is it? That would never happen, though.

I don’t believe that every instructor must already have a high degree of technical mastery but I do believe that they have to be on their way. In other words, you don’t have to be a world champion but you can’t be a chump either.

The very act of preparing for the certification has forced me to bring my conditioning up to a considerable level. It has also forced me to ensure that the strength I’ve developed over time is accessible and highly repeatable.

Three days of rigorous instruction and a high volume of technical practice make a high general level of physical preparedness mandatory. This isn’t just about passing the testing, it’s about being able to receive instruction with a clear mind, hour after hour, day after day. Passing the snatch test is a nice feather in your cap but focusing on that is like applying to the police force so you can run the obstacle course. I’m taking this certification to learn; not struggle to stay awake because I’m too exhausted from drilling technique.

You heard it here first, folks: a higher general level of fitness means that you can learn better.

I have been following Brett Jones’ StrongFirst prep program for the past couple of months. I respect him enough to shut up and simply follow instructions. I have curtailed the urge to add other training or modify the program in any substantial way. This seems straightforward but most people know that sticking to any type of program without trying to “improve” it requires a fair bit of willpower. I’m no exception to this rule.

Part of me wishes that I had more time to prepare. There’s a higher level of technical proficiency that I would like to have going into the certification. However, the physical demands are non-negotiable. It’s like when we prepare a mixed martial artist for competition, there’s a point where conditioning becomes non-negotiable.

Nobody is going to be hitting me in the face (as far as I know) but 50 impeccable kettlebell snatches in five minutes are simply not going to cut it. The number is 100. And just to beat a previous point into the ground, I need a level of preparedness that will allow me to improve whatever I’m doing throughout the course. The testing is on the third day, in case you were wondering.

On the practical side of training, my hands have frequently been the limiting factor. Fatigued grip and torn calluses have become my sworn enemies. If I had been foolish enough to wait until I was a month out from the process before really turning up the volume on my kettlebell training, here’s what I would expect:

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Pretty, right? This is what my left hand looked like at the end of August. It shouldn’t have been this torn-up but trust me, it didn’t take much. This is not what you want when you’re doing a lot of kettlebell swinging, let alone testing.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten better. Better at hand care (read the articles!), better at relinquishing my death grip on the bell and better at tolerating high training volumes. I’m not a Shaolin monk but my hand conditioning has come a long way.

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At this point, I’ve undertaken substantially more work than I had two months ago. Nevertheless, my hands no longer look like they belong on a zombie.

I will say that some of the hype is true. Kettlebell training has improved my general work capacity, gotten me leaner and even helped me put on some muscle mass on my torso. Swings, squats, cleans, presses, snatches and get-ups. Lots of them.

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I feel good about the work I’ve put in so far. I acknowledge that, if I had already mastered every detail, I wouldn’t need more instruction. I’ve come to terms with this by calling this my blue belt phase. In BJJ a blue belt occupies an interesting position. To a white belt, they may as well be a ninja but to more advanced belts, they’re … well, they’re a little rough around the edges. They get the job done but not with a lot of subtlety. That’s ok. I’ll take that for now. It’s a weigh station, not a destination.

Four weeks to go. Let’s see what happens after that.

Thoughts on DNS Sport I & II

A few days have passed from the DNS Sport courses I attended here in Toronto. People kept asking me my thoughts over the weekend and I kept saying the same thing, “I’ll let you know on Monday…” It was a lot of information to take in,and I wasn’t in a hurry to impose any kind of external order onto it it. Maybe it’s all this talk about Breaking Bad these days but some of my thoughts are beginning to crystallize. This is where I put them down to test their purity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concepts of DNS or the Prague School of Physiotherapy, smart guys like Jeff Cubos and Charlie Weingroff have already covered the clinical courses in their blogs. The Sport Courses are different. In some ways, they cut to the chase — examining things strictly from a movement standpoint. The reflex stimulation magic (well, voodoo) that clinicians undertake is not covered. Nor is some of the deeper information on ontological development (not that it isn’t available elsewhere). In short, you’re given a framework for evaluating the efficiency of systemic stability via intraabdominal pressure (IAP) and growing it outward into a series of evaluations from caudal position into sitting, crawling and squatting. Everything is done with respect to the developmental motor learning process.

"Great. So what are you supposed to do with that, exactly?" Well, that was the question a lot of people had. Some seemed bothered that there wasn’t a fixed series of protocols in place. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. However, it should be stated that you are going to frustrate some students when you have a commercial system that requires a high degree of skill and subtlety to perform. If you’re looking for a flowchart that lays it all out in a fixed sequence that works 100% of the time… Well, you’re not going to find that. 

What am I going to do with DNS Sport? The good news is that it’s congruent with what we’re already doing at Bang Fitness. To me, it simply adds a layer of depth and a renewed determination to nail the subtle details before trying to add complexity. To make the process valuable, you need two things:

1. People have to get stronger. Futzing about with Therabands is fine but highly limited if it doesn’t move them toward a bigger, better deadlift.

2. People have to become more resilient. This means capable of taking on more training stresses (in the absolute sense) and making them more repeatable.

I fully believe that the concepts I’ve seen will help with that.

Part of what has helped convince me has been the commonalities I’ve seen between DNS and other systems that I see as effective. The biomechanical model taught in StrongFirst and RKC is totally congruent and there are many similarities Much of the FMS/SFMA approach is rooted in the same concepts. The mechanics I worked hard to understand in traditional tai chi are surprisingly similar. So are the ground-based patterns that should have (but didn’t) come naturally to me in Brazilian jiu jitsu.

So am I fully on-board with a concept of holokinetically stored information on movement waiting to be expressed in the brain of a neonate? No. Not yet, anyway. It syncs up nicely with many important details. Who can really say, though? The human organism is still very much a black box and I think we should focus more on what works than get too bogged down in trying to match things up to a theoretical framework. Doing so can be misleading. Just ask tai chi or yoga. Nobody can actually reverse the direction of blood flow (yes, I’ve heard that) but that doesn’t mean that the foot position typically taught isn’t mechanically optimal or that the approach to breathing isn’t 100% in-line with the teachings of the best people in the world.

I very much believe that movement and language are related. While linguists like Chomsky have previously argued for an inherent “device” for acquiring language and understanding grammar, it is more likely that we have some hardware that has evolved to make us quick studies within certain domains, as opposed to having language or movement (as in specific qualities) hardwired in. In other words, I believe that we, as a species, are highly attenuated toward figuring certain things out. But not so good that we don’t need help from time to time.

Does that mean I won’t be looking at things through the lens of infant development? Absolutely not. There’s no way that our earliest experiences of exploring our physical world aren’t deeply significant. If they are not highly relatable to motor learning in adulthood then I’d rather be proven wrong than wait on the sidelines until it’s proven right.

Regardless of what you believe, it’s hard to argue with the mechanical efficiency of IAP and just as hard to argue that cranking up the volume of afferent information doesn’t frequently improve motor control. DNS didn’t corner the market on these concepts. Ok, well, it kind of did with reflex stimulation but that’s not my domain. The point is that these concepts are fundamental to its implementation — just as they are to other valuable systems. The DNS Sport course shed some light on that and helped me open up some dialogue with other practitioners and that alone made it a valuable experience.

GG