Moving Patiently

In this post, I am going to reflect a bit upon a passage from Gray Cook‘s book Movement: Functional Movement Systems

movementPain can alter movement, but movement might remain altered even after the pain is resolved. Tissue damage from the initial injury is compounded when movement patterns remain abnormal after healing….

Movement compensation is a primitive survival behavior. These compensations and alternate movement patterns cause stress to other regions…. However, they do allow us to temporarily move and function…. However, these compensations are not our best long-term options and will themselves cause problems if not identified and addressed. 

Coaching and execution of proper exercise technique is not likely to change a problem below the level of conscious control. We must identify the movement pattern that demonstrates the dysfunction and reconstruct it, not coach or hope that general exercise will train the pain away.

As a disclaimer: I am not yet FMS certified (although becoming so is one of my short-term goals, hence the fact that I am reading Movement in preparation), and therefore none of what follows should be taken as if it were written by a certified Functional Movement Specialist.

Nevertheless, I am someone with a long context with the FMS movement screen. In fact, it is where my path to fitness began.

My History with the FMS

For some quick context: when I first decided that I was ready and willing to leave behind my sedentary lifestyle and get moving, I reached out to someone who I greatly respect who had gotten into hardstyle Russian kettlebell training after many years of sedentary living (and who also happens to be my dad).

I figured, hey: he’s been where I am. Lemme see if he has any suggestions.

What he said remains to this day one of the best pieces of fitness-related advice I’ve ever received: “Before you get started with any intense training, find an FMS expert, get yourself a movement screen, and make sure you’re moving well before you begin any other training.”

I did, and through that process I discovered that I wasn’t moving as well as I thought I was: I had some significant asymmetry between my shoulders’ mobility as well as insufficient core stability. Talk about a recipe for injury!

For the next two months, my workouts were the FMS corrective exercises that I had been prescribed. Nothing else. Then, I got re-screened, at which point I was given the green light to begin other methods of training.

Since then, I have received five other FMS screens to ascertain that I continue to move well and to update the corrective exercises that I do (which are now a supplement to my training, rather than my whole training program).

While my scores have progressively improved, there have been a few instances where the screen has identified a trend in the opposite direction. For example, in my last screen, my score for the shoulder mobility reaching movement pattern was the same, but with a slightly greater asymmetry between my right and left sides than had existed in my previous screen and with slightly reduced mobility on both sides. As a result, I was able to give this matter attention before it progressed to noticeable movement restrictions and/or injury.

I give a lot of the credit for my ability to transition from an impressively sedentary person to an impressively strong and fit person without a single major injury thus far to the FMS movement screen and correctives.

What This Means for You

There are obvious implications for anyone who experiences current or recurring pain: the sooner you get screened and address the ways that your body’s movement is compensating for the existence of pain, the sooner you’ll be able to address any dysfunctional or asymmetrical movement patterns, and the less ingrained they’ll become.

(Note: if you are experiencing pain during your activities of daily living, you will want to get screened by someone who is SFMA certified: the SFMA is a more in-depth version of the FMS screen that can only be administered by licensed and certified medical professionals.)

However, as Cook writes, “The absences of pain doesn’t suggest normal movement or the absence of risk factors.”

Consider, for instance, someone whose back squats are pain-free, but who struggles with any of the following common difficulties:

  • Inability to break parallel when squatting bare-footed while maintaining good form.
  • Difficulty or inability to break parallel, period.
  • Excessive forward lean through the torso (discrepancy between the angle of torso and the angle of tibias).
  • Difficulty maintaining stability in the core and/or upper back and/or lower back throughout the movement.
  • The need to have an excessively wide grip.
  • Trunk flexion and/or rounding of the lumbar (lower) back.
  • Any asymmetrical shifts in the hips (could be a tilt to the front or rear and/or a shift to the left or right during the descent to the lowest position of the squat).

(I’m just using the back squat as an example. Similar difficulties could exist in any exercise, from sprinting to military presses, from pull-ups to kettlebell swings, from lunges to push-ups.)

Now let’s say you’ve received good coaching. You’ve worked on correcting muscle imbalances (to use the fancy technical terms, altered reciprocal inhibition and/or synergistic dominance). You’re aware of what constitutes good form. Maybe you even achieve it sometimes, but only temporarily… and then the old familiar movement pattern returns.

You get frustrated.

Or maybe you get hurt.

Maybe you start to avoid whatever exercise has been presenting you with difficulty.

Maybe you start to believe something negative, untrue, and unhelpful about yourself regarding your capabilities, talent, or potential.

Heck, maybe you even think about giving up training altogether.

Hey, take it easy on yourself! Remember the quotation at the start of this post? Coaching and execution of proper exercise technique is not likely to change a problem below the level of conscious control. Don’t be hard on yourself for not having fixed a problem with tools that aren’t effective at addressing the root of the problem!

Or, to put it differently, “The solution can only be found by addressing the pattern, not by attempting to create isolated strength or performance in a faulty muscle group.” (You guessed it: that’s Mr. Cook again.)

So take a step back. Get assessed. Be willing to work on restoring natural, healthy movement patterns.

Then, once you experience improvement in your overall movement patterns, return to the movement that had been giving you problems.

Practice at lower weights (if it’s a resistance exercise), lower volumes, and lower intensities for a while… and then build back up. I guarantee you’ll see improvement, not only in your time and/or weights, but in your form and efficiency.

As one of my mentors (and heroes in the field of strength) Dr. Michael Hartle says, “Sometimes you have to regress to progress.”

(Ha! See? After all those quotations from Gray Cook, I worked in one from someone else! Of course, though, Dr. Mike is also an FMS. If you’re anywhere near Ft. Wayne, IN, make an appointment with him! Or, if you’re interested in taking your barbell training to the next level, check out an upcoming SFL certification with him: they are held in locations around the world!)

Be patient with the process, and be willing to put in the time that it takes to move well.

Here’s my philosophy: all the trophies, awards, and recognition in the world won’t do me a lick of good if I end up injured, in chronic pain, or otherwise unable to move well.

I want to be able to carry my groceries, shovel my snow, and chase young rascals off my yard when I’m old and gray. I want to remain strong and independent. I want to be able to be able to use the strength and capabilities of my body to be of service to myself and others.

Ego tells us to hurry.

True strength tells us to slow down.

Trust the process, and take the time you need to build a solid foundation for a lifetime of health and movement.


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