A few weeks ago I traveled up to Suffern, NY to attend a Level 1 Functional Movement Screen (FMS) certification. The creators of the FMS – Gray Cook and Lee Burton – were teaching the course.
I’ve gone to a lot of fitness workshops after changing careers from finance to fitness. Attending the FMS workshop may be the single most important action I’ve taken in my fitness career so far. Needless to say, I’m kicking myself for not doing it 5 years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have appreciated its significance back then.
The Functional Movement Screen is a systematic approach to assessing movement to help identify dysfunctions before they cause injuries. The FMS is used by strength coaches, personal trainers, and medical professionals around the world.
Gray Cook is one of the most influential minds in the fitness industry. As the fitness world better understands the role of movement as the foundation of proper exercise, Gray Cook’s influence will only grow. He is an accomplished physical therapist and strength coach who has worked with many top professional teams in a variety of sports and even elite military groups like the U.S. Navy Seals.
Here are 10 things I learned from Gray Cook during (and before) the FMS workshop that I want to share with you:
1) As a coach, or clinician, always use a checklist
If you are a coach, or are getting evaluated by one, make sure a checklist, or standard operating procedure is used.
Especially for very experienced coaches, it can be tempting to discard protocol and arrive at decisions based on incomplete data.
This is a big mistake.
A systematic approach to assessing and analyzing a problem is far more reliable than making judgments by selectively gathering data. Creating a checklist ensures that no stone is left unturned so that your judgment is not based on a hunch, but quantifiable and factual evidence.
The greatest value, in my opinion, of the Functional Movement Screen is that it standardizes movement analysis. It’s a systematic approach that requires the completion of a checklist.
2) Analyze patterns, not parts first
It’s easy to break the body down into parts such as specific muscles, or joints. Given the body has many moving parts, assessing the body can quickly become overwhelming.
Instead of breaking down the body into its component parts, it’s a better approach to analyze movement first. Our body moves as one unit where all the parts are connected. If the body moves efficiently without pain, we don’t have to worry about over-analyzing all the parts.
If one of the movements is dysfunctional, we can continue assessing other related movements before worrying about the component parts. The underlying issue may not be a problem of a part being tight, or weak, but an underlying neurological (i.e. motor control) issue.
3) First move well, then move often
Focusing on movement efficiency (or moving well) should be a chief aim of a properly constructed strength and conditioning program.
Movement efficiency requires a combination of mobility (i.e. flexibility and range of motion within the joints) and stability (i.e. motor control and postural musculature).
Sequentially, achieving optimal fitness and athleticism looks like this:
Mobility => Stability => Strength => Power
The more mobile you are, the more potential you have to move well. When mobility is able to be controlled, then you get functional movement. Once you have functional movement, move as often as possible and challenge your body with strength and then power exercises.
4) Don’t add strength to dysfunction
Of all the things Gray Cook has said in his career, this may be the most famous in fitness circles. If you have a dysfunctional movement pattern, adding weight to that movement pattern will make the dysfunction worse.
For example, if your knees cave in during a squat because your glutes are weak and your inner thighs are tight, those problems will only worsen if you add weight.
While it’s a tough pill to swallow and may hurt the ego, laying off the weights to focus on flexibility and stability may be the best course of action to correct movement dysfunction and prevent future injury.
5) Previous injury is the #1 predictor of future injury
Have you ever sprained your ankle? Or maybe pulled a hamstring?
The probability is high that while you were recovering from those injuries, the way your body moved changed…in a not-so-good way.
For example, if you sprain your left ankle, several “compensations” may occur:
- You begin to put more pressure on your right foot vs. your injured left foot
- Your left hip becomes weaker relative to your right
- When you run, or squat in the gym, the asymmetry gets worse
- Your right hip becomes stiffer because it’s overworked
- And so on, and so on.
The body is one interconnected unit, so any compensation can cause a variety of problems throughout the entire chain. That’s part of the reason why previous injuries are the #1 predictor of future injury.
6) The hips are the powerhouse of the body
While the bench press may be a very popular measure of strength, the greatest power the body can produce comes from the hips.
In particular, the hip hinge (bending of the hips) is the most powerful lift. It’s a reason why most people can deadlift more weight than they squat. Hinging of the hips is less of a forward bend and more of a sitting back motion where the hips push behind the heels while the back remains straight and the knees stay slightly bent.
In addition to the hinge, the hips can produce significant power rotationally. In sports, a powerful swing in baseball, or drive in golf is from rotational hip power.
It is not by coincidence that when doctors assess bone mineral density, measurements are taken from the hips and spine. Keeping your hips strong and powerful may lead to greater longevity.
7) Asymmetry is a big risk factor for injury
While excessive tightness, or weakness in the body is certainly not good, research shows that functional asymmetries between the right and left sides of the body are a much higher risk factor for injury.
If your right hip is tight, but your left hip is flexible, this asymmetry can lead to a cascade of problems throughout your entire body.
In a video I saw recently, Gray joked that he tells high school football players, “If you’re going to be tight, be tight on both sides. Then you’re just slow. If you’re tight on one side, your going to rip yourself in half.”
8) Infant development is key to understanding human movement
Most fitness professionals teach exercise from a standing position, but this is the opposite of how we learn to move as infants. The topic of infant development and its influence on exercise is easily worthy of a book.
As infants, we breathe, then grip, then roll, then crawl. Eventually, we sit, kneel, squat, then stand. So technically, we squat before we can stand.
This developmental sequence has important implications for how we should learn to exercise and how to correct dysfunctional movement patterns.
9) Your hamstrings are tight for a reason
If you have tight hamstrings, stretching them may have little effect on relieving tightness. If you stretch them today, they’ll be tight again tomorrow.
Why you may ask? Because something is causing the tightness.
So what is behind the tightness? What is driving it?
There are many possible reasons.
For example, if you have weak glutes (butt muscles), any activity from walking to squatting is going to require the hamstrings to work overtime. This will cause the hamstrings to shorten and remain flexed.
If you have a tight muscle, keep in mind it’s tight for a reason and simply stretching it may not fix the underlying cause.
10) If your knees hurt while you squat, it doesn’t mean squatting is bad for your knees
There is a lot of debate about squatting “below parallel”, which is when your hips drop below the plane of your knees. There are many doctors who believe this is bad for your knees. I’ve even done a video on how deep should you squat.
If you feel pain in your knees as you squat, you need to get your knees checked out ASAP. But that doesn’t mean squatting is bad, or squatting below parallel is bad. It’s not. It’s a very natural human movement and the knees experience more pressure at a 90 degree angle during the squat.
Gray Cook on Asymmetries
This video gives you a flavor of Gray Cook’s presentation style. I was basically mesmerized the entire weekend. I’m very grateful I was able to see him present in person:
I hope you gleaned some wisdom from these 10 topics as I did.
Which of the 10 is your favorite?