Chuck Wolf: Blending Traditional Training with Functional, Integrated Training

Excerpted from Insights into Functional Training

“Minds are parachutes—they only function when open.”

~ Finley Peter Dunne

Before our modern transition into more integrated training methods, exercise consisted of traditional training such as Olympic lifts, selectorized equipment, and isolated training.

Using traditional methods of training is often thought of as “unlike sports.” There is no question that people gain muscle mass and strength using traditional training, but there is also some limitation in movement without the addition of regular stretching. This is not a knock on isolated lifting, but at the same time, we need to be aware of those limitations.

Back in earlier days of training, the majority of strength training was done on selectorized equipment, as this was considered the “safer” alternative. In fact, the first facility I worked for implemented the gym member orientation policy to develop the initial program on weight machines due to the safety factor. How narrow-minded our field was at that time.

When I started studying human movement, I was passionate about learning how the body actually moved. I believed in this newfound concept of functional training so much that I changed my entire approach to strength and conditioning to the point that everything I did had to have a functional, integrated training aspect to it. Everything was done from a standing position; even a chest press had to be done with cables or tubing and from a standing position.

As I trained using this approach, I felt more mobile, yet less strong than I had been when using traditional lifting techniques. I had the muscle tone, but not the hypertrophy. There was more mobility, which enhanced athletics, yet sacrificed strength to some degree.

There are benefits and limitations to both methods, and even then, I knew there must be a better way to gain both strength and mobility results. I kept networking with other professionals who were doing this work; I continued researching human movement and extrapolating various training concepts to meet not only my needs and desires, but also those of my clients.

As we plan our programming, we must listen to our clients’ desires, which is done through a thorough interview session with each client.

What is the person looking for from you?
What are the goals from a physical, mental, spiritual, nutritional, and holistic health perspective?
What is the client’s learning style?
Does the person like to be pushed with higher-intensity encouragement, or slightly nudged and gently guided through this pursuit?

We must be good listeners when working through this process with our clients, as this is where we establish the bonds that build cohesive relationships. This time is critically important if we are to gain their trust and subsequently meet the wants of these clients.

Additionally, using a thorough health history and gait and motion analysis, you will take the initial steps to create the roadmap to success for your client. Based on the results gleaned from this analysis or screening, you will learn about limitations, compensations, and idiosyncrasies. With the information obtained from this process, you will begin to understand what you will have to address to reach optimal movement, health, and wellbeing. This will help as you begin the program design process for each client.

At times, the client’s wants and needs may not match. Many other times, they will merge and enhance the outcome. As you begin to understand the learning and communication style of each client, you may want to discuss how the wants and needs will mesh.

Other times, a client may not be receptive to what you know to be the needs, and you will have to subliminally blend the two, all without upsetting the client’s progression. At some appropriate point during the relationship, this “wants and needs” discussion will take place. This can be a critical point, when trust and communication meld together to build success in the program.

In my practice, the great majority of clients and patients are from referrals. Nearly all of them had an injury that either reoccurred or problems still lingered after numerous attempts at physical therapy or corrective strategies. Everyone I work with goes through a gait and motion analysis, and in most cases are found to have a limitation in one of the big movement rocks of the foot and ankle complex, hips, and thoracic spine. As you know, if a limitation exists, compensation will most likely ensue.

These days, the strategies I use do not follow a typical approach to fitness but use more of a goal-oriented action pyramid.

Program design is an art based on science with the agendas centered around the client’s goals, limitations and compensations, the task objectives, and the client’s needs and wants.

The action pyramid helps organize our thoughts into strategies directed toward a specific goal, which is derived from the assessment process. We look at the limitations, symptoms, and quality of movement, and then strive to filter results into the Action Pyramid layers.

The Function Layer
Our general principle is to first determine if the foot and ankle complex, hips, and thoracic spine are too stable. In three-dimensional movements, there must be a degree of mobility to allow adequate loading in all three planes of motion. At the same time, there must be ample stability to control and decelerate the motion in three planes, stabilize the motion, and then accelerate the motion. In this sense, mobility and stability are not separate components, but are part of the same movement continuum.

Try to assess your clients using an integrated, loaded movement first, and if a limitation is revealed, crosscheck it with an unweighted, open-chain, isolated-joint mobility test.

For example, if assessing the hip, have the client perform a single-leg balance with internal and external rotation to measure the degree of movement in the respective actions.

If there is a limitation, you must now determine if it is coming from the hip, foot, or ankle. This can be crosschecked in an isolated-joint mobility assessment. Compare one side to the other, as you are only concerned with how the individual client is moving, and not comparing one to others in that age group and demographic.

When the big movement rocks of the foot and ankle complex, hips, and thoracic spine are too stable or immobile, the body will not be able to properly or adequately load in a tri-plane manner. This means tissue will not remodel or transmit and mitigate forces, and often this will promote compensatory movement patterns.

If this happens, the body, being a great adapter, will allow more motion in a region that normally should be stable. When mobility comes from regions that are conducive for stability, injury often follows.

When you see these conditions in a gait and motion analysis, you must revert back to the Action Pyramid, list the program objectives and first work in the foundational layer—function—to gain mobility in the foot and ankle complex, hips, and thoracic spine.

As you create an exercise plan, think in terms of the Action Pyramid, with function being the foundational layer. As you know, the bricks of the foundation are based on the information learned from your gait and motion analysis.

Where is the client limited in movement?

How are the big movement rocks moving in all three planes of motion?

How does the client transition from the eccentric loading phase, stabilize, and then move into the concentric or unloading phase?

If there is a temporary hesitation or the person lacks a smooth transition in some movements, this can be a sign of weakness and most often will result in a compensatory pattern.

For example, try having the client do a sagittal-plane forward lunge. Compare one side’s movement against the other. Under normal, healthy conditions, the person should be able to lunge forward, decelerate the action, allow a short pause as the tissues slow the movement, then change direction and explode back to the starting position.

If after the pause or transitional phase, the person initiates the return action by driving the torso into extension, the gluteal complex on that side is probably weak. A compensatory movement pattern is occurring, with torso extension creating the momentum, rather than the action coming from the hip.

In that example, the faulty movement pattern can be due to lack of motion or strength in the foot and ankle complex or the hips and gluteal complex. Through chain-reaction biomechanics, one region may be impacting the other.

To confirm strength or mobility issues in a case where you are uncertain, you may need to do further assessment of each region to determine which complex may be lacking. If you cannot determine which is the culprit, you may need to refer your client to a physical therapist.

It is essential to gain the function of the big movement rocks, if necessary, by creating a remedial or regressive movement pattern to gain optimal function of the complex.

As Gary Gray has often stated, “The test is the exercise, and the exercise is the test.”

We do not always need to implement complex, nonfunctional, or non-lifelike isolated tests, but we can utilize movements the client will use in the program or in a daily activity, and work to perfect that action.

Pay particular attention to the tri-plane action of the foot and ankle complex, the hips, and the thoracic spine when doing remedial movements while improving on the foundational layer of the pyramid.

As we help our clients move better and without discomfort, in addition to the obvious musculoskeletal benefits, they gain many other physiological rewards. These include increased brain function, slowing the detriments of brain aging, increased endorphins, reduced stress and anxiety, maintenance of nerve cells, improved digestion, and better genitourinary function . . . just to name a few.

The Fitness Layer
Once the function base layer is established, you will move the program design to the fitness layer of the pyramid. This layer might have many objectives, such as more energy, better body composition, and preparation for a particular activity, sport, or event ranging from a power walk to a marathon.

In this phase, program design takes on different objectives as we use a hybrid approach to a periodized system, depending on the entire macro-phase or program length.

For example, say you have a client whose objective is to prepare for a sprint triathlon. If the entire program length is three months, the first three to four weeks might be spent developing muscle endurance. Assuming you plan strength training three days a week, you might start with two or three sets of 12-15 repetitions of various exercises. When the person can attain the targeted reps at the designated weights, it is time to move up in weight.

Let us assume the client started on step-ups onto a 12-inch box while holding 15-pound dumbbells for 15 reps. The program calls for ascending pyramid sets of 15 pounds for 15 reps, 20 pounds for 12 reps, and 25 pounds for 10 reps. If the client is able to perform these sets, the next session will commence at 20 pounds for 15 reps, 25 pounds for 12 reps, and 30 pounds for 10 reps.

If done with good form yet it was stressful for the last few reps of each set, the next session will be 25 pounds for 15 reps, 30 pounds 12 reps, and 35 pounds for 10 reps, and continuing from there.

Form is key to the execution of the movements. If or when form breaks down or the person cannot complete the designated sets, do not continue to increase the weight until the client is strong enough to handle the loads.

You will also try to match the clients’ cardiovascular and strength-training phases. Clients are usually able to capitalize efficiency without sacrificing energy when we match strength training to cardiovascular work.

When cross-matching energy systems with strength work—for example, muscle endurance work in strength programming matched with explosive modalities in cardiovascular work—the client may have more difficulty completing the program due to muscle fatigue or delayed onset muscle soreness versus when matching energy systems with strength programming.

If you change to a strength or power phase in the strength program, match the cardiovascular work with a high-intensity, short and powerful mode, such as sprints, fartleks, or high-intensity circuits. When doing explosive strength work, match the program with something like hill work and high-intensity sprint circuits. In the case of an endurance athlete such as the earlier example, work more in the frontal and transverse planes, as the majority of endurance training is sagittal-plane dominant.

In the foundation and fitness phases, the strategies build a base of mobility and stability through three planes of motion. The fitness phase combines the traditional methods of training with functional, integrated movement patterns.

The Skill Layer
The skill layer has a greater emphasis on multi-plane movements, sometimes with varying verticality to impact the load on the myofascial system. In this layer, ViPR™s, SandBells®, Active Motion Bars, Battling Ropes, weighted vests, steps of various heights, suspension trainers, and the Power Plate are equipment examples you might recruit to provide various stimuli to the system.

As the client progresses, we modify the variables of dynamics and speed of the movement, vertical depth, reps, time, and weights. The client must be able to control the motion using body weight before adding external weight.

Let’s say the objective is to increase the strength and mobility of the lateral gluteal complex. You might use a ViPR™ to move side to side in the frontal plane. We often start with the ViPR™ on the ground in a vertical position, with both hands holding the top, elbows extended. As the person shifts side to side, this will load the lateral gluteal complex, the same-side leg, and the opposite adductor, as seen below.

ViPR™ lateral shift

As the client moves laterally, you might add a loading stress to the latissimus dorsi by leaning the ViPR™ forward as the person moves in the frontal plane. Then have the person return to the starting position, and continue to move to the opposite side.

During this movement, watch the foot and ankle complex as it dorsiflexes in the sagittal plane—the tibia should move through internal rotation. The knee should flex, abduct, and internally rotate; the hip should move through anterior tilt, adduction, and with a slight degree of internal rotation. Additionally, the opposite ankle complex should have a degree of relative plantar flexion because the foot is fixed to the ground. The tibia should move medially with a slight degree of internal rotation to the rearfoot, and the hips should abduct.

To progress this pattern, have the client move from the same starting position and perform a side lunge while letting the ViPR™ drop to the same side as the lunge. As the ViPR™ falls, the opposite arm reaches across and catches the ViPR™ on the way down, thereby adding an additional external vertical force as shown below.

ViPR™ lateral shuffle

This is a ViPR™ progression to gain strength in the lateral gluteal complex, as well as mobility in the adductors. The first photo shows the body decelerating forces as the ViPR™ is tilted to the right. This shifting pattern allows the left hip to adduct and recruit the lateral gluteal complex. The bottom photo demonstrates a more dynamic action with a lunge to the right as the left latissimus dorsi and posterior left shoulder decelerate the forces going to the right. This motion creates an internal rotation movement to load the right gluteal complex and lower extremity.

By taking the movement from the lateral shift in the paragraph above and the lateral lunge just described, we have created a progression that loads the lateral gluteal complex and lower extremity.

Progressing up the pyramid, the skill development layer becomes more task-specific in the attempt to align the movements of the client’s job, sport, or activities of daily living along with the goals of the client and the objectives of the overall program. This is the phase where creativity emerges.

Up to this point, you should be constantly evaluating the quality of movement during the exercise patterns. However, in the skill level and in the next phase of technique development, it is essential to watch for the quality of movement through the big movement rocks of the foot and ankle complex, hips, and thoracic spine.

The skill and technique phases are the pillars for return to work or sport. These phases are crucial because they can develop the pathways for motor control that will eventually replicate real life where movements are more random and not under your critical-eyed supervision.

If done with care and precision, this phase above all others can reduce the risk of injury in activities of your client’s day-to-day life.

Technique Layer
The technique layer homes in on the fine motor skills necessary for high-level performance.

For example, when working with pitchers recovering from an injury, we make sure all bases are covered in the functional, fitness, and skill layers. When we get to the technique layer, we start with throwing drills before throwing any baseballs. During this phase, we may need to correct mechanics for better throwing efficiency and to reduce the risk of injury. Through these drills, we are working on hip rotation, arm slot, wrist position and action, follow-through, and timing.

When these aspects of throwing are proficient, the pitchers start throwing under our watchful eyes. The skill of throwing is a complex task and thousands of repetitions must be performed to gain proficiency. Using progressions and regressions, we try to do this as safely and as effectively as possible.

These same concepts can be applied to any sport or work-related activity. Prior to commencing work in the skill or techniques layers, study the desired action in detail for return to play or return to work. This study will enhance your creativity and your client’s overall outcome.

When working with clients who have had an injury or surgery, it is important to progress them through the phases of the Action Pyramid. Many clients who have passed through the function and fitness layers become frustrated after a physician or physical therapist has cleared them to return to work or play, because even though they obtained medical clearance, they may not be ready for higher-level activities.

Putting it all Together
Using the Action Pyramid model helps me follow a consistent thought process to develop strategies and programs for a variety of issues clients present. Using this structure allows you to visualize the plan, enhance movement variability and creativity, and assist in keeping clients motivated, all to help meet their goals and improve their movement efficiency

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