Gray Cook: Rolling Isn’t Magic

I hold fast to a rule that I made for myself:
I never want to make the correction look too much like the Functional Movement Screen.

If so, you’re simply practicing a test. It has no functional ability outside of that.

This rule (and the sheer utility of the patterns) is why I go to rolling so often.

We’ve got two routes that will commonly take you to rolling:
In the Functional Movement Screen, when you’re working on stability patterns, we found that rolling is more about core control than it is about planking strength.

Developmentally, it is a very early pattern.

We move our eyes . . .
We move our head . . . and before you know it,
We roll.

Our first rolls are log rolls—both segments go together. Then, you reach and have this unbelievable separation.

When we’re teaching rolling in a clinical environment, you almost need to look like a rag doll. I want to see 50 to 60 degrees of separation between the torso and the pelvis when you’re rolling left and right.

That separation is exactly why rolling is never used as a front-end assessment. The majority of people we see are going to have a mobility restriction. If you’ve got a mobility restriction and you can’t roll, more often than not it’s because you don’t even have the freedom of movement to roll.

The only people who benefit from rolling are those who are inherently sloppy and hypermobile. You lay them on their back and ask them to roll and they look like their hands are glued in their pockets.


Our very first attempt to re-stabilize the system is to roll, but wait a second: we’ve been sold this mental image of stability training that it’s supposed to be stable and that’s not really the essence we’re after. That’s why you’ll often hear that the word stability is used (misused) so much like strength. It’s very easy to start giving people three sets of 10 and call it stability training.

We can list and discuss all of the stabilizers in the body, but here’s the takeaway: Anatomically speaking, they’re closer to the bone and they’re most often slow twitch. Yet, they fire faster than a fast twitch.

Did you get that? They’re the first ones to fire even though they’re slow twitch, which means they’ve got to be on all the time—not just quick bursts. When I grasp something with my grip really hard, my rotator cuff sucks the ball inside. It’s all based on the timing.

When I break down a movement screen and find out the primary issue you have is with the rotary stability pattern, that means:

The squat didn’t catch you,
The lunge didn’t catch you, and
Shoulder mobility and the leg raise didn’t catch you.

What did catch you was a crawling pattern.

What am I going to do? I’m going to take you to the developmental pattern that precedes crawling, which is rolling. If you’re disconnected in rolling, then obviously you’re going to be disconnected and have trouble in crawling.

The SFMA looks at rolling in the same way—don’t bring rolling to somebody with a lot of mobility restrictions because you won’t see what you need to see.

When we have that one person in 30 or 40 who’s very hypermobile and doesn’t have much strength, when/if you put them in rolling, you basically have eight different quadrants.

On your back, you reach across your body, paralyzed from the waist down, and see if your isolated head and neck movement can take you to your stomach. All I’m looking at is the quadrant that looks bad compared to the other quadrant . . . and just to be clear, there is no perfect roll.

Richter et al. did a study back in the 1980’s at the Medical College of Virginia to look at rolling in stroke rehabilitation. They looked at rolling patterns in adults who were otherwise normal to set a baseline. It had been so long since they rolled, the normal adults showed a striking diversity in the way they rolled and initiated rolling (something like eight different combinations of sequences).

What can we glean from that study? Instead of trying to hold a person up against a rolling template that doesn’t exist, hold them accountable to their own left-right symmetry. Most people, because of the ballast and weight of the leg, cross the midline very easily and they roll better initiating with the lower body rather than the upper.

Usually, one quadrant will scream “inefficiency.” There’s your quadrant.

You reconnect those dots and you think, ‘But how does that become stability?’

It becomes stability because of motor control. Learning how to separate those segments is the other side of the coin in learning how to zip those segments up.

I’ve already made it clear that I don’t like to use rolling as an assessment in-and-of-itself. I want my screens and my assessments to strip all the mobility away and tell me to take that hypermobile person down to rolling. What happens is so powerful. Maybe, the same person who may have a rolling problem also has a single-leg stance problem. We just keep breaking it down. There’s no mobility reason why they’re not balancing there, but here’s the alchemy in this . . .

We see a really bad rolling quadrant and it’s not even in the lower body. It’s in the upper body reaching across one way. They just couldn’t even do it. It’s not ugly and not good . . . They just can’t. It’s that obvious. They sit there and work that one quadrant. We just bring them back up to the other side and it blows people away.

It is never set up to be a magic trick . . . but rolling often looks like one.

Single-leg stance starts its journey in rolling, you just have to focus on the quadrants. I’m very passionate about that because the best people in orthopedic medicine have never done a shoulder exam.

They don’t even know what a shoulder exam is.
They do an upper quarter exam.

They never do a hip exam.
They do a lower quarter exam.

What you say about the hip means nothing if I don’t know the state of the lumbar spine, knee, hip and ankle. On each side of a hypermobility, I usually find two opportunistic hypomobilities. I’m not much about individually evaluating that joint.

In movement medicine and manual medicine, we have to look at the interaction of the parts. The MRI is going to look at the joint and we need that, but we’ve got to look at how it plays with its other counterparts. Rolling is an amazing way to see that when it’s a motor control problem—not a parts problem. It’s an amazing way to see it.

Complicating factors are neck range of motion and obviously vertigo, dizziness and anything like that, but if you’ve got the loosey-goosey, hypermobile athlete and you’re trying to start that stability journey, it starts with rolling. If they can’t roll, they stay right there until they can. It’s unbelievably fatiguing, like a high neural load.

Think of rolling as you would bottom-up kettlebell work? It will fry your brain before it fries your grip. You’ll get smoked because the processing to do a bottom-up kettlebell press or a bottom-up front squat or bottom-up walking goes far beyond just squeezing the kettlebell harder.

If you’re doing it well, you’re going to be walking like you’ve got a VISA card between your butt cheeks. It’s about learning how to compact the system.

An inefficient adult attempting to roll is dealing with that same neural load.

If we lay them on their back and find out they can’t even move, the very first thing we do is put Airex pads under them. If you can’t roll, the very first roll you do is downhill. “Oh, that’s easy.”

It’s got to be effortless and easy or they don’t run that circuit. We start taking that chock or that little lift away from them. Once they get it, they don’t practice it. Rolling doesn’t become a corrective they do at home unless you did something in the clinic that makes them move very quickly. I get them from rolling to half-kneeling as quickly as I can. I’ll start throwing a tennis ball . . . whatever it takes to start making them do it automatically.

I take the focus out of the internal and take it to the external.

Twenty years of motor learning science has told us, “Don’t talk to people about their ass and don’t tell people to engage their glutes.” Tell them to do something that requires good hip extension and they’ll figure out where their glutes are quickly. Don’t have people focus on their glutes. That’s in vogue in personal training, but it’s not even an actionable command because the best motor learning researchers tell us to keep the focus external. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have somebody focus on their breathing or learn how to recover or quickly focus to get through a set.

Consider professional tennis players; there’s no need to adjust those strings after every serve. That is a mental cleansing they do to ready themselves for the second serve as opposed to the first serve. Those strings don’t need to be adjusted. It’s a mental mantra or a breathing cycle. Most people go through go through a ritual if they’ve got to reset.

We’ve got a lot of things that will smoke people right now in strength and conditioning. John Brookfield gave us battling ropes. When we have stuff like kettlebell swings, battling ropes and Indian clubs, we’ve got an opportunity to completely smoke somebody.

The second coaching opportunity comes at the end of that set and before the next one: How quickly you recover defines who you are as an athlete.

We think about recovery as being something that happens over a 24-hour cycle, but recovery is something you can engineer and access right after you’ve been smoked. This is why we do what we do to tactical professionals sometimes. We literally want to take them off their game, mouth-breathing, physically smoked and still see if they have the mental clarity to follow their rules.

Do you forget your rules when you’re smoked? You have an opportunity right here to tell people if you find you can do something to get somebody recovered quicker. You usually start this journey on a jump rope. Give me a quick 30-second bout of jump rope. Tell me when you think you can reproduce that set. Most people will say, “I’m ready” and then they’ll proceed to come in 10 jumps under in 30 seconds.

They just overestimated their physical capacity, didn’t they? I don’t want you to overestimate or underestimate: I want you to hit that physical capacity right on. If you beat it by 50%, you were sandbagging on me and if you come in under, you overestimated your ability to recover from that set.

This is an awesome thing to teach athletes. I can get you bodyweight ready, but I think we often miss the coaching opportunity to see how quickly people recover, which takes me right back to rolling.

The person who needs rolling gets absolutely smoked doing it, so get them to shake it off. Make them laugh or do something. “All right, let’s hit that thing again.” They don’t need a long rest break, but they need to defrag for a second because we’re totally confronting something they’ve been avoiding or neglecting for some real reason.

For the person who needs it, it’s amazing.

There are other ways to stabilize people, but what I’ve found is the ones that are most sustainable take us back to that rolling. Building on that and reinforcing it so you never have to revisit it is all about program design. Usually, one or two rolling sessions done right is all we need.

If we do the right thing after that window—that reset—we don’t need to do a lot of rolling. When you’ve got a trauma or post-surgery, it’s a different rule, but those are very powerful resets. Keep in mind, the way we plan to program the computer after that reset defines how often we need to reset the computer.


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