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Functional Movement System Principles

The following is an excerpt from Gray Cook’s book, Movement: Functional Movement Systems—Screening, Assessment, Corrective Strategies.

Principle # 1 – Separate painful movement patterns from dysfunctional movement patterns whenever possible to create clarity and perspective.

Pain produces inconsistent movement perception and behavior. We should not exercise around or into pain hoping it will get better without first attempting to manage it systematically.  The movement screen at its core is designed to capture pain and identify situations that should be properly evaluated prior to consideration for exercises, activities and conditioning programs.  The movement assessment improves clinical perspectives by separating pain and dysfunction, and placing equal focus on movement dysfunction to manage regional interdependence.

Principle # 2 – The starting point for movement learning is a reproducible movement baseline.

Professionals working in physical rehabilitation, exercise and athletics must adopt systematic approaches that transcend professional specialization and activity specificity. Movement professions need movement- pattern standards. The Movement book develops two systems that logically rate and rank using movement-pattern fundamentals.

Principle # 3 – Biomechanical and physiological evaluation does not provide a complete risk screening or diagnostic assessment tool for comprehensive understanding of movement-pattern behaviors.

The Movement book presents the case that we have investigated physical capacities and movement specializations in greater detail than we have the fundamental movement patterns that support and make them possible.  Our application of knowledge regarding exercise physiology and biomechanics surpasses our application of what we know about the sensory and motor development of fundamental human movement patterns. As professionals, we have tried to solve physical capacity problems with solutions exclusively targeting physical capacity. We have tried to enhance movement- specific skills by detailed maps of skill that are often practiced at the very edges of physical capability. These practices are valuable if they identify the weakest link in the movement chain. However, if they simply identify physical capacity and skill problems caused by some fundamental movement problem, focus on these areas actually overshadows a crack in the entire foundation.  The roof isn’t leaking, the basement is.

Principle # 4 – Movement learning and relearning has hierarchies fundamental to the development of perception and behavior.

The natural movement learning progression starts with mobility. This means unrestricted movement is necessary for clear perception and behavior through motor control.  It may be unrealistic to expect a full return of mobility in some clients and patients, but some improvement is necessary to change perception and enhance input. Active movements demonstrate basic control and are followed by static stabilization under load. This is followed by dynamic stabilization under load.  From this framework, our freedom of movement and controlled movement patterns are developed for transitions in posture and position, maintenance of posture, locomotion and the manipulation of objects.

Principle # 5 – Corrective exercise should not be a rehearsal of outputs. Instead, it should represent challenging opportunities to manage mistakes on a functional level near the edge of ability.

Technological advancements in movement and exercise science that neglect functional movement- pattern baselines ignore the natural laws that govern the sensory motor learning system that produces our perceptions and behaviors. This is the process that initially produces these patterns. Some conventional practices rehearse proper movement outcomes without establishing proper sensory inputs. They attempt to manage behavior without addressing perception. It’s common to see movement scientists identify the best technique for an exercise or an athletic movement. To create an acceptable standard, they map the sequence of movements that consistently produce great performance. Coaches and trainers come along and try to mimic those movements, and these become drills and exercises. The drills and exercises get recycled and modifi ed. They’re applied on top of dysfunction and they become protocols. After a few years, no one questions the logic. This is not to discredit the high- end skill drills. It just points out that drills are applied whenever deficiency is noted without considering other aspects of movement or performance. The ironic part of the story is that the elite individuals who produced the near- perfect movement sequence that become the standard did not actually practice or use the drills. To state it a different way, the analysis of the superior techniques produced exercises that did not produce the technique in the first place. How could they? The best arrive at excellence without access to drills because the drills are built on observations of their athletic output, but not their input. Fancy drills are often developed by watching the end result of a movement, performance or skill, and not the fundamentals and deep practice that produce the superior outcome in the fi rst place. We must be cautious at each level of movement learning not to practice rehearsals of outcomes. This might produce very fine imitation, but not authentic movement behaviors.

Principle # 6 – Perception drives movement behavior and movement behavior modulates perception.

The question is, how does movement develop naturally and how do all these great performances come about? Could the same forces produce both a toddler’s first step and the authentic running stride?  They are both driven by inputs that influence perception. We get stuck in the practice of outputs and assume our input is the same as those we want to emulate. We perform step- by- step exercise and assume our brains will find value and therefore commitment it to movement- pattern memory. We should know better, but we all expect that practicing outcomes will create favorable movement patterns.  The fact is we should try to emulate all the sensory inputs that produce favorable general and specific movement patterns, rather than practice the motor outputs. This will put our focus on perception, and when we hit the correct perception dosage, movement behavior will provide the feedback. Actors mimic the outputs of the characters they play and often give us convincing performances, but these are scripted. The actor is not the character, but for a brief time, they behave like the character.  We treat exercise and rehabilitation in the same way. We coach movements in a controlled environment and assume we have changed behavior across other situations or even other activities.  We forget that when the actor leaves the stage, he or she returns to daily life eventually forgetting the character life. Our clients and patients often do the same thing. The way they move will tell the story of what they have learned and what they have forgotten.

Principle # 7 – We should not put fitness on movement dysfunction.

It is possible for fi t people to move poorly and unfit people to move well. We measure basic fitness quantity and basic movement quality with different tools. We forget this and assume that fitness is the fundamental baseline, but it is not. Fitness and physical performance or capacity is the second step in a three- step process. As you discuss the information in the Movement book with peers, other professionals, clients or patients, keep it simple at first. Make sure you establish agreement on the fundamentals.  If there is a problem understanding the basic logic of functional movement systems, you will have little chance creating weight and appreciation for the corrective parts of the model. People must understand the basics of the pyramid approach.

Principle # 8 – We must develop performance and skill considering each tier in the natural progression of movement development and specialization.

Try to keep it simple even when using the pyramid model. First direct the conversation away from perfection and exemplary performance and redirect the focus to minimums using blood pressure as an example. When we screen a group for blood pressure ranges, we’re not looking for a perfect blood pressure number— we’re looking for red flags. Without much thought, we will probably separate the group into high risk, borderline and low risk. Why can’t we just start our movement conversations the same way? Throw out three terms when discussing the topics of rehabilitation, exercise or training: Are we talking about competency, capacity or specialization? Th is usually gets a confused look, but it’s a great way to start. It forces perspective. It forces a consideration of principles. Each of these levels of movement must be cleared for minimum competency, and in a progressive order.

  • Competency
  • Capacity
  • Specialization

Competency This we test with movement screening. If screening reveals pain or dysfunction in the form of limitation or asymmetry, there is a movement- competency problem.  Alternatively, there is a basic movement- aptitude problem— pick your term, but make the point. Adequate competency suggests acceptable fundamental- movement quality.   Capacity Capacity is measured using standardized tests for physical capacity against normative data specifi c to a particular population or category of activity. Football players are compared with football players and golfers are compared with golfers.  If movement competency is present and if testing reveals limitations in basic strength, power or endurance, there is a fundamental physical capacity problem. Adequate capacity simply suggests acceptable fundamental movement quantities.   Specialization Coaches and experts grade skill with the use of observation, special tests, skill drills and by previous statistics when available.  If capacity is present and if testing and statistics reveal limitations in the performance of specific skills, there is a specialization problem. Adequate specialization simply suggests acceptable specialized movement abilities. This is a way to discuss the performance pyramid without a diagram. It’s also a great way to see if someone has an appreciation of the natural developmental continuum that produces human movement. A few words of caution: We cannot become movement pattern snobs demanding total perfection on screens. Practice balance and look for deficiencies at each level of movement.  Our ultimate goal should be to identify the weakest link, because sometimes the problem is not movement quality. It is a defi ciency within physical capacity or a shortage of skill or specialization that is causing problems.

Principle # 9 – Our corrective exercise dosage recipe suggests we work close to the baseline, at the edge of ability, with a clear goal. This should produce a rich sensory experience filled with manageable mistakes.

Our actual goal is silent knowledge— no words, just better movement perception and behavior. In The Voice of Knowledge, former physician Miguel Ruiz discusses the silent knowledge of the body with eloquence and clarity. He states, “Your liver does not need to go to medical school to know what to do.” We can expand that brilliant and simple statement across the movement systems as well. These systems naturally use their perceptions to create their behaviors, and their behaviors to refi ne perceptions. Your abdominals, diaphragm and pelvic floor know what to do and how to work together if you let them.  This is why we don’t need to do core work with toddlers. Their curiosity drives exploration and their lack of control demands movement coordination if they are to explore. The exploration requires movement, and they work at movement to achieve exploration. When your clients and patients arrive on the scene with movement dysfunction, you can’t leave it to Mother Nature, because for a long time they have been working against her. To help them, you might need to break a behavior and reset an experience. From the experience, you will have to develop a corrective strategy.

Principle # 10 – The routine practice of self- limiting exercises can maintain the quality of our movement perceptions and behaviors, and preserve our unique adaptability that modern conveniences erode.

When corrections have done their jobs and it’s time to get back to exercise, this is your opportunity to prevent future problems. The addition of self- limiting exercises to the exercise program or as preparation or cool down can keep authentic patterns maintained.  Since self- limiting exercises offer greater challenges, you can create situations to use these as a form of play or self- competition.