Quality Over Quantity
Addition by subtraction and fixing incorrect movement patterns. It sounds odd, but by the end of this article you will learn how this may be the key to better exercise training for performance, health, and longevity, and why you might want a functional movement screen.
I was first introduced to the idea of addition by subtraction back in college—not in math class, but from my track coach. Being a student athlete requires a delicate balance between school life, social life, and training. Unfortunately, many of my fellow students couldn’t find this balance, and social life usually won out. You see, being part of a team took commitment and sacrifice, and if you weren’t willing to live by that, then you weren’t fit to be part of something great. We lost quite a few teammates, by the rule of addition by subtraction. If an athlete lacked commitment and dedication, we all suffered, so we needed to trim the fat. We lost talent in order to get better, because it comes down to more than just talent to be successful.
“What is the one thing you can do right now that will make all other things you do easier or unnecessary?”
You can look at this concept as being about efficiency. The more efficient you are in life, the easier it is to get things done. For example, consider multitasking. On the surface, it seems like the best way to get as much done as possible. But when we dig in deeper, we see that multitasking actually leads to less work done. Every time you switch from one task to another, you lose time. Plus, if you don’t focus on a single task, you miss things and get sloppy. Sure, you can do simple routine tasks together, but not things that require your thought and energy.
Gary Keller wrote a great book on this topic, titled The One Thing. Keller asks, “What is the one thing you can do right now that will make all other things you do easier or unnecessary?” It’s such a simple idea, but when we focus on what we truly need to get done, things seem to fall into place. When was the last time you saw a new exercise or workout routine and abandoned everything you were doing in order to start something new? We are all guilty of it. I’m not saying you can’t try new things, but if you want to save time and results, you should understand why you are doing it—not just going after the next shiny object.
Good Intentions, Poor Results
Here’s what I mean by using addition by subtraction to benefit your training. First, let me ask a question. Is exercise a good thing? Now you’re really scratching your head. Why would I ask such a question? Because although exercise can be a good thing, why do so many people end up in worse shape after an exercise program? Have you ever gotten hurt from a workout routine? The best intentions can lead to the worst results. I have personally seen what long-term exercise can do to a person if they’re not careful. Just find any old-school bodybuilder from the 70s and 80s and ask them how their joints are doing, or watch how poorly they move. While their programs made them look amazing, they are paying for it now.
Getting back to addition by subtraction; sometimes removing things from your workout gives you better results. I have seen this happen over and over again. But don’t just remove the things you don’t like and expect to see incredible results. Let’s look at what you should think about removing. Let’s start with something that should be obvious, yet nobody is paying attention to it. If something hurts, you need to stop doing it. Don’t mask it with a brace or kinesiotape. Don’t ask the Internet for help. Stop doing it, find out what was causing the pain, and address that problem.
Recently I was driving home and saw a workout going on outside. I won’t mention the name of the gym, but I saw participants running down the street, many wearing weighted vests or carrying weighted objects. Now this might be a totally acceptable workout for some, but then I noticed one person with his knees completely wrapped up in braces, running with extra weight. I don’t know the background story, but it looked like there was pain. And adding more weight and impact is not an ideal way to get rid of that pain. If running hurts you, then you should remove it, at least until you have learned what the initial reason for the pain was.
That is a tough pill to swallow. If you are training for a race, you have to run, right? Well if you want to dig yourself a deeper hole, then yes, you have to run. Or you can cross-train with things you can do while you find the cause of the run pain and get back to running sooner pain-free. Yes, this takes extra work and help from a professional. Many racers I see have the mentality that they should Spartan Up and push through. Pushing through challenges is essential for training, but you shouldn’t try to push through things that will hurt you in the long run. If you want to take the harder, more time-consuming path anyway, you will continue reading. This is the hard part: getting out of your own way.
Functional Movement Screen
The functional movement screen is a tool that I, and thousands of other fitness and health professionals, use to assess fundamental movement patterns. A functional movement screen operates like this: After observing the movement, we determine where the person falls on this spectrum: has pain, can’t perform the movement, can perform it to an acceptable level, or can perform it perfectly. The functional movement screen is our starting point: what you can train and condition, and what you must correct.
Let’s go back to our running example. Maybe you are not in pain right now, but what if you lack an essential movement needed for running? In order to run properly, your legs have to be able to do opposing movements while your core has to stabilize your spine and pelvis. In the functional movement screen, we look at this pattern with an active straight leg raise. We see if you can move one leg forward without affecting the other leg and without any unnecessary hip or spine movement. If you can do it, then we know you have the capacity to run. If you can’t, then you should probably remove it from your program until you can do this movement pattern.
I promise I don’t have anything against running. My goal is to show you a smarter way to train. A functional movement screen will help you figure this out. That means that sometimes when you take something away and learn how to do it better, you will see dramatic overall improvements. Plus, you are more likely to increase the length of your career. I want to share an analogy I once heard from Gray Cook, one of the founders of the functional movement screen.
“If you walked into a room of people that couldn’t read, what would you do to help them?" Cook asks. "Would you hand them a novel and say, 'Practice reading this book for the next week. I will be back and then and we can discuss it?'"
How would the results be? You know the answer. If they can’t read, reading a large book is not the answer. Yet, this is exactly what we do with training. “You can’t squat? Put some weight on your body and keep trying.”
We get really good at the wrong things. What if we went back into our room of people and found out they couldn’t read because they couldn’t see the words on the page. Or maybe they didn’t know the language the book was written in. Finding out why they couldn’t read gives us completely different answers for them. So with exercise, if you can’t perform something to an adequate level, more is probably not better. Instead find out why you can’t perform it and work on that. And remember, it does not have to be perfect. You just need adequate levels of movement. Yes, this will likely take the eye of a professional to help you.
Fixing Incorrect Movement Patterns
When it comes to fixing incorrect movement patterns, let me leave you with another example of a popular exercise. Squatting is one of the most performed exercises out there. It is an essential movement in everyday life and can help with a variety of aspects of performance. But it’s better to remove it from your workouts than to do it incorrectly. Now, there are a plethora of reasons you may not be able to squat. For example, you might not have the necessary ankle mobility to perform a squat properly. More squats won’t help this, but instead you can take squatting out of your program and work on corrective measures to improve your ankle mobility, like foam rolling and ankle dorsiflexion drills. Then we keep retesting to see if your squatting improves. If it does, then we know we fixed the issue and we can be confident adding more squats into the program. If it does not, then we move on to something else to improve the movement. Don’t be bummed at the idea of leaving squats out of your workouts. We may find out that deadlifts and lunges are completely acceptable forms of training, and you can incorporate those into your training. However, going heavy with a movement you can’t do correctly will likely set you back.
My goal of writing this was not to piss you off or tell you what you can or can’t do in your training plan. Instead I want to teach you that there are severe costs to destroying your body and how important it is to fix incorrect movement patterns. There are limitations to what you can handle. Everyone has a breaking point, and your goal should be to stay as far away from that point as possible.
For now, learn your body. Get a functional movement screen. Understand what you do well and what you don’t. Train the movements you can adequately do and remove what you can’t. Work to improve that movement pattern, and when you fix it, you can crush it in your next workout. However, don’t think you have a free pass. Things change, and you must always look at how your body is adapting.
Mike Deibler is an SGX coach and hosts the OCR Underground podcast.
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