Over the last several years, the field of strength and conditioning has undergone a dramatic transformation. Instead of designing programs around the sole idea that strength is all that matters, coaches and athletes have embraced terms like “functional movement” and turned to physical therapists to learn more about how the body moves and how it should be trained.
In short, “function” and “dysfunction” have become household terms in the field, and both weight rooms and programs around the world have been filled with foam rollers, movement screens, and corrective exercises.
While there’s no doubt that all of these can help improve performance and prevent injuries, something is missing…
Over roughly same time period that functional movement was coming in vogue, I was busy writing a bestselling book and countless articles on conditioning, speaking at clinics and workshops all over the world and becoming known in the industry as an expert in energy systems.
While most people have put movement training and corrective exercises in a completely different category than conditioning and energy systems – typically even placing them at the opposite end of a training session – what I’m going to share with you in this article is why this approach is dead wrong.
Even more, I’m going to explain why a lot of conditioning programs often do more harm than good and actually decrease performance and contribute to injuries rather than prevent them.
At the same time, I’m also going to tell you why so many programs focused on improving movement are missing a huge piece of the performance puzzle.
The principle I’m about to discuss is so important that literally every coach, trainer, athlete and therapist needs to understand it if they want to maximize performance and prevent injuries… and yet the crazy thing is that nobody is even talking about it.
Before I get into the details about what this principle is and how it works, we need to start by looking more closely at how the body moves to begin with…
Movement and motor skills 101
In many ways, the human body is truly a wonder of movement.
With more than 650 muscles, thousands of tendons and ligaments and a never ending maze of fascial tissue connecting it all together, it’s safe to say that we are literally designed to move.
This makes sense from a biological perspective, because (quite obviously) if you can’t move, then you can’t hunt for food, you can’t escape dangerous environments and you can’t do most of the things required of you to stay alive and propagate.
In other words, from the perspective of nature, movement is about survival.
Only over the last few thousand years has the purpose of human movement expanded to encompass how well you can kick a ball into a goal or how fast you can sprint down a track.
It’s the brain that is the missing link between movement and conditioningtweet this
The reason it is so important to understand the primary function of movement as a means of survival is because it gets to the heart of how the brain works to coordinate movement…
And, it’s the brain that is the missing link between movement and conditioning.
You see, the brain is largely a giant problem-solving machine, one that is capable of calculating thousands data points in an instant to figure out the best answer to whatever problem it’s facing.
In the case of movement, the brain has a massive amount of information to process through its different sensory systems in order to answer the problem of coordinating the proper motor response.
Let’s examine the problem of hitting a fastball in terms of movement, for example…
On the surface, hitting a ball with a bat may seem like a relatively straightforward problem, but it’s actually incredibly complex:
As a batter stands in the box and waits for a pitch, his or her brain starts to anticipate all the possible types of pitches that are likely to be thrown. It calculates the probability of each pitch so that it can better anticipate the trajectory and speed of the ball and how the body is going to have to move to hit it.
Once the ball has left the pitchers hand, the brain then uses visual cues to try to determine how the ball appears to be spinning, how fast it appears to be moving, where it came out of the pitchers hand, etc.
Based on these visual cues, the brain predicts exactly when and where the ball is going to cross the plate.
Once it’s made that prediction, then the brain calculates the best way to move in order to actually hit the ball at the moment it crosses the plate.
A part of this calculation involves figuring out how the ball is actually moving compared to how the brain expected it to be moving while anticipating the coming pitch.
After all, a batter has to swing differently and have different timing to hit a fastball vs. a change-up or slider, so adjustments need to be made on the fly as the brain picks up the trajectory and speed of the ball.
Of course, the more effectively the brain is able to anticipate the pitch and the better it is able to calculate when and where the ball will cross the plate, the more likely it is to move correctly and actually hit the ball.
A huge component of executing the correct movement is also how the brain has learned to swing for different types of pitches through practice– something we’ll talk more about shortly.
The amazing thing about this entire process is how fast all of these calculations and predictions occur.
A 100-mph fast ball, for example, takes just over 0.4 seconds to reach the plate. In that short time, an average major league player can calculate and predict the ball path and swing fast enough to generate a bat speed in excess of 70-mph.
Of course with just 0.4 seconds, there is no time for a batter to consciously think about and make all these calculations – the process all happens in a purely subconscious, reflexive manner developed over years of practice and thousands of swings.
One important thing to remember is that, in the case of baseball, the success or failure of the brain to get “the right answer” to the movement problem is very obvious: the batter either hits the ball or misses it.
The movement objective, in this case, is extremely clear: hit the ball.
Despite the unique challenge of trying to hit a pitch thrown by a major league pitcher, the average player’s brain and body is able to solve the problem correctly and hit the ball to get on base an average of 25-30% of the time.
A learning computer
Aside from the unbelievable speed with which brain is able to perform calculations and solve problems of movement and performance, the most impressive aspect of the brain is its ability to learn and adapt.
It’s the learning process that bridges the gap between movement and conditioning.
To get to the heart of how this works, we have to talk a little bit more about how the brain learns and adapts its movement patterns in the first place.
Consider someone new to combat sports who is just learning how to throw a punch, for example…
At first, they have no idea how to move correctly to throw a punch with effective technique. In fact, they really don’t even know what “good technique” is until a coach demonstrates the proper punching movement pattern.
The problem the brain must solve, in this case, is how to coordinate the firing of hundreds of muscles throughout the entire body in a way that leads to the proper movement pattern to throw a punch.
Even though a single punch may look like a simple movement to the untrained eye, it’s actually a highly complex movement pattern that relies on precise timing and coordinated rotational movement from the ground up.
In order to learn and perfect this movement, the brain relies on feedback.
The coach gives the athlete technical feedback, helping the brain to understand what it’s doing right and what it’s doing wrong. The athlete also receives visual feedback by watching others throw punches and analyzing how they are moving.
Over time and through endless repetition, the athlete’s mechanics improve and his or her punches become faster, harder and more precise.
The brain has learned to solve the problem of how to throw a punch correctly; the more punches the athlete throws, the more the movement patterns will become ingrained in the brain.
This punching motion has now become part of what are called General Motor Programs within the brain.
General motor programs are a way of organizing a group of similar movements within the brain so that it doesn’t have to store each and every possible variation separately.
Imagine if the brain had to learn and store all the details of how to walk at 1 mph, how to walk at 2mph, how to walk at 3mph, or how to walk up a hill instead of flat ground, etc.
This is obviously not the most efficient way to store learned movements, since walking at slightly different speeds involves the same basic groups of muscles moving in the same general sequence.
It makes much more sense to store just one general motor program, the basic mechanics of walking, and then make small adjustments to variables like timing in order to produce different walking speeds depending.
What all this means is that the brain learns basic movements and stores them in the form of general motor programs. The brain then learns how to adapt and vary the general motor programs based on the situation and the specific movement problem it’s trying to solve.
Walking up a steep hill or walking while carrying a heavy bag of groceries is obviously different than jogging on flat ground, for example.
Even similar movements in different environments require the brain to develop specific motor program variations for each. Sprinting in a 100-m race in front of a stadium full of people in the Olympics is a whole different ball game and much more difficult problem to solve than just running some sprints on the track at home.
By now, you may be wondering what all this discussion on movement and learning has to do with conditioning. The short answer is that it has everything to do with it.
You see, the reality is that conditioning is nothing more than an extension of movement and is just another example of the brain attempting to solve a particular problem.
Fatigue is nothing more than a specific condition, a particular type of problem, that the brain learns how to solve through training.tweet this
Throwing a punch when you’re in the gym in front of a heavy bag is one thing, but throwing a punch when you’re gassed out in the final minutes of a brutal 5-round fight represents another problem entirely as far as the brain is concerned.
To be clear, what I’m saying is that fatigue is nothing more than a specific condition, a particular type of problem, that the brain learns how to solve through training.
Even though the basic mechanics of throwing a punch are stored as a general motor program, learning how to throw one when you’re fatigued represents another problem that the brain must learn to solve.
So, how does the brain learn this? The same way it learns the movement patterns in the first place: mostly through feedback from coaches, trainers and sensory feedback like visual cues.
This is where almost every conditioning program goes completely wrong and where the problem lies…
Watch just about any conditioning session and you’ll invariably hear the coach yelling something to the effect of, “Go faster, throw harder, don’t slow down, don’t quit, keep it up, don’t stop!”
So what’s the problem with this instruction? After all, this is how conditioning programs have been directed by thousands of coaches for decades.
The reason why this is a huge problem is easy to understand now that we’ve talked about how the brain learns to move.
In the case of conditioning and fatigue, the coach yelling to “go faster” or counting down time left on the clock is literally teaching the brain how to move when it’s fatigued.
While focusing on work rate, i.e. maintaining speed and power, when an athlete starts to fatigue might seem like a rational approach, the reason that it falls short is that the brain now sees work rate as the primary problem to solve.
In other word, the brain attempts to maintain movement speed at the expense of technique and movement quality.
Even as technique starts to completely fall apart, the coach or trainer is still providing feedback to go faster and maintain speed rather than maintain technique.
Think of the gassed-out combat athlete at the end of a round with mouth open and hands low, swinging widely for the fences with sloppy, looping punches. This is not how fatigue has to look and it only looks this way because this is how the athlete has been taught to move when he or she is fatigued in training.
This is what happens when the brain tries to solve the problem of how to keep moving fast when fatigue sets in. Rather than learning how to maintain movement quality and technique, it just learns to move as fast as it can.
If the coach had given different feedback based on fundamental mechanics when the athlete fatigued (e.g. reminding them to keep their hands up, maintain posture, etc.) instead of just yelling at them to go faster or harder, then the movement patterns they developed would have been remarkably better.
This is the single biggest piece of the puzzle missing from both conditioning and movement training and where it all goes wrong.
An athlete that is able to maintain movement quality and technique from start to finish is the athlete that’s going to win nine times out of ten.tweet this
The coach or trainer spends endless time trying to improve movement quality through low level, low speed movement drills and corrective exercises but then neglects to coach and improve movement quality when it really matters: when the athlete is tired.
The old saying that games are won or lost in the fourth quarter is true. An athlete that is able to maintain movement quality and technique from start to finish is the athlete that’s going to win nine times out of ten.
As I said earlier, conditioning is nothing more than an extension of movement and it is a learned movement pattern and part of the larger motor program. So if an athlete is taught to have poor movement when they are fatigued, then that’s the type of movement they’ll execute in competition…
Far too many athletes end up performing much worse than they should and/or end up with preventable injuries from poor, fatigued movement patterns because of how so many of today’s conditioning programs are run.
Now that I’ve hammered home the big problem plaguing so many training programs, let’s talk about how to fix it.
Fortunately, the same principles apply to training while fatigued as at any other time, so it’s largely just a matter of incorporating two fundamental principles into a training program:
First, movement quality needs to be constantly evaluated under all conditions, not just during a low level movement screenings or during a dynamic warm-up. No doubt these sorts of tools have value, but how an athlete moves at low levels has very little to do with how they are going to move at the highest speeds and at the highest levels of fatigue.
It’s easiest to break down movement and mechanics into three categories: low threshold, high threshold and fatigued.
Low threshold movement consists of low level, body weight, relatively slow movements that primarily rely on the slower twitch fibers to generate the force.
High threshold mechanics can only be performed by forcing fast twitch fibers to come into play to produce higher levels of speed and power.
Although there is often some degree of carry over between low threshold and high threshold movement quality, the brain fundamentally approaches the problem of low speed and high speed movements differently.
Plenty of athletes can score well on the FMS, for example, but then have relatively poor movement and mechanics when they are actually playing their sport.
This is why low level movement screens are just that: a general screen meant to pick up gross movement issues. These sorts of tools were never designed to tell you everything you need to know about an athlete’s movement.
The third category, fatigued mechanics, is what we just discussed and again, there’s only limited carryover between low threshold and high threshold movements.
In fact, low threshold movements have almost no transfer into fatigued threshold movement patterns because they are on the opposite end of the movement continuum.
A complete movement and conditioning program always starts with an evaluation of movement quality and mechanical issues in each of these three categories.
Discussing the details of how to effectively analyze movement as an athlete fatigues is beyond the scope of what can be covered in a single article, but it’s something I’ll be covering at length in my upcoming Certified Conditioning Coach workshops.
Aside from assessing how an athlete moves while fatigued, the second principle is that you have to specifically focus on movement quality during all aspects of training.
This means that movement quality should be emphasized during warm up, during the highest levels of speed and power production and, of course, when fatigued.
In fact, you should stop thinking about conditioning programs as simply a means to develop energy systems, mental toughness, or some other such thing…but rather as an opportunity to fundamentally improve movement in a fatigued condition through training.
There is no way to simulate fatigued conditions and develop proper movement in spite of it without actually pushing to the point of fatigue.
Yet fatigue itself is simply a means to an end; it should never be the sole goal of a conditioning program. Making an athlete tired just for the sake of making them tired serves no purpose and often does far more harm than good.
Fatigue should only be used as a tool under the purpose of improving movement.
To achieve this, it’s absolutely vital to give the athlete the right feedback.
Instead of telling an athlete to go as fast or hard as possible as he or she starts to fatigue, the emphasis instead needs to be on providing the right movement cues.
As a combat athlete starts to fatigue, the coach should cue the athlete to keep his or her hands up, maintain posture, use good mechanics, etc.. rather than yelling at the athlete to “punch harder” or “give it everything you’ve got.”
Never give the athlete the idea that it’s ok to use sloppy technique and mechanics to try and maintain speed.
In short, when the athlete is fatigued, the emphasis should always be on giving movement quality cues, not just on making the athlete work as hard as they can.
As in all other areas of movement, developing good motor patterns in a fatigued state takes time and the right coaching, but it can make a huge difference in how the athlete performs.
Rather than breaking down and degrading movement quality as the game or competition goes on, an athlete can develop the ability to minimize or eliminate changes to their mechanics even at the highest levels of fatigue.
This ability not only provides a massive competitive advantage, it is also a key ingredient in staying healthy and injury free.
Again, the exact details of how to coach an athlete as they fatigue to maximize this ability isn’t something that can be covered in a single article, but make sure to register for one of my upcoming Certified Conditioning Coach workshops if you want to learn more.
Summing it up
Conditioning is without question one of the most misunderstood topics in all of training and yet it’s also one of the most important for performance.
Even though there’s been an overall improvement in programming as a result of the growing emphasis on movement quality in recent years, the idea of movement has somehow been completely left out of conditioning programs.
Trying to improve conditioning purely by focusing on training hard and with blind intensity, without any regard for movement quality, is the single biggest problem plaguing training programs today and something that needs to be changed.
Whether you’re a coach, trainer, therapist, athlete, or you just train for fitness and health, this change can start with you…
Feel free to leave a comment or question and make sure to share this article with friends and colleagues to challenge others to improve the quality of their movement training and conditioning.
Stay tuned for more.
Coming up next week, I’ll be discussing another important and often misunderstood topic: mental toughness. I’m going to tell you why the way almost everyone is training to improve mental toughness is completely wrong…