Using Exercise to Expose Weakness: Part I


weak linkA general sort of concept is on my mind and it’s been expressed by several experts that I look up to. In his book Movement, Gray Cook says “True champions will spend more time bringing up weaknesses than demonstrating strength.” The great powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell says, “The Westside program is all about finding where you are weak and making it strong.” Your weaknesses will hold you back.” Kelly Starrett discusses the idea of “making the invisible visible.” With this statement he suggests we can use exercise to expose movement problems. (He talks about this concept here,here and here.)  What does all this mean?

All these guys are telling us that rather than going to the gym and doing fun stuff that we’re already good at and simply making our strengths stronger (taking the easy route, really) rather we should find our weaknesses and work like hell to bring them up to speed.

A slightly different paradigm

I think most of us have an equation in our head regarding exercise.  It might look like this:

I exercise → I get stronger.

(BTW, the word “strong” doesn’t just mean muscular strength.  We can get stronger at swimming, biking, driving a golf ball, carrying bags of mulch, etc. “Stronger” means to improve an ability.)

There might be a few more dots to connect between those statements though. With regard to the earlier statements about weaknesses and making the invisible visible (i.e. make hidden weaknesses visible), we might see the equation thus:

I exercise → I expose weaknesses/pain/poor movement → I correct/improve my weaknesses and poor movement →I get stronger.

What often happens is that we find an exercise that we enjoy doing and at which we’re very strong. We really like that exercise! We do it and we demonstrate to ourselves (and let’s face it, others in the gym) how strong and able we are. Therefore our already well-developed ability gets stronger.

In contrast, I think a lot of us have discovered exercises that we don’t like. The movement pattern feels awkward, painful or somehow asymmetrical or unbalanced. We have a poor ability to execute the exercise. We may tack it on at the end of a workout if we feel like it–and we rarely feel like it. In other words, we’re weak at this particular movement. We don’t do it well and we know it so we avoid it. Thus we rarely if ever explore this particular exercise. What happens?  We probably get weaker and weaker at it.

So while something we’re already fairly good at gets better, a glaring weakness gets weaker.  And what do we know about chains and weak links? At some point that weak link (poor movement pattern) is going to cause us a problem if it isn’t already. We may not even know how strong we could be if we fixed our weakness.

My rule of thumb is: “If it’s really difficult to do and you don’t like doing it, then you probably need to do a whole lot of it.”

My experience

A lot of my clients have movement problems and various aches and pains. Their weaknesses are often rooted in a forgotten ability to move properly and maintain their joints in proper position. We frequently need to dial back the exercise intensity and simply work on slow, proper, mindful movement. Sometimes this requires a frustrating level of concentration. It gets difficult. It isn’t always fun. This frustration may lead a client to say ” I just want to work out!  I don’t want to think!” In other words, he or she want to revert to their hold habits, ignore their movement shortcomings and do what they’re already good at.

This is an important fork in the road. If a client chooses to continue to focus and do the hard work of correcting bad habits–to improve their true weaknesses–then he or she will almost certainly start to see lasting improvement in the near future. This client and I will likely have a long, productive and happy relationship. On the other hand, we have another type of client.  He or she balks at the first sign of difficulty, ignores and avoids weaknesses, and in essence chooses to tread water and only marginally strengthen their limited strengths.  He or she has picked an easy but limited route. In this case, our relationship is thankfully short.

The big picture

I’m going to go into some specifics in the next post, but for now I’d like you to consider the idea that the real way to get stronger is to seek out and wallow in your pathetic weaknesses. If you think you don’t have any, then add weight, reps, range of motion and/or speed to see if things start to come apart. Recognize where you start to fail and dedicate yourself to working on those weaknesses.

Reverse Patterning the Squat


I’ve gotten some great ideas from reading Gray Cook’s Movement and Athletic Body in Balance.  (I’ve written several times recently about the information in these books.  I don’t want to sound like I’ve joined the latest UFO cult or anything, but it’s what I’m into right now.  I’m seeing very interesting results, so that’s what I’m talking about.)  One concept in particular I’m finding very useful and exciting.  It’s known as reverse patterning.  Reverse patterning is discussed in chapter 14 of Movement.  Though it’s not called “reverse patterning” in Athletic Body in Balance, a very similar process is explored in chapter 6 of that book.

I’ve applied this concept to the squat and I think I’ve discovered a much better way to teach the squat.  It’s simple to teach, safe, and similar to the half-kneeling position, there’s pretty much only one way to do it correctly, that is the only way to do it in any form is to do it correctly.  If you do it wrong you basically won’t go anywhere at all.

Problems with teaching the squat

Most of us teach and learn the squat from the top down.  That means we start in the standing position, lower ourselves down low in a sitting-type of maneuver, then we stand back up.  It’s a fairly complex movement.  Coordinated movement must occur at the ankles, knees and hips.  Meanwhile stability must occur through all these structures plus the spine.  All the while the squatter must stay balanced.  Teaching this process can be quite challenging.

Very often a client has no idea at all how to do this: Their knees shoot forward, heels pop up, knees cave in, spine rounds forward, pelvis tucks way under–all kinds of movement faults occur.  Then I have to teach this funny movement by using all sorts of language and cues that may or may not resonate with the client.  So now it’s almost like learning to juggle, ride a bike and recite the Gettysburg Address all at once. Sometimes it goes very well.  Sometimes it can be a real hair-pulling sort of event for both parties.

(The funny thing is, if you watch any number of young children, you can see superb squat technique done over and over and over.  No one taught them.  They figured it out for themselves!  How did they figure this out?  Must be some simpler way to do this, no?)

Squatting from the bottom up

Gray Cook talks about primitive patterns.  These are movement patterns such as crawling, rolling, squatting and other movements that precede activities like walking and running.  These are fundamental patterns to humans. (Modern living tends to rob us of these patterns.  We sit too much.  We hunch over keyboards and steering wheels too much.  We don’t get down on the ground and move in funny ways enough.)  In the case of the squat, we all did our very first squat a long time ago.  I don’t remember my first squat and neither do you.  That first squat actually started at ground level as we were trying to emulate the people around us who were standing and walking.  At some point probably after several attempts, we stood up.

Typically when teaching the squat the difficulty comes from our trying to get to the bottom of the thing.  As I said previously, we often do it all wrong and it takes a bunch of work to do it right.  So instead of making it difficult to get down, why not make it as easy as possible to get into the bottom of the squat position?  This is very easy to do.  Watch the video to see the process.


Gray Cook, FMS & Dry Needling


The true champion will spend more time working on weakness than showing off strength.
– Gray Cook, Athletic Body in Balance

Gray Cook

I’ve taken great interest recently in Gray Cook’s material including the FMS or Functional Movement Screen as well as two books by Gray, Movement and Athletic Body in Balance.  Gray is a physical therapist, strength coach and kettlebell instructor.  Much of his work focuses on identifying our weaknesses and improving our poor movement patterns.  He’s been in the fitness/rehab world for a while and I’ve known of his work for a while but just recently have I really dug into it and I’m finding it very fascinating.

Functional Movement Screen

The FMS consists of several movement patterns: the overhead squat, inline lunge, hurdle step, shoulder mobility reaching, straight-leg raise, trunk stability pushup, and rotary stability pattern.  These movements are fundamental to the way we move.  They combine elements of stability and mobility.  The purpose of the screen is to identify deficient movement patterns, asymmetries (this is a potentially HUGE issue) and pain.  If someone test poorly on any of these tests then we know what areas need corrective exercise.  This is a process of identifying weaknesses and making them strong.

Visit to PT Mike Kohm & dry needling

I wanted to get a first-hand exposure to the FMS and the clinical companion to the FMS which is known as the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA).  (The SFMA is used by physical therapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, etc. to further investigate painful and dysfunctional movement.)  I looked up FMS/SFMA certified practitioners in the Denver area and I selected Mike Kohm of Neuromuscular Strategies.  Mike is a PT and a yoga instructor who has experience with runners and cyclists. When I made my appointment I had nothing much wrong with me.  I’ve had a little bit of right shoulder pain which has improved recently, but mainly I just wanted to see if there were any odd movement issues that I might want to take care of.  A few days prior to my appointment I strained my right hip flexor while running sprints.  Perfect time to see a PT.

I won’t go into every aspect of the assessment but it was a very thorough examination that did indeed expose some less-than-optimal movement patterns.  He ID’d some funny movement at my right tibia and we figured out more about my right shoulder.  We looked at some exercises to improve both areas.  Just a couple of days later and both areas are moving much better.

As for my hip flexor, he did some dry needling on the strained area. This procedure is similar to acupuncture but it doesn’t rely on quite the same method.  It involves inserting an acupuncture needle into a tight, spasming muscle.  Sound like fun?  It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, though it wasn’t any party either.  I felt a stick and then a sudden but very brief cramp and then the muscle relaxed.  Mike used the needle in three spots.  It definitely felt better afterward.  Mike said he thought dry needling could cut down by half the healing time for strained muscles.  Sounds good to me.

FMS Self-Assessment & the Bretzel

Finally, there are a lot of interesting and informative Youtube videos discussing the FMS and corrective strategies.  Here are a couple.  The first is an abbreviated version of the FMS that you can use to evaluate your own movement patterns.  The second is a very useful thoracic spine mobility drill known as the Bretzel.  There are two versions of the Bretzel.  These drills can be quite useful in addressing shoulder pain among other things. Try some of this stuff out and see what happens.