Movement Comes First

At Move Better Be Stronger, we believe that able-bodied humans of all ages should be able to:

· Walk (a mile)

· Fall over without injury

· Get up from the floor

· Climb a flight of stairs

· Dash or leap a few feet to avoid danger

· Lunge and reach for something at ground level without risk of injury

· Pick up a baby without risking injury

· Breathe properly (with the diaphragm)

· Balance on one leg with eyes open for 30 seconds

Being experienced fitness professionals, we—both Ryan Steenrod and I—are very aware that most humans of any age would struggle with several of these. It’s not our intention to make you feel bad about yourself. We’d just like to offer you achievable movement goals that will help improve your overall health.

Ryan Steenrod

Unexpected dangers exist all around us and dashing or leaping out of the way of oncoming danger is an ability that arguably all humans should possess, right? Let’s not forget that unforseen danger comes in many forms — for instance, irresponsible cyclists race down the sidewalk. If you’re in California, there’s a real risk of being hit by an electric scooter ridden by a cannabis-infused idiot. Leaping to avoid oncoming danger is an explosive movement.

Being able to break a fall is a crucial skill for all humans to possess. This involves considerable technique, but physiologically it requires explosive deceleration under the weight of your entire body mass. This is an explosive movement with load. Bone density and strong ligaments are useful here too, both an outcome of strength training.

Here are some quick stats on falling from the U.S. National Council on Aging and CDC.

· Falls are the leading cause of death in over 65s in the U.S.A.

· Falls are the most common cause of non-fatal injuries and hospital admissions in people 65 and older (U.S.A.).

· Every 19 minutes an older adult dies from a fall in the U.S.A.

· Falling once doubles your chances of falling again.

How about we learn how to fall over before it’s too late? Everything we do in a training environment should be answerable to one question: Will this make my life better at 80? In order to be able to continue performing these tasks until the ripe old age of 80, it’s necessary to shoot a little higher in earlier years.

In our opinion, all able-bodied humans under the age of 65 should shoot for the ability to:

· Tie a shoe string while balancing on one leg.

· Touch their toes (with straight legs and feet together).

· Sit in a deep squat for 30 seconds.

· Sprint or dash 10 yards without breaking something or experiencing pain.

· Fall over and tumble without injury.

· Get up from the floor without using your arms.

· Climb a flight of stairs without holding the hand rail.

· Walk a mile carrying groceries (offset loaded carry).

· Balance on one leg with your eyes closed for at least 20 seconds.

· Carry your own luggage (23kg) and put it into the overhead locker on a flight.

· Hang from something for at least 15 seconds.

Most adults in the western world struggle with many of these basic human movements. But that’s OK. Every able-bodied human is able to train for any of these goals by using smart training principles and good daily habits. But that’s not what this blog is about. Right now, I’m trying to illustrate the importance of maintaining or establishing the ability to move as a priority over other fitness goals.

The Movement, Speed and Load Progression

Now I want to switch focus away from the sedentary majority and speak to the 40% of the population who regularly participate in some form of exercise. For the sake of training longevity, avoiding injury and continuous betterment, it’s crucial to respect the following law of movement, speed and load progression:

Slow movement, no load

Fast movement, no load

Slow movement, with load

Fast movement, with load

Explosive movement, no load

Explosive movement, with load

This progression can and should be applied to every exercise under the sun. I would attribute almost all musculoskeletal injuries in a training environment to be a result of two main factors:

1. Too much time spent in a chair. Chair-shaped humans break easily.

2. A lack of respect (or knowledge) for establishing movement first, then working up through the movement, speed and load progression.

Speeding up a movement adds momentum. In the presence of momentum, less active control is required and people can cheat the movement. They may be cheating their way through a movement that they’re not strong or mobile enough to perform slowly. When people mindlessly perform hundreds of reps of bad movement, especially when speed and/or load has been added, injury occurs. In the words of the great Dr Perry Nickelston, “speed hides need.” Adding load only strengthens that specific movement. It seldom makes it better. If the movement is of poor quality, adding load will only strengthen poor quality movement.

Example 1: Loaded Squats and Box Jumps

The deep squat is a fundamental human movement. It’s the natural human sitting, pooping and birth-giving posture. Elements of the squat pattern are required for most daily human movements such as getting up and down from the floor and walking up a flight of stairs. Unlike the locomotion pattern that’s essential for able-bodied living, you can get by without possessing the ability to perform a deep squat. But unarguably, those who develop the ability stand a much better chance at moving well and living well in later years.

In the world of exercise, loaded squats are one of the highest value exercises for developing whole body strength, strong legs and muscle mass (if the variables are optimized). Adding explosive speed to a loaded squat, such as a jump squat with a Bulgarian bag on the shoulders, is a magical ingredient for leg and glute power and mass. Jumping up onto a box is a good exercise for developing athletic power in the squat pattern. Jumping down from a box then exploding back up for another repetition is brilliant for helping elite power athletes increase their power potential.

What do you think happens when someone who spends most of their day in a chair and can’t perform the squat pattern slowly without load tries to jump up onto a box for repeated reps (landing in the squat position)? Or when they’re loaded up with a barbell on their back? Or heaven forbid, what happens if they’re tasked with jumping down from a box then back up again (explosive speed with bodyweight load)? Ouch.

As a litmus test for all loaded or explosive squat activity, if you can sit in a deep squat position for four minutes and tie your shoe laces while balancing on one leg (unilateral squat pattern), you’re good to go. Otherwise, movement should be a priority. As a litmus test for Olympic weightlifting, if you can sit into the deep squat position holding a naked (20kg) barbell locked out overhead for two minutes, you would have my blessing to begin your O-lifting journey. Otherwise, injury and failure are always watching. Olympic lifting is a fantastic hobby but I would urge you to focus on your ability to move before taking it on.

Example 2: Toes-to-Bar

This is a good exercise for higher level everyday exercisers and very common in CrossFit affiliates. When performed correctly, it’s good for shoulder stability, grip endurance, oblique endurance, thoracic spine extension and six-pack development (if that’s the goal). It’s also a dynamic, multiplanar challenge that develops the ability to perform a kipping pull-up – an advanced explosive exercise that sits toward the top of the exercise food chain.

This is an explosive movement with the load of your body mass. I would venture to say that most people who perform this exercise regularly in the gym can’t perform one single strict hanging leg raise (slow movement with load). I would also bet that many can’t perform the same movement, but slowly, while laying supine on the floor. They lack the abdominal strength and posterior chain mobility to do so. Herein lies a problem that leads to chronic injury.

Most everyday athletes lack the shoulder blade (scapulae) mobility to reach their arms overhead without putting excessive strain through the vulnerable ball and socket shoudler joint (more like a golf ball sitting on a tee than in a socket). Adding load to this movement, by hanging from a bar is a recipe for shoulder impingements, subluxations and rotator cuff tears. Hanging from a bar without the knowhow or strength to maintain depressed scapulae (stable shoulders) leads to the same injuries. Dynamically swinging the body without a foundation of grip strength gives gravity the upper hand and bodies crash to the floor. Let’s develop the ability to hang properly first.

The weight of the falling legs pull the lower back into hyper-extension (overly arched) for repeated reps. This wouldn’t be a problem for higher level everyday athletes who possess the abdominal strength to decelerate the movement. It wouldn’t be a problem for those with enough thoracic spine extension to take the hyper-extension away from the lumbar region. But for most everyday exercisers, it’s a dangerous activity that requires a higher level of mobility and basic torso strength to even try.

As a litmus test for one’s suitability to learn the toes-to-bar movement, I recommend being able to perform three strict hanging leg raises while maintaining a forward-facing head position and depressed scapulae. This demonstrates that they own the movement enough to add explosive speed.

Keep your head facing forwards. The goal is to keep your chest facing forwards too, which I can't do yet. Shoulders remain packed (depressed). Control the downward phase.

Example 3: Kipping Pull-Ups

Seeing as kipping pull-ups have already been mentioned, let’s use them as a final example. The kipping pull-up promotes an extremely high level of athleticism and I rate it as a high value exercise, when performed correctly. It combines an explosive bodyweight pulling movement with a demanding anaerobic element and has a great training carryover effect to other high level athletic and sporting activities. It makes high-level athletes even more athletic.

The movement puts an incredible demand on the ligaments and tendons of the shoulder girdle. A high level of upper body strength, thoracic spine mobility, shoulder stability and grip endurance are required in order to perform the exercise safely. This not an exercise for anyone except high-level everyday athletes or fitness professionals.

As a pre-kipping pull-up litmus test, one should possess the strength to perform a minimum of 10 strict pull-ups: locked out arms then chest-to-bar (not neck), depressed scapulae and a hollow body throughout. A fitness professional using kipping pull-ups as a progression to help someone perform their first strict pull-up demonstrates ignorance and incompetence. It’s like tasking an entry-level fitness class, such as an F45 or Orange Theory group, with box jumps and other explosive plyometrics. It’s no wonder that so many newbies fall off the training wagon through injuries within the first few weeks. Rant over, sorry!

Litmus Tests for Common Exercises

All Everyday Athletes Should Be Able To…

An everyday athlete is an normal person who regularly participates in exercise for the sake of making everyday life and day-to-day tasks easy. Everyday athletes care less about short term aesthetic goals and more for long term strength and mobility. They train to make their lives better when they’re eighty.

Regardless of whether or not you class yourself as an everyday athlete, here’s a list of abilities that we think all everyday people should aim for first in any training environment. The act of training for these goals will generate a good base of foundational strength and movement, paving a smooth road to future training goals.

· Achieve all abilities for under 65s to shoot for, mentioned above

· Hold a perfect plank for 2 minutes

· Infinity crawl for three minutes

· Hold a flexed arm hang for 30 seconds (women) or 50 seconds (men)

· Perform 3/3 scap rolls (fwd and back) in the plank position

· Perform 3/3 hanging scap rolls

· Perform a hand stand or forearm stand against a wall for 30 seconds

· Suitcase deadlift 5/5 reps, women: 33% bodyweight, men: 50% bodyweight

· Jump rope for 5 minutes non-stop

· Score Explorer or above on all of our layer one assessments

Quick Summary and End Note

Train for life and develop or maintain your ability to move with explosive speed. Avoid injury in doing so by spending less time in a chair, more time on the floor and by respecting the movement, speed and load progression. Learn the skill of falling and move your joints to their end range of pain-free motion every day.

In any possible movement or exercise, first explore and own the end range of motion, and all parts between—slowly. When every part of a movement is owned at a very slow pace, add some speed to resemble normal day-to-day movement. When a well-executed movement has been mastered at a moderate speed then it’s ok and often effective to add more load. Adding load to a movement tends to slow it down so begin to build back up the speed, thus increasing the ability to produce force (strength). Continue to add speed and/or load. Before the speed of the movement becomes explosive take away the load. When an explosive movement can be performed well, begin to add load again. This develops the ability to produce power, a very useful attribute to maintain as we age.

This movement, speed and load progression and all training goals are a piece of cake in the presence of a body that moves well. In the meantime, there are thousands of very safe, suitable and self-limiting exercises for coaches to choose from that will help people reach their fitness goals, without causing future disability.

Strength and honor!

Phil McDougall



Email: contactATphilipmcdougallDOTcom (ROBOT PROOF)
INSTAGRAM: @phil.mcdougall