Are We Getting People Stronger, or Are We Creating Great Compensators?

The following is an excerpt from our FCC Level 1 Coach’s Workbook, rolled out during our upcoming Level 1 Weekend in San Diego, November 3- 5th. There are just 11 more days to register and a small handful of spots that remain. 

There is the saying in Jiu Jitsu, “Position before submission” meant to express the importance of one’s positioning before a submission. You can’t strike until you know your foundation won’t be jeopardized. Fitness and movement under load should follow the exact same philosophy, and to use Coach John Wolf’s rendition of that statement, we must own positioning before we transition to a more challenging version of it.

“Position before transition.”

Once appropriate movement pattern is developed, performance can be investigated, but if done prematurely, poor movement pattern (and poor performance) will be permanently hardwired into our default movement pattern. Whether it be heavier load, spinal loading, unassisted movement, the position must be owned first and foremost, The athlete must truly own end ranges of motion in a gross motor patterns before increasing the mechanical demands.

For example, let’s take an athlete who might have one or all of the following:

  • Poor ankle mobility
  • Tight IT band
  • Poor hip mobility

Poor mobility and joint stability place unnatural stresses on ligaments. What might look like a “normal” uncompromised movement is actually creating a network of compensation which in turn can create unnatural forces and poor alignment. Does it make sense to load this athlete’s spine, and ask them to perform deep back squats in month one when they have no core strength, stability, or movement pattern? Most coaches with a lick of sense immediately answer no, but most coaches proceed anyways because it’s easier to give people what they want. The consequences of such actions may work in the present, but over the long term this athlete ends up creating compensatory patterns that might accommodate real-time use, but at the cost of long-term movement vitality. Because they aren’t mobile, they are shifting, moving and creating space in areas there perhaps shouldn’t be, and one day, either an acute or chronic injury will surface. Dysfunctional movement patterns will stress distal segments of the kinetic chain, meaning a weak or unstable core that has not had the chance to get strong and stable will negatively impact the shoulder or elbow when going overhead if done before dysfunctional movement can be eliminated.

For this avatar, why not have their first introduction to load be in the form of a kettlebell goblet? Front loaded, this positioning is more upright and accommodating to someone of this limitation. The spine isn’t directly loaded and limited thoracic mobility will cause faults down the chain like a back squat might. When others rush to get athletes under the bigger, sexier movements, be the coach who relays the very real strength building of a heavy goblet squat and encourages this be the point of focus, rather than the back squat. After all, what is strength training if moving under challenging load? Can we not achieve that through other tools in the box?

Are We Getting People Strong or Creating Good Compensators

Our answer to this question, and a bedrock principle of our growing coaching philosophy is that yes, we can. Rather than adding strength to dysfunction, put the athlete in a position where they can build strength while also addressing function.

It is important that when we look at movement, we break it down into it’s most basic element that is an organism (human body) reacting to stimulus (weight training). When we think of fitness in these terms, we begin to see that a deadlift is simply a loaded hinge, which is simply training of the posterior chain. A barbell bench press is simply loaded pressing that trains the chest and the triceps. Understanding this, we begin to shape a viewpoint that opens up a myriad of possibilities and options in which we can train these muscle systems and skill sets. After all, what good is heavy deadlift if you bypass the hamstrings and overload the low back? What good is a heavy back squat that continues to train global strength yet bypasses the local development of inner hamstrings?

Coaching is a hard gig, man. There is no such thing as perfection in our execution, but our aim as coaches should be to put our athletes in a position to train muscles and energy systems properly, not allow bad technique that fails in its goals to target muscles, and instead trains the global system to operate poorly. This is corrosive weight training, that breaks down rather than builds up. The goal is net developmental, not destructive. Resist the tempting urge to give into the superficial goal and encourage folks to undergo some further exploration in their movement.

-Dave Thomas