Moving OFTEN or WELL…which is more important?

March 31, 2019

In 2008, after I’d been practicing Tang Soo Do Karate for several years but was still only a Red Belt, I took first place for “Forms” in an annual national karate championship at Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City…I swept the entire division of women my age, all of whom had been Black Belts most of their lives, and it was one of the biggest rushes of my life (second only to the birth of my beautiful daughter Kirsti.) I felt SO PROUD while standing on the podium to receive my medal and trophy (which was almost as tall as me BTW!) and it was pretty much clear to all the competitors, judges, and spectators in the place that I’d basically CRUSHED my competition.

Imagine my surprise, then, when only a couple months later, while participating in an internship program focusing exclusively on functional movement & fitness, I utterly FLUNKED something called the Y Balance Test.

Now although it would’ve be inaccurate to describe me as a professional or even a high-level athlete back then, it was definitely the case that I was pretty accomplished in a particular sport. And at that time I also appeared to have almost superhuman balance so there was a great deal of evidence to suggest I’d ACE the Y Balance Test.

“What the heck does THAT mean?” I exclaimed (and, frankly, everybody in the room wondered) when the test score revealed a huge asymmetry in the strength and mobility of my hips. It meant I was headed straight for a HUGE left hip injury about a year later which eventually ended karate-practicing days (and subsequently caused me to take my first T’ai Chi Chih class BY MISTAKE!)

But I digress…instead of following that story down an entirely different rabbit hole, let’s flash forward to last week when I read a great article in the Delaware News Journal about Von Homer, a Visiting Assistant Professor working towards his second doctorate in Neuroscience via his research and work within Delaware State University’s Department of Public & Allied Health Sciences. In Balancing Risk I read that Homer has combined the Y Balance Test (or YBT) with an electromyography test (or EMG - tiny electrodes placed on various muscles) to create a unique new injury-risk prediction tool called “The Homer Technique”…Homer and the other researchers feel this new technique could have a major impact on athletic shoe design, could be used by health insurance companies, and could even inform athletic personnel decisions within the NFL and various other sports teams.

The YBT is quite simple…it takes only about 15 minutes to perform and the equipment looks like a Y when lying on the floor (thus the name.) The participant stands / balances on one foot at the "intersection" then reaches as far as possible with the other foot in three different directions: forwards (or into the anterior plane), to the back / away from the body (or postero-laterally), and then to the back / across the body (or postero-medially.) The test is great for measuring someone’s strength, stability, and balance in all areas of the body while reaching in various directions.

And by the way YBT is only one of a couple of functional movement tests / tools developed primarily by Gray Cook, a groundbreaking Physical Therapist, co-founder of the company Functional Movement Systems, and arguably one of the most influential experts in the fitness world today. Cook built on the work of Dr Phil Plisky to package the YBT as we see it today, and also masterminded an assessment tool known as the Functional Movement Screen (or FMS.)

But what sets the Homer Technique apart from the standard YBT, however, are the little EMG electrodes which supposedly pinpoint specific dysfunctional muscles…the article pointed out that information gathered from the Homer Technique will enable exercise professionals to design more targeted exercise programs (focusing on increasing stability, strength, and mobility of specific muscles) rather than generalized strength and conditioning programs for their clients.

I wonder, however, if all this isn’t turning exercise into brain surgery when it really should be a no-brainer (at least for highly qualified health & fitness professionals!)?

Did you know that there’s really only seven big movement patterns the human body can execute? Yup…turns out that all human movements, from the smallest to the most complex, are nothing more than variations of these seven Pillars of Human Movement: squat, lunge, push, pull, bend, twist & gait.

And although the FMS is typically used only at sports medicine and elite professional sports training facilities plus in the occasional cutting edge strength & conditioning environment, there are a few extremely well-informed Personal Trainers who also use it (ahem…I’m eluding to ME of course!)

Personally I find the FMS to be a helpful tool whenever I’m assessing a new client either in their home or at the Functional Medicine practitioner’s office where I work part-time as the Lifestyle Coach. But in reality it’s simply an excellent jumping off point because it quickly shines a spotlight on asymmetries, imbalances, or weaknesses in the client’s seven major movement patterns…the reason it’s called a SCREEN (rather than a test), however, is because there really are only a couple of possible outcomes:

  • The FMS points out pain
  • And it points out movement dysfunction

So in the end using any of these functional movement tools as a way to scientifically predict injury is simply wrong-headed because they can’t tell me (or any other highly trained health & fitness professional) exactly what program to write! I still have to apply my extensive experience and pay close attention to the client’s seven major movement patterns in order to write programs specific to their strength, condition, and mobility, based on the asymmetries I see (in order of their importance)…the FMS is just a tool I use to gather a bit more info a bit quicker! (And BTW Cook recommends the YBT be used as a secondary tool to further challenge a client who exhibits no pain or significant dysfunction during the FMS…in my experience putting a typical client through the YBT may make me look tech-savvy but in reality it’s simply not the best bang for the buck.)

If Personal Training really isn’t your thing, though, but you’re definitely interested in learning more about functional movement, I do have another tool in my bag of tricks that’s bound to peak your interest…my next Functional fitness for ANY body class is just around the corner and, as the name implies, it’s perfect for literally anybody from the exercise novice to the full-blown gym rat! Here’s why: remember those seven major movement patterns? Well, for each one of those patterns there’s an entire continuum of exercises ranging from the simplest to the most complex. So no matter what’s going on with your body, as long as you incorporate some exercise from each of those seven essential movement patterns THAT YOU CAN PERFORM PROPERLY (this is key), you’ll be getting in a good workout (in other words, moving well) every time you exercise.

And think about the words “functional fitness” for a moment…what we’re really talking about here is improving your ability to function not just while doing something extreme (like winning a national karate championship) but within the context of your ADL’s (Activities of Daily Life.)  For example, consider how often throughout the day you squat (remember that’s one of the Pillars of Human Movement)…don’t sitting down then getting back up off of the toilet, getting in and out of your car, or picking heavy grocery bags up off the ground all qualify? Now go ahead and Google the word “fit”…I bet a bunch of scientific definitions popped right up! But don’t you agree that in the end being able to perform all your favorite activities enthusiastically and without pain for the rest of your life is all that counts?

So if you’re starting to wonder whether a gym membership is required for someone to become functionally fit you’re right on target…one aspect of my coaching style which really sets me apart from the crowd is that I teach my clients EASY ways to get and stay fit with little or no equipment. Remember that no matter where you go you always have the very best “machine” with you…YOUR BODY!

Look, the research on the value of frequent exercise is overwhelming: we all know that sitting all day is a sure-fire way to destroy your health! But moving often will dismantle YOUR LIFE if you don't or can’t move well (and I learned that firsthand back in 2009 when I kept pushing what had become, over time, a CONSTANTLY aching left hip beyond all reasonable limitations…eventually I had to choose between karate and walking / working!)  

So sign up for Functional fitness for ANY body today (I’m not kidding, today…classes fill up FAST) and I hope to see you all there!

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Corbett, Delaware News Journal)

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