“It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.”
Even though I allowed myself to get really overweight, I have always been interested in the idea of improving human performance. As a high school basketball coach for nearly a decade, I was almost obsessed with finding the best, most efficient ways to help others improve. Every time we would have tangible success, I would note the methods used to improve, and then would try to improve on other areas, or find new strategies, better than the current procedures.
Over the past year, I have been focusing my attention and time on one question, “How do we improve the athletic performance of individuals?” Now, initially, the question was more centered on weight loss, and overall fitness, but as my research expanded, I started to consider how we become better athletes. Maybe people will say, “I’m not in high school or college anymore, why does it matter if I can become more athletic?” At first this seems like a valid point. However, when you consider that 50% of people 75+ years old die within 6 months of falling, you begin to realize, we ALL must focus on moving better. And, if we see moving better as the most efficient means to become a better athlete, then you understand how important this issue is. I was discussing this statistic with a friend this weekend and he was saying that his grandfather was part of this statistic, but that his grandfather made a choice. I believe that the majority of people in this stat make that choice. Why? Because they are losing their independence. Losing the ability to move yourself is the ultimate in losing your independence. This loss of movement quality happens slowly over time. But, how does this relate to becoming a better athlete?
Over the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to be working with Dewey Nielsen, one of the top strength coaches in the country. He has drastically quickened my learning curve, and was the one who initially turned me on to the importance of moving better. As I reached the milestone of losing 100 pounds, I knew I was interested in fitness, but as my focus has narrowed, I am even more intrigued by human performance. Yes, I still want to help people lose weight, but I have been more interested in how we help people maximize their athletic potential. I have been working with a few of my friends who do various activities (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, softball, basketball), and have been training some athletes, and as they have been focusing on improving their movement, their athletic performance has naturally improved. I have noticed in my own life, that I feel more athletic at 34 than I have at any time I can remember. I have had more success with any activity, tennis, bowling, and jiu jitsu just to name a few. I am more aware of how I am moving, and the mind body connection is stronger than ever. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. As Gray Cook, the co-creator of the Functional Movement System, states about the majority of current fitness trends:
Exercise science has treated the muscles like a big meaty furnace. We engage in a muscular activity to burn calories and produce a cardio-respiratory demand. This has proved to be effective for caloric expenditure and maybe even improved cardiovascular health, but it has not left us moving well. We didn’t set quality movement as a goal-we focused on quantity. If we compound our incomplete exercise platform with a predominance of sedentary activities, we are left with extremely poor movement patterns.”
So, just jumping into a training program isn’t going to give you the best results. We must focus on improving the mind body connection. That sounds almost mystical, but it really is pretty practical. Our brains are responsible for our motor control. If we can improve the organ responsible for motor control, we are enhancing the system. Instead of getting more powerful hardware for a computer, you could improve the performance of that computer much faster by upgrading the software. The most powerful computer in the world is going to be hindered if it’s running Windows 98. The same goes for the human body. If we just focus on getting stronger, we are improving the hardware. However, if we focus on first improving motor control, we are upgrading the software. After we upgrade the software, then we improve the hardware. In other words, after we improve our motor control, then we focus on getting stronger. Here are three keys to get started on your athletic software upgrade.
1. Get a movement screen from a competent professional. The first step in becoming more athletic is to assess where you have movement issues (mobility or stability limitations or asymmetries). This step is still missed by most trainers. The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) has been around since 1997, however, the vast majority of the strength and conditioning community is just now beginning to regularly incorporate it into programming. Even people that have been exposed to the screen sometimes still don’t use it to inform the programming for their athletes. This seems crazy to me, but again, the key is to find someone qualified to screen you. For a list of experts in your area, click here.
2. Have a strength coach design a program for you that focuses on moving better. I can’t see too many times when an exercise machine would play into a program that will improve your athleticism. Your program should incorporate things like a TRX, kettlebells, olympic lifts, and no muscle isolation exercises. For instance, instead of doing bicep curls, do pull ups. Athletes need functional strength. Leave the bicep curls for the body builders. We need our muscles to be strong in a way that we can use them in competition. Therefore, we need to train in ways that make us more athletic. If you’re training to become a better basketball player, and your trainer has you doing seated calf raises, push that pad off your knees and run like hell for the exit!
3. Have a nightly routine. If you try to get better athletically only when you are in the gym training, you are missing out on a ton of opportunity to improve. We are trying to combat life. Most Americans, young and old, are sitting for large portions of the day. We were not designed to sit for long periods of time, so we must work to counteract the crazy amount of time we spend sedentary. A nightly routine has been highly successful in helping athletes improve their performance. In that routine, you should include 3 things every night: foam rolling, corrective exercises, and stretching. Foam rolling is soft tissue work, and as Mike Boyle says, “If you’re not foam rolling every day, you’re an idiot.” Foam rolling usually hurts at first, but after a week or so of consistent foam rolling, you will be a believer. I couldn’t believe how much better my legs felt. My muscles recovered faster. The positive benefits are numerous, trust me, do it! Corrective exercises should be given to you by a strength coach knowledgeable in the FMS. Again, the aim of these correctives is to counteract life. We lose mobility and stability over time because of our lifestyle choices (when you were a baby you could put your foot in your mouth with ease), and these correctives help us return some levels of functionality. The younger you start the correctives the better. The 20 year olds I am working with improve faster than the 30 somethings like me. However, I am improving, and the change is noticeable. After foam rolling and doing correctives, finish with a good stretching session. The added benefit of doing this at night, is usually at the end you are relaxed and ready to sleep.
This may not be what you were expecting in a discussion on improved athletic performance, but the people I work with have repeatedly been surprised by how much they are improving athletically, and how fast they are seeing results! And, for athletes that’s the name of the game.