Guiding Principles, Part I

Starting in the April newsletter with Defying Gravity, I’ve attempted to share with you some insights I’ve experienced while working with, and learning from, colleagues and clients in Dayton, instructors throughout the Midwest, and thought leaders teaching at conferences internationally. Before moving on to a discussion of substantive changes that I feel should be made at Practice for its long term health, I’d like to quickly summarize these insights from my column over the last seven months:

  1. The big three reasons why people exercise are to look good (appearance), feel good (affect), and move well (function). Most people want all three benefits of working out, but to varying degrees.
  2. As exercisers move into their fifties, their priorities shift more toward increasing or maintaining their function, so that they can continue to live their “regular life.”
  3. Seen from one perspective, fitness after fifty involves actively defying gravity. In choosing to strengthen one’s movements and postures, it becomes possible to maintain a high quality of life with the time that we have left on the planet.
  4. The SAID principle in training establishes that the body will adapt specifically to the demands you place on it.
  5. Because of the SAID principle, and because a body can move in hundreds of different ways, training for function requires a high degree of movement variety as well as resistance (progressive overload) to maintain suppleness and strength.
  6. As we get older, we lose competency in the patterns we stop practicing (“use it or lose it”), but we can regain or maintain these provided the training follows the SAID principle and includes progressive overload.
  7. It’s possible to define “moving well,” in many different ways, though I have been most impressed with Functional Movement Systems’ approach, in which they have developed a series of screens for assessing risk of injury and movement dysfunction as well as providing corrective strategies for returning clients to functional patterns.
  8. When it comes to movement, function can be correlated with movement quality, where fitness is more a measure of movement quantity.
  9. At Practice we offer both function and fitness, in that order, so that the risk of injury is less, and so that we make sure we are strengthening a functional pattern instead of teaching the brain and body a bad habit.
  10. While the Functional Movement Screen simply and elegantly provides us a movement baseline for seven foundational patterns, it isn’t a training program, and once functionality is established, it doesn’t have much to say about the variety of exercises one can experience during Pilates, yoga, strength training, barre classes, Cross Fit, and more.
  11. Pilates and yoga are great examples of movement systems that offer a high degree of exercise variety with a focus on movement quality, but neither of them is a complete system, and because of the SAID principle, even advanced practitioners in one can find themselves performing poorly in the other. This can often lead to frustration and doubts about the efficacy of their “chosen path.”
  12. In the absence of a model that integrates the different modalities, demonstrating both the breadth and the depth of the universe of movements we have available to us, we are left scratching our heads, wondering how it is possible for us to know if we are moving well or not. “What is this really doing for me? Have I progressed, or am I regressing, and by how much? And where do I stand in terms of my age? How do I compare with other men/women? What are my strong and weak areas when it comes to movement quality?”

I finished last month’s column with this:

What if we wanted to find a way to assess all of the variety that we see in systems like Pilates and yoga in the service of answering the questions I just mentioned? What if we could see a map of our personal movement universe that showed us not only our strength areas and our growth edges for our favorite activity, but also show us how we stack up against movement patterns in other modalities. What would this look like? How would it be organized? How hard would it be to assess?

Over the next few months in this column, I am going to share with you one possible version of such a map as well as a scoring system that helps instructors track a client’s progress, one that will also allow clients a way to “see” what it means to move well.

For this month (and next month), I thought it a good idea to start with some guiding principles. Think of these not as hardened rules, but rather as a conversation starter, where the goal is to create a system that brings benefit to clients, instructors, and studio owners.

This version is oriented toward the client, who is anyone currently trying to improve, or to sustain, the quality and quantity of movement in his or her life, and if you are reading this, then that means you.

Helping you to achieve and sustain mobility, strength, and balance throughout your lifespan is something I am very passionate about and it has been my goal for some time to develop systems of client training and communication that truly meet your wants and your needs.

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In my many conversations with clients over the last 15 years, I’ve come to understand that beneath the explicit desires for the benefits that come with regular exercises are a few implicit priorities. In the absence of some or all of these needs, clients will seek out other instructors, other businesses, or reject fitness outright. This is a shame because meeting these priorities shouldn’t be that hard. As a client:

You want safety

Clients trust that their instructor is going to keep them from harm even when the client is hard-driving. For this reason it’s vital that the system or methodology that a studio follows has safety built into it, which in turn informs the culture within the organization and is adopted by all staff members.

You want value

The easiest way to define value is when clients get what they paid for, but in the field of fitness this isn’t always accurate. Clients are smart enough to understand that after their weekly or bi-weekly instruction with a trainer, they have a shared responsibility that amounts to making lifestyle choices that can help or hinder the progress being made in the studio. Instead, we might say that clients perceive value when they feel that the promise we make as trainers has been kept. The better we are at showing you a clear and unambiguous path to your desired outcomes, including the responsibilities of both the trainer and the client, the easier it will be for you to perceive value.

You want support

Support can take many forms but in the fitness industry it falls into two broad camps: know-how and motivation. As a client, you may be self-motivated and also smart enough to “know that you don’t know” what it takes to achieve your outcome, and so you come to us for technical guidance and program design. You might also be a person with the know-how, and also smart enough to know that getting started isn’t the issue; it’s adhering to the program that is challenging. So we become an accountability checkpoint for you, and the person who can encourage you and help you work through obstacles.

Two of the best ways we can do this is by 1) providing you with a clear and accurate picture of how you’ve progressed, and 2) breaking down your next hurdle into realistic and achievable steps. In traditional weight training and cardio programs, which focus on movement quantity, it’s easy to chart progress and next steps. In terms of function, or movement quality, every modality has its own scale, which can make things confusing (e.g. being good at yoga but challenged in Pilates), but thanks to insights from organizations like FMS, I think there is a way to integrate modalities into a map so that you can see where you stand in relationship to your past performance, and also in relationship to others like yourself.

You want recognition

Adopting a lifestyle of regular exercise isn’t easy. The training outcomes you are looking for take months to achieve, not weeks or days. While you are doing your best to make progress you may also face impediments in your work environment, where maybe few exercise, or at home where your partner doesn’t see the value in working out. When you achieve noticeable results others may resent you for accomplishing something they haven’t. It’s very human to want to be recognized, or validated, for the work you are doing. In fact, there is a lot of good research that shows recognition or reward can be a strong motivator for people to adhere to a program.

In my conversations with hundreds of clients over the years I have found that recognition or reward works best as a motivator when it is truly earned. When it comes to movement quality, this means the instructor has a number of key responsibilities: demonstrating what movement pattern entails; making an objective measurement of the client doing the pattern and recording it; showing the client how they performed; recognizing the client for success, or setting up a corrective strategy to help the client achieve success.

With this stated, I think we can now turn to guiding principles:


1. Do no harm

Being an unregulated industry, fitness instructors are accountable to themselves when it comes to their professional education, ethical decision-making, and operating within their scope of practice. While I do believe that most trainers show up for work with the intention of keeping their clients safe, they also work in an industry that overtly prizes driving harder, no longer as a means to an end, but as a means without an end.

It’s vital therefore that any system of programming for clients that seeks to aid lifelong unencumbered movement should have “safety first” as its foundation. Operationally, this involves:

  1. Standards of communication to ensure that you understand how the system works
  2. Protocols for safely assessing your posture and movement baseline
  3. Maps to show you just how much of your movement universe you currently embody.
  4. Shared strategic discussions about how, and in which direction, you would like to progress.
  5. Tools for safely practicing at home
  6. Ongoing assessments that track your progress, for which you are recognized and rewarded.

If you are over 50, this principle is priority number one. It doesn’t make sense to engage in a training program only to hurt yourself, when the point of training was to help you lower your risk of injury, and as an older adult you are at a higher risk.

As a client, we ask you to follow this principle by choosing to train smart before you train hard (see below), and also by abstaining from performing movement patterns poorly, which teaches your brain and body to move dysfunctionally.

It’s not true that all movement is good; rather, all good movement is good.

2. Defy Gravity

As I’ve said and written on many occasions over the last year, our ability to push back on gravity, to get up from the floor and move about our world unassisted yields incredible value for our ability to live independently. It also translates directly to strong feelings of confidence, self-efficacy, and autonomy. The strength and resilience we develop through training to resist gravity also helps us to be better in our relationships of all kinds. It is the bulwark that prevents us from falling prey to a victim mentality. We should make defying gravity one of our highest priorities from first light to night-night every day of our lives.

As a practical example, inside the studio, this principle can inform the decisions instructors make about how much time we devote to training you horizontally on a mat or Pilates reformer, versus how much time have you vertical and standing. The older we get the more important it becomes to be on our feet!

3. Start where you are

This principle has two meanings:

The first meaning relates directly to the need for understanding just where you are on your fitness journey. How many people do you know who started a workout program on the first or second of the year, without any guidance or assessment, by charging into the gym and pushing themselves so hard that they invariably stopped going once they recovered from the muscle soreness?

Before we can start you on a training program, we will want to assess your risk for injury, using the Functional Movement Screen. After that we begin to move you through our model, beginning first by assessing your breathing, then working through the basic movements that we experiences first such as rolling, creeping and crawling, and then onto increasingly more complex and challenging patterns until we establish your movement baseline. One we’ve established a movement baseline for you we can begin to expand your movement universe through trying new patterns, applying correctives to dysfunctional patterns you may have, or by adding challenges to patterns you have already mastered.

The second meaning relates to the position you find yourself in right now, because the model uses eight starting positions (see the picture at the top of the article) as the major categories, think galaxies, for relating constellations of exercises to each other: standing, seated, kneeling, supine, prone, side-facing, quadruped, and suspended. Hundreds of patterns from movement systems such as Pilates, yoga, classical dance, modern dance, and functional movement arise from these basic starting positions, and this gives us a way of organizing these patterns simply. We learned each of these starting positions as babies, and at the time each represented a developmental milestone. Some of these starting positions, such as standing, will have a disproportionately higher number of patterns associated with it, whereas others, like the prone position, will have fewer, however, these patterns are often foundational and vital for maintaining as we get older.

4. Function first

Function first brings us back to the three broad rationales for why people exercise: looking good (appearance), feeling good (affect), and moving well (function). Through most exercise programs, a person can and will make gains in all three of these outcomes, though the way you train a person will impact these goals in different ways. In the system I’m proposing we focus first on function, or movement quality, and in doing so we can lower the rates of injury (because we’re doing the exercise properly) and increase the rates of efficacy (again, because we’re doing the exercise properly). Once healthy patterns are established then we can look to adding levels of resistance that are typically associated with building muscle mass or increasing your metabolism, which will more speedily transform your body composition and the way you look. BUT, we start with function.

End part 1. Part 2 will appear next month in the December newsletter. Stay tuned!

Best wishes, 


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2 Responses

  1. Stacy says:

    Hi Patrick, Great article and progressive programming insights!
    Will you be teaching the new Sliding Mobility disc (mat) routine?
    They look great! I’d like to pre-buy from Stott, if you will be introducing the disk exercises. Thanks

  2. admin says:

    Hi Stacy, so sorry for the delay! We will be teaching the Sliding disk workshop later this summer, likely in September. They are on sale right now, so you should purchase now 🙂

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