Functional Movement: Back to Basics

Gray Cook wants you to move better.

Born and raised in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia, Cook is a physical therapist, strength coach, and founder of Functional Movement Systems (FMS), a fitness program designed to quantify the body’s movement as a way to prevent injury. It’s a simple concept really, and relates back to common practice in other areas or medicine. Using this system, which is based on basic movement concepts like flexibility, balance, and symmetry, Cook is able to predict who is going to get injured before it happens. This system is so effective, he has been hired as a consultant for the NFL and the Navy Seals.

“If we are going to prevent injury, it needs to be done in a proactive manner. If there were better screening approaches, then we wouldn’t need to do so much work on the backend. Just like there is a number in blood pressure that says if you cross this line, you’re hypertensive, but as long as you stay under it, you’re good to go. We try to do the same thing for movement, so people would not beat their head against the wall or have all these straps on their knees so they can run or think Ibuprofen is a breakfast cereal.”

Musculoskeletal issues are becoming more and more important as outdoor recreation trends push the body harder and harder. Things like CrossFit and barefoot running are aimed at better mechanics, but remain high impact and put more stress on the body as a whole. Combine that with the tendency for people to engage in repetitive exercise, specialization in a given sport like cycling or running, and you have a recipe for disaster, says Cook.

“Most people look at efficiency of exercise and they simply think, ‘I’ve got to get my cardio better, I’ve got to transfer more oxygen to my cells.’ Well, I can put a rock in your shoe and you can have a marathon quality cardiovascular system, and you’re not going to do very well that day. So we don’t take the other things into consideration when we look at efficiency. We don’t look at movement and body mechanics like we should.”

This is where Erwan Le Corre enters the picture. Le Corre is the founder of MovNat, a physical education and fitness system based on the natural movements of the human body. He has also been dubbed “one of the fittest men in the world,” and is considered one of the most prominent experts in the field of evolutionary fitness. MovNat exercise is based on primal human movement in three sectors: locomotive (walking, running, jumping, swimming, crawling, climbing, balancing), manipulative (lifting, carrying, throwing, catching), and combative (striking, grappling). Le Corre’s fitness philosophy aims to break what he calls the Zoo Human Predicament, in which modern man’s disconnection from the natural world (i.e. living in a manufactured environment and held captive in a confined space, like a zoo for humans) is resulting in everything from chronic pain and obesity, to a general lack of vitality.

Cook and Le Corre want to combine the science of Functional Movement Systems with the philosophy of MovNat to create a fitness revolution by emphasizing that exercise is not just output, but also input. They encourage athletes to reintroduce exploration and play into working out, making exercise as much a sensory experience as a physical one with exercises like balancing on a log, climbing a tree, or jumping over boxes. Interacting with nature and your immediate environment through self-limiting exercise cultivates adaptability, which is the key to success in any given sport.

“Your adaptability level makes you good on a bad day, or it makes you good even though you haven’t run this trail before,” he said. “SUP is a great example of self-limiting exercise: if you pull on the paddle too hard you’re going to fall off the board. If you focus too much on your balance and not pulling on the paddle you won’t go anywhere. We never want volume to exceed technical precision. These self-limiting exercises remove the instructor and let life coach you.”

This philosophy is easily translated to your outdoor recreation of choice, from biking to running to climbing. Cook says specializing in one sport is not all bad, but throwing a little cross-training into your regimen will have enormous benefits in the long run.

“We blend natural movements into every workout,” he said. “I want you to do that which engages you the most. My job as a medical professional is to explain that the approach is as important as the implement.”

By adhering to this new exercise philosophy, we may break out of this human zoo after all.

Three Essential Functional Movement Exercises

MovNat and Functional Movement may cultivate generalist athletes, but their exercises can help you improve in any sport. Here are few essentials:

Hill Bear Crawl
On all fours, using both hands and feet (not knees), bear-crawl up a steep, grassy hill as fast as you can, keeping your butt down. At the top, back down the hill – still facing upwards – as slow as you can.
Works: Core, Hip flexibility,
For: Reciprocal movement activity like running and biking

Balance Beam
Walk or crawl across an elevated beam which requires very little energy expenditure but quite a bit of sensory engagement.
Works: Balance, Core.
For: Everyone in all sports.

Log Squat
Keep log level on shoulder as you squat. Log doesn’t have to be long or heavy. Load with the hips, not the knees – a common problem for skiers.
Works: Quads, hips, balance, flexibility.
For: Skiers, climbers, bikers.

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