A long time ago, I learned that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. My body is about as messed up as it can be, but I still squat, pull, and press every week with almost no pain. The reason I can do this is because my body has made compensations in structure and motor patterns as well as the way my muscles fire. Yet, if I went to any of these “functional” strength coach a-holes, they would put me through some movement screen and want to “fix” me right out of being able to do what I live for on a weekly basis.

Lifting is what keeps me strong enough to not have pain and be able to function. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d rather be messed up with minimal pain and strong as shit than be messed up with lots of pain and weak. Recently, it seems that there is a trend for strength coaches to want to “fix” or demonize compensations. However, it’s the compensations that help make the athlete elite at his particular sport or be able to function, as in my case. We should be talking about and fixing overcompensations. Overcompensations cause pain on a daily basis and limit an athlete's performance, which warrants fixing. I have overcompensations that I work on, but I know enough to leave my “needed” compensations alone. If the athlete performs at a high level and doesn't have any pain, what is getting fixed? Again, you can’t fix what ain’t broke. You can only fuck it up.

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The people who think that they're “fixing” these athletes who are compensating for their sport are following physical therapy standards designed for the general population, not elite athletes. These standards surely aren't designed individually for each sport. I would even argue that some of those tests are practiced skills rather than legitimate predictors of injury. I say this because many of these screens put athletes in unrealistic positions that they’ve never been in before. If you give them a chance to practice these positions, of course they’ll get better at performing them.

When I was in college, I had a job working night stock in a grocery store. At lunch time, we had these contests to see who could pop a wheelie in a wheelchair the longest. The first time I tried, I fell over backward in about half a second. I was pissed because I was a college football player, yet all these non-athletic guys who I worked with could make it around the entire store with just one wheelie. Did it mean that I had poor balance? Did it mean that the other night stockers had better core stability and proprioception? No, it just meant that I had never practiced that skill before. By the end of summer, I was doing a wheelie out the door, around the parking lot, and back, and nobody could fuck with me on my wheelchair wheelie skills. That shit didn’t make me any better at football. I just learned a skill (or parlor trick I should say). If I hadn’t lifted all summer until I was great at the wheelie, I would've wasted valuable training time. This is how I see some of these corrective exercises—as learned skills. If the strength coach doesn’t let the athlete lift heavy weights until he's learned the skill, they're wasting time.

I also question the relevancy of some tests for certain sports. For example, if you have a distance runner doing a stability exercise on all fours, how does that correlate to his actual sport? Sure, it relates to some trunk stability, but why not have the athlete do a standing test? If the criteria for these mobility and/or stability tests don't recognize the requirements of the actual sport, they will eventually harm the athlete's performance by forcing the athlete to conform to unrelated standards.

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To illustrate my point, I’ll use one of my clients, Christina Murphy, who recently won the Columbus marathon with a six-minute mile pace. Like most fast runners, she has extremely tight ankles. However, this is a good thing because tight ankles provide a stronger stretch reflex and make her faster. As her coach, the “standards” would dictate that she needs to loosen her ankles because she’d undeniably fail a dorsiflexion test, but I know that doing so would make her a slower athlete. This is just one example of how “fixing” an athlete to conform to unrelated standards would harm performance. The same goes for basketball players. They do tons of jumping and cutting, which causes them to develop ankle tightness. This isn't a problem but a compensation needed to become more durable for the requirements of the sport. Great athletes compensate to maximize performance, but physical therapy has taught coaches to repair compensations as though every single athlete was meant to function the same. I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that every sport can't perform at the same level under the same physical requirements or standards.

This is why I say we need to focus on overcompensations that cause pain and/or harm performance. If we don’t do this, suddenly you have Joe Schmoe strength coach over here who watched a video on YouTube about ankle mobility who is walking around trying to loosen everyone’s ankles. Then the basketball coach wonders why he’s had five sprained ankles at practice and the strength coach is saying, “Well, they didn’t hurt them in the weight room.” This type of thinking has to stop. If Christina had come to me halfway through her training phase complaining that her ankles were so tight that it hurt to walk and killed her when she ran, we would have had a problem.

People need to stop trying to “fix” what isn’t broken. Yes, some athletes will never complain, and as a coach, you have to be able to see through that and address the issues that are causing pain. That’s part of the art of being a coach, which is disappearing. However, don't take a perfectly healthy, highly functioning athlete and “fix” something because some arbitrary standard tells you to. If you see an overcompensation that is inhibiting performance, you should obviously address it, even if the athlete says that he isn't having any pain. In my experience, most athletes know when a compensation has gone too far and is inhibiting them. I’ll stay with Christina as an example. She is internally rotated, as all distance runners are. Being internally rotated is a compensation that helps with running efficiency and stretch reflex through arm return during the race.

Back pain concept.

However, Christina's had become so severe that it was causing some upper back pain, inhibiting her running form, and possibly constricting lung function. Because of this, we spent a lot of time opening up her t-spine and getting her into a more reasonably internally rotated position. We didn’t stay away from upper back work just because it hurt. On the contrary, we systematically trained the shit out of it. It was so weak that we had to start very light (by normal standards) and build very slowly. However, eventually it became strong and her issue disappeared. This is an example of correcting an overcompensation. Christina is still internally rotated because she needs that compensation to perform at a high level.

Obviously, there is a difference between a healthy athlete and an injured athlete. In the ideal world, we don’t deal with injuries, but that isn't real life. Some athletes have injuries that can't be fixed and the compensations they make allow them to continue to compete at a high level. Taking away their compensation would end their career. I don’t see what that is “fixing.”

When I squat, my hamstring compensates for the lack of an ACL and stops tibial translation from happening. Is it ideal? No. I’d rather have an ACL, but that just isn't going to happen. This compensation allows me to squat without pain, but if I were to listen to the physical therapists (e.g. strength coaches) who say that I should be able to stand on one leg with my eyes closed, patting my head, and rubbing my tummy for two minutes before I squat, I would never be allowed to touch a weight. Consequently, I would never be able to get strong enough to compensate and be able to squat relatively pain-free. This whole mentality of “don’t load dysfunction” is a detriment to training and performance. If the body isn't strong enough to compensate for the dysfunction, athletes are left weak and in pain. Instead of "don’t load dysfunction,” we need to think in terms of “moderately load dysfunction” so that the body can get strong enough to be able to either compensate out of the pain or fix the issue completely if possible (in my case, that isn't possible). I learned this firsthand because when I’m not training my hamstrings really hard, my knee kills me, but when I'm training them hard and keeping them strong, I feel great. I also know it to be true because the orthopedist told me that he doesn’t know how I walk around without excruciating pain and then tells me that squatting heavy isn’t good for me. So, the only reason that I can walk without pain is because I'm extremely strong, but I should stop doing what makes me strong? This is when you know most doctors worry more about malpractice than they do their patient's health. You can’t get sued if you tell everyone not to do anything, but I digress...

To be fair, I’m not saying that all correctives are bullshit because they aren't. Obviously, it’s a tool for your toolbox. However, if you use correctives for 90 percent of your work, you have the weakest fucking toolbox in the world. We definitely use some correctives as part of our warm-up and for prehabilitation routines, but I wouldn’t consider doing a deadbug on the ground a major part of my workout unless my goal in life is to suck.

This whole “fixing compensations” movement is all part of the pendulum swing. When I first started, it was just about lifting heavy weight and screw it—it doesn’t matter if it hurts. Lately, the pendulum has swung the other way and people complain about their C-17 X fascial junction hurting (I made that up if you're looking up that part of your body on Google right now) and a whole host of issues that really just hit my ears as “I’m a pussy.” In reality, the body is so dynamic and complex that there really isn't any way to pinpoint an issue to one cause. It could be a muscle, a nerve, fascial tissue problems, or a misalignment of the skeletal system. It could be any one of these complicated issues, but people just want to sound smart and say “I think T7 is really bugging me today, so I’m not going to deadlift.” Shut the fuck up and deadlift. If you can deadlift and get through it, you won’t have pain because you'll be strong enough to deal with whatever is causing the issue.

As a strength coach, it's fine and dandy if you can get an athlete to hop on one foot with his eyes closed, but if you spend an hour every day doing exercises that don’t build strength or explosiveness, what have you accomplished at the end of your training period? You haven’t made a better athlete—you’ve made a circus monkey who can perform tricks. The only things that matter to an athlete are getting faster, jumping higher, and making plays. They don't care if  they can do a bird dog with their eyes closed or  if they have good dorsiflexion and t-spine mobility. I’d rather have an Olympic champion who fails the functional movement screen (FMS) than a shitty athlete who passes the FMS with flying colors. For that matter, I don’t know an athlete who has a competitive bone in his body that would rather pass the FMS than be an Olympic champion.

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With every athlete, you have to know the qualities of the sport and you have to know the physical requirements before you start changing things up or you could negatively impact the athletes' performance or even open him up to injury. Ideally, I’d like to see a compilation of the mobility/stability scores of the top athletes in the world for each sport. Then we could test everyone else based off the attributes of the elite athletes in a specific sport. Many of the greatest athletes in the world do things that physical therapists would wag their fingers at and say they shouldn’t be doing until they “fix” it.  For example, nobody should ever squat the way that Steve Goggins does, but we have these supposed strength coaches turned physical therapists who ignore the fact that the man is one of the best squatters in the history of the world. So you tell me who knows more about squatting—the 150-pound pencil neck dude who says he’s a strength coach and who has probably never squatted more than 135 pounds or the man who has squatted more than a grand on several occasions? I know whose lifting advice I'll take.

If we want to create the next generation of elite athletes, we need to reevaluate the influence that physical therapy has had on strength training and/or strength coaches and adjust accordingly. I’m by no means saying that we should throw the baby out with the bath water, because I've learned a lot and healed myself with the help of some great physical therapists. The important thing is that I sought them out because I was fucked up. We have to stop treating our healthy athletes like they're fucked up or we'll make them fucked up. Let’s start focusing on overcompensations instead of compensations, and set standards for individual sports instead of creating generalizations. Let’s also come up with tests that are relevant to individual sports so that we aren't just testing an unpracticed skill but instead something the athlete has to do in competition and/or is familiar with. I don’t have the time or resources to do these things, but they are challenges that I would lay down for the physical therapy and sports medicine community to respond to and fix. With all I've said in this article, let’s not forget that your title is “strength coach.” Above all else, simply getting strong fixes many problems that correctives never will.