Thursday, February 4, 2016

Gumby Goals: Takeaways from the FRC Seminar

This past weekend, I was one of some eighty-odd personal trainers, strength coaches, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other movement professionals who descended upon Pitman, NJ, for the FRC seminar at Endeavor Sports Performance (the gym where I’m currently interning).

What’s the FRC seminar? It’s not for the Finnish Red Cross, nor is it on functional residual capacity (of the lungs). Rather, it’s Dr. Andreo Spina’s “Functional Range Conditioning.” The FRC course came highly recommended by my friend, esteemed colleague, and Instagram sensation Hunter Cook, so I was very excited for the opportunity to attend.

If you’ve ever seen Hunter move, you might assume that FRC is only for circus performers and people who want to be able to overhead press while doing a split (see video below). Moreover, the name itself, “Functional Range Conditioning,” kind of sounds like a bunch of buzzwords strewn together haphazardly. At least, it did to me when I first heard it. In actuality, each word in the name has a very precise meaning, and FRC isn’t just for people as Gumby-like as Hunter.

A video posted by Hunter Cook (@hunterfitness) on

Basic Premise of FRC

The typical length-tension curve of a muscle exhibits distinct drop-offs at long and short muscle lengths (i.e. extreme joint angles). Dr. Spina contends that the average person is only weak in these end ranges of motion because they don’t train them effectively. He cites counterexamples of gymnasts, dancers, and martial artists as evidence that strength in these positions is indeed possible.

According to Dr. Spina, susceptibility to injury is largely dependent on one’s ability to produce and absorb force at end range. As such, FRC seeks to improve force production and absorption capacity at those end ranges, thereby improving the body’s resilience to injury.

Thus, FRC is a system for joint resilience and mobility, which Dr. Spina defines as the sum of flexibility and strength. In simplest terms, FRC “makes your shit work better,” a maxim he repeated often over the course of the weekend in characteristic swear-like-a-sailor style.

Breaking down the name one word at a time, we have the following:
  • Functional: the transfer of training to performance in a target activity
  • Range: end range of motion of a joint
  • Conditioning: the focused training of strength and control in that end range

One of the primary differences between FRC and other flexibility and mobility practices is its active nature and high intensity. In addition to assuming stretches passively, FRC requires active pushing and pulling of the body into challenging positions, often at 100% effort. These positions are so grueling that they can only be held for 15-second bouts at most. Clearly, FRC isn’t just stretching; it’s a strength workout.

Dr. Spina points out the sad truth that most people’s target activities are damaging to their joints -- even basic strength training. The goal of FRC, he says wryly, is to improve people’s joint function so they have a buffer zone to keep on hurting themselves by doing what they love. As Dr. Spina explains (somewhat morbidly), as soon as you’re born your body starts its physical decline towards death. FRC slows that decline.

Key Takeaways From Seminar

Many of the principles that FRC espouses are not new. In fact, at several points throughout the weekend I was pleased to recognize exercises that I was already using and programming for myself and clients (i.e. isometric lift-offs for hip flexion and scapular pull-ups for the initiation of a pull-up). However, Dr. Spina does have a knack for revealing the science behind what has sometimes been presented historically as mysticism. Above all, he notes that FRC is simply his interpretation of the scientific literature (of which his knowledge is vast).

What FRC really provides is a complete system for applying all of the scientific principles, beginning with joint circles, progressing to proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation-like isometric holds, and finishing with loaded eccentrics to cement strength in newly acquired end range positions. (I’m obviously glossing over the finer details of the system, which took an entire weekend to learn.)

Dr. Spina emphasizes the difference between his methods and “neurological tricks.” Specifically, he cautions against loading positions that have been achieved by playing those tricks on the nervous system (i.e. foam rolling to gain depth in a squat). New range of motion must be earned and controlled first (#frc #controlyourself).

One of my favorite exercises from the weekend was a prone “hover” for the scapulae (see video below). The drill strongly resembles the recovery of the butterfly swimming stroke. I always struggled to perform this movement in the water, so my “aha moment” came when I recognized that the range of motion required for the drill exceeded that needed in the pool. Getting stronger and suppler in that position would make the range of motion needed in the water far less taxing.

Because FRC is principle-based (as opposed to method-based), it’s not just a series of (corrective) exercises that everyone must perform in a systematic order. Instead, FRC provides an underlying lens to view movement/dysfunction through. It serves as a jumping off point for practitioners to apply to each unique situation they’re confronted with.

As long as the practitioner understands the principles, he or she is free to invent their own specific exercises. As a result, FRC applications continue to evolve, with people coming up with new exercises all the time. Thank goodness for Instagram.

Biggest Beefs

In order to emphasize the idea that the body is one continuous system instead of a series of disjointed muscles, tendons, ligaments, and capsules, Dr. Spina refers to all of the structures in a particular region of the body as “stuff.” To him, differentiating between the specific structures being mobilized is inconsequential, at least in the context of FRC. I understand his rationale but nevertheless would have found ordinary anatomical naming conventions to be less clunky.

Dr. Spina also goes to some extremes to differentiate the FRC system from its predecessors, introducing a slew of acronyms like CARs, PAILs, and RAILs to replace names for similar phenomena that his system has expanded upon or refined (i.e. PNF). From a marketing standpoint, perhaps these distinctions were necessary.

Upon completion of the course, I was a little disappointed in the lack of discussion regarding exactly how FRC can be implemented into an existing system. Dr. Spina cited the fact that as fitness professionals we already understand program design, so it would be up to us as to how to put it into practice. He did insist, however, that it should play more of a role than simply warm-up or inter-set rest.

It seems that if it were up to Dr. Spina, most people’s entire movement practice (and daily life) would revolve around FRC, at least until all of their joints were functioning adequately. I understand that sentiment, but I believe it unwise to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In most settings, it just isn’t realistic to practice FRC only, as it would inevitably detrain other important qualities (like speed, for instance).

Just like any other system (FMS, PRI, etc.), I see FRC as “a tool in the fitness professional’s toolbox.” Surely there exists a happy medium whereby dedicated mobility sessions can be programmed to supplement one’s current training (or replace certain portions of it, if necessary). Strength and conditioning facilities like Ranfone Training Systems provide proof that FRC can work in a variety of settings.

Final Recommendation

In the end, despite my gripes, I really enjoyed the weekend. For anyone looking to gain a more complete and systematic understanding of movement, mobility, and injury -- or just be more like Gumby -- I highly recommend following Dr. Spina (@DrAndreoSpina) and attending the FRC course.

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