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Exercise: Quality vs. Quantity?

Movement: The book

Movement, by Gray Cook

As a personal trainer and movement correction practitioner, I am always trying to tow the line between providing my clients with an opportunity to get stronger and burn calories while maintaining a safe training environment that reduces injury risk.  As Mike Boyle has said, the goal of the best trainers are to “Reduce injury risk while enhancing performance.”

I have used the Functional Movement Screen with my clients for a number of years now, however, as I finish reading Movement by Gray Cook, I find myself really scrutinizing my clients’ movement patterns and exercise selection.  While this question may seem to have an easy answer, consider how we (either as exercisers or practitioners) actually put it into practice: Is it worth working out “hard” to burn calories and reach performance/weight loss goals if we are slowly, progressively eroding healthy movement patterns that can eventually result in injury?”

How many times have we heard of the person who works out, lifts heavier weights then gets injured.  They take some time off and then start back up again, lift heavier and then get injured again.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Eventually they get injured so many times they need shoulder/hip/knee surgery.  Remove weight lifting and insert running.  Or any other activity we love to do.

I acknowledge that the benefits of exercise are extensive, including increased performance, weight maintenance, disease prevention, mental well being, etc.  However we may be putting the cart before the horse when it comes to our current exercise routines.  High intensity interval training burns a ton of calories, but it also puts high stress on your joints and muscles.  And if we are dealing with imperfect muscles and joints to begin with, that stress is magnified.

In Movement, Cook compares the human body to an elite race car.  We can take our car for a test drive and test its max capacity, but between test drives it’s best that we perform “tune-ups” to check the engine, brakes, etc.  If we continuously take “test drives” (HIIT) without “tune-ups” (recovery days, myofascial release, movement pattern training, etc.) you had better believe that car, or our bodies will break down.  However, tune-ups burn a lot less calories than test drives.

This brings me to my ultimate point: we need to stop looking at exercise as just “exercise” or “burning calories” or “getting in my workout because I need to look hot at the beach”.  We need to break down exercise into two compartments well elucidated in Movement, movement quality vs. movement quantity.  Movement quality focuses on keeping our bodies in healthy, sound movement patterns while movement quantity results in what most people consider a “workout”, which is mainly focused on elevating heart rate, burning calories and getting a “performance” training effect (better stamina, strength, etc.).

1) Movement Quality (Low focus on a metabolic effect) – Focusing on movement patterns, movement corrections, soft tissue work, etc. to produce a better, more efficient body that is at less risk of injury.  This is where we work on improving asymmetries, compensations, etc.  If you cannot raise your arms above your head so they are at least in line with your ears with a neutral pelvis and shoulders in their sockets, then you should not be doing overhead pressing for movement quantity.  You should focus on quality until certain movement minimums are met, and then you can start to load it for quantity.

2) Movement Quantity (Higher focus on metabolic effect) – These are movements that we can do properly, in good form, without thinking.  Or under a load without compensation.  Things we can do well with little thought, we can do with higher intensity to create a metabolic effect (aka calorie burn).  However, we must ensure that our form is just as impeccable on the last repetition as the first.  A rep done in poor form should not count because you are giving your body and brain lousy feedback, which feeds lousy movement, which increases injury risk.

Consider how you want to split your exercise routine between movement quality vs. quantity.  Both are necessary, but make sure you stay balanced.

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