My Preference for Old Stuff, Part One

Written by Gray Cook FMS


My Preference for Old Stuff, Part One

Part One

Those of you who follow my work may have noticed a recent trend pointing at the wisdom of old-school teaching and training. In the three products, Kalos Sthenos: Kettlebells from the Ground Up, Club Swinging Essentials and Dynami: Kettlebells from the Center, we showcase some old school training with a functional and systematic and progressive twist. This was our best attempt to align the wisdom of older training methods with the current understanding of motor learning and developmental progression that a movement screening and corrective exercise approach reveals.

Kalos Sthenos, Club Swinging & Dynami DVDs

This refocus in our educational DVDs and training manuals may confuse some exercise and rehabilitation professionals. I went from saying, “Hey, look at the Functional Movement Screen and how badly we move—we need to correct this stuff” to “check out old-school programming.” Some have not been able to follow my jump. Let me explain.

The central premise in functional movement systems is that the movement patterns drive the most productive programming choices. The movement profile produced by the Functional Movement Screen provides the basic framework of the training rules for each client, patient or athlete. You can potentially get three directives for every individual.

  1. Don’t train this pattern—because you will compound a movement mistake.
  2. Train this pattern—because you will reinforce adequate movement competency.
  3. Fix or correct this pattern—because it is the weakest link in the chain and it can increase injury risk and reduce the training effect if not managed.

The directives are broken into movement patterns, not body parts or muscle groups because that’s not the way the central nervous works. It works on patterns. For more information on this see Movement: Functional Movement Systems and go to

Old-school training methods focused on movement patterns, not body parts. Body-part training is a recent invention for body sculpting, but is not the best way to train comprehensive physical capability, whole body fitness and sustainable adaptability. Body-part training produces great and fast superficial results, but it is incomplete as a physical development tool.

When we started researching kettlebells and Indian clubs, we noted how movement patterns and technical correctness were more important than body parts and sets and reps. We were amazed when we realized that many old-school methods of training would produce a very impressive functional movement screen without ever creating an individualized workout. The key is, this is a systematic teaching model.

These three new video projects involve Brett Jones and me. In the Club Swinging Essentials video, we also included Dr. Ed Thomas. The manuals that contributed to this body of work were written by Brett and me, along with Dr. Ed Thomas in Club Swinging, and for Kettlebells from the Ground Up, we called on the expertise of Dr. Mark Cheng. For the Dynami: Kettlebells from the Center, we asked for contributions from Jeff O’Connor. Our collaborative effort demonstrated some pretty ‘old school’ exercises, and we shot these DVDs in the old gym at Averett University specifically to have that old school look and feel.

Dr. Thomas came to Averett University and shared his historical overview and perspective of physical culture. He showed us that a gym with Olympic rings, a free weight bar, kettlebells, Indian clubs, big medicine balls and jump ropes is not something new. Instead, this is something very old. The difference in the approach Dr. Thomas discusses when talking about all of these functional forms of exercise follows a three-step program that involves precision, progression and variety. However, his guidance does not stop there.

Imported European functional physical training systems dominated American physical culture throughout the late-1800s until around 1920. “Working out” was not the goal in those earlier systems. Gymnasia were instead schools where instructors taught theory and practical application of progressively more difficult motor skills. Often divided into restorative, martial and educational (school-based) content, these highly evolved systems emphasized rational progression, variety and precision. Noble goals including service to nation fueled the enormous focus, energy and time required to develop optimal physical structure, function and motion. We can trace much of what is now emerging as functional physical training to these early roots, and much more can be mined from the past if or when we begin to fully appreciate the importance of history in reshaping the present to meet future cultural demands. ~Ed Thomas, Ed.D.

It is a sign of our times that many exercise professionals provide a workout opportunity with little or no training, teaching or true learning opportunity. It disappoints me to see the exercise time reduced to caloric expenditure and the equivalent mind and body experience of a rat on a wheel. The modern trainer sometimes functions more like a servant than a master. Consider the respect shown to a dance instructor, martial arts expert, or head football coach. These professionals also serve, but they do it with expertise and authority. They don’t take tips and they don’t change the training based on a whim, fad or trend. They don’t change programming because they saw something cool on YouTube, and are not swayed by gimmicks. However, they are also not scared to innovate and do not need the permission of a researcher to think outside the box, but they are always responsible and accountable for their work. Ultimately, the greatest teachers, instructors and coaches strive to produce intelligent independence in their students, clients and athletes.

Independence in exercise is a double-edge sword. It is ethical and responsible for the exercise professional to create a level of exercise competence, yet the lack of exercise competence creates an employment opportunity. Just remember some of the best teacher and student relationships are seen in dance and the martial arts. The teacher constantly pushes for independence and competency, and focuses on the learning and technical competence. A good amount of physical exertion is usually the result of the learning, but this is not the goal—it’s simply a physical benefit. Calories and body parts don’t drive the session. The learning is the goal and the workout is a benefit. True masters in coaching, martial arts and dance rarely obsess on entertainment during training. They focus on teaching, competency, higher levels of independence, and also generate great physical specimens as a positive side affect.

Dr. Thomas reminds us that we are all teachers whether we accept the role or not. The good news is that we do get to decide what we teach and how we teach. Historical teaching in physical culture followed three fundamental categories.

Let’s start with the basics: precision, progression and variety.

Precision is first because understanding an exercise and being precise with the technical aspects of that exercise is important. Activities and exercises require two fundamental pillars or supports: movement competency and physical capacity.

  • Movement competency simply means the individual has the physical mobility and stability to demonstrate the correct movement patterns necessary for the task. This is fundamental and it is the driving concept behind movement screening before exercise.
  • Physical capacity simply means the individual is not limited by mobility and stability to perform a particular activity or movement pattern, but may have limitations on volume and intensity.

Separating these two qualities helps the exercise professional discern the difference between a mobility and stability fundamental movement problems and a strength, stamina or technique problems. Once competence and capacity have been established, progression allows individuals to set goals and then follow a systematic approach to gain skill. Lastly, variety allows a person to move into different forms of exercise once proficiency is developed, creating a platform of knowledge and physical competency. Variety is simply progression in a different direction. The introduction of variety is not used to provide entertainment or reduce boredom in training. It is the opportunity provided when competency is achieved in a skill, activity or exercise that supports the next activity.

Unfortunately, the recent attempt to put old-school training in exercise programs puts variety first, but does not consider precision.

If you are going to use the tool, follow the system that goes with it.

Many modern gyms have embraced the old style equipment without old-school mastery, responsibility, or the use of a systematic approach. Precision and progression do not seem to have a place when variety is nearly viral.

The unfortunate but typical scenario—Step up to the old-school exercise buffet and press this and swing that. Every day is a gut check, and we don’t have time for quality because then we will not get in the quantity and we do not know any other way to gauge our worth on _________ insert your favorite website here.

It’s ironic that we use the pieces of equipment that were in the gymnasium in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but equipment is where the similarity ends. We use these with a lesser degree of integrity and technical expertise than our ancestors.

The reason my partners and I are so passionate about this video series and the manuals that accompany them is that we teach these exercises in a very sound format, explaining the authentic genius embedded into the fabric of each one of these movements. We try to honor our ancestors with precision, progression and then variety—not the other way around. We also hope our audience will become great at a few very important physical moves and not simply adequate at everything.

We have provided programming that if performed as directed will yield a holistic training effect and produce sustainable adaptability. Sustainable adaptability means we will walk around with a solid base that will allow us to support our specialized activities. We will have the physical competency to train. This may sound crazy, but recent studies show us that exercise is actually a risk factor. That means getting more active may hurt you. Movement screening has helped set a baseline so exercise can be dosed accordingly, because some people approach exercise lacking acceptable movement competency. They will compensate and move incorrectly. Without a systematic approach, we are just guessing.

This poses the question: If we taught movement and exercise in a systematic way, would we really need a movement screen? Probably not! However, we are far removed the days where exercise systems were the norm. The result of the lack of a systematic approach created a surprising fitness landscape. Over 20% of individuals who are movement screened have pain with at least one of the simple movement patterns, and over 50% seem to have at least one significant movement pattern dysfunction related to injury risk.

It should also be noted that most individuals screened believe they are ready for exercise and are unaware of the problems that movement screening exposes. Screening and corrective exercise seem to be the most efficient way to reset the movement system and restore movement competency, but systematic programming following fundamental principles is probably the best way to maintain a state of movement competency.

Our ancestors have given us a great wellspring of passion and knowledge, but if we do not practice the exercises with the integrity, intent and precision they did, we really have not improved anything. Modern movement science has added to our practice by providing us with screening and corrective systems that can effectively manage our tendency toward under- and over-doing exercises, since both yield potential risks if not identified. A lack of activity alongside a tendency to overspecialization seems to be working at both ends of the movement dysfunction bell curve to erode movement competency of the modern fitness seeker.

Our opportunities are great. The time we can dedicate to leisure and exercise is probably more than any of our ancestors could have enjoyed. They had to squeeze in training just like we do, but most of them did not have our level of comfort or sedentary opportunities. In their compressed time schedule on top of a day that often involved physical labor or much more technically frustrating work than ours, they found time for precision, progression and variety.

To elaborate on this historical journey and to understand my passion for old-school training, please watch the videos I linked to below, and listen firsthand to Dr. Ed Thomas show us where we were, where we went and where we need to be. I am passionate about old school, but we need to make sure that we do it right.

Dr. Ed Thomas videos on

Look at the pictures below. Note the focus on movement patterns and not muscle groups or body parts. Note how the gyms had nowhere to sit and that all the equipment produced a total body effort. I realize some critics will look at the old-school gym and see liability and potentially dangerous equipment, but that is because they lack the example of a systematic learning approach where competency earned the right to exercise at higher levels of technical performance, and lack of competency meant go back to train and learn, not simply work out!

So what’s next, you may wonder. Check out My Preference for Old Stuff Part 2, here.

Italian wall chart, circa 1900-1920

Niels Bukh, Danish father of Gymnastics, author of Primary Gymnastics

Classic German Turner Training Hall, Milwaukee Wisconsin, circa 1900

West Point plyometric drills, circa 1885-1900. The cadets in the second row jumped into a squat position.

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