10 principles of the Function First Approach to Corrective Exercise

1. Corrective exercise is a journey, not a destination.

With all that we are up against as humans, to assume we are ever really “done” is unrealistic. Between long-established musculoskeletal history, genetics, environmental factors, new activities, psychosocial stressors, nutritional factors, etc., there is always room for improvement. Does that mean that we never attempt anything until we are almost perfect? Quite the contrary. One of our fundamental principles is that every corrective exercise program ascends in biomechanical and neurological complexity to prepare the client for the day’s ensuing life, fitness or work demands.

2. Corrective exercises are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

If I am doing a good job with my clients, I am constantly clearing my schedule. My goal is to improve the quality and confidence of my clients’ movement so they can pursue the activities that they enjoy and the health benefits that their bodies need.

Corrective exercises evolve into strategic movement preparation before activity. More remedial exercises may provide a restorative day when needed. All the while, the client’s activity level is ramping up toward more traditional fitness goals.

3. We change the invisible before we change the visible.

Movement synergies will be observed and can be immediate before any noticeable structural changes in the body. Proprioceptive input and the resulting changes in motor output are not dependent upon significant structural/postural changes.

Interestingly, some of this will be also be attributed to movement-confidence factors as a result of the trainer/therapist relationship to the client/patient, the environment and hosts of other psychosocial factors.

4. All forms of myofascial release have a corrective function but are not corrective exercises.

We regularly employ forms of self myofascial release (SMR) with our clients as a valuable tool toward their independent care. I believe SMR can be a critical component of the overall corrective strategy but it is no more an “exercise” than myofascial release provided by a practitioner.

Therefore, SMR alone is an incomplete intervention and should always be complemented by corrective exercises that require motor control/motor learning components necessary for lasting change.

5. Corrective exercises are programmed and progressed following pre-determined objectives, just like any other exercise programming.

As Steven Covey says, “begin with the end in mind.” There are movement efficacies (without pain) that we want our clients to achieve. When they demonstrate these to us, we progress. Some demonstrate this in the first meeting, and some take several weeks. If progress is not occurring, we modify our strategy.

Repeating the same remedial corrective exercises or spinal stability exercises for months on end does not provide the needed stimulus for progress.

6. A corrective exercise has less to do with intensity or complexity than it does with purpose and competency.

In the Function First Approach model, supine diaphragmatic breathing and a multi-planer lunge with an arm reach can both be considered corrective exercises. Does the exercise have a specific objective toward what you hope to influence on this client? Does it provide the necessary levels of variability and demand to promote improved competency?

With corrective exercises, progressions are much more than added resistance, reps or durations.

7. If you believe that you can positively influence your client’s movement with the right exercises, then you must also believe that you can negatively influence their movement with the wrong exercises. Anthony Carey's The Pain-Free Program

The above statement is my modification of a statement I read by Shirley Sahrmann, PhD. Beyond the obvious of what creates pain, it is important to consider the effects of load and repetition on the motor systems response. We don’t lunge for the sake of lunging or squat for the sake of squatting. Is it the right exercise at this time for this client?

8. If variability is not built into your corrective exercise programming, the motor system is not given the stimulus to expand and further develop the body’s movement catalog.

Repeating the same remedial corrective exercises or spinal stability exercises for months on end does not provide the needed stimulus for progress. The goal is competency and not perfection because no two repetitions are ever exactly alike. Building in variability to your program expands the motor systems available catalog and resources for both predictable and unpredictable movement.

In the initial 6-8 weeks at Function First, we modify the client’s home program every two weeks to ensure variability in their program.

9. Continued use of terms such as “weak,” “tight,” or “inhibited” perpetuates an isolationist view of the body and distracts clients/athletes from the primary objective: improved movement.

The relevance of a “weak,” “tight,” or “inhibited” muscle is not lost on us. But it is only one variable in a very comprehensive interaction of all the systems in the body. Focusing on a muscle or muscles in this way suggests a linear relationship to your goal. Assuming an “if this than that” relationship with the human body is a path to limited success.

10. Corrective exercises applied to the individual with chronic pain are as much about movement novelty, graded exposure, reducing apprehension and instilling movement confidence as they are about addressing movement dysfunction.

As a non-licensed fitness professional, it is outside my professional boundaries to “treat” anyone or diagnose an injury. Yet 99 percent of my clients come to me due to chronic pain. Pain does not dictate what we do with the Function First Approach but it does limit our options. We respect the pain and all its biopsychosocial components.

We are of the opinion, based on the interpretation of the research, that the postural-structural-biomechanical model is still very relevant to the chronic pain sufferer. But that relevance is weighted differently in our programming on a client-by-client basis.

The first threshold we have to cross is the one that reduces psychological apprehension and guarded movement. And sometimes this has nothing to do with the client’s postural-structural-biomechanical challenges. That comes later.

14 Responses to “10 principles of the Function First Approach to Corrective Exercise”

  1. Great piece. Thanks for high value and content. Love them all- #7 stands out. Wish more of us acknowledged that fact!

  2. harish says:

    A fantastic article clearing all the doubts and having a clear understanding of the branch of science

  3. This is a superb collection of wisdom, Anthony. A corollary of Principle #3 is that selecting a trainer/therapist that one trusts may ultimately be more important than the specifics of the therapy. It’s a vast whole system, and the hearts of the client and the therapist are vital components of that whole system.

    Another way to enunciate principle #3 would be to say, “The structure is always adapting to the stresses and forces that are operating on that structure. In the short run, structural changes precipitated by corrective exercise will be imperceptible to the client.”

    Neuroplasticity is also part of healing, but I can’t think of any terse way to include that concept in your principle.

    • Many thanks for the kind words Phil and great additions to the conversation. I don’t think many patients who go the insurance route ever think about the option of working with someone not assigned to them by the facility, but they should. That decision is more obvious to the cash paying clients

  4. Stephen Holt says:

    I posted #7 on my Facebook fan page immediately after reading it. Thanks!

  5. Patty tatem says:

    I look forward to your articles, videos and informative posts. I concur that the mind is where one must begin in order for the healing process to begin. I am excited to review your upcoming research, and I’ll continue to share with colleagues and clients the principles that guide their corrective exercise journey. The Pain Free Program remains one of my most valued resources.
    All the best,

  6. Jade Baxter says:

    Hi Anthony,
    Thank you so much for this article! I will need to read it again and again and let it sink in. There is so much wisdom in these words. I also find with my clients that gaining their confidence and getting past the “I can’ts” is the most powerful thing. When this happens, so does change and improvement! I use your book on the regular for a reference to my clients!

  7. Hi Anthony,

    Great article. Thank you. Have you come across Gary Ward of Anatomy In Motion (AiM) and his book ‘What The Foot?’. You and he would be interested in each others work I’m sure. There is indeed a revolution going on.

    Best Regards

  8. Thanks Anthony for sharing a great overview of the principles of Corrective Exercise. These are fantastic insights and knowledge to guide exercise prescription.

    Brendan Rigby
    Exercise Physiologist

    Inspire Fitness for Wellbeing

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