Functional Range Release & Developing Your Own System

This weekend I had the pleasure of once again learning from Dr. Andreo Spina at the Functional Range Conditioning Course. The course was assisted by Dewey Nielsen and Hunter Cook. For those who have never taken one of Dr. Spina’s courses, they are a great blend of science and applied work. This course was entirely focused on movement and developing joint range of motion and control throughout the variety of activities that an individual may encounter depending on whatever it is they are trying to do (play sport, workout, live life, etc).

Instead of just reviewing the course I figured I’d blend in some of my ideas of how I go about trying to take new things I learn and putting them into my own system. A lot of times, when people take a course they immediately gravitate towards some of the ideas but then show up to work on Monday and fall into what they’ve always done. They borrow a few exercises or “drills” that they were taught over the weekend, however they never really operationalize what they have learned in order to see how it truly integrates into THEIR OWN system. In fact, some people have never even sat down to write out their own system in the first place (for interested readers, I wrote an entire article about developing your own system a little over a year ago. CLICK HERE).

Functional Range Conditioning

First, Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) IS NOT:

  • “Mobility Drills” that you just add to your warm up
  • PNF
  • Fancy gymnastic type exercises

FRC is not “mobility drills” that you just add to your warm up for 5min. The goal of the system is to identify joints that have limited function and work to improve them before loading them. A lot of people end up attending courses like FRC and walk away thinking, “Oh, this will be a good hip stretch to give to my clients and this drill will be a good t-spine mobility exercise to prescribe to my patients.”. Chance are, if you are thinking like this, you are missing the point. The system is set up to help you identify limitations and plan a training program that is specific to the needs of the client.

While some of the exercises in FRC utilize isometrics or eccentrics and may resemble PNF, FRC is not PNF. Dr. Spina discusses the scientific literature extensively and is adamant about the fact that he did not invent any of this stuff. Rather, we are listening to his interpretation of what the science says and how he has taken that science and created his own approach to movement and exercise. Thus, if you say that some of this looks like PNF, he would say, “Sure, of course it does. But, what we are doing goes beyond what PNF is because the other components of my system come from other realms of science.”

Fancy gymnastic exercises are currently all the rage on social media and, while there are those who do FRC that can do some incredibly crazy movements, the goal of the system is not to get you to be a gymnast. Rather, the goal of the system is to conduct a needs analysis of your client, determine the prerequisite movement competencies they require for their task/sport and then test them to ensure they poses these prerequisite competencies. If they do not have these competencies then you at least know where to begin your training program. A good example would be a strength coach who wants their athletes to squat yet several of the athletes lack prerequisites of ankle dorsiflexion, healthy knee/tibial rotation, or hip internal rotation. The strength coach puts these athletes under load and then may wonder why the athletes report back, hip, or knee pain 6 weeks later (or it could be shoulder or neck pain or maybe elbow pain or…well, it could be whatever! The point is that if you lack prerequisite competencies to meet your movement demands then load will be taken up somewhere in the body and wherever load begins to exceed capacity we end up with an injury). The aim isn’t to turn everyone into Gumby. A football player probably doesn’t need to be able to do the full splits or do any sort of crazy movement exercise but they do need health joint ROM and then control and strength through that ROM to satisfy their needs and demands on the field in order to mitigate the risk of injury.

What Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) is:

  • Functional Range Conditioning is a movement based system that applies scientific approaches to developing (or re-developing) joint mobility, joint integrity, strength, and connective tissue resilience.

These goals are met through a progressive system consisting of:

  • Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs)
  • Progressive Angular Isometric Loadings (PAILs) and Regressive Angular Isometric Loadings (RAILs)
  • Progressive Angular Loadings (PALs) and Regressive Angular Loadings (RALs)
  • Full Range Control

CARs can serve as both a warm (E.g., a daily routine) as well as an assessment of each joint. When a limitation is found, PAILs and RAILs are the initial starting point to help the individual re-develop normal joint function (NOTE: Don’t expect this to happen overnight). When an improvement has been made in joint function the soft tissue structures can begin to be loaded in order to develop end range control and strength, finally progressing to full range control. This approach is useful for both rehabilitation and strength and conditioning.

The concepts are simple. Assess joint ranges of motion and if the client lacks specific ranges of motion then work to improve those limitations through targeted strategies. I highlight targeted strategies because this is a critical component to the FRC system. Don’t just do “stuff”. Rather, assess for limitations and program targeted interventions that are specific to the individual’s needs. These targeted interventions should lead to a desired outcome/improvement and this should be tested to ensure that improvements are being made. Progress these interventions to train the individual with lots of variability through a wide range of motion. As Dr. Spina says, “You always end up regretting the position or range of motion you didn’t train in.” Why? Because the second you are thrust into that range of motion during a game (or at some point in life) and your tissue doesn’t have the capacity to control that range of motion, you end up getting injured.

“But how am I supposed to get my other lifting/training in?”

During the course, someone asked Dr. Spina, “So where would I fit this in with my normal training.” To which Dr. Spina replied, “You have a hip and an ankle with extremely limited mobility yet you want to squat in your training program and you are worried about where to fit FRC in? I’d look back at you and ask, “Where the heck are you going to fit your squat training into your FRC training training because it seems like this is what you need to do first!”".

The reply is brilliant and addresses the first point above about what FRC is not. FRC is not just about learning mobility exercises. If you want to use FRC and be effective in rehabilitation or training you need to think about programming this stuff just like you would any other exercise.

Does this mean that if you lack joint mobility in some of your prerequisites that you can no longer train until it improves? Absolutely not!! If you find areas of limitation, program exercises for those limitations into your training as you would any other exercise (IE, squats, bench press, sprints, plyos, etc) and work diligently on them while you also work on your other exercises to address your strength and power. Doing this might require a lateralization or regression of some exercises or a decrease in training volume or intensity, temporarily. This tends to scare people (as if the idea of decreasing lifting volume means they will automatically lose all strength and turn to mush) but if you work on improving your limitations you may find that as these prerequisites improve your strength begins to increase at a faster rate. I’ve discussed the concept of lateralizations and regressions, a concept discussed extensively by Charlie Weingroff, in a previous blog article. The concept basically tells us that we can still load and train while working on improving our limitation by choosing exercises that that don’t load us into that limitation. For example, if the football player lacks proper ankle dorsiflexion, while they are working on improving this limitation, you would lateralize their squat to something that does not require them to load into ankle dorsiflexion, such as a split squat, rear foot elevated split squat with a veritical tibia, trap bar deadlift, deadlift, rack pull, etc.

How Do I Fit This Into My Own System?

My training philosophy consists of three main elements

  1. Movement
  2. Stress Resistance/Stress Tolerance
  3. Fitness

philosophyWithin each of these buckets we have methods of testing and methods of training. What we test and how we train depends on the individual and the sport they are preparing for – this is not a one size fits all. The goal of the system is to increase the athletes Physiological Buffer Zone to make them as robust as possible against the stressors they will face in competition, across a season.

Obviously the FRC system fits into the Movement bucket – Does the athlete posses the necessary joint ranges of motion to satisfy the needs and demands of their sport (or even the specific position they play within that sport)?

Fitting the concepts of the FRC system into my own training methodology is not hard and actually compliments a lot of things I already do, which makes sense given that I’ve known Dr. Spina for a few years and his approaches along with those of Charlie Weingroff have been very influential on me within that Movement bucket. Here are some of the ways I’d take these concepts and begin to apply them:

  1. Deep offseason conditioning should be aimed at developing prerequisite competencies specific to the sport or addressing limitations that the athlete has. Strength training volume is lower during this time of year (we may only perform 2-3 days/week of 3-4 exercises with intensities of 70-75%) so it would not impeded on any of the FRC approaches we are taking to re-develop joint movement (NOTE: The exercises and the intensity of the exercises in the FRC system are absolutely brutal and exhausting because they are very specific and they target things that you are currently very poor at). CARs would be used as a daily routine to help move the joints through their available ranges of motion and exercises targeted at specific limitations (start by selecting just 1-2 limitations) will follow CARs exercises each day. Two to three times per week the individual will do a longer session of full body FRC (what is referred to as a Kinstretch Session). Aside form the strength training discussed above, we would have some form of energy system training, focused on developing general fitness and not highly specific to their sport at this time (E.g., aerobic adaptations, lower intensity conditioning activities, etc).
  2. As you begin to transition into more specific work and get closer to the season, use the Kinstretch sessions 1-2x/week to keep improving joint control. CARs will always be part of the daily routine (this may only take about 10min) and any limitations are noted. Hopefully at this point the athlete has acquired the important prerequisite competencies from the previous phase. Lifting, plyometrics, and sprinting need to begin to take a front seat in the training program in order to prepare for the competitive season. If the athlete is still lacking sport specific or exercise specific perquisite competencies lateralize or regress their strength and power exercises in order to develop those qualities while still working to improve joint integrity and soft tissue resilience in the areas of the limitations.
  3. During the season the 10min daily CARs continue. I see this being essential in-season! In-season, the wear and tear of competition and repetitive loading of tissues can become problematic for athletes and often lead to losses of joint range of motion or painful regions of joint movement (painful arcs or closing angle pain). The in-season daily CARs session serves to keep the joints healthy and maintain ranges of motion, allows the athlete to stay on top of any losses of range of motion or limitations, as well as inform the medical staff about any of these losses of range of motion or painful movements to pro-actively receive treatment and not wait until something breaks. The Kinstretch session may continue 1x/week to help maintain whole body movements during the in-season period.

The FRC system is highly useful and one of the things I appreciate about it is that Dr. Spina does not teach you exercises. He teaches you concepts. You, as the coach or therapist, need to determine which exercises your athletes need. You need to determine which prerequisite competencies are required for your sport. You need to plan the approach and develop the program and even develop your own exercises that target the individual’s needs. Rather than teaching you “stuff”, Dr. Spina teaches you how he thinks. If you have your own system, if you’ve taken the time to sit down and write out what things are important to you and how you test and train/address those things within that system, then it makes it a lot easier for you to operationalize concepts from someone elses system should you feel that those concepts compliment what you do and are important to you as well.

FRC is not about exercises, it is about a thought process. The concepts taught in the course are extremely valuable and useful, whether you train elite athletes, high school athletes, or general population clients of any age or ability. Because FRC is a thought process, you can adapt the concepts to any client as you, the coach/therapist, develop the exercises and interventions. Don’t just do stuff, train with a purpose!


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