An Elegant Framework for Improving Mobility: Functional Range Conditioning 101

Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) is an empirically-driven thought process around mobility developed by Dr. Andreo Spina.  After attending an FRC seminar and letting it percolate in my practice, I'm convinced that it's one of the most robust approaches to mobility (our true potential for movement) out there.  It's beautiful in its simplicity, and overwhelming in its applicability.  

We begin with three questions:

  • What is the human animal built to do?
  • What do we currently do?
  • What steps do we take on a daily basis to compensate for the inevitable discrepancy?

The human animal is built to navigate a complex natural environment, one in which frequent, varied movement is nonnegotiable.  It isn't a luxury or a chore.  It's a necessity.  And there's no food out there.  There are only plants and animals.  Somehow we need to turn them into food.

Stack that next to what we currently do: occasionally move our various parts through partial ranges of motion in simple, linear environments.  Consume mono-diets of whatever we want, whenever we want.  Link movement to shame or guilt, call it exercise, and attach it to a caloric value.

So what do we do on a daily basis to compensate for this stark contrast?

That's where FRC comes in. 

WHAT IS FRC ALL ABOUT?

"Making stuff work nice".  It doesn't matter what labels you attach to your stuff (biceps, piriformis, tibialis anterior).  It just matters that that stuff works the way you want it to.  It's that simple. 

HOW NICE DO WE NEED TO MAKE IT?

Nice enough.  By that I mean nice enough to accomplish the tasks you need or want to accomplish, plus a buffer zone for safety.  

For example: if you don't plan to practice handstands, you likely don't need more than around 60 degrees of wrist extension.  But if you want to practice handstands, you better make sure your wrists can handle that demand for control over range of motion.  And you'll benefit from being able to extend your arms overhead without compensating by moving your spine.  

You might not want to squat double body weight, but you certainly want ankles that have sufficient range of motion to walk, run, and navigate steps.  If they can't dorsiflex on command, then you're going to run into some trouble.  Having some wiggle room in our controlled range of motion is a safety net for things like uneven terrain, slippery surfaces, and any time we exist outside of neutral (i.e., life).

HOW DO WE MAKE OUR STUFF WORK NICE?

We begin with joint function.  In FRC we have a self-assessment practice called Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs).  While they may look like slow joint circles, we're actively moving the target joint with control through its full range of motion.  

Remember the idea of "use it, or lose it?"  It applies to your joints too.

If you do not actively move your joints through their entire available range of motion, you send a message to your body that you don't need that range of motion.  It in turn says:

You sure?  I can think of about a zillion reasons why we might need that, but OK you're the boss.

And that range of motion disappears slowly but surely.  So...step one is actively moving your joints through as much range of motion as you're able to.  We ask the joints to work independently before they move interdependently.

(For an in-depth look at CARs, click here for more details)

OK, CARS...THEN WHAT?

Let's say you practice these CARs and notice that you can't reach your shoulder into full flexion...hope you don't want to do pull ups or overhead pressing any time soon because you don't own a shoulder.  

When you find these limitations in your active range of motion, it's time to address that.  Not through foam rolling.  Not through massage.  Through active motor inputs that stimulate the desired physiological adaptations.  In FRC we use a long passive stretch (around 2 minutes) coupled with end range isometric loading to create that stimulus.

We work with Progressive Angular Isometric Loads and Regressive Angular Isometric Loading (PAILs and RAILs).  PAILs are used to overcome the stretch reflex threshold to generate strength at end range of motion.  They also have several other benefits:

  • They're an incredibly safe way to load a target tissue
  • They improve neural drive to those tissues
  • They expand the range of motion where we can generate force

It sounds very fancy, and in some ways it is.  But at the end of the day we can think of these PAILs as a gradually increasing engagement and recruitment of the stretched stuff in an isometric contraction.  We teach the body how to generate the force necessary to close that joint angle.

We couple this PAILs contraction with its counterpart, the RAILs contraction.  This is how we actually create strength at end range, which separates mobility and flexibility.  Through an active engagement at end range, we reach further into the stretched position with intensity.  This is what stimulates tissue adaptation.  If PAILs are "engaging the stretched stuff", then RAILs are "engaging the opposite stuff" to drive further into the desired position.

This is how we make joints that work like joints.  We identify limitations with CARs and then expand active range of motion with PAILs and RAILs.

ACTIVE ROM, GOT IT...WHAT COMES NEXT?

After expanding range of motion we can further teach the body how to control that range through targeted tissue loading.  We use passive range isometric holds, eccentric neural grooving, and end range rotational training to train the body's ability to generate force at end range.  

In a nutshell we unlock a new range of motion and then intelligently load in a process similar to traditional strength training.  We follow two rules:

  • The Law Of Specificity
  • The Law Of Progressive Overload

Finding the right tool for the job at this stage requires one of two things: a good coach (obviously preferred), or a solid understanding of training methodology.  

So there we have it.  There's no mysticism.  No trade secrets.  The beauty of FRC is that it has emerged from the available scientific literature.  It's an elegant framework, a thought process, much more than a list of exercises.  

In fact we don't have any exercises.  There are simply positions and intentions.

WITH THAT IN MIND, HERE'S HOW I APPLY IT IN MY PRACTICE

Let me be clear.  What follows is not strict FRC.  This is my interpretation, integration, and implementation of Dr. Spina's work.  To learn more about FRC and the thought process behind it, click here to read Dre's blog.

Still with me?  Great, let's dig in.

The big challenge with implementing FRC is that it's SO vast.  It has near infinite applicability, which can cause some headaches:

  • How nice is nice enough?
  • Do I have the necessary prerequisites for these movements?
  • How do I prioritize my training?

Let's take a breath here.  There's a fairly logical series of questions we can ask to determine what's important:

1. Do you have sufficient capacity to do day-to-day human things like walking and reaching?

If you can't do human things, this is where you start.  Ensure you can walk or run, get up and down, reach for things, etc.  Obviously this stuff is important.

2. Do you have sufficient capacity to perform in your sport or hobby of choice?

Once you check "human stuff" off the list, we can look into more specific loads.  Can you handle the demands of your sport or hobby?  This of course varies based on the context, but it might require above average capacity in unusual positions.

3. Do you want to keep expanding your body's capacity?

Maybe you're done for now.  But if you're curious and want to continue to explore, here's how I go about doing it.  I go through what I think of as "constraints-based explorations".  Movement puzzles.  Tasks to accomplish within a set of parameters.  I take inspiration from dance, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement, and more.

Here's an example: if I "glue" my hand to the wall, how much can I move around that fixed point?  When I try this, I'll quickly find restricted ranges of motion that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.  

Another: can I roll from my back to my belly while balancing a book on each hand and foot?  Here I'll find out just what kind of control I have over each of my limbs (here's a visual for you).

Even better: can I navigate complex, natural environments?  Can I duck, climb, creep, and jump?  Complex environments demand complex movements, and if my body doesn't have the necessary capacity, I'll find out very quickly.

Once you have awareness of restrictions and limitations, you can go back to the FRC framework to remove those limitations.  You can recreate the specific joint angle you want to improve and get to work: PAILs/RAILs followed by passive range holds/eccentric neural grooving/end range rotational training.  

**This is where having a creative coach comes in handy.  It can be difficult to reconstruct those target positions and develop specific drills to address their restrictions.**

After bringing awareness to these restricted angles through constraints-based exploration, I'll get started teaching my body how to navigate this position.  The process I use is simple:

  • Breathe
  • Orient
  • Reach

I think of this as "biologically relevant" loading within the position.  We have a nervous system that craves safety and function.  If we can teach ourselves that a given position is both safe and functional, we're likely to find quite a bit more ease within that position.

For example: when I'm holding my passive stretch pre-PAILs/RAILs I'll focus on my breath.  Not rapid fire deep breathing.  Natural, resting breath.  Then I'll begin to orient in space, looking around the room.  I'll bring a curious awareness to what sensations I notice in my body as I do this.  I'll follow this up with reaching through space, as if I were going to grab something in the room nearby.  Again, what sensations crop up here?  After I've settled a bit, then it's time to go through PAILs/RAILs and additional loading.

The critical step is retesting the movement or position that originally felt restricted.  Explore again, and ask: what is different here?  How has the subjective (and objective) experience of this movement changed?

That's all there is to it.  FRC is not meant to take over our lives.  It's there to improve our body's ability to do anything we want to do with it.  We can use it for specific interventions or broader explorations of our body's potential.  Either way we have a beautifully simple process to use.

Before you go...

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