Ask the Doc: The Pursuit of Competency Before Capacity

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by DR. SETH OBERST|DPT, CSCS

Ask the Doc: The Pursuit of Competency Before Capacity
As I talk with a lot of coaches, physios, and physicians, a phrase I often hear is: “Well, s/he just needs to get stronger.”Even those supposedly “in the know” say it so much it’s almost reflexive — as if more strength or capacity is all that is preventing someone from getting healthier, picking their kids off the ground, winning gold medals, etc. Often we are more focused on the rep completion — rep or no rep — rather than the process or competency of that rep.

For nearly everyone, including professionals, the purpose should be to enhance movement efficiency and adaptability by teaching and then reinforcing motor patterning (competency). Only then should capacity (output: numbers/stats, times, weights, reps) be pursued.
I think the most pertinent thing here is defining the goal of training. For nearly everyone, including professionals, the purpose should be to enhance movement efficiency and adaptability by teaching and then reinforcing motor patterning (competency). Only then should capacity (output: numbers/stats, times, weights, reps) be pursued. Sure, a competitive weight lifter’s (Olympic and power) main goal is maximizing capacity — the more weight, the more capable. In this group, it is essentially a linear relationship: the more weight the lifter can move, the more competitive they are. But what about everyone else, from pro athletes to weekend warriors and soccer moms? Does more strength automatically equal better performance? Injury prevention? Increased longevity? Does an NFL running back who squats 450 but keeps blowing out his hamstring need to “get stronger”? I guarantee if he gets stronger and squats 500 his hamstring problems will not just go away. The teaching and reinforcing of even basic motor tasks is almost always lacking and has probably been skipped past or brushed aside since junior high gym class. 

I am all for getting bigger, faster, stronger — these are crucial — but not at the cost of sustainable movement. Yet this capacity-first mindset is easy to fall into and the long-term cost can be quite high. It’s easy to throw more weight on the bar and blow up your ego; it is much more difficult to tease out movement faults and restore movement variability.
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