Dysfunction Junction


Dysfunction. Impaired or abnormal functioning.

I’m admittedly not a huge fan of the word Dysfunction.  Not so much the word but rather the typical context in it is used.  In personal practice I rarely use it when speaking to clients, whereas some other trainers will use it three times in a single sentence when first looking at you, or be at least part of the reason behind a dysfunction (as in the trainer is dysfunctional.)

Ok maybe thats a stretch…but then again it has happened enough and observing the work of a high percent of commercial gym trainers formed my opinion. Not just me being an angry bastard.

When it comes to human movement patterns I am not so quick to label what I’m seeing as an actual dysfunction, as it could simply be a variation of normal human movement.  I have an “ideal” in my head (if such a thing truly exists), but that is me.  When something doesn’t quite match my believed ideal it becomes a variation, not necessarily a dysfunction. Besides, I can only see an clothe covered external view of things, and this is no indicator of what is going on inside the body.

As I’ve matured and gained experience as a coach I’ve become more observant. I note how people breathe, how easily they move from position to position, how mindful they are in their movement.  All these things connect to each other and it pays to know about these types of things.

My first experience with the word Dysfunction (as applied in fitness training) was through the National Academy of Sports Medicine Corrective Exercise Specialist course (NASM CES.) According to the texts 4th ed, Dysfunction comes from biomechanical origins. After completing the course I formed a few of my own opinions and was left with more questions than answers.


Despite an ever-growing toolbox, I’m still not in the business of fixing people.

Despite what I learned in the NASM CES education, the belief that “I can fix people”  (dysfunctions)  wasn’t one of them. It did however give me a new way of seeing things and another set of questions to ask. In reality I’m closer to being a manager than a repairman. How someone  without a significant background in the human movement sciences can finish the course and believe that they can fix people is beyond me.

“Fixing people” is taking someone from below a baseline to functional. This  is responsibility of Physical Therapists and other Doctors.  My job to improve things from above the current baseline.   It is my belief that some trainers forget this fact, and that while the CES course is very good, it is merely an entry point to an area with much greater depth.

In my opinion that the CES course overemphasized biomechanical issues and failed to cover other possibilities that while outside a trainer’s scope of practice, could provide alternate explanations and directions for referral (DPT,LMT,Sports Medicine,RD et al)Furthermore, despite otherwise good intentions several of the corrective exercise recommendations could make matters worse.


As a newly minted “Corrective Exercise Specialist” I knew that the depth of my assessment skills was about one inch…which compared to a high number of trainers is like comparing the Marianas Trench to a puddle.

A better grasp of health issues,training adaptability and practical application are needed to be pursued. There are many notable thought leaders in the field and I always encourage reading broadly. That still mean you can fix things, but you will better equipped to deal with the situation.


“Okay everyone…just start flailing your body parts around! If you get hurt suck it up and don’t worry because I can fix people”

Sidenote: If the first session with your trainer doesn’t have some form of assessment and you go straight to a workout, especially a demanding full-body type session, then you might want to consider hiring a new trainer. This one is literally guessing their way through things.

On Dysfunction Types
Muscle (Biomechanical) Dysfunction. Occurs when a muscle is been damaged and has presence of scar tissue, a muscle balance exists, the muscle is shortened or deconditioned.

Joint Dysfunction. An abnormal motion of a joint, the joint is compressed, or the joint has become separated.

Structural. Anatomical variations common to all humans and something that cannot be “fixed” through exercise alone.

Nerve Dysfunction. When tension or compression of the nerve has decreased or altered the action potentials of the nerve. Altered proprioception at the joint inhibit the potential strength of the muscle.

Biochemical Dysfunction. Occurs when over training, or deficiency in specific nutrients causes a lack of strength and recovery.

Training/Trainer Dysfunction. My personal favorite. The lifting form is not optimized for the person doing the lifter. Essentially the exercise has not been defined by the clients ability, tolerance,  available range of motion,training maturity or athletic ability. There is no true “textbook perfect form”. We all possess different structures, available ranges of motion and learning curves.

The selected exercise could be too sophisticated for the trainees ability level, the load too heavy or too light, the exercise could have been taught improperly or allowed to be performed improperly. On a simpler level, too much of the exercise was taught at once and needs to be broken into manageable chunks.


Dysfunction all over the place:  I’m trying to make sense of this. It appears to be a handstand press off a Bosu with a resistance band to deload some of the weight…or in simpler terms “one loss of posture away from having a severe neck injury. Handstand presses, awesome that they are, are the domain of very fit and relatively strong individuals. The addition of the band reduces the strength component and the Bosu (thankfully not flat side up) markedly decreases the persons ability to press.

Proper form, or even logical exercises are not strict requirement to create muscle growth. Proper form and logical exercise choices do however reduce injury potential and long term damage to the involved joints.

If you’re looking for a way to cause dysfunction, here you go.


A sight that makes every legitimate Kettlebell coach cringe.

The highly technical lifts are not tolerant of poor technique. In my opinion this specifically means the Kettlebell Lifts, the Basic Barbell and the Olympic Lifts. Having a coach with legitimate education and experience with these tools and methods is key.

Even in the case of machines with fixed paths or bodyweight exercises with near infinite levels of adjustability the need for stabilizing the joints and being mindful of movement still exists. This somewhat reduces the differences between free weight, machine and bodyweight resistance training, at least from an internal view.

“Jacked up form” (aka wrong for the individual or missing important technical details) is a reality. Every trip to the gym proves this fact, and poor form isn’t limited to free-weights. People can make all the CrossFit jokes they want, crappy form existed long long before CrossFit came around.


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