Near the end of 2016, I attended a 2-day Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) seminar at Physical Culture Gym in Largo, FL. You may recall FRC from my big post last year, Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body. The seminar was lead by the head of Functional Anatomy Seminars, Dr. Andreo Spina (AKA Dre) with assistance from FRC instructors Dewey Nielsen and Michael Ranfone.
Since that seminar, I’ve been fortunate enough to practice under Kinstretch instructors Ryan Bruggeman and Michael Wille and be treated by FRC/FRA/FR trained Dr. Moses Bernard at Physical Culture, and train BJJ and talk FRC with FRC/FRA/FR/Kinstretch certified BJJ black belt Samantha Faulhaber at Gracie Philadelphia. (Kinstretch is a mobility practice based on FRC principles that can be run as group classes. FR is Functional Range Release which is for manual therapy. FRA is Functional Range Assessment.)
I won’t keep you in suspense. All of my experiences with FRC, Kinstretch and FR have been overwhelmingly positive. With joint injuries–both acute and chronic–being the main longevity problem for BJJ athletes, FRC is the perfect combo. It is a system of rehabbing damaged joints and increasing joint mobility (defined as strength and control throughout your flexibility). FRC is now my primary focus alongside BJJ, and I am working on applying it to myself everyday. Many others have reviewed FRC in great detail (you’ll find links to these below) so instead I’m going to share what I think jiu-jitseiros or BJJ coaches would care about.
Priority #1: Do you even have fully functioning joints? The primary goal of FRC is to get each joint working like a real joint. Can it go through its full range of motion? Do you have to involve other joints to “help out”? Is anything painful, crunchy, or pinchy? Are movements smooth and controlled or awkward and jerky? For example, if I tell you to raise your arm overhead then slowly reach back behind you (only moving from the shoulder joint) and you hike your shoulder up to your ear and twist your entire torso to pretend to be able to do it, you don’t have a real shoulder joint. You will be surprised how poorly your joints work once you get someone who has a strict eye for what’s right and wrong. FRC has a system for identifying mobility goals and specifically targeting them, instead of the “Uh, I dunno, do yoga?” advice BJJ guys give each other.
Just because you can train an athletic attribute does not mean it’s good for you. At the seminar, wrestler’s neck bridge exercises were given as an example of how athletes need to make trade offs between long term health and short term injury prevention. Wrestlers have determined that the danger of harming their necks doing those bridges is less than the danger of what will happen when you’re forced into the position by an aggressive opponent. At the seminar, Dre joked that when he’s asked how to prevent baseball pitchers from getting torn rotator cuffs, team managers don’t like when his answer is to cancel the game. Humans aren’t meant to throw a ball 95mph 100 times in a day, but we made up sports where we need to. We invent sports and give ourselves reasons to do all kinds of strange things, and we find ways to get better at doing them, but that does not mean it is good for the human organism. Grabbing fully resisting humans by their jackets and tossing them around and trying to break each others’ joints every night falls into this realm.
Train in the ranges you can get injured or don’t be surprised when you get injured there. This is a controversial point because it leads to practices that would make any classically trained physical therapist cringe, like applying americana/kimura pressure to your own shoulder or straining the ACL/MCL on purpose. But if you agree with the science behind the principles of progressive adaptation and specificity (as explained in the FRC lectures), then how else could it work? Let’s state it simply: your body can’t improve its ability to handle something it never experiences. By gradually exposing yourself to that stress and giving the body a chance to adapt, you should gain resilience in that dangerous range. The trick is knowing the safest and effective ways to do this, and that is what FRC aims to do.
BJJers are obsessive to the point of self-destruction. Dre trains BJJ and Dewey is a black belt. Once they found out I was a BJJ guy, they kept dropping advice for training BJJ athletes. A major one was to recognize that BJJ people will train endlessly without doing anything to counteract overuse injuries and crappy joints. You will have to intervene to get them to do correctives, otherwise you get 25-year olds with arthritic hands, elbows that can’t straighten, hips that are stuck permanently in flexion and external rotation, flat duck feet, constant lower back problems, necks that can’t turn, etc. Check out Samantha Faulhaber’s article Stop Glorifying Jiu-Jitsu Injuries.
FRC is not a “just do this one weird trick” mobility routine. Without access to the whole system (either through a seminar or a FRC practitioner), you’re going to struggle to cobble together a worthwhile FRC mobility program. That’s what I did for a while but didn’t feel like I was making gains. Going to the seminar doesn’t give you a simple plan to follow, because you’re mostly learning principles and it’s up to you to apply them. Learning FRC starts with a review of the relevant scientific research (stretching, injury prevention, connective tissue growth, motor neurons, cellular biology, etc.) to dispel myths and present the best evidence for what works. These guiding principles are used to build the framework that the FRC methods fit in to. You will, of course, also learn specific exercises that are common to FRC practice, but without the underlying concepts, it’s difficult to correctly apply them.
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
― Harrington Emerson
The best way to learn the complete FRC system is at a seminar. FRC is not explained in any single book or DVD. Without attending a seminar, the best you can do on your own is read articles like this one, browse through Instagram videos, and watch YouTube channels by FRC practitioners. After attending a FRC seminar, you gain access to resources like the private FRC Facebook group, the monthly FRC newsletter, and the members only section of the FRC website which contains the seminar lectures and many examples exercises.
Going to a FRC seminar is overkill unless you’re a fitness or health professional. At a seminar of over 50 people, I would guess most were chiropractors, physical therapists, athletic trainers, or CrossFit instructors–that is, people who make a living by improving other people’s health and performance. I found one strength and conditioning coach who was a purple belt (his telltale Shoyoroll hoodie gave him away), and one MMA fighter/trainer. If you are just looking for a way to add more mobility training to your workout, your best bet is working with a FRC mobility specialist or going to a Kinstretch class. If you have an interest in training others, then a FRC seminar is worth it. Whether you feel an obligation to maintain the long term health of your students as their BJJ instructor is up to you.
A lot of what’s going on isn’t visible to the naked eye. There is a world of difference between copying FRC exercises from Instagram videos and being coached by a FRC mobility specialist. Working with Dre and Dewey reminded me of the times I’ve learned “invisible jiu-jitsu” from black belts in the Rickson lineage. Beforehand, you’re thinking “That looks too simple, there can’t be too much to it.” Then you experience it and you realize “Oh, wow, that’s not at all like what I was doing it.” Examples of these “unseen” FRC skills are: generating internal tension, dissociating one joint or muscle from another, maintaining slow diaphragmatic breathing, creating abdominal pressure, resisting yourself throughout a motion, ramping up and down isometric contractions, and focusing your attention into a specific point in a muscle. Without being able to feel that, you can be confused why someone is struggling when they are hardly moving during FRC training.
Your best introduction to FRC is CARs. The bread and butter of FRC is Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs), a practice of taking joints through their fullest range of motion, slowly and with control. A joint-by-joint CARs routine is taught as a daily morning routine. Here are two example CARs routines, both (coincidentally) filmed by Philly-based BJJ black belts:
Jiu-Jitsu Player’s Morning CARs Routine by Samantha Faulhaber
Mobility in an alley Josh Vogel AKA Sloth
You can perform CARs at different levels of intensity, depending on your goals. Morning CARs is low intensity, just waking up the joints and telling the body “Hey, look at all the range of motion I want you to maintain.” Higher levels of irradiation (generating tension throughout your body) can be used to gain new ranges of motion.
How I apply FRC to my BJJ training:
- Maintain a steady CARs routine. My morning full body CARs is mandatory. Ever time I take a break from work throughout the day, I hit a few joints with CARs, especially hips because of all the sitting at a desk. Before BJJ training is another round of CARs, with extra ones thrown in between rounds of sparring.
- Work on my FRC homework everyday. With guidance from the FRC experts I’ve train with, I have my own list of things to work on. Here’s what it looks like: internal hip rotation (from neutral, flexion, and extension), hip extension, internal knee rotation, foot “shortening” (intrinsic muscles), spinal segmentation (especially lumbar), thoracic rotation, and scapular control. The exact routine I do is personalized but applies the appropriate methods from the FRC toolbox like PAIL/RAIL, PAL/RAL, ENG, isometric ramping, etc. (These terms are explained in the “more resources” links below.)
- Incorporate FRC into how I teach BJJ. Just by following my warm-ups, my students are now performing CARs and other basic FRC practices. After training, I will stay to work on my personal FRC homework but I’m happy to have students join me and try it out. In FRC there is a big emphasis on the concept of “movement prerequisites”–making sure your athletes have the mobility to control themselves throughout the ranges you are going to demand of them. In BJJ we ask people to many unusual things with their body, but we take little responsibility for the negative effects it can have. FRC allows you to balance this out.
I understand I did not explain many of the technical aspects of FRC so you may still be scratching your head about how you even “do FRC,” so I’ll leave you with this closing advice and links to where you can learn more:
If you want to apply FRC to yourself:
- Do CARs every morning. The videos and links I shared here are enough to get started. The most common mistake is doing CARs too fast and loose. Go slower and tighter than feels natural.
- Work with a FRC mobility specialist. The FRC system goes far beyond CARs. A FRC mobility specialist will be able to guide you through the harder stuff. You can piece some of it together from Instagram videos and blog posts, but I can’t overstate how big of a difference it makes to work with an experienced FRC practitioner. Think about the backyard grapplers who try to learn BJJ from YouTube. It’s like that. Get someone who knows what they’re doing to show you what’s up. Check the “Find a Provider” map on the FRC website.
- Visit a FR practitioner if you have serious joint problems. Functional Range Release is the system as applied to manual therapy. Even with the seminar experience and access to the official FRC resources, I was having trouble making improvement in problem areas until was treated with FR. You can find health professionals to perform FR on you through the “Find a Provider” map.
- Attend Kinstretch classes. This is my main recommendation, if you have access to it. Kinstretch classes pack the most punch for your time and money. Check the “Find a Provider” map on Kinstretch.com, but be warned that few places offer it outside of a some major US cities.
If you want to learn the FRC system to practice on others:
- Find a FRC seminar to go to. The best way to learn all of this is still the formal approach of attending a seminar. Check the “Become a Provider” page of FunctionalAnatomySeminars.com for seminar listings.
- Be prepared to learn a lot of jargon. The FRC system terminology is heavy with abbreviations and acronyms. I know this is off-putting to people who feel like it’s just rebranding existing stretching techniques, but in the end you’ll appreciate being able to be specific about what you are doing. You’ll also spot borrowed BJJ terms like “rear naked choke grip”, “kimura” stretches, and more.
- Brush up on your anatomy and physiology. Coming into FRC without a background in medicine or even athletic training, I was out of my depth in some of the more technical lectures, especially when it got into the cellular biology. Thankfully, I know how to use Google and Wikipedia so I got up to speed. You should be fine if you actually went to school for this stuff.
- Understand the limits of what you can and cannot do. Before you go putting your hands on someone, know the legal limits of how much you can touch and manipulate clients. As BJJers, we’re used to grabbing people in all kinds of nasty ways, but once you start touching people for medical reasons, you need your paperwork in order.
More FRC seminar reviews and resources:
For a good introduction to FRC and Kinstretch from the main man himself, read Dr. Andreo Spina on How to Improve Your Mobility Each Time You Work Out.
Here are links to in-depth reviews by people with better credentials than myself:
- The Interesting Science Behind Functional Range Conditioning
- Hip and Shoulder Mobility: The CARs Solution
- Why You Should Flex #EveryDamnDay for Mobility Gains
- Functional Range Release & Developing Your Own System
- Reviewing the Functional Range Assessment Course
- Reviewing the Functional Range Conditioning Course
- Course Review: Functional Range Conditioning
- Functional Range Release (FRC): Course Review
- FRC Course Review
- Andreo Spina’s Functional Range Release
Everything tagged “FRC” on the Post Competitive Training Insights blog is worth reading. The author Chris Ruffolo also runs the very good/r/StartMoving subreddit.