Self Limiting Exercise

A few years ago, I heard about a concept of using self-limiting exercise while training clients.  Gray Cook was at the Chicago Perform Better Functional Training Summit delivering an amazing experience to hundreds of fitness professionals and therapists.  His talk was not solely about self-limiting exercise, but the concept of using self-limiting exercise within my programming has been prevalent ever since that presentation, so let me explain why…and how.

For those of you unaware of what “self-limiting exercises” are, let me explain in my own words.  A self-limiting exercise is an activity or exercise done that promotes good posture, strength, control, needs minimal coaching, AND is blatantly obvious when you do it wrong.  On many of these activities, the exercise itself falls apart completely if posture, balance, control, or function is lost.

Jump rope is one such activity.  Think about it, when you lose posture and get all schnarffy while skipping rope, you’re going to trip it up on your feet and be forced to re-start.  When you re-start, you generally set up with good posture, regain mental focus, and do the necessary things needed to get more skips on the next try.  Jumping rope is one of the best examples of self-limiting exercises.  It really helps paint the picture of what activities should be classified as self-limiting and what should not.

One of the biggest reasons why I use self-limiting exercise is the fact that there is minimal coaching needed to perform these exercises.  I’m a big fan of choosing exercises that need minimal coaching and allow the body to react to the stimulus in a positive way that promotes good posture, balance, control, and function.  If you have to over-coach a certain move, you should probably ask yourself if there’s a different exercise selection that will benefit the client more.  With many self-limiting exercises, the exercise itself will be the teacher.  Call me lazy, but I think that’s neat.  Less coaching, the client figures things out on their own, and the end result is better posture and function…winner, winner, chicken parm dinner.

That’s a big reason on WHY I like self-limiting exercise.  Now let’s talk about how to add self-limiting exercise into your programming.  Here are three good examples of how I personally use self-limiting exercise in my programming on a regular basis.


1.     The Dysfunctional Client – If you’ve been training or coaching for more than a week, you probably have a good idea of what I’m talking about when I say “the dysfunctional client”.  This is the client that has very poor movement patterns, maybe some non-medical related pain, and just flat out has issues.  Giving this individual a typical strength and conditioning routine is just not acceptable.

Modifications have to be made. snarf

Foundational work needs to be done.

This client needs to be doing primarily floor-based exercise and building the foundation from the ground up.

So, how do you give this client a good workout?

In this situation, I would be spending about 80-90% of my time on foundational work.  I’d be hitting soft tissue, joint mobilization, re-patterning movement patterns, teaching basic forms of stability, and other basic stuff to rebuild this person’s base.  That’s truly what this client needs, but I also like to give them what they want as well.  Adding a 5-10 minute “finisher” to their session will give them the feeling that they were destroyed in the gym.  Using self-limiting exercise is a great way to accomplish this task without compromising the work you just did.

Be sure to check your basic movement screens throughout though.  I will check basic movement patterns, like the Active Straight Leg Raise, before, during, and after the workout.  As long as the movement pattern didn’t get worse after choosing those self-limiting exercises, I’m pretty confident I just made them better, and gave them a little butt whoopin’ in the process.


2.     The Athlete Coming In on a Red Day – So what do I mean by a “Red Day?”  If you’re familiar with HRV, or heart rate variability, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If you’re unfamiliar with HRV training though, a “Red Day” is basically a day your nervous system is shot.  There are many factors that can play into this like lack of sleep, boozing the night before a session, the onset of overtraining, and countless other variables to list here.

red light

The nervous system is tricky to monitor, but if you’re not using HRV, this would be one of those days you go to the gym and you just don’t have it.  You’re mind is right and you’re at the gym ready to train, but once you get going, you just don’t have your normal intensity.

This would be a perfect day to scrap what you had planned and really focus on a few self-limiting exercises.  If your nervous system is fried, you’re going to have a tough time with some of the exercises I’m going to list below, especially the bottoms up kettlebell work.


On days like this, it’s better to keep the volume and intensity very low for that day.  Adding additional stress on a nervous system that’s already shot isn’t necessarily a good thing.  Take the day to focus on recovery and maybe add a few self-limiting exercises that focus on balance, posture, and control without elevating the heart rate too much.  Bottoms up carries, Armbars, and Turkish Get Up work are fabulous for these days.  You can still train, but now you’ve acknowledged the current stress in the body and will benefit from not crushing it in the gym that day.


3.     General Population – The general population is being referred to as the average client coming in your doors with some dysfunction, but not completely mangled.  With this kind of client, we will program based around goals, current movement capabilities, and other factors that may help us get them from point A to point B in a timely fashion.

There are many, many ways to get creative with self-limiting exercise in the programming with the general population.  Sometimes I’ll keep the self-limiting work to the end as a “finisher.”  Sometimes I’ll add these into a circuit.  Some of them may even be active recovery or low-level work between higher intensity activities.  Get creative with these.  Have fun with it.  After all, it’s an exercise that promotes great characteristics and requires minimal coaching.  Your clients will love them and they’ll add variety into your programming.  Toy around with these exercises yourself and you’ll start to get an idea of where these can be placed in your workout to get some awesome results.

There you have it…three completely different types of clients all using self-limiting exercise.  We use self-limiting exercises pretty much on a daily basis with elderly clients looking to gain more functionality to top-end athletes trying to become great at their sport.  Like I said earlier, check your weakest link movement pattern before, during, and after the program.  As long as the pattern doesn’t get worse, you’re probably making decent selections with your programming.  Keep working and making tweaks until you find the exercises that improve the pattern and that improvement sticks the entire time, from the beginning to end of session.

Here are my top five favorite self-limiting exercises:


High Bar Prowler March – Make sure there is enough weight on the prowler.  If you find the right weight, you pretty much have to do this right.  If you’re posture and alignment are off creating energy leaks, you’ll struggle to push the thing.  Fix the alignment, and you’ll be able to march the thing with good form.  Minimal coaching for maximal results.


Bottoms Up Carries or Turkish Get Up’s – Get a weight that is able to be controlled, but challenging.  If you choose too light of a weight, your grip strength may hide certain defaults going on in the body.  However, if you choose a weight that is challenging, your alignment has to be dialed in, or the bell simply falls.  Keep the bell up and work on developing symmetry within the body.


Low Box Work – Just about everyone can handle doing a little work on a 4-6” low box.  We love adding shuffles, taps, and steps to the low box for conditioning.  This works well for a vast majority of the clients out there, and I rarely see it negatively effect movement efficiency.  This is a great way to get the heart up safely and with minimal impact.  As the client begins to fatigue, they usually just slightly trip up on their feet and coordination goes to sh**.  As with any self-limiting exercise, this would be a great time to catch your breath, regain focus, and only work to your capacity so you can complete the exercise.  Feel free to mix it up with different patterns on the box.  Check out the shuffle below, but get creative and see what you can come up with that will give your clients a workout without compromising movement.


Upper Body Sprinting – I love adding different forms of upper body sprinting.  Taking the legs out of the equation completely takes out the impact of sprinting.  Not everyone is ready for the impact of running or sprinting, so working on form and mechanics are great to do from the half kneel and tall kneel positions.  Upper body sprinting is another great way to add in some conditioning without compromising movement efficiency.


Farmers Carries – Once again, weight is a big deal with this.  If you’re using a weight that doesn’t demand your focus and attention, you’ll be able to fight the weight and perform with compensation.  However, load this carry up and you’ll quickly notice that stacking the joints and fixing alignment makes it much easier.  If you start to fail on this one, usually, you simply just drop the weights.  The only thing I caution here is to be careful with the set up.  If your client has trouble deadlifting or has no business deadlifting yet, make sure to set the weight up on boxes or something else to prevent them from doing a bad lift to get into position to actually carry the weight.

What are some of your favorite self-limiting exercises?  Leave a comment below.  I’d love to add some more to my arsenal 🙂