I Tried Functional Range Conditioning, and Here Are My Thoughts
I may have stayed too long at the online yoga party. Gotta love how convenient it is, but without the guidance of an in-person teacher, I found myself skimping on strength, relying on my natural bendiness to get deep into poses… and tweaking my shoulder.
My solution was to mind-over-matter it with some good ol’ strength training, so I joined my local gym. When I explained my situation to trainer Dylan Elgas, he suggested I try Functional Range Conditioning (FRC). He’s an FRC mobility specialist who swears by the system, both for fitness and, in the most inspiring thing you’ll read all day, as part of his toolkit for managing multiple sclerosis.
FRC was developed by Andreo Spina, DC, a shade over a decade ago as an antidote to what he terms, with characteristic bluntness, “useless flexibility.” The program blends flexibility, strength, and nervous system training to develop mobility, strengthen joints, and enhance bodily control. Its proponents even say it may prevent injury and speed healing.
Sure, I’ve heard that “motion is lotion” and “movement is medicine,” but how true is that, really?
Mitch Broser, DC, a chiropractor and Functional Range Systems instructor, explains, “Cells called fibroblasts are responsible for the rebuilding and reorganizing of connective tissues,” he explains. “These fibroblasts need to be told how to repair an injury. We can ‘talk’ to them through movement.”
Moving through wonky ranges of motion is like giving your fibroblasts a bad blueprint. “I guess this is how it’s supposed to work,” they shrug, and build a joint with a confined range of motion. Dr. Broser warns that this can lead to repetitive loading of tissues and, over time, joint degeneration. FRC works by sending the right message to fibroblasts—a carefully calibrated dewonkification of movement patterns.
Sounds like it must be super-fancy right? Well…
“Scrape your chin along your collarbone,” Elgas instructed during my first FRC class. “Now imagine you’re pouring water out of your ear onto your shoulder. Trace the sky with your chin. Ear to shoulder, chin to chest—get a good double-chin going. Now retrace your steps.”
I gotta be honest, my first thought was, …these are just neck circles.
Actually, they’re Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs), a standard part of mobility training. They’re also the foundation of FRC, a veritable Swiss Army knife with assessment, diagnostics, maintenance, training, and rehabilitation applications. A full-body CARs routine is a comprehensive exploration of each joint’s range of motion, from your cervical spine to your ankles.
It’s one thing to do a couple neck circles; it’s quite another to do them mindfully for three straight minutes. After a while, I started to notice nuances in the movement, and once my time was up, I had a whole new understanding of my neck. We moved down my spine, and then it was time for shoulders and scapulas. I approached these CARs with cautious curiosity. Putting on a shirt or accidentally rolling onto my left side while sleeping was enough to make me yelp. How was I going to handle three straight minutes of CARs on my injured shoulder?
Elgas was way ahead of me. He explained that CARs are intended to explore and define the pain-free range of motion. If it hurts, he told me, back off until it doesn’t. My left shoulder CAR looked less like a circle and more like a lumpy Pac-Man, but I couldn’t have felt more empowered: I can move my shoulder in a way that doesn’t hurt!
The fact that I could do FRC with an injury highlights its biggest strength: inclusivity. There’s no base level of fitness required to get something out of it, and the goal is pure function. Sure, the level I’m practicing at doesn’t quite satisfy my cardio and strength needs, but it’s easy enough to add FRC to an existing workout routine without burning out.
After class ended, Elgas gave me my homework: Do CARs every day. He recommended a schedule of “breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with snacks;” I settled on “morning coffee and popcorn during a movie.” Daily CARs helped me cultivate awareness of all my joints, so that two or three times a week in class, we could focus on my shoulder.
Elgas designed a program using the FRC toolkit, which consists of a bunch of intimidating names: Level I, II, and III CARs, PAILs/RAILs (Progressive/Regressive Angular Isometric Loading), PRH/PRLO (passive range hold/lift-off), and the positively scary-sounding “eccentric neural grooving.” I’ll spare you the physiology lesson—basically, they’re isometric exercises in strange positions that you hold for what feels like forever.
“Ultimately, doing all these different training system protocols is going to lead to us carving out more of a joint capsule, layering in quality connective tissue, and then increasing muscular control, endurance, and strength in those positions,” Elgas explains.
What the training protocol looks like depends on the needs of the student, the imagination of the trainer, and whatever tools are at hand. One session had me laying face down with my arm bent behind my back like I was being arrested, using internal shoulder rotation to push my fist into my tailbone. During another, I laid on a yoga mat with my arm at a 90-degree angle; Elgas gently pushed my arm toward the floor while I resisted, like a weirdly nurturing version of arm wrestling.
The goal of FRC is bodily control, but there’s definitely a strong mentorship aspect as well. If the idea of someone intently scrutinizing your joint mobility freaks you out, FRC might not be for you.
My favorite exercise involved leaning against a wall with my arm overhead like I was hitting on some invisible partygoer, sliding my scapula toward my spine and holding it at low effort. After seven or so minutes, my muscles were shaking, and I ran out of energy. When I stepped away from the wall, the most amazing sensation of relief rushed through my shoulder and down my arm.
It’s been three weeks, and although my shoulder isn’t 100 percent, it’s a lot better. I have no doubt that the isometric loading has affected my muscle and connective tissue, but the biggest change, I’ve realized, is mental. Giving myself permission to utilize a pain-free range of motion in class made me realize there’s no reason to do things that hurt outside of class. Turns out mind-over-matter was the wrong attitude; mind is matter.