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Fitness With Compassion: 8 Lessons From Gary Gray and Gray Institute

Gray Institute inspires movement practitioners to coach with kindness, empathy, and proven training principles. Here are the eight most important lessons I learned from them.
Fitness With Compassion: 8 Lessons From Gary Gray and Gray Institute

Ego dominates the fitness world. Voices are screaming “I’m right! You are wrong!”. But there is one man humbly dedicating his life to empowering others despite all the noise.

His name is Gary Gray and he founded Gray Institute, one of the pioneering training institutes in the world. He’s serious about using movement to improve people’s lives, but he never takes himself seriously. Movement practitioners like coaches and physical therapists respect him for helping them transform their practices, but he only sees it as a privilege to serve others.

Gary Gray and Gray Institute's signature Chain Reaction workshop (source)

Why I am rooting for Gray Institute

I discovered Gray Institute during the darkest phase of my training journey. I was trying to heal a back injury. I was frustrated going from one physical therapist to another without any improvement. As a coach, I was struggling to empower my clients the way I wanted and was upset by the sales focus of my fellow trainers. Becoming stronger was my main source of empowerment in life, but I had to give up serious training for months because of my injury. Lifting turned from something I loved to something I feared.

Luckily, I was introduced to a physical therapist, Sign Li, who was also the lead instructor for Gray Institute's courses in Taiwan.  I started to be able to train again because of his effective treatments which were inspired by Gray Institute’s training methods. As I dove into Gray Institute’s courses like CAFS and Active Aging, their podcast, and public lectures, my passion for lifting was rekindled. I was able to reframe how I saw my body and see the possibilities of combining coaching with kindness, empathy, and proven training principles.

Sign Li has been a friend and an inspiration to me 

Seven Lessons From Gary Gray and Gray Institute

#1- Everyone is an athlete

The first time I visited Sign Li, he informed me that my appointment was rescheduled to after another “athlete's” therapy session. When I came for my appointment, I walked into the clinic expecting to meet a professional athlete. As the curtain was pulled open, I was surprised to see a woman in her sixties walking toward me! This shock was a good introduction for me to Gray Institue’s empowering culture.

Gary Gray argues that our conception of an athlete should not just include professional athletes who are on ESPN. This definition of an athlete disempowers people and convinces many that they are not capable of succeeding in fitness. To Gray, an athlete is “somebody who understands that what they've been given is their gift.”

With this definition, a patient in a rehab clinic, a newborn baby learning to walk, and an elderly person trying to stay active are all athletes who have been given the gift of movement,  In Gray’s eyes, it is their responsibility to harness it and become stronger to contribute to the world.

#2- Training principles don’t need to be overly technical

Gray Institute's training is based on Applied Functional Science. They focus on the chain reaction of movements instead of isolated muscle function. Seeing movements as a chain reaction means seeing the human body as an integrated and interconnected whole.  Changes in one part of the body will induce reactions in other parts of the body.

To see what this feels like, stand up and swing your arm up and to the right. Notice how your hip is rotating to the right and your left foot is turning inward. This is a perfect example of using the arm as a “driver” to drive the reaction in other parts of the body.  

An example of what to observe in the anterior chain reaction (source)

What I love about Gray Institute is not only how holistic their approach is, but it’s also how they can explain advanced biomechanical topics with simple language that your grandmother can understand!

Here’s an example of Gary Gray explaining the biomechanics and the chain reaction cause of low back pain. Instead of using complex words and principles, he pretends like he is the lower back:

“I don't irritate myself just to irritate myself. Something is going on in the chain reaction of the body that's causing this. Something at the shoulder, the thoracic spine, the hip, down at the foot, or anywhere in the body is causing abnormal stress on me.

And therefore yes, you can quiet me down and treat my symptom. But if you don't look for the actual cause and treat the cause concurrently, you missed everything.”

Isn’t it just lovely? By making this advanced knowledge accessible, they remove the power of coaches and enable patients to own the knowledge of their bodies.

#3- Start from the clients’ threshold of success

Instead of focusing on clients’ dysfunction, Gray Institue reminds coaches to start with clients' “threshold of success”- what they can do successfully now. This means helping clients do what they are already capable of. For coaches, this means asking questions like, “What are some tweaks of different training variables like load, direction, distance, or driver that can make clients’ future success inevitable?”

We can use the threshold of success to reframe how we think and use not only the knowledge but also words, body language, or even eye contact to empower people receiving our help. Help them realize they are already successful- because that is the reality.

#4- The client-coach relationship is a two-way “boomerang”

We often consider coaches to be the only ones influencing the coach-coachee relationship. However, Gary describes a coaching relationship as a “boomerang”. While coaches set out to empower their clients, clients’ dedication and progress also in turn empower coaches. For example, We can see this in the following clip of Scott, one of Gary Gray’s patients with cerebral palsy.

Gray Institute's Fast Function Series Part 6: Motivation/Empowerment

This is probably one of the best videos I’ve ever seen because it brings alive the impact an “athlete” can have on a coach. By pushing himself to get better at basic movements, Scott inspired and motivates Gary.

When I first started coaching, I thought that I was the "authority".  Over time, I started to experience the two-way boomerang that Gray talked about. These were the peak moments of my coaching career. A client suffering from serious scoliosis told me she could go days without feeling pain.  A high school student told me weight training gave her the confidence to take ownership of her life. My parents’ hiked to the top of a mountain for the first time after training for months. Seeing all these things happen gave me so much more strength to keep learning and wanting to help people with movement.

#5- Coaching is a privilege, not a power

Clients always thanked me for training them. But the truth is, I was always overwhelmed with immense gratitude for being able to help them. Gary Gray summarizes my experience in this interview well.

“No matter how they, he or she ends up here, I always look at it as a privilege, a huge privilege. I hope I convey that I'm not doing you a favor, you're doing me a favor. You're justifying my life right now. You think there's something I can do to create an environment that might make you do whatever you want to do better. And that is to me is an honor, an opportunity, and a privilege.”

Coaching indeed is a privilege to witness the transformation of the clients we helped.

Coaching indeed is a privilege to witness the transformation of the clients (source)

#6 Movement science is filled with paradoxes

To embrace the complexity of training science, Gray Institue has coined many oxymorons, which contrast otherwise opposing ideas.  One example is the word “mostability,” a combination of the words “mobility” and “stability”.

“All movements are part mobility and part stability. Functional movements differ, but for each, there is an optimal combination of mobility and stability that produces the MOST-ABILITY…One without the other is sure to bring poor quality movements and potential injury.”  

The action of our scapula during arm movement is a good example of mostability.

Our scapula must provide a stable foundation for the muscles that move the humerus.  But the scapula must also move on the ribs to have full motion of the shoulder complex.”

A few more examples:

  • integrated isolation:- a way to “isolate or emphasize and strengthen a particular region while it's integrated with the rest of the body” to make training more functional
  • complex simplicity:- refers to coaches' responsibility to understand complex problems and knowledge but deliver it in a way that is simple enough for clients to understand and execute
  • independently dependent:- clients understand that they are capable of training their bodies independently, but they can trust that their coaches will always be there to support them when they need it
  • Cause of the cure- referring to the cause of the injury can be the cure of the injury

#7 There are no “wrong” exercises

The human body is complex and multi-dimensional. It is impossible to claim that one movement's execution is right or wrong for everyone. Gray Institute argues in their signature course CAFS that “There are no wrong exercises, only wrongly prescribed exercises.” They urge coaches to consider the unique condition of each client and prescribe exercises that induce the chain reaction he or she needs.  

Abandoning our ego and our need to be “right,” we can learn to approach training with curiosity and open-mindedness.

#8 We can explore the human body with a sense of mystery and wonder

Our understanding of human anatomy is limited. Ideas about human function today might be proven wrong tomorrow. These uncertainties can be scary, but they can also be beautiful. Gray Institute uses its unique lens to help us understand this beauty.

For example, traditional textbooks use specific and technical language like “eccentric and concentric phases” to describe what happens in the motion of a squat jump. Built on this knowledge, Gray Institute inject a sense of wonder into their ideas with “transformational zone” and brings it alive with more inviting and powerful language.

“Transformational zone is an intriguing place of function where the critical masses of neuromuscular skeletal function all come together in a mysterious and miraculous way. When you harness the power of this phenomenon, you can create recovery strategies that truly help your patients achieve their movement goals.”

Gray Institute reminds us to be humble and embrace the mystery of the human body. They encourage me to see everyday human movement with wonder. Walking, breathing, sitting. These ordinary movements in themselves are miracles of the human chain reaction.

Our everyday movements in themselves are miracles of the human chain reaction (source)

Inspiration for more than fitness

Gray Institute brings unprecedented empowerment and compassion to the training world. They provide unique perspectives on the human body. Their coaching philosophies start with their love for humans and desire to help everyone be their best selves.

I don’t coach fitness full-time anymore, but what I learned from Gary Gray and Gray Institute continues to inspire me in every aspect of my life.  Their broader approach to fitness enables me to see that I'm not just doing something for a paycheck but doing something connected to a deeper purpose.  It also enables me to connect more deeply to people around me and realize that we are all part of a human community with a shared vulnerability and desire to be loved.  

When people share their vulnerability with me and give me the chance to serve them, I remind myself how honored I am to witness others’ transformational journeys.

After all, we are all athletes in life.