Square 1 System: The Compensation Kryptonite

I recently listened to a podcast with two highly respected professionals from the health and fitness industry. The first, an internationally renown physical therapist, and host of the podcast. The second, an athletic performance coach with countless professional athletes under his tutelage. It was a fantastic episode, one in which I found myself agreeing with them on nearly everything, nodding my head to the extent of repeatedly losing my ear bud. 

But then they got onto the topic of compensation patterns, particularly how they go about identifying and correcting compensations. The discussion was on coordination in gait. One of their examples eluded to a hypothetical athlete with irregularities across multiple joints, eg. the ankle and hip. The question was posed: When faced with multiple flaws, how do you go about identifying which of these was the root cause and which was a secondary, downstream effect? My nodding stopped… Their answer (paraphrased):   

[At the end of the day we’re guessing. Everyone in our industry is guessing. It’s informed guessing, but you need to do trial and error to find which will ultimately clean up the movement. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 2 weeks.]

Now I’m in stark disagreement. The “best guess” mindset is one coach’s conscious, subjective, and biased opinion attempting to decode another athlete’s vastly complex and engrained nervous system. It’s a losing battle every time. Now I’m yelling back at the podcast, “There’s no need to guess when you have Square 1 at your disposal!” I once heard Square 1 described by Coach Dan Fichter as “interviewing the nervous system”. Now that I’ve learned it, I see how perfectly that embodies the Square 1 System. 

The Square 1 System, created by Shawn Sherman, takes any guesswork out of the equation. If done correctly, there are no presumptions or biases when finding the origin of a compensation pattern (or the threat). You let the athlete’s nervous system show you the phase of gait, the joint, and even the exact joint action that the body deems unsafe – the threat. Then, the magic happens. You rid the body of that threat and move onto the next one. 

Clear enough of these threats and the results are unlike any other. Veteran Square 1 pros have never ending stories of people regaining range of motion, becoming pain free, achieving performance levels never before capable. The list goes on. As a Square 1 newbie I’ve already seen incredible outcomes. 

I did not guess what was causing these athletes’ limitations. I let their nervous system lead. Find a threat, clear the threat, repeat. In fact, Cyrus didn’t even tell me about his knee pain at the start of the session. We were simply “Squaring up” to enhance his sensory input before that weekend’s game (as seen with his teammates’ 10 degree, 5% improved peripheral vision). I did nothing to directly address his knee, but clearing over 75 threats had his nervous system in a much healthier state, and viola! His knee pain was gone. 

Now, back to my podcast. If these very bright, very accomplished coaches represent the best of the traditional methods, and the best is still guessing, we’ve got problems. Traditional methods are full guesses, trial and error, and taking weeks on end to make meaningful changes. Traditional methods are giving hardware solutions to software problems (that’s some Square 1 in crowd lingo). Traditional coaches and therapists use their eyes and experience to guess problem X is caused by Y and will be alleviated by exercise Z. Simply do exercise Z three times a day for the next 6 weeks and all your problems will be fixed… maybe. Or maybe this is one of those trial and error situations and then you spend the next 6 weeks eliminating another possibility. Later in the episode they said:

[The best information we can get is from the athlete. Then we make an informed guess.]

They got that first part right. We let the athlete (and more accurately the athlete’s nervous system) show us the solution. As for the second part, there’s no need for guesses, no egos, no biases or assumptions, just results.

So my friends, leave tradition behind. Welcome to the future. The future is Square 1.

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