When you hear the term functional movement, you’re probably a bit confused. What is functional movement? What does it mean? Why are there so many articles and podcasts with different views?
I aim to end this debate once and for all, and will put out a definition of “functional movement” that works for everyone! Of course, there will be some gray area. And that’s the point! We need to memorize less and think more! Parrot other people’s thoughts less, and individualize more. Follow fads less, and teach fundamentals more.
What “Functional” is NOT
Functional is not:
- a specific exercise
- a specific diet
- a specific treatment
Defining Functional (once and for all)
Here is a definition of functional that will cover every single person, from a well-conditioned athlete, to someone in a wheelchair:
Functional movements are not specific exercises (squats, deadlifts, or even lunges), they are movement that support the patient’s or client’s needs.
That’s all there is to it. Here are three examples to support my definition.
- High School softball player:
- Softball players (dependent on position, but generally similar) require the ability to move sideways, forwards, and backward quickly, and also must rotate during their activities. They need to be able to sprint relatively short distances, and have plenty of rest between max-effort bursts. However, each athlete will have different deficits. It’s why we use the FMS!
- Call center worker with no desire to exercise, but two young children:
- This client must endure long hours of sitting, using a computer, and driving to and from work. They must also bend and rotate while picking up their children, hold and heavy loads in one hand (groceries).
- War veteran confined to a wheelchair:
- This client requires the upper-body strength to maneuver through every day life. When out of the wheelchair, they must rely on purely upper-body strength to move.
You can quickly see the differences in exercise needs in these populations. A squat may help the first two, but is asinine in the final example. Conversely, having the massive upper-body strength to swing and move onto a bed, and in-and-out of a wheelchair wouldn’t be the goal of a mother of two.
Let me be direct for a second. Crossfit is not functional. Yoga is not functional. Deadlifts are not functional. Cue your hate mail! Look, I love to deadlift. But, it bothers my back a bit to pull from the floor, especially since I like early morning workouts. Going into a split stance allows me to train my lower half and core well, without having to risk losing a week (or more!) due to injury. Check out Michael Boyle’s article about NOT squatting. In it, you’ll see a female athlete dominating 80# kettlebell (in each hand) lunges. Further down, you’ll see and athlete with what looks like an 80# weighted vest, and 100# dumbbells in each hand.
What we saw in the split squat was that our athletes were using proportionally heavier loads than they had used in the squat. In fact after one year we saw that our athletes split squat and front squat were equal.
Keep that in mind for your athletes that spend much of their time pushing off one leg (running for instance).
Now, I include lunges in just about every training program I write. All of my clients walk, run, jog, or need to bend over to pick something up from the floor. But, I do not include hang cleans in my exercise programs for everyone. I don’t believe they’re going to do much good for my rotational athletes. They’re moving sideways and spinning, not jumping. Also, the mother of two may not want to deal with all of those technicalities. Maybe she will, but if she doesn’t why force her? She’s not training for the Olympics (in Jim Gaffigan voice)!
While much of the exercise programs for these three clients would be similar (barring impossibilities!), a true functional approach looks at the function of each individual.
It’s time we step away from pet exercises and favorite approaches and look at the person in front of us. What do they need? What do they want? THAT is functional. Their needs dictate the exercise program. And when those needs are met, you have a functional training program. Plus, you’ll get better adherence to plan since they’re seeing the results THEY want.