Functional movement is a topic that has been beat to death in the fitness and physical therapy industries.
It’s become a word that people can understand and relate to.
Hell, it’s in the definition of crossfit.* And it makes sense- exercise should be functional!
*(Crossfit definition, according to crossfit.com: CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.)
Here’s the reality… ALL EXERCISE IS FUNCTIONAL.
Everything you’re doing in a training or rehab protocol can be and should easily be justified with a simple explanation.
Sometimes exercise prescription is as easy as strengthen what’s weak, stretch what’s tight.
To give credit where credit is due, Buddy Morris, an old mentor and now strength coach for the Arizona Cardinals is the first person I ever heard say “all exercise is functional.”
Let’s say you have a 75 year old man who tore his achilles trying to run after the ice cream truck.
He had surgery 3 weeks ago and he is still in a boot holding him in plantarflexion.
He can’t dorsiflex his foot past neutral per doctors orders for another 2 weeks. When he comes to PT he’s doing open chain, no resistance ankle pumps with his therapist guiding him closely.
Is this functional? YES IT IS!
Much of the push for functional training has lead to people thinking more complex and complicated movements and parameters make something functional – but it’s not.
The simple, straight forward, classic movements that just drive capacity and help tolerance can be as functional as it gets.
For our 75 year old ice cream loving patient, his ankle pumps are a piece of the equation that will eventually contribute to his increased functionality.
His achilles needs to heal and the surgically repaired Achilles cannot be stretched at this point.
We need to gradually introduce load into the system – that is functional.
Second scenario, let’s say you have an in-season basketball player with patellar tendinopathy and a lot of accumulated fatigue.
You want to isolate and load their tendon while minimizing the amount of total stress and fatigue on the body.
The leg extension machine might be the best bang for your buck to allow the highest tendon loading with lowest total body fatigue.
Would some PT out there judge you for using it? Of course.
Would they be wrong? Probably!
The point here is to not judge a book by its cover.
I’m not saying ditch your squats for leg extensions and stop working on your balance and hip hinge patterns. I’m just saying, don’t be so judgey.
When it comes to legitimately improving someones performance, health, or whatever their goal is, whatever movement can help in that is functional – and in most cases most exercise has a place.
Usually things are not dichotomous like functional or not functional for someone.
Instead, it’s more a continuum where it’s spread across from being more functional to less functional for that person’s goal.
As you look to improve the function of your athlete, weekend warrior, or patient, consider what you want to achieve and what movements will do that the best – that is functional movement.
This topic has been covered by numerous other smart people and I have admittedly been influenced by their stance: