So This Functional Movement Thing…What’s That About?

There are several popular workouts floating about that claim to be “functional fitness.” Some of them I like. Some of them I think are dangerous. To avoid starting an Internet war, I won’t name names. Let’s just talk about functional fitness and what it means to some people and what it means to me.

What kind of weight lifting is functional?

There are several reasons I will never do certain types of exercise programs. First, I am well into my third decade and in that time, I have figured out things I like doing and things I do not like doing. I do not personally enjoy lifting heavy weights, flipping tires (or even touching tires), or jumping from the floor onto a box (one of my favorite students found Fuse Pilates DC after she broke her foot doing just that). Second, I don’t want to hurt myself, and it’s possible that I would if I did those things. Third, that doesn’t sound fun (or necessary).

But there are fitness proponents out there who say those activities are “functional movement.” Now, I don’t know about you, but in my day-to-day life, at no point have I ever had to lift a 70-pound weight over my head. Maybe you travel a lot and your suitcase is really heavy and you have to lift it up to put it in the overhead compartment. I’ve found that checking your larger bags makes you friends on the overcrowded airplane. And, packing light is next to godliness. They charge you extra if your bag is too heavy.

But, I digress.

Functional movement is defined as: movement based on real-world situational biomechanics. These movements usually involve multi-planar, multi-joint movements which place demand on the body’s core musculature and innervation. 

That doesn’t sound like lifting weights at levels or reps that are not part of most people’s “functional movement.” They’re certainly not part of many real-world situations unless you’re secretly a Superhero. (If you are secretly a Superhero, please send me a message because I would like to meet you and hang out regularly).

As one of my favorite bloggers Katy Bowman puts it, it is potentially dangerous: “jumping into movements that require a lifetime’s accumulation of strength and skill will just set you up for an injury that will inevitably lead to a decrease in movement over time…People are taking jacked up bodies (Jacked Up: A clinical term for hamstrings that don’t lengthen correctly, computer-frozen shoulders, hip and glute muscles that don’t stabilize the pelvis, lumbar vertebrae frozen in flexion) and loading them with a ton of weight, in new planes of motion.”

Let’s look at two particularly interesting exercises from “functional fitness.”

1. The kipping pull up

This is a swinging pull up, meaning you use momentum to lift your upper body towards the pull up bar. This is a great way to throw out your back or tear your rotator cuff if you do it wrong. You’ll probably do it wrong at some point, especially if quantity of reps is encouraged.

I understand that most doers of this exercise recognize that it isn’t a traditional pull up. I can see how pull ups are functional. I enjoy a pull up. I have a pull up bar in the house. But swinging yourself to get there – that can be dangerous, especially if you’re deconditioned.

2. The snatch
The snatch involves lifting a heavy bar to your chest at the same time as you come into a squat, and then pressing the bar overhead as you extend your knees.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this exercise, except that I’ve search YouTube and see almost no instance of proper knee/foot alignment (knees should stay over the second toe of each foot).

And let’s not forget about elbows. If you’re brave, check out this highly-trained OLYMPIAN doing a similar lift and what happened to his elbow when his lift was slightly “off.” (WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC CONTENT – view at your own discretion)

Note that both of these exercise examples use momentum in lifting something heavy (in one case, your body, and in the other, a weighted bar). Momentum has a way of sending you off balance or out of alignment, negatively affecting your form, or worse, making you fall. Or maybe causing your elbow to bend in the wrong direction. (If you’re still cringing from looking at that link, I’d like to remind you that I warned you it was graphic).

If you break yourself doing a workout, it’s not very functional…

If you enjoy these types of workouts, be careful and find a really good trainer who is on you ALL THE TIME about your form. Remember that more reps don’t equal more benefit. Good form equals more benefit. And before you venture into these workouts, might I suggest trying Pilates, where we focus a lot of attention on the stabilizer muscles that can make these kinds of moves more safely attainable.

That’s just my two cents. I think for my workout, I’ll stick to Pilates – functional, multi-planar movement that builds strength, flexibility, and balance.

Staying hard core, Fuse Pilates-style,

Mariska

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All Comments (1)

  1. I do agree with it all. Your exercises of choice tho are well advance and even more used in Crossfit. A good reliable functional training trainer may use a Snatch one day after all the boxes were ticked first. A good functional system, in my view, will come from Paul Chek or FMS. I do agree that weight lifting of any kind needs to be access very well before doing so, which Pilates is a great way to begin, probably the best way. Get the body functional first so it can perform functional movements correctly. 😉