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What is a ‘Functional Movement’ anyway???

November 22, 2012

In this instalment of “Dr. Dre Says“…my now infamous facebook rants, I question the utilization of the term ‘functional’ as it is currently used in the manual therapy and training world when categorizing movements.  As always, whenever I post things that challenge what people are doing….it will inevitably be met in one of two ways, praise or hate.  If for some reason you feel that I am questioning one of your ‘tenants’ of how you go about your job as a trainer/therapist…I might be.  However that is not an insult to YOU personally.  If you find that you are taking it as such….then YOU do not understand the scientific method.  Further, you most likely have fallen into a dogmatic system that, because of a set of beliefs you have acquired, you hold as unyielding.

@DrAndreoSpina: “Being ‘passionate’ and being ‘correct’ are not one in the same. Nor does conviction breed truth…nor YOUR experience reality.”


“Defining a movement as ‘Functional’ should stem from the DESIRE 2 accomplish the movement 2carry out a FUNCTION – So ALL mvmnts r ‘Functional’”

I am not trying to play devil’s advocate here (although the world of manual therapy & ‘fitness’ would benefit from more ‘devils’ imo), but I am struggling with the current utilization of the word ‘Functional’…which may sound funny coming from a guy who uses the word in 3 of his systems. Here is where my confusion lies….

func·tion·al (fngksh-nl) adj.
a. Of or relating to a function.
b. Of, relating to, or indicating a mathematical function or functions.
2. Designed for or adapted to a particular function or use: functional architecture.
3. Capable of performing; operative: a functional set of brakes.func·tion·al (fngksh-nl)

vb (intr)
1. to operate or perform as specified; work properly
2. (foll by as) to perform the action or role

It would appear that by definition, to define a movement as being ‘functional’ it is to say that the movement itself carries out a desired function (ie. Goal). Thus I would argue that NO particular movement, or set of movements, are “functional” unless they are prefaced with the DESIRE to carry out a function. In these terms, ALL movements are functional.

Who cares? Well, I don’t think this to be a matter of simple nomenclature. I frequently hear people in the training and manual therapy world dismissing some movements as being ‘non-functional,’ while defining others as ‘functional.’ This leads to the omission of various training techniques and a sole concentration on others. My friend and colleague Dr. Greg Lehman used a better descriptive term in a conversation that we recently had by labeling some movements as FUNDAMENTAL…..I much prefer this term as it implies that there is a set of movements that lie at the core of most other movements (ex. Squatting, Lifting from the ground, pressing away from the body, pulling towards the body, etc). While it is important for these movements to be trained and mastered, it does not imply that they should be trained whilst excluding other movements (that may have previously been defined as ‘non-functional’).

An example: SQUATTING
It is of course important to squat. It represents a FUNDAMENTAL movement that provides a basis for various other movements. Problem: I have heard a recent argument that bilateral squatting is not a useful exercise because it isn’t ‘functional’….why? Because most sports/activities occur off of a single leg (skating, running, etc) and thus it would be more ‘functional’ to ONLY do single leg squatting. In addition, squatting to maximal depth isn’t ‘functional’ because most movements don’t require said depth. This line of thinking is flawed. While it is true that most activities (not all) are performed off of a single leg stance, and it is important to train single leg activities, the basic bilateral squat provides a plethora of benefits to the overall goal of being a strong, efficient, and effective mover. The bilateral squat, for example, provides an opportunity to utilize a lot of weight/load thus inducing progressive adaptation to all of the connective tissues and muscles. Huh? This means that because we can increase the load far beyond what is possible with single leg training, we can adapt the tissues (muscles, fascia, bone, ligaments, tendons, etc) to accept said load…and thus the loads involved in single leg tasks will be trivial and thus less likely to lead to injury. Regarding the depth…well the flaw in this argument goes back to the definition of functional. Is it important for a mountain climber to be able to generate strength from a full knee flexion position? Well….yes, if the next target position requires lifting off of a fully flexed knee. Is it important for a dancer to have strength in a full knee flexed position…yes, if the performance requires it…..etc. A slightly more difficult question….is it important for a hockey player to have strength from a fully flexed knee? Answer…still yes…because if they are able to control a greater range of motion (ie. They are mobilie) they are better able to take advantage of potential to kinetic energy transfers (this topic requires a discussion all on its own).

Thus it is INCORRECT to dismiss a movement as non-functional just because YOU don’t require the movement in YOUR life…how self centered are you anyway 🙂

This discussion also speaks to the idea of screening movements. If we imply that there are a set of ‘functional’ movements, then we are inherently also implying that anything outside of this ‘set’ is non/less functional, and thus unimportant movements. There is NO SET of pre-determined movements where if the person is able to perform them they can be defined as more or less functional than another human being. Nor can the best movers in the world perform all of the pre-determined movements that we often ask them to do in our various assessments…..I know this because I have worked with many HIGH LEVEL movers (professional dancers, acrobats, Cirque du Solei performers, climbers, etc) who were unable to do these movements on their first attempt……is it because they are not functional? NO. It is because the ability to accomplish a task (function) is determined more by neural grooving to said task vs. a ‘functional capability’ to do it. Which brings me to my next point…..

If all movements ‘can be’ functional in light of a necessity/desire to accomplish a certain task, then is it not more important for us to screen/assess articular health in order to ensure that accomplishing said task CAN BE accomplished safely?….further that there would be no ‘tissue’ hindrance which may prevent the nervous system from learning the desired movement?

I am not knocking any particular approach in this discussion…only questioning the utilization of what seems to be a confusing term. Should we screen ‘fundamental’ movements…….meh….we don’t know (repeat – WE don’t know)….I would not knock anyone for trying to define an optimal way to move. Although we should understand that we do not yet understand enough to make a conclusion that one way to move is necessarily better than another in many cases. Wrt training, I will argue that it is in fact important to train the ‘FUNDAMENTAL’ movements…..but we should not do this whilst excluding all other movements. We should use them as a base on which to grow. The body desires increasingly complex neurological tasks in order to build on our motor programs, thus there is no limit of what ‘functions’ we should try to teach our bodies to accomplish.

“4 movements 2b ‘functional’ they should be unrestricted such that the body can freely travel in the intended direction & adapt 2any obstacle”

Dr. Dre Spina


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lori permalink
    November 22, 2012 5:08 pm

    Obviously a bilateral Squat, being easier on the body than a one legged squat , is useful if only to allow someone to do it with more vigor and repetition than they are capable of at the time, especially if there is a rehab component needed- but I would also think there must be some value due to the laws of symmetry of the body if there is a weaker leg/hip ?
    Re- passionate – I am a yoga teacher, and every time I read a bio that explains how “passionate” someone is about yoga It makes me crazy. Refining a contemplative practice of any kind involves cultivation of a clear and truthful heart and mind, not an obsessive, attached one- just. As scientific inquiry requires an unrelenting search for truth.

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