I want to discuss why we do the movements we do in CrossFit. If you’re a CrossFit OG or if you’ve attended the Level 1 seminar before, this won’t (shouldn’t) be new info to you. I’ll also admit that these are not J-Earley original thoughts and you can in fact find this info floating around the CrossFit Journal archives (side note: this is actually a pretty good resource for all things CrossFit). However, I know that several of you haven’t heard this before and why it may seem intuitive as to why squatting is good for you, there are actual scientific reasons why they’re good for you.

Admittedly, “functional training” and “functional movements” are buzzwords in the fitness industry right now. Lots of folks claim to use “functional training” in their exercise routines and you can find a plethora of youtube videos of people balancing on one leg while throwing medicine balls or doing squats on bosu balls and other stuff like that, all claiming to be “functional” exercises. Now, I honestly believe that there is a time and a place for EVERY form of exercise so I’m not going to say these are bad exercises, but I would place them into a rehab/prehab category more so than true functional training. Those type of exercises deserve their own article so I won’t go any more into that other than to say they’re great for coming back from injury or for someone that is EXTREMELY deconditioned, but they’re not going to bring you to true elite fitness.

In CrossFit, we say functional movements have some common characteristics. Without further adieu…

  1. Natural – Functional movements are natural in the sense that whether or not gyms, barbells, and fitness equipment existed, these movements would still remain. For example, squatting has been around long before someone every invented the barbell. At its core, squatting is simply sitting down and standing up. What’s the best way to tighten a loose screw on an Airdyne that’s about 4 inches off the ground (I just did this recently so it’s fresh in my mind)? Drop into a squat, tighten it up with the screwdriver, stand back up. I didn’t suddenly start doing this only after having been taught to; it’s natural. We’ve all seen toddlers drop into a perfect squat to pick up their favorite toy off the floor and no one taught them how to do it. It’s just natural. That body was designed to move like that. Squatting, lifting something over your head, picking something up from the ground, these are all movements that are natural and we’d be doing them whether the gym existed or not. On the other hand, no one would be doing this in real life if someone hadn’t first invented the stability ball (again, I’m not saying they’re bad exercises, just not truly functional).
  2. Universal Motor Recruitment Pattern – This simply means that the neurological demands of functional exercises tend to transfer very well to other movements and exercises. To get right to it, becoming more proficient at squatting, deadlifting, pressing, lunging, jumping, throwing, etc. will make you more proficient at just about every other physical task. We could go down on a real deep sciencey rabbit hole on this one, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll leave it at that.
  3. Essential – If you can’t squat/deadlift/press/carry there’s a good chance that your quality of life as it relates to your physicality is going to be severely hurt. Functional movements are essential in that if you can’t do them well, you will struggle as a physical being. It could be argued that you actually CAN’T do life well if you can’t perform these functional movements.
  4. Safe – When performed correctly and progressed appropriately, functional movements are inherently safe because they are movements in which the body moves how it was intended to move. Now, the main reason folks get hurt when practicing functional movements is because there’s a certain amount, sometimes a lot, of underlying dysfunction and/or they did not progress them properly. Unfortunately we’re not all as supple as we were when we were toddlers, so we often do have to spend a certain amount of time restoring proper function before adding a lot of load/speed/intensity to functional movements (hence why we do a lot of rehab/prehab exercises in our warm-ups). Although I could also argue that properly executed functional movements without any external load added to them (i.e. air squat and deadlifts with a PVC pipe) could be some of the most therapeutic exercises when could do for restoring proper functioning. Bottom line, functional movements are safe.
  5. Compound Yet Irreducible – Similar to number 2 above, this one is a little hard to grasp, but consider this: if you improve your squat strength will you also get stronger at doing leg extensions? Probably. If your leg extension weights go up will you also get stronger at squatting? Probably not. Squatting has a leg extension component, a significant one actually. That’s why squatting will help you improve your leg extension strength. However you can’t REDUCE the squat to a leg extension and expect to get the same results going the other direction. Bottom line: you can’t train muscles using non-functional movements and expect to get the same results that you would if you trained the same muscles using functional movements.
  6. Core To Extremity – This might be my favorite one. In short, functional movements originate in the core and radiate out to the extremities. Let’s define the “core” as all of the muscle that attach to your pelvis. Mainly we’re looking at your abs, lower back muscles, and all the muscles surrounding the hip. Here’s a great, relatively simple example of this principle: the American kettlebell swing. In the bottom of the movement do you raise your shoulders first and then extend your hips? No, you extend your hips first, generating power using your “core” muscles, and then that power radiates out to the shoulders which finish the movement. Throwing is another perfect example of this principle. Watch this slo-mo video of a major league baseball pitcher and notice how the power originates in the hips, transfers into the rotation of his shoulders, then the elbow, and finally a little flick of the wrist. To do it in reverse order just wouldn’t work. That’s also why when practicing the snatch or clean you shouldn’t bend your elbows until after your hips and knees have fully extended; to do otherwise would violate this core to extremity principle.

That’s a lot of info about functional movements and how to define them. I think CrossFit does a great job of summing all of the above up into a short statement that truly identifies functional movements…

Functional movements are any movement that can move a large load, a long distance, quickly.

Think about that statement and you’ll probably agree that is a great way to describe functional movements.

Now you know what functional movements truly are and how to identify them. Next time we’ll discuss WHY we train with functional movements and the benefits that come from using them (although, you could probably start to guess).