Functional Movement Is the Fitness Trend We Need

It’s time to relearn how to move properly through the world

MyMy guilty pleasure is sitting. I’m slightly ashamed at how much I enjoy it: Sitting on couches, sitting in coffee shops, sitting, finally, after a long run. If I’m not working out or sleeping, I’m probably sitting.

This propensity for sitting might be why I feel like a beached whale, laying on my side doing leg raises while simultaneously trying to point the toes on my elevated leg toward the ceiling. I’m at a stretching-meets-physical-therapy class in an Inwood office building, in the hopes of undoing all the damage modern society — and my near-constant sitting — has inflicted on my mobility. The one other person in my class, a woman who appears to be in her fifties, is silently circling her left foot in the air while propped on her right side, hips stacked. She’s better at this than me, but not by much. Throughout the nearly two-hour class, we’ll slowly roll a tennis ball under our feet, lay on our backs, and pull one leg over the opposite side of our body, and use a strap to stretch out our hamstrings while splayed on our backs.

Movement specialist Patrick Hogan leads the class, which he’s dubbed Good Moves, designed to help people of any age and physical ability restore mobility and flexibility in order to improve their balance, gait, and alignment — natural ways of moving through the world that we’ve lost through years of walking on flat concrete surfaces and, yes, sitting all the time.

“We spend a huge amount of our time sitting,” Hogan tells me. “We’re putting our body in the same position all day long... so much, that our body starts to maintain that shape.”

Our bodies are equipped with hundreds of joints meant for crouching, jumping, and pushing, says Hogan. Human feet, for example, have 33 joints. “They’re designed on purpose so our feet could conform to the contours and the shape of the ground we’re walking on,” he says. “It helps with our balance, our ability to tell where our body is in space.”

Shoes purposely constrict our feet, and as a consequence, prevent some of these joints from doing their jobs. And like the saying goes, if we don’t use it, we lose it. “We end up with solid blocks for feet that don’t do what they were designed to do,” Hogan says. “We start to lose our balance. We lose our natural walking gait because we’re compensating for really stiff feet, which can have effects all the way into your upper spine and your neck.”

It makes sense then that Hogan incorporates foot stretches into our lesson, instructing my classmate and I to slowly move the bottoms of our feet around a tennis ball on the floor. “Let your foot melt around the ball,” he says.

The foundation of Good Moves is functional movement patterns. These are exercises and stretches meant to help people perform everyday tasks easier. Doing squats, for instance, makes crouching down to pick up a dropped pen less of a chore; maintaining a strong core aids in balance.

Workouts which facilitate more efficient everyday motions are being incorporated in fitness programs at large. Instead of a focus on exercises which isolate a muscle or joint, such as a bicep curl, functional movements engage multiple muscles, mimicking the way we actually move around in daily life. As holistic approaches to wellness take precedence over more specialized, sport-driven areas of focus, disciplines like Crossfit and total-body conditioning are gaining favor as ways to train not for an athletic event, but for life itself.

“We spend a huge amount of our time sitting,” Hogan tells me. “We’re putting our body in the same position all day long... so much, that our body starts to maintain that shape.”

FFunctional movement was first used as a fitness concept in the late 1990s when two physical therapists developed an athletic test that consists of seven movements for experts to assess. Athletes are scored on their ability to perform each exercise — like a lunge and a pushup — with good form and without pain. The goal of this functional movement screen is to point out any areas of weakness and potential risks of injury.

In a 2014 review of scientific literature, the functional movement screen was found to be reliable overall if the person administering the screen (like an athletic trainer or physical therapist) is educated and has experience. The screening does not accurately predict athletic performance, researchers found. Whether it actually prevents injuries is also unclear, as multiple studies have found inconsistent results among sports teams. But the research does suggest that the screen helps trainers anticipate injury.

Functional movement started as part of this physical therapy assessment, but is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise on its own. The aesthetic-driven practice of bodybuilding in the 1980s gave way to a more democratized fitness culture in the 1990s, including at-home beach body workout videos, Tae Bo, aerobics classes, and the rise of spinning. Steadily, functional fitness training — a way of working out that focuses on functional movements — became its own trend. In a global study of fitness trends, functional fitness training was consistently listed in the top 15 trendiest movements from 2007 through 2019.

During this time, the pendulum began to swing away from a focus on building chiseled biceps and tight abs, Hogan says, and toward overall fitness and mobility. “I think [fitness] is moving more and more toward this idea of getting more movement into your life rather than being specialized,” he says.

As functional fitness was emerging, gym owner Christine Sturgis was working as a physical therapy assistant, incorporating functional movements into patient treatments. By the time they were ready to leave the program, many people wondered where they could find a workout similar to the exercises Sturgis was leading them through in physical therapy. So she opened her own fitness studio and developed a functional movement-infused yoga practice a decade ago to fulfill this demand. “People got tired of being injured and only treating that body part,” Sturgis says. “The foundation of functional movement is treating a whole person, and not a body part. What functional movement does is it puts the body in this holistic framework so that you actually are treating what’s causing the problem and its negative effects as opposed to treating the consequence of the problem.”

Sturgis’s classes are attended by people of all ages and fitness levels — not only those who have recently been injured — including many who see functional movement as a preventative measure to ensure mobility for years to come. Baby boomers, she says, lead the charge: As the demographic heads into their later years, they want to remain active. “When they’re reaching down for something in the bottom shelf of their refrigerator, they don’t throw their back out,” she says.

The focus on functional movement patterns doesn’t solely apply to older people, says Cedric Bryant, the president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise. Because modern jobs don’t require as much lifting and bending as they used to, it’s important to focus on functional movements to better perform everyday tasks, like walking, climbing stairs, and getting in and out of a car. Even children need to be taught the importance of natural, playful movements. “There’s a whole movement... of training kids to develop these functional movement skills early in life: running, bending, lifting,” says Bryant. “Kids [used to] climb trees, they would play hopscotch and tag — that really doesn’t happen at the frequency it used to.”

Functional movement has made its way into many popular workout regimens, from Sturgis’s yoga-based practice and Hogan’s bootcamps which incorporate lunges, squats, planks, and rows and HIIT circuits. A 2010 study compared functional training to traditional resistance training (like bicep curls and leg presses) and concluded that both training methods were “equally beneficial for increasing endurance, balance, and traditional measures of strength.” In a 2018 study, researchers followed 48 people between the ages of 18 and 66 over six months of a high-intensity functional training program consisting of aerobics, gymnastics, and weightlifting exercises. Both men and women saw significantly improved flexibility, long jump power, muscular endurance, and strength. Additional studies have found functional training to improve flexiblity in overweight and obese adults, to increase muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility in military personnel, and to potentially enhance mobility in older adults.

“The minute you can no longer get up and down off the floor, you can’t play with your grandkids or your kids,” says Katie M. Heinrich, an associate professor in exercise behavioral science at Kansas State University who has studied functional training, including the small study in older adults. “The minute you can’t get groceries, get up and down stairs, that’s when you’re going to live in a retirement community and have people take care of you. That’s the long range benefit of maintaining functional movement.”

In the near-decade she’s been studying functional fitness, Heinrich has noticed a cultural shift away from workouts that focus on isolated movements and instead “a growing awareness that it’s important to be able to do more with your body than just look good,” she says. Anecdotally, Heinrich says, once an ultra-runner she knows began incorporating functional movements into her training plan, she was less sore and able to run the day following a big race.

Still, some fitness professionals find functional movement’s focus on form as a means of injury prevention to be too limiting. “Humans naturally move in different ways to accomplish different tasks and identifying small variations in that movement as a ‘dysfunction’ may not be very useful or helpful,” says Joe Tatta, a physical therapist. When people squat to pick up a heavy box, they’re probably not monitoring their form to ensure the knees don’t extend past the toes, he argues. “Instead of training people to find this perfect neutral position, training people to move in and out of various postures with confidence and without fear and anxiety is really what we do in clinical practice.”

LLaying on my back at Hogan’s Good Moves class with one foot in the air, pulling on the ends of a strap which was wrapped around the arch of my foot, I felt self-conscious. I saw how Hogan had contorted his body into a 90-degree angle. I, on the other hand, could only bring my foot a fraction of the distance. Guilt washed over me when I realized how inflexible I was.

But I’m a runner, a triathlete, I later complained to Hogan. Shouldn’t that count for something? It does, he said. But running and cycling means I’m constantly repeating the same forward motions without any lateral movements. Being aware of the nature of my workouts and what parts of my body I might be neglecting, like inner hip muscles, means I can do exercises to correct any strain on my body.

Then, Hogan gets poetic. Human movement, he says, is like a river. The water maintains its shape, thanks to the earth it flows through, but over time, the water can erode rocks, riverbanks. The same is true of our bodies. “The environment we put our body into also starts to change our body,” he says. “If our environment is walking on streets and floors that are all flat, level ground, that’s the shape that our legs and our feet start to conform to rather than what would be required in nature.”

The days of hunter-gatherers are long gone, and the comforts of a modern lifestyle have impacted the way humans move. The goal now, many fitness experts believe, is to re-learn those movements we’ve lost.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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