What makes a movement “functional”

With so many questions about what a functional movement is, we must have a clear understanding of the word functional to know why certain mo
December 8, 2023
What makes a movement “functional”

Functional fitness. Functional movements. Functional training. Functional bodybuilding. 

So what the heck is functional?

The term functional gets thrown around and used in the fitness space ubiquitously. Since the term is used so frequently, it seemingly loses its meaning. 

CrossFit holds the creed; “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” So are burpees functional? What about riding the echo bike? And olympic weightlifting? 

With so many questions about what a functional movement is, we must have a clear understanding of the word functional to know why certain movements are either functional or not. 

Func·tion·al   adjective

There are a few characteristics we must consider to categorize a movement as functional rather than simply attractive. 


Functional movements are natural. Natural ways of moving our body, whether they are practiced or not. We perform functional movements in the gym that mimic real life. Getting off of a toilet is squatting. Picking up groceries is a deadlift. Getting off of the floor; pushups, situps, and burpees. Walking, carrying objects, and running are all natural too. You will be able to easily identify these movements in any workout routine, and CrossFit is full of them. In contrast, most of the machines at a big box gym don’t train natural movements. 


Functional movements are essential to our lives. The mantra, “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is true in all areas, notwithstanding our own fitness. As we age, we will lose the ability to perform certain tasks. We can practice these movements, aka exercise, and extend our ability to perform tasks. Therefore, if we deem a movement functional we are prioritizing the desire to (and the ability to)  do that movement for a long time. 

In CrossFit, we have identified 10 general physical skills that are essential to independent living and natural movement. They are cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. A regimen develops fitness to the extent that it improves each of these 10 skills. We are as fit as we are competent in each of these 10 skills. And since we have a limited amount of time in our schedules, it behooves us to utilize movements that train and practice these variables together, rather than separately. In other words, we choose movements that give us the biggest bang for our buck. 

Here’s an example: I can train accuracy and coordination by throwing a dart.. or..

I can train accuracy, coordination, strength, flexibility, power, speed, and balance by performing a power snatch. Therefore, CrossFit workouts will use a power snatch and not dart throwing. Bigger bang for the buck.

Fitness = Power output

In CrossFit, we define pursuing fitness as “increasing work capacity over broad time and modal domains.” Said another way; a high level of fitness is the ability to do whatever we want for as long as we can.

For an example; I would argue that an 80 year old that can do pull ups is fitter than an 80 year old that cannot. Move a heavy load (body) a distance (to the pullup bar) in a short amount of time. To be able to accomplish this, the 80 year old who can do pull ups presumably could do more pullups when he was 50 years old, and even more when he was 30. The same 80 year old can play with his grandchildren and get up off the floor with ease. Aka, he can do a burpee. If he can do that at 80, presumably he could do burpees with ease at 50 and 30 years old. A burpee is a function of power. The same 80 year old can run a mile, hike, move furniture, ride a bicycle and more. Each, a function of power.

Since we adhere to that definition, we can define work capacity as (Force x Distance) / Time. The quicker we can move a heavy load a long distance in a short amount of time. This is power output. Power output is natural and essential at all ages and all fitness levels. 

The greater our power output at any given time of our life, the greater chance we have of having a higher output as we age. This ties into the decrepitude principle; “if you don’t use it you lose it”

Therefore in CrossFit, we will prioritize movements that generate high power output. These movements are functional, and also, essential. 

Using all three aspects of functional; Natural, Essential, and Power, movements like these are paramount to a well rounded fitness program: Box Jumps. Pull Ups. Deadlifts. Echo Bike. Clean and Jerks. Snatches. Thrusters. Rope Climbs. Burpees. 

So, applying these three characteristics; natural, essential, and power-output, take a look at the movements in your workout routine. Are they functional, or simply attractive? 

Many exercise programs utilize functional movements. CrossFit positions itself uniquely in the regard that a CrossFit training program utilizes all 3 aspects of functional movements to create workouts and training plans. There are good functional fitness programs out there, but bang for the buck, CrossFit delivers the highest degree of functionality.

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