Functional Movements

An Overview of CrossFit

IV. Functional Movements

The efficacy and efficiency of CrossFit is primarily based on the incorporation of functional movements in workouts. CrossFit defines nine functional movements for use in their workouts. These movements can be broken into 3 groups and then put in order of increasing technical difficulty. First, the bodyweight squat, front squat, and the overhead squat. The bodyweight squat is the foundation of the two lifts following it. Next, shoulder press, push press, and push jerk. The same concept applies to these three lifts as with the squat progression. Last, deadlift, sumo deadlift high pull, and medicine ball clean. Mastery or near mastery of the basic lifts should be achieved before heavy loads are used in following progressive lifts (Widman).

These movements are called “functional” because they violate no natural body mechanics and are used in everyday life ( From a kinesiology perspective, functional movements are purposeful movements accomplished by coordination of muscle groups throughout the body (Gill-Body 12). The human body is built to move this way. Using muscles effectively in coordination with each other is how the human body is supposed to work. Traditional strength training focuses on isolating muscles, working muscles across only one joint at a time. This is the best way to increase and focus the load on that one muscle, therefore tearing more muscle fibers, which will knit back together in larger stronger fibers then before. CrossFit movements and exercises also encourage muscle growth and strength gain. However, muscle isolation is unnatural and does not translate into the “real world” very well. Isolation training is similar to practicing swinging a baseball bat using only one hand, but then using two hands in the game. The basic swinging motion is the same, the stance, foot pivot, the hips and shoulders turning, etc., but the crucial difference in the hand position renders one handed swinging too different to be useful. Even though each muscle fiber is stronger individually, a isolation training program does not build the neural pathways, simply put, the coordination, which these functional movements do. 

Sometimes the term “isolation” training may be used interchangeably with “bodybuilding”, “strength training”, or “traditional” training. Using the terminology of “traditional training” when referring to isolation exercises in faulty at best; as isolation machines and exercises have been around for a great deal less time than functional movements. Traditional training should refer to the age-old process of moving heavy loads long distances as efficiently or quickly as possible.

Using multiple muscle groups builds strength as a whole. For example, your body is a “chain” of muscles, each muscle is linked to others, and with isolation training you are only using one muscle at a given time. When called upon to use muscles in conjunction, (read: in real life) the strength in your biceps doesn’t matter if your grip is not strong enough to lift a similar amount of weight. An excellent example of this is the leg press versus the squat. Both exercises are basically working the leg muscles. The leg press primarily trains the quads and hamstrings of the lifters legs. Those are the only muscles being used. This is not functional because those muscles groups are only isolated with the leg press machine, never in real life. By contrast, the squat uses the legs, hamstrings, back, abdominals, iliotibial bands, buttocks, and calves. A bodybuilder with a 585 pound leg press might have only a 345 pound squat.  This is because even though his legs can support greater weights, in the squat his back or core muscles are not strong enough to support the extra weight. When seated in the leg press machine, the core musculature isn't required and the lack of strength in those muscle groups isn’t relevant.