Functional Movement Patterns in Fitness

You may have heard the phrases "functional exercise," or "functional movement," and wondered what they mean. The word "functional" is thrown around a lot by personal trainers and fitness instructors without a whole lot of explanation as to what functional movement patterns are, why they qualify as "functional," and what role they play in enhancing overall wellness.

Jarlo Ilano, a physical therapist, orthopedic clinical specialist and the managing director of GMB Fitness, an online workout destination that focuses specifically on helping people move more efficiently, has all the answers to your most pressing questions, along with straightforward guidelines on which basic movement patterns you should focus on when trying to improve your health.

What Is Functional Movement?

Functional movement lunges
Cecilie_Arcurs / Getty Images

The term "functional movement patterns" is only confusing because, by nature, it's unspecific. When personal trainers say, "We're focusing on functional fitness today," only to take you through a slew of upper and lower body exercises, it makes sense that you might scratch your head and think, "So is every exercise a functional exercise?"

"Functional, by definition, means relating to certain tasks, and in this case, the task is being a functional human being with the ability to use your body to do what you'd like it to do, whether that's a particular sport or hobby, or running around with your loved ones throughout the day."
Jarlo Ilano, physical therapist

Being a "functional human being" is different for everyone. A professional athlete needs to be able to run, jump, and crouch without pain or limitation, while a parent needs to be able to pick up their kids, play at the park, and carry groceries. The movement patterns required for these activities aren't all that different.

"When you think of functional movement patterns, you should look for movements that engage your whole body in a variety of different stimulating ways, in ways that wake you up from the usual sitting and stationary postures that are so common during the workday," says Ilano.

"Functional movements involve coordinating your upper and lower body with areas that alternate from being stable to moving, and back again." says Ilano. So lunges are functional because they require full-body coordination, stability, and strength. Biceps curls aren't functional because they lack full-body mental and physical engagement.

Functional Training Benefits

Ilano explains, "The main difference between functional training and other, more common movements, is that exercises such as biceps curls or leg extensions attempt to isolate a particular muscle. Now, this can be great, and even necessary when recovering from injuries, but these isolations tend to treat the body as a series of parts rather than a whole."

Your body is a beautifully designed machine, where all the parts are intended to work together. Ilano says, "A workout consisting of isolated movements will create a stimulus within those parts, whereas a more functional movement encourages the use of your whole body at once."

Think of yourself as an athlete. Athletic coaches are known for saying things like, "You're going to play the way you practice." In other words, if you practice sloppily, don't push yourself, and constantly make mistakes without correcting them, you're going to experience the same sloppy, sluggish, mistake-ridden play during a game.

As a human athlete, you're playing the game of life. If you don't train your body to move effectively as a fully innervated single unit, it's not going to be able to crouch, slide, duck, or change direction effectively when you need it to.

Functional exercises are tools you can use to help you "practice" effectively and efficiently "play" the game of life.

If you're used to a very static, isolated style of training, switching to a more functional workout will feel different. As Ilano's clients have described to him, you're likely to feel better connected throughout your body, instead of feeling worn out or fatigued in certain body parts.

Another common phrase Ilano hears? "I feel I've used muscles I didn't know I had!" That's exactly the point. The goal of functional training is to train all of you, not just individual parts.

3 Functional Movement Exercises

So what are these elusive functional movement patterns, and how can you start training for functional fitness? At GMB Fitness, Ilano focuses on "locomotion patterns that take your body through different directions and angles that are especially helpful for learning where you have weaknesses that need to be shored up."

They focus on three specific exercises, each of which involves several movement patterns, and each of which has a series of modifications and variations.

The Bear Crawl

The bear crawl involves all fours crawling. When you work on different bear variations, you develop strength through your shoulders, back, arms, and legs, while enhancing hamstring and calf flexibility, spinal and limb stability (particularly at the shoulders, knees, and elbows), and overall mobility.

The Monkey

The monkey involves side hopping from a squat position. You enter a deep squat (hips dropped low behind and between your legs, knees fully bent, spine neutral, and arms on the ground in front of your feet). Then maintain this low squat position while using your arms to help you hop laterally to each side.

The Frogger

The frogger involves forward and backward hopping from a squat position. You again enter the deep squat, but this time you hop and move forward and backward while maintaining the squat.

Both the monkey and frogger exercises and their associated variations help develop core strength, shoulder girdle strength and stability, dynamic stability of the spine, hip flexibility, hand and wrist flexibility and strength, balance, coordination, and motor control.

So with just three moves—the bear, the frogger, and the monkey—you're essentially testing your entire body from head to foot, identifying your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to how you move, and developing the strength, flexibility, and coordination necessary to be a functional human being.

How to Begin Functional Training

It's bound to seem a little weird to incorporate these moves into your workout. Chances are, they'll feel awkward and surprisingly challenging at first.

But rather than forcing your body into positions and patterns it's not ready for, it's important to change your mentality about the goal of exercise and training. "All too often, people approach exercise with the old trope, 'no pain, no gain,'" says Ilano.

This leads to burnout, further injury, and a general dislike of exercise. To get away from this, treat movements and exercise as opportunities to learn about yourself and to progress and improve at a pace that naturally ebbs and flows, rather than one that's forced.

In other words, enjoy the journey and take your time rather than hitting the gym hard for a couple of weeks before burning yourself out. If you're consistent, you will see results—possibly greater results than you ever imagined possible.

By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.