Functional Movements are No Simpler

I should warn you, this post is a bit geeky, so be ready for it.

Einstein said “as simple as possible and no simpler”.  What does it mean to

Remember when I promised to kill you last? I lied.

not make anything simpler than it can be?  Does it mean that everything needs to be worked in the most base and basic manner possible, for everything to be reduced to its individual elements or to the lowest common denominator?  Or, does it mean that there are structures and systems in the world that may not be individual elements, but nonetheless are as simple as they can be to still maintain their identity?   Could it mean that there may indeed be very complicated systems and structures in place, but as complicated as they are, still are as simple as possible.  I think that what Einstein was getting at was the latter, not the former.  Now more importantly, how does that apply to your fitness?

Lets take a look at the formula for all CrossFit Workouts of the Day (WOD’s): Constantly Varied Functional Movements performed at High Intensity.  Specifically we are going to look at the Functional Movement part.  Next time, we’ll tackle why we constantly vary things and after that we’ll look at what intensity is and why it is important.

What is a functional movement? The simplest way to put it is that they are movements that spontaneously arrive out of our everyday life.  You are going to perform functional movements with our without a gym.  The basic functional movements are standing up, picking up something heavy and putting things over your head.  In gym terms, that means Squats, Dead lifts and Presses.  Every single time you get up off of a seat, a toilette, the floor, or out of your car you have just done a squat.  When ever you shovel snow, take the groceries out of the trunk, or pick up your kids, you have dead lifted.  When ever you reach up and put the bottle of Makers Mark on the back of the top shelf of the pantry so that the kids can’t reach it,  you have done a press.  All these things are functional movements and every single day of your life you will do them or something very similar to them.  So if  you’re going to do them anyway, why not be good at them, right?  I think the case could be made that you NEED to be good at them, because to the extent that you can’t stand up, pick things up or put things away, you are not able to live your life.  You are becoming decrepid.  This state of being decrepid is most easily seen in a nursing home, which are scary and depressing places full of people who can no longer take care of themselves.  But becoming decrepid has much less to do with being old than it does with not being ready to take on what the day throws at you.  This is  symptomatic of a typical American’s daily life, which at the very least involves a lot more sitting than anything else.

The other thing about functional movements is that they are irreducible.  They are as simple as possible and no simpler.  What I mean is that if you break down a functional movement to its individual elements and train those parts, the end result will not be nearly as effective as performing the more complicated, but as simple as possible, functional movement.  For example, if we took a basic squat and decide that rather than doing one exercise, the squat, we would instead isolate each of the muscles of the body that the squat works we would be at the gym all day first of all.  We’d have to do leg extensions, leg presses, leg curls, calf raises, sit ups, back extensions, and thigh abductors and adductors.  That is a lot of leg exercises. Not only that, the end result would not be as good as if we just did the squat and trained our body the way that it works already. And we haven’t even (nor are we going to right now) looked at the greatly increased metabolic response that a squat produces as opposed to a littany of individual isolation exercises.  So, can we take apart a functional movement and isolate each individual muscle? Yes.  Is that too simple? Also a resounding yes.

Now, I can hear the objections starting already… “But squats aren’t safe.  I’m not supposed to dead lift.  Those exercises are dangerous!”  I’ve heard them all.  Let’s make sure that we all understand what we are saying first and foremost, starting with what is and is not safe.  The most unsafe thing that anyone can do is nothing.  Doing nothing is infinitely more unsafe than doing almost any type of exercise.  The number of people who hurt themselves because they have become increasingly decrepid is far greater than the number of people who hurt themselves as a result of exercising.

The next most dangerous thing someone can do is to do non-functional exercise near max capacity, or working in ways that your body is not designed to do.  Exercises like lateral raises or hamstring curls come to mind here.  No one ever isolates the hamstring while moving anything!  The hamstring is part of a chain of muscles that support your entire body and work in concert with other muscles.  Similarly, no one ever holds anything up at a 90 degree angle from their spine and out to the side or in front of them.  That is a very inefficient and unstable way to support anything.  The only time I remember seeing anyone do that was in that Movie Commando with Arnold in it.  He was holding some slimy rat of a bad named Sully guy over a cliff with one arm straight out in front of him and said, “Remember when I said I was going to kill you last? I lied.” Then he dropped him.  He probably only did that because his shoulder was about to give out.   So these non-functional exercises are not only dangerous for the person performing them, they are also not good for bad guys who piss off Arnold. While these exercises can surely serve a purpose in a rehabilitation setting, they are not typically safe things to do at a maximum load, or even below a max load.

As we move up the chain of very dangerous to not so dangerous, the next link is functional movements performed with poor form.  I don’t mean horrible form, but poor form.  The general idea is right but there is room for improvement.  Even with fairly heavy weights, as long as there are some basic cues in place, the Olympic lifts and dead lifts and squats can be performed with relative safety.  Here is where a good coach like we have at CrossFit Lancaster comes in handy, where we can make sure that your form is sufficient to do the lift safely.  This does not mean, though, that your form has to be perfect before you can move a bar.  Like any other sport, it needs to be good enough to get the job done safely.  Imagine if only people with a perfect swing were allowed on a golf course, or only those with the perfect free throw would be allowed to play basketball.  If this were the case, Jim Furyk and Shack would never be allowed to play.

Finally, the least dangerous thing you can do is functional movements performed with good technique.   These movements are as  safe as they can be because they simply mimic the way that your body moves all the time, we just add load and intensity to that movement.  Can you get hurt? sure you can, just like you can get hurt playing any other sport or doing anything else.  Do the risks of maybe getting hurt outweigh the benefit of training for broad and general fitness?  No way, not in a million years.

I told you this was a bit geeky, but it is fun to get a bit geeky sometimes.  Next time, we’ll look at why we vary things constantly.

Until then

– Tim

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