As a coach I’ve noticed a lot of ambiguity surrounding what “functional movement” is.
My take is very simple. Looking at specific movement patterns is a red herring; rather, let’s look at the results of particular movement and work backwards to identify the extent of their functional benefit. It boils down to one question:
Will doing this make me move better?
Let’s work with some examples. People often debate whether Yoga is functional movement. Opponents will ask “when are you ever, in real life, getting into Warrior II?” Which is to say, when else are you in a split leg stance with arms fully extended and parallel to the floor? Surfing aside, I might agree with the argument.
But, if we take a step back and ask ourselves whether doing Warrior II improves our overall quality of movement beyond just that particular pose, I think the answer is a resounding yes.
Core-to extremity control, rotational stability in the torso, and split leg stability in the hips are things that will make almost every aspect of your movement better and more efficient. You’ll be better at picking up and putting away groceries as you reach and rotate your torso, better at playing a pickup game of volleyball as you lunge and bump, and better at standing, because your back doesn’t have to work as hard when you have the body awareness and core stability that Warrior II can strengthen. Yoga is functional movement.
Will training the seated leg press allow you to move better in ways beyond the leg press itself? Not really. Improvement in the seated leg press will seldom if ever carry over to other movement like the squat, deadlift, or sport specific patterns like jumping and sprinting. The machine effectively removes the core and hip stabilization requirements that are so requisite to most other leg movement. The seated leg press is not a functional movement.
The squat, by comparison, which we do every single day when we get in and out of chairs, among other things, will make us move better. It will increase joint mobility and bone mineral density and increase all aspects of core strength because of the full body coordination required to execute it properly. The squat is functional.
So, the next time someone asks about functional movement, flip the question around and ask them whether or not it’ll make you move better. Easy.