February 28, 2019

Functional Fitness: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it Matters

In my early thirties, I noticed something that shook my self-concept. Many of my friends had infants and toddlers. Although I was a doctor of physical therapy and had been teaching yoga for over a decade, it was sometimes uncomfortable to hang out on the floor with babies.


To play with these little ones required reaching far and diving quickly, sitting for long periods of time, crawling and scrambling, alternating being on my belly and on my back, etc. All this while making sure an animated, 30 pound creature didn’t stick her finger in an outlet.

Lotus Pose Wasn’t Helping.

There were no carefully folded blankets and placed blocks to support this process. (Props such as these being integral to many of the alignment-based yoga practices I am skilled in).

I thought that — as a yogi — I’d have a great advantage in “ground movement” over the more muscle-bound lifting crowd. Gym lovers often ended up on my physical therapy table for overuse injuries or muscle / tendon tearing related to limitations in basic range of motion.

Instead, babies were kicking my butt.

Around the same time, I was furthering my study of developmental and functional movement as a physical therapist. 

I started to understand that the yoga pose known as malasana could be a really “functional” shape. Billions of people get into this deep butt-to-heels squat daily to defecate or wait for a bus or examine something on the ground. Asana uses body weight and variable positions in relation to the ground (sitting variations, kneeling, lunges, single leg, etc), which is also highly functional.

Malasana – Deep yogi squat

Dubious Functional Value, Anyone?

Yet, there were countless other yoga poses (and cues) — that we arguably spent more time doing —of more dubious functional value: Warrior II, for example. What was the exact functional value of a precise heel to arch line up and 90 degree bend to the knee? What about other aesthetically pleasing but performative poses? I also noticed — once I started teaching it in the yoga classroom — how many yogis struggle with basic moves like standing from being on the ground without using their hands.

I also was paying attention to the strength training and fitness worlds, and noticed parallels. There was an increasing gaze to functional movement inside the general fitness and strength training world. But many practitioners remained focused on the performance of over-the-top feats, weight quantity, reps or arbitrary alignment in “Look at how impressive I am!”, less functional moves.

Defining Function

What is the definition of “function” anyway? Function is bit of a moving target. 

What is functional to my life may not be functional for yours. “Function” for a Cirque de Soleil performer is incredibly different than function for someone recovering from a stroke or thriving with a spinal cord injury. As a physical therapist, the individual’s needs get my highest attention.  

For group fitness (yoga classes included), we have to be more generalized. The following is therefore not a perfect list for everyone, but it forms the foundation from which we can examine function in our own bodies:

6 Questions to Ask about the functional state of your fitness

  • are you able to do what you need to do every day with as minimal assistance as possible? (for example, climb the stairs in your home (stairs are a single leg quarter-squat) without hands or with minimal use of hands or while carrying a heavy object). 
  • what about to do what you love to do day to day (i.e. if you love to kayak, can you pull the kayak out of the shed to the car roof and to the water without hurting your back?)
  • are you able to sit comfortably in a variety of positions on the floor without furniture and with minimal props (pillows, blankets, etc)?
  • are you able to stand, kneel, squat, sit on your heels, and even lie down without pain, with minimal assistance from hands, with or without something heavy in your arms?
  • can you get up from the ground hands-free? or with just 1 hand to assist? can you do the same while lifting a small child (or the equivalent)?
  • can you sprint, crawl, climb, “slither”, and more if the circumstances arise?

Many of these items require hip, ankle and toe mobility — strength within your fullest range of motion — in a way rarely practiced in yoga or strength training. Toes in particular, need to be moved and used through their full range of motion. Because so many non-yogis train in highly supportive shoes (barefoot or truly minimalist shoes are a different matter), we lose out on this essential, ground up functional mobility.  

Functional Fitness

A true Functional Fitness experience tackles the questions above and breaks down multi-part, ground to stand movements into their component parts:

  • range of motion
  • mobility and control
  • strengthening and load (weight added)
  • repetitions for the sake of self-mastery, not performance
  • adaptations to the individual’s needs  

What is your real movement motivation?

If you are someone who has said “I want to be lifting X amount of weight when I’m 100, or I want to still be doing yoga when I’m 90.”, I encourage you to take a birds eye view. Specific, performative movements don’t matter to our quality of life nearly as much as true function.

“I want to be able to get on and off the floor until my last day.”

Dr. Ariele Foster

For me, I say “I want to be able to get on and off the floor until my last day”. I want to delight in playing with babies and toddlers (my great-great grandchildren?), to lift and carry my grocery bags up multiple flights of stairs, to dance without pain, and to strength train or practice a yoga that supports my life, not some external ideal or a set of cues that look pretty.

Where this is going

How functional movement shows up in the context of a yoga practice, while maintaining a deep bow to the history, lineages and essence of yoga, is a central question to my life at this time.

It is also a central question to our Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship, a deep, 12 module (basically a semester) supported study of yoga anatomy. To find out more about this online immersive experience, please click here.

To see my evolving thought process on functional movement in action, please join me for Functional Fitness class in DC, Thursday nights at Mint Studios (update — no longer on the schedule).

And to watch a compendium of functional fitness moves, please check out this YouTube playlist, inspired by MovNat.

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