Functional Movement Instruction: Prioritizing Movement Quality in 2020

Those that founded CrossFit have always promoted it as an inclusive lifestyle and training methodology, open to all willing participants, all around the world, all the time. No doubt the internet and social media networks have contributed substantially to its international expansion, but CrossFit has been able to reach an increasingly large and diverse consumer base largely because of its emphasis on functional movement performed in a structured and supportive group training environment. The functional movements employed in the CrossFit training context generally reflect the biomechanical capacity of Homo sapiens—a social species that survives and thrives on communal participation—and this training blueprint has changed how individuals see exercise. Fitness can be accessible and fun, and yield results at the same time.

Another important principle of CrossFit programming asserts that coaches (and gym owners) need to strike a balance between: 1) safety; 2) efficiency; and, 3) efficacy. Another way to read this is that some injuries, some redundancies, and some programming imperfections are acceptable in the CrossFit training context. After all, CrossFit was (and still is) somewhat revolutionary in its approach to fitness and the pursuit of various health and wellness goals. Phases of trial and error may have been necessary to get the ball rolling, and guided by this principle, early CrossFit boxes appealed primarily to young and enthusiastic potential clients that were hungry for performance improvements by offering a certain degree of daring-do and fitness excitement. As the CrossFit consumer base has grown (significantly) over the past decade, however, this principle has become obsolete and counterproductive—take a look at your Instagram or Facebook feed for the latest fitness memes, GIFs, and gym goofs—and reliance on same could do more harm than good for gym owners that wish to remain competitive in the global fitness market of 2020.

The clientele at CrossFit gyms now includes members of all ages, lifestyles, occupations, economic demographics, and levels of fitness exposure, many of whom are not competitive fitness athletes that aspire to be podium finishers at the 2020 CrossFit Games. Moreover, these clients are all individuals with pasts and entirely distinct needs when it comes to training accommodations. Whether caused by genetics, lifestyle, accident, sport, etc., the movement quality of modern humans is extremely poor. The need for personal fitness and mechanical guidance is greater now than ever before, and to meet this reality, contemporary CrossFit coaches and programmers can no longer get away with an approach to functional movement instruction that accepts more than a nominal margin of error for safety—especially where barbells, dumbbells, and high-speed gymnastics movements are involved. Rather, gym owners and those programming CrossFit workouts need to prioritize movement quality above all other considerations. This requires a greater emphasis on safety through more rigorous mechanical instruction that is tailored to the individual.

The first step in realigning programming objectives is correcting coaches’ and clients’ assumptions regarding the definition of “functional movement”. Functional movement can be defined as: basic sequences of biomechanical coordination that the healthy human body is naturally and structurally capable of performing for some necessary or desired purpose. The ability to perform these movements developed over thousands of years, out of necessity; they were essential physiological adaptations that made it possible for early humans to find, neutralize, acquire, transport, and prepare the means of their subsistence. In other words, early humans employed functional movements because they had to for survival. One thing functional movements were not consciously utilized for, at the time they entered the human physiological repertoire, was recreation. Although humans have been performing and competing in sport for a very long time, participation in functional fitness—the intelligent pursuit of optimizing human physiological performance—is a luxury known almost exclusively to modern humans.

Because we have removed functional movements from the context in which they arose (i.e. necessity), there is an overwhelming inclination to associate or supplant functionality with simplicity. The “so easy a caveman could do it” mentality reigns supreme. But there are a couple problems with this toxic attitude. For one thing, it ignores the fact that human beings are cognitively sophisticated biological machines that create movement through incredibly complex systems of levers, fulcrums, control centers, and power generators. It also refuses to acknowledge that humans—who are complicated enough—are all physiologically imperfect, and their imperfections are unique, whatever their root causes. This presents issues in the CrossFit training context because not all humans have musculoskeletal systems that are mature or healthy enough to perform functional movements to the ranges of motion and positional requisites established by CrossFit Headquarters. The difference between complying with movement standards and optimizing movement mechanics is significant, and it is all too often overlooked by CrossFit coaches that are trying to get a group of clients through an hour-long training session. Some of our imperfections are within our control, and others without, but they are there, and as CrossFit’s market share of the modern fitness industry continues to extend outwards, a much larger number of risk-averse potential clients (that move imperfectly) are going to be stepping into local boxes seeking competent instruction, individualized attention, and results.

Ironically (and sadly), the larger volume of clients, which inevitably causes bigger class sizes, create an incentive for floor coaches to favor session efficiency above safety and efficacy. But, especially when safety and efficiency are in conflict, the balance must tip in favor of safety—the foundation of which is movement quality. It may take time, but deliberately addressing clients’ specific movement deficiencies through corrective exercises and movement variations (not just changing the weight on the barbell, so to speak) will pay greater dividends for clients and gym owners alike in the long-run by delivering sustainable results for all CrossFit participants. “Gainz” can be made while addressing technical faults, but the major improvements in strength, power, and endurance capacity can only come once mechanical issues are resolved.
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