Functional Fitness: Evolving Past “Pattern Training”

What makes a squat a squat? 

Plato would say that squats are squats because we made them so, not because squats exist conceptually in the universe. In other words, humans created the idea of a squat, and now it exists. 

We love to make things simple, even when they’re not. That’s why we turned something complex like human movement into “patterns.”

Most people do best by making things easier, myself included. However, movement patterns do not address all of the needs of a human being. Thus, functional fitness leaves too many gaps for people who want to improve how they move their bodies. 

It’s a good start, but the finish line is far, far away.

Functional Fitness ≠ Real Life Movements.

According to Mayo Clinic, functional fitness trains your muscles to safely and efficiently do everyday activities. For instance, because you physically squat down to use the bathroom or sit at a desk, you should train that movement. Boom! The law of specificity in action.

Functional fitness uses a pattern-based approach to dictate programming and exercise selection. So, for instance, you should practice deadlifting if you want to get better at picking stuff up off the ground. Or, improve your bench press if you want to get better at opening doors explosively.

The problem? Humans are not designed to recognize patterns; our bodies respond to inputs and act accordingly.

The World Delivers Infinite Variability. Are You Ready For It?

Your ability to move is governed by your genetics, structure (bone morphology), tissues (connective, muscle), environment, and nervous system. 

Moving is complex.

Squatting in the gym may prepare you for squat-like motions outside of the gym, and there’s a boatload of research to support that. Google “squat research” and dig in. However, a squat is only relatively transferrable to other squat-like motions. 

If we took the time to examine the capacities of your ankles, knees, hips, spine, etc., we would find that squats don’t address all of those needs. This is why we would add deadlifts, lunges, and so on. 

The problem is this still doesn’t address all of the functions of these joints, either in isolation or in conjunction with one another. For instance, few exercises train the knees to travel over the toes (on purpose), yet we do this all the time. 

We don’t prepare the ankle to roll even though it can (and should) without immediately spraining (caveat here for traumatic injuries).

Using a more extreme example, there are no exercises to train your shin to rotate outwardly and your femur to rotate inwardly simultaneously. You might recognize this as cutting in sports/running, also called knee valgus. 

What you see on the right is (with the big red line) is commonly performed when you decide to change directions while running. 

So, the question is, are your knees going over toes or knees caving in wrong (what you see above)? 

Perhaps we’re approaching fitness incorrectly to prepare you for the potential demands you put on your body.

Rethinking Function.

Function means purpose. What is the function of your movement system? 

To move! How do we do it? That’s still up for debate, but I think the Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) organization does the absolute best job explaining to people how they should move and why.

Let’s use your ankle as an example. It rotates, moves up and down, rolls, and so forth. Can you train all of those movements at once? Yes, you can, but not with standard exercises in the gym. Standard ankle-loading exercises (e.g., squats) generally work the ankle joint in a semi-fixed plane. 

Instead, we use CARs (controlled articular rotations). CARs are joint circles that allow you to explore a given joint’s workspace but in a slow, methodical, and intentional way.

When you perform ankle CARs, you can move and load the entire ankle joint through its most extensive range of motion possible. This will better prepare your ankle for all the demands placed on it in all of the ranges of motion possible. Ultimately, this is how you should be viewing all of the joints in your body.

We wrote a more in-depth article on CARs here, and you can watch us run you through an ankle CAR below.

We’re Not Anti-Patterns. We’re Pro-Variability.

Regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, you should be able to move your body in various ways, pain-free. That means you need to train and move your body in all the ways it can move. 

Movement is an ever-changing task based on whatever demands you’re putting on it. So, it behooves you to be good at handling all the variables life will throw at you. 

You can take the pattern/functional fitness approach and hope it covers all your bases. For example, there is nothing wrong with squats and deadlifts (we use them when appropriate). But you need to ask yourself, “Is this exercise giving me all the things I need to be strong, resilient, mobile, and healthy?” If not, you can take the FRC approach and ensure it does. 

The choice is yours.

Brian Murray, FRSC, FRA
Founder of Motive Training

Fight Pain. Gain Strength. Get Results.
Personal Training and Online Coaching in Grand Rapids, MI, and Austin, TX. 

Editor’s Note: Let me clarify that I’m not against squatting, deadlifting, and so on. We use these exercise variations in Motive Training all the time. But we know when, why, and how to implement them when our clients need them.

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