In the world of movement, the word “functional” has come a long way. It has morphed from a misunderstood term into an applied—and encouraged—way of training. Go ahead and google functional training, and you’ll find definitions that include words and phrases like purposeful, preparation for active daily living, whole body, multi-joint movements, and even fun and variable!

At Gray Institute, we agree that functional training should include all of those factors but should also include two key descriptors: context-dependent and individualized.

These descriptors are the foundation of Applied Functional Science® (AFS), which is the convergence of physical, biological, and behavioral sciences that allow practitioners to apply context and individualization in the training world and the prevention and rehabilitation worlds as well.

How to Tell if an Activity Is Functional

For something to be functional, we need to define the context. This means answering the question: “functional for what?”

Instead of using theory or what may be popular, AFS uses the following litmus test to define functional, as well as begin to provide strategies in developing techniques that are, indeed, functional:

  • Environment: Is it natural (functional) or unnatural (non-functional)?
  • Gravity/Ground Reaction Force: Is it being used (functional) or confused (non-functional)?
  • Mass/Momentum: Is it being leveraged (functional) or neglected (non-functional)?
  • Motion: Is it three-dimensional (functional) or one-dimensional (non-functional)?
  • Reaction: Is it a chain (functional) or a link (non-functional)?
  • Proprioceptors: Are they being facilitated (functional) or inhibited (non-functional)?
  • Muscles: Are they reactors (functional) or actors (non-functional)?
  • Joints: Are they integrated (functional) or isolated (non-functional)?
  • Task: Does it facilitate a subconscious reaction (functional) or conscious reaction (non-functional)?
  • Specificity: Does it facilitate transformation (functional) or stagnation (non-functional)?
  • Mobility/Stability: Are these attributes combined (functional) or segregated (non-functional)?

These parameters are scientific principles and should guide the techniques and exercises we use with our clients.

The more you learn about these principles, the more you can use them to improve your clients’ lives. These truths are the underpinning to all Gray Institute delivers.  In fact, these truths were the beginning point to 3DMAPS® (3D Movement Analysis & Performance System).  For something to be the best analysis for movement, it must be functional and actually use movement.

RELATED: What Functional Results Mean When You’re Training Clients Age 55+

Functional Movement Depends on Context

For something to be individualized, it should be based on success—not what our clients can’t do, but what they can do. It should also be based on relevance, meaning the movement should look and feel like what your client is training for.

For example, let’s take a functional look at the hamstrings of a football player. If we first assess the hamstrings by laying the player on the ground and ask him to perform an active straight leg raise, we just landed on the non-functional side of movement. If we were to train the hamstrings by doing some leg curls, we just landed on the non-functional side of movement again. Why? These exercises do not look like football.

Furthermore, when we compare leg raises and curls to the AFS functional movement test above, none of these activities meet the criteria for what is truly functional.  

For something to be individualized, it should be based on success—not what our clients can’t do, but what they can do. It should also be based on relevance, meaning the movement should look and feel like what your client is training for.

If this is how you’ve typically treated hamstrings, don’t be disheartened. Treating and training for function can and should be enlightening and full of opportunity. Here’s why: the hamstrings are muscles that react three-dimensionally to how the body is moving as a whole, with much of the time being upright with the feet on the ground.

Since it is inarguably true that many more football activities take place standing up rather than laying down, shouldn’t our assessment and training reflect these truths? If you are the football player—or anyone for that matter—the answer is yes. If not, we don’t achieve function, and, most likely, an injury will occur if our training does not match the context that we are training for!

3 Simple Strategies for a More Effective Activity

Fortunately, there are simple strategies that can help you take a non-functional activity and make it functional. They include:

  • Use both positions and motions that reflect the task at hand.
  • Make movements more integrated, using the Chain Reaction® of the body.
  • Tweak in all three planes of motion, especially since joints and muscles move in all three planes of motion.

For a real-life demonstration, take a quick look at our corresponding vlog. In it, we show some techniques for the hamstrings that reflect these strategies and the truths at the beginning of this article. Once you get started, you’ll find that the techniques make excellent sense because we started with the truth of the hamstrings and generated techniques from there.


If You’re Looking for More Truths of Human Movement, Don’t Wait to Enroll at Gray Institute

At Gray Institute, we believe that the truths don’t change. What does, though, is our understanding of the truths. The more we learn about Applied Functional Science's truths, the better our applications, techniques, and exercises become for our clients.

If you want fun and variable and context-dependent and individualized, for your clients, then we know that any of our certifications and specializations will be worth the information and investment. A great place to start is our 3DMAPS course. In this course, you’ll learn more about the litmus test we discussed in this article, the Functional Movement Spectrum, and other foundational truths of human movement that will transform your practice for good. Learn more by visiting the 3DMAPS course page or sending us a message for more information.

We look forward to hearing from you!