What Do We Mean By “Functional Movement?”

What Is Functional Movement?

Buzzwords in the world of anatomy and kinesiology come and go, just like any other area of study. Lately, I’ve been hearing more frequent references to the idea of “functional movement.” Interest in that subject comes from both those interested in physical fitness as well as those interested in rehabilitation of previous dysfunction. And as with understanding any new term, it can be helpful to gather some context for what we’re reading. In this article, we’ll take a look at some different perspectives on what we mean by that term. We’ll surround that with some modalities of different lineages that have all contributed to what we think about currently as functional movement.

Defining functional movement

Currently the simplest definitions of functional movement, often those used by trainers and athletic coaches, refer to those movements we need in order to function in daily life. That might include movements like squatting, lunging, and reaching among others. Functional movements are often described as whole-body movements in contrast to something like doing biceps curls at the gym, which focus on a single or a few muscles. Our daily movements may seem mundane, but biomechanically, they are actually quite complex. I would suggest that one of our most elemental movements is walking. And walking, or gait, is a very complex, but necessary series of movements.

Screening movement before dysfunction

We don’t often think about the movements we need for accomplishing daily tasks until something is malfunctioning and/or causing us pain. Among the assessments, modalities, and training focused on functional movement is a common theme of evaluating how well we’re accomplishing these essential movements before we have significant pain and dysfunction. Those who focus on the concept of functional movement are also interested in what is needed for us to move with the greatest ease and efficiency, not just avoid pain. 

We may not all want to be elite athletes, but I imagine that we all want to experience as much ease as possible in our daily life. There are many things that impact our functional movement. Some of them aren’t things we can change, like our genetics. We have a particular bone shape and a range within which our particular body can get stronger or more flexible in different ways. However, other things are more malleable like the patterns that result from our habits and activities. The modalities that focus on functional movement address the things that we can change with the aim to be as easeful in our movements as possible.

Modalities of structure and movement

There are many modalities that aim to affect our functional movement by changing how we relate to the patterns in our bodies. These modalities ask us to be curious about what makes us as functional as we can be. They emphasize understanding our relationship with gravity, and how our structure and postural patterns relate more or less easily with gravity in different ways. They also tend to look from the inside out with respect to where our relationship to foundational movements and their ease or difficulty comes from.

One example of a modality that aims to enhance functional movement as well as overall health, is the area of osteopathy. Osteopathy aims to restore balance in the myofascial continuities in the body to support overall health including functional movement. Another example is the movement training system of Pilates. Named after its founder Joseph Pilates, it is intended to improve coordination and balance by refining how practitioners initiate movement from their core musculature.

Similarly, Ida Rolf, known for her system of bodywork called structural integration (colloquially often called “Rolfing”), intended her system to balance the body’s myofascial system and support ease of posture and functional movement. The modality of Feldenkrais, named after it’s founder Moshe Feldenkrais, trains practitioners in efficiently doing essential movements like getting up from the floor or from a chair. 

Functional movement screen

More recently, tools such as the Functional Movement Screen, created by Cook et al., (Cook et al., 2006 and Cook et al., 2014) have been created to identify where individuals lay within a range of what is considered “normal” for several essential movements. People who screen as outside that range for a particular movement can then seek further evaluation to see why that might be occurring and how it might be addressed.


Functional movements are those that are important in daily tasks. Understanding kinesiology and how muscles work is essential for an understanding of why, when, and how a movement would be functional. It’s important to understand what we mean when we say functional movement, so that we’re also clear what we mean by dysfunction. There are many modalities that can help us screen for, assess, and improve our functional movements.

Latest Posts