What is CrossFit?: Part Two

The definition of CrossFit is “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity” (1,2). In the last blog post we talked about what “constantly varied” means, and today we get to dig a little deeper into the second part of the definition, functional movements. 

Part two: Functional Movements

CrossFit places high emphasis on functional movements,or movements that one might need to perform naturally in everyday life (2,3). These movements are generally done with our own bodyweight or with some kind of external load. There are almost no muscle-isolation machines in CrossFit boxes, unlike other types of fitness gyms. What’s this about, and why do we care so much about functional movements in CrossFit? 

Basically, functional movements make us fitter and give us a better general physical preparedness (GPP) by having us practice movements that life might actually throw at us. On a scientific level, the most basic definition of functional movements is moving large loads over long distances, quickly (1,2). This is also the general equation for power. The higher power output we have, the fitter we are (similarly, the higher horsepower any machine has, the faster and more powerfully it moves!). We improve our power output by constantly varying our functional movements, and performing them at high intensity (1,3).Each and every WOD helps us fine-tune our machine. Some of the movements we do have obvious crossover into the real world (an air squat is like sitting down and standing up from a chair, a push press is equivalent to throwing a box onto a top shelf, a muscle-up can be used to scale any height you can get your hands on [3]), while some movements have less obvious crossover (the hip flexion and extension from burpees can help us climb a rope easier [4]!) None of this can be learned by doing the circuit weight machines at the globo-gym, because those are segmented and isolated movements. CrossFit teaches us that “Training in a segmented fashion develops a segmented capacity (3).” These machines might build strength, but it isn’t functional strength because they aren’t functional movements (3).Ok, so we do countless of these so-called functional movements in CrossFit, but what exactly makes a movement “functional?” 

In general, functional movements have some core things in common. Functional movements are UNIVERSAL MOTOR RECRUITMENT PATTERNS (1,2,3),a big phrase that basically means we find the same movement patterns everywhere in life. One picks up a large bag of potatoes in much the same way as one deadlifts a barbell or picks up a heavy cooler. These universal motor recruitment patterns move from CORE TO EXTREMITY, all the power starting in one’s core and traveling out through the less-powerful limbs (1,2,3).Think of a pitcher throwing a baseball: she loads her core, twists her hips, and the power travels in a chain through her shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand, and finally her fingers. It is the same for all functional movements, from kipping pullups to barbell snatches: our energy moves from core to extremity. (Ever heard your coaches say “USE YOUR HIPS!”? It’s because that’s where the power originates!)

Functional movements are also COMPOUND movements, meaning they utilize multiple joints and muscle groups (1,2,3).For example, an air squat requires the hip, knee, and ankle joints to work together. You can’t break a squat into separate movements and reap the same benefits (3). A leg-extension machine might target the knee joint and quad muscles, and a calf-raise machine may work the ankle joint and calves, but the sum of these movements does not come close to the results you will get from a simple squat, where multiple large and small muscle groups work together (3). Compound movements also uniquely have the capacity to illicit neuroendocrine response, actually causing a change in the body’s natural hormones, building more muscle and stronger bones in the entire body (3,5)!

Functional movements are SAFE, NATURAL movements: our joints and bodies were made to move this way (2,3,6). They are movements that nature demands of us, and that only the privileges of growing up in western civilization have taken out of our wheelhouse (7). Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, says, “The squat is a vital, natural, and functional component of your being. In the bottom position, the squat is nature’s intended sitting posture. Only in the industrialized world do we find the need for chairs, couches, benches, and stools. This comes at a loss of functionality that contributes immensely to decrepitude (7).“ Sometimes it is necessary to retrain our bodies into proper movement patterns after injury or a lifetime of misuse, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t natural or safe, just that we’ve temporarily lost the capacity for it. And with time and consistency, this can be fixed! 

Functional movements are also ESSENTIAL to independent living (2,3). One must be able to get in and out of a chair, carry the groceries in, lie down on the floor, or lift things overhead in order to have independence and quality of life. This is likely why CrossFit HQ has taken such an interest recently in showing elderly people doing functional movements at home using broomsticks and water jugs (8). CrossFit’s message to the world is that, by performing functional movements regularly, we can have good fitness over a lifetime—in other words, good health (9).

Now, any exercise is better than none at all, and I won’t discourage anyone from going to the gym to work out, even with unnaturalmovements (i.e. not found in nature) like the lat raise machines or leg extension machines (3). However, if you truly want the best level of fitness, leave the machines behind and start building your own. CrossFitters are here to create functional bodies that will stand the test of time and be up for anything, all our lives long! 

-Coach Sonja

Thanks for reading! Tune in next time for the last blog post of this series, all about INTENSITY!

A Note to Readers:This blog post has been edited to include source citations. The CrossFit methodology is empirically-driven, and aims to produce fitness that is completely measurable, observable, and repeatable. CrossFit is committed to evidence-based fitness, and is an open-source charter, meaning that all CrossFit data is open to the public, and coaches and athletes can be collaborators in the development of the CrossFit program(1). This is a brief overview of the CrossFit prescription. None of the following article is based on my own opinion, but rather the empirical findings of Greg Glassman, the CrossFit community, and basic CrossFit methodology. I encourage you to use this blog post as a starting point for your own questions and research! 

-Coach Sonja Rootvik


(1) G. Glassman. “Understanding CrossFit.” The CrossFit Journal, Issue 56, 1 April 2007. (Online) Available from: http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/CFJ_56-07_Understanding.pdf. (Accessed May 2019.)

(2) K. Bowler, C. McDonald, and N. Shatila. CrossFit Level One Certification Course, presented at CrossFit Belltown, Seattle, WA. 20-21 August 2016. 

(3) CrossFit Pierce County, “CrossFit Certification Seminar Notes.” 10-13 February 2006. Pages 3-5. (Online) Available from: https://www.crossfit.com/legacy-pdf/cf-info/FEB06CFNotesNoPics.pdf. (Accessed May 2019.)

(4) C. Paoli. “The Skill Transfer of the Burpee.” The CrossFit Journal, 20 August 2012. (Online video) Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EhR1xhexQs&t=17s. (Accessed May 2019.)

(5) M. Lloyd. “The Neuroendocrine Response.” Mountain Strong,2 October 2017. (Online) Available from: https://www.mountainstrongtraining.com/the-neuroendocrine-response/. (Accessed May 2019.)

(6) G. Glassman. “What is Crossfit?” The CrossFit Journal, 28 November 2009. (Online) Available from: http://journal.crossfit.com/2009/11/what-is-crossfit.tpl. (Accessed May 2019.)

(7) G. Glassman. “Squat Clinic.” The CrossFit Journal, 1 December 2002. (Online) Available from: http://journal.crossfit.com/2002/12/squat-clinic-by-greg-glassman.tpl#featureArticleTitle. (Accessed May 2019.)

(8) CrossFit At Home, CrossFit.Com. (Online) Available from: https://www.crossfit.com/at-home. (Accessed May 2019)

(9) CrossFit Inc., Adapted from Lectures by G. Glassman. “Fitness, Luck, and Health.” The CrossFit Journal, 16 August 2016. (Online) Available from: http://journal.crossfit.com/2016/08/fitness-luck-and-health.tpl. (Accessed May 2019.)