Iron Crew Athletics defines Functional Wellness (as it relates to the body) as the ability to move pain free, without restriction, while maintaining strength & stability. “As it relates to the body” is intentional because we could easily be talking about mental or emotional wellness. I will stick with physical references to wellness for the purpose of this article.
I’ve never been one to value aesthetics over functionality. So when thinking of ways to identify the type of wellness to strive for, I naturally asked…”Can wellness be functional?”
Turning the Table
In order to answer that, I needed to identify a wellness that is non-functional. Here’s what I came up with…
Non-functional wellness is living in chronic pain, with restricted range of motion, and lacking control during exercise. This is the opposite of functional wellness. This is something that may be functional on the outside, but does not promote wellness.
Examples of non-functional wellness are someone who is in chronic pain, but is still strong and fast. Someone explosive and powerful, but lacks full range of motion. Someone who can move an object from point A to point B, but lacks the stability in between.
Functional Yes, Wellness No
The dictionary definition of functional is “designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive.” It also defines wellness as “the state of being in good health”.
In order for Functional Wellness to exist, both meanings must coexist simultaneously. You cannot have one without the other. The absence of either makes the functionality unwell.
With non-functional wellness, the function of the movement exists, but it is not expressed in a state of wellness. A more accurate way to describe non-functional wellness here is to call it unwell functionality. Although one’s body can be functional, it may not be functioning in a state of wellnes.
The Functional Wellness Model
I will now dive deeper into the individual components of this model. The order in which I typically triage these categories is…
1. Eliminate Pain
2. Obtain Full Range of Motion
3. Improve Strength & Stability
Although I do believe that these are placed in order of importance, they can all be improved upon simultaneously. Meaning, one does not have to eliminate pain before moving on to full range of motion. These three areas often intertwine with each other in order to reach optimum Functional Wellness.
It is imperative that we live our daily lives pain free. So many of us are walking around with nagging, lingering, chronic pain. This can be from excessive training, a previous injury, or simply not having enough structural stability in the affected area.
Sure, we may sprain an ankle or tweak an elbow every now and again, but on any given day we should be free of pain. Often times, this chronic pain sneaks into our life without us ever noticing.
The Boiling Frog Effect
The Boiling Frog Effect…put a frog in a pot with cold water and the frog feels fine. When you SLOWLY increase the temperature of the water, the frog doesn’t even notice the increased temperature and it eventually boils to death. When the water is increased rapidly, the frog notices it immediately and jumps out.
This analogy has been disproven time and time again, but it still makes sense when describing our inability to notice subtle changes over time. This is how chronic pain manifests itself in the human body. The pain starts off very subtle, then slowly increases. Before we know it, we are walking around in a constant state of pain.
This can be aggravating to say the least. Every time you lift your arm overhead or reach for something…there’s that pain again. Every time you sit down on the office chair, there’s that nagging pain. We start to anticipate it, then all of a sudden it becomes a part of our existence.
This tends to worsen every day we get older. Old injuries tend to catch up with us, we don’t have time to mobilize, and as a result we pick up poor movement habits. The more we live in this state of pain, the more poor movement patterns become engrained in who we are.
A key component to wellness is living pain free. It is very difficult to move well when battling pain. Imagine trying to make progress in the gym when all you can think about is how bad it hurts to move.
The good news is, there is a way to get out of most chronic pain. Through proper corrective exercises, mobility drills, and muscle strengthening techniques, you can kiss the majority of your pain goodbye.
There are three reasons moving without restriction is important to Functional Wellness.
First, your body was designed to move through these wide ranges of motion. Ever watch a 5 year old squat? It’s flawless! We all had that at one point in our life, but over time it was lost.
Second, it is extremely freeing to know that you can move your body how you want, when you want, and where you want. When you have to constantly think about whether or not you can move in a certain way, it restricts everything you do. This is an unwell state of being.
Finally, limited range of motion will decrease your athletic performance and limit progress in the gym. When your body has limited range of motion, not all of the muscles will fire properly. Meaning, the entire muscle will not be contracting/working, therefore it will not reap the full benefits of any exercise you do. Full range of motion is the key getting the most out of your exercise program.
Mobility vs Flexibility
Flexibility refers to the end range of motion a specific body part is able to reach. Mobility refers to how strong you are within that end range of motion.
For example, if you can squat so low your butt touches your heels, that demonstrates excellent end range of motion. However, if you cannot actively hold that squat while maintain stability at the bottom, then there is a lack of mobility in that position. Both are required, and both are equally important.
Restriction free movement is not just end range of motion. Static, passive stretching will only get you so far. Foam rolling, banded distractions, voodoo flossing, are all great things to incorporate. We all need to be intentional with our stretching and mobility routine. Otherwise, the end range of motion will be there, but it will not be strong or stable.
Strength & Stability
Many wonder why this one is so important when exercising. They may think “If I can just lift the weight, why does it matter if the movement is ‘stable’?”.
I’ll use the earlier example of someone being able to move from point A to point B, but lacking the stability in between. This is a great example of someone’s strength and stability being unwell.
Simply moving from point A to point B will only get you far. Yes, you may be able to reach a certain level of strength and stamina, but eventually the poor stability will catch up with you. Poor movement patterns and moving through an unstable range of motion, only improves poor movement and instability.
When the exercise intensity begins to reach an intermediate/advanced level, this will ultimately reveal itself. Here is a very common example using a Back Squat as the exercise…
The individual has good technique when the weight is light…knees are in line with the feet, upper back looks nice and strong, and there is a fluidity to the movement. Once the weight becomes heavy, everything falls apart. The knees begin to cave in, there is a clear “sticking point” during the movement, and the upper body doesn’t seem to be handling the weight very well.
This is a clear sign that the stability of the Back Squat was never there, even during the lighter loads. This individual was simply getting from point A to point B however they could, without focusing and displaying control throughout the movement.
Although it LOOKED good, it was not. Only after increasing intensity did it show up to the naked eye. This is an example of how poor strength and stability within a movement can be detrimental to long term success.
If the strength and stability was, in fact, there the whole time. What would happen at heavy loads is the speed of the Back Squat will slow down. Knees, hips, upper back would still be where they need to be, but the movement would slow as a result of the heavier weight.
The best way to add strength and stability to your program is through tempo lifting. Start with a controlled :03 descend on your lifts and see how your body responds. Strength and Stability are paramount to longevity in any successful training program.
A Better Way to Live
Everyone has their personal reasons for why they are exercising. If you are a performance athlete, participating in a competitive event, or want to be the strongest person at the gym, this model may not be the best to follow.
Most of us, however, are simply using exercise to be healthier, move better, and improve quality of life. Why add stress to by walking around in pain, with reduced range of motion, and limited stability?
When assessing your exercise program, ask yourself if you are lacking in any one of these areas. If you are, it may be time to reassess your fitness program and address the limiting problems at hand.
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About the Author
Danny Burde is the founder of Iron Crew Athletics and holds Bachelor’s degrees in both Psychology & Kinesiology. Danny is a CrossFit Level 2 Coach and was Head Coach at NC Fit for 2 years before starting Iron Crew Athletics. Danny has been immersed in fitness since he was 12 years old and has a passion for helping others.
Danny specializes in helping people find sustainable exercise and nutrition plans. His vision is a world where everyone stays in shape and eats healthy…forever!
Learn more about Coach Danny HERE.
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