Chiropractic Exercise

When Does a Functional Movement Become Dysfunctional?

The common adage in the health and fitness industry is to not load a dysfunctional movement. If you can’t body weight squat, don’t load it. If you can’t do a lunge, then it’s not smart to add more load to it. The assumption is that load will only further increase the dysfunction leading to compensation patterns and pain.

But when does a movement become dysfunctional? A simple question but not a simple answer.

To classify something as a dysfunction movement, there needs to be a clear standard of what a functional movement is. The problem with defining what a functional movement is there appears to be a wide variety of movements that can be considered functional. A functional movement is defined by the individual performing the movement and context of movement. This makes it difficult to generalize what a functional or dysfunctional movement is to the general population.

For example, an individual’s anatomy will dictate their movements. Some individuals have deeper hip sockets than others which will limit their hip range of motion. The general standard for a “functional” squat is for the thighs to be parallel to the ground or below. However for a person with a deep hip socket, they may never be able to achieve this because of their anatomy regardless of how much stretching or mobility work that they do.

Should people with deep hip sockets never do a squat because their movement is dysfunctional? 

Context also determines what a functional movement is. Which movements are necessary to perform a certain activity? For a runner, the deep squat isn’t that relevant to their running activity. A powerlifter doesn’t need that much shoulder mobility to perform their sport. What is considered functional for one population may not be important for a different population.

A functional movement typically becomes a dysfunctional movement when pain is involved. Foot pronation, knee valgosity, and thoracic kyphosis are all common movements that are blamed for plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, and postural syndrome, respectively. The cause and effect for “dysfunctional” movements and pain is poor at best. Most of these movements were present before the pain syndrome and will most likely be present after the pain syndrome.

Being able to perform functional movements is important because it allows someone to do what they want to be able to do. However, categorizing movements as either functional or dysfunctional is probably less important in the context of pain than we believe.