Our Journal

Natural Movement VS Functional Movement: What’s the Difference?

By Danny Clark, MovNat Performance Director

Two people start a new program aimed at improving their fitness, movement skill, and overall quality of life. One ends up in a gym advertising “functional movement” and the other in a gym that advertises “Natural Movement.” What key similarities and differences will these two people likely experience in their training?

If one simply observes the actual movements commonly practiced at each gym, the differences are fairly obvious:

  • Ground transitions (NM) vs. Banded mobility/stability drills (FM)
  • Balancing across a narrow object (NM) vs. balancing on a bosu ball (FM)
  • Lifting a human being (NM) vs. Snatching a barbell (FM)
  • Throwing something to another person (NM) vs. Swinging a kettlebell, alone on repeat (FM)

…and the list continues, with an endless list of both similarities and distinctions.

If the goal is the same, why do the differences matter at all? Two key philosophical points account for the differences in movement choices and overall strategy, and it makes a significant difference in terms of the results you get from your training.

1. Functional movement focuses more on parts, whereas Natural Movement focuses more on the whole.

Natural Movement is integrated – connected more directly to authentic movements that come from environments beyond the indoors, like those found in nature. Functional movement, on the other hand, is compartmentalized – more reduced and removed from the real world. Therefore, the “functional movements’ practiced tend to be (relatively) more isolated and confined to regional areas of the body, as well as aimed at distinct physiological systems. For example:

  • Pull Ups for upper body strength
  • Squats for lower body strength
  • Snatches for power
  • Running or timed intervals for conditioning
  • Active and dynamic stretching for range of motion
  • Banded external rotations for shoulder joint health

Functional movement coaches tend to break down the body into quadrants and systems. Way less so than, say…a bodybuilder, but way more so than a MovNat Certified Trainer. It’s no surprise, as the functional movement mindset draws from the disciplines of physical therapy (isolating tissues to solve local injuries) and athletic coaching (isolating systems to improve sport performance). This historic coupling with athletic performance, which isn’t fundamentally about health or longevity, creates limitations in the functional movement model.

Natural Movement coaches start with the whole, the really big picture of practical movement abilities demanded by real world environments, and work smaller when necessary. We think more in terms of health and longevity; solving deficits in any essential practical movement aptitudes instead of isolating parts of a practical movement sequence or physiological system.

For example, here’s a typical progression you’d find for climbing:

Functional Movement – Goal is to build upper body strength for climbing (or just general upper body strength)

Scapular activation drills -> Bodyweight Row (on TRX bands or inverted on a racked barbell) -> Banded or Assisted Pull Up -> Bodyweight Pull Up -> Weighted Pull Up

Natural Movement – Goal is to get on top of a narrow object, such as a bar or branch

Hanging -> Side Swing Traverse -> Foot Pinch -> Swing Up (using momentum to get on top of object) -> Pop Up (using strength/power to get on top of object)

The difference is clear: The Natural Movement progression leads to a practical task (getting on top of something), and each step in the progression is also practical for another task (traversing, etc). Interestingly enough, I ran a program where 70% of the participants achieved their first Pull Up using Natural Movement progressions – despite trying traditional methods in the past. No bands or isolation needed. No injuries reported – because fundamental natural movements, such as hanging and swinging with efficient technique implies the coaching and development of scapular mobility and stability (i.e. function) that prepares them for the next movement in the progression.

Therefore, we would have you perform the full spectrum of practical tasks in a framework that fosters development through learning. These same movements also imply strength, conditioning, mobility, and other qualities…naturally. A few examples:

  • Getting up without using your hands (in more than 1 or 2 ways)
  • Crawling from a Supine Lying position, using your shoulder blades
  • Walking and turning around on narrow surfaces, such as a wooden beam or rail
  • Lifting & Carrying heavy and/or awkward objects a variety of distances
  • Climbing on top of objects of various height

Further, while most savvy fitness professionals use progression in their programming, MovNat Certified Trainers would drive your progression – both in terms of skill and fitness – using developmental logic.

Where a functional movement coach asks “What dose and type of movements do you need to correct and develop attributes X, Y, and Z” the Natural Movement coach asks “What dose and categories of movements are you missing from your life in order to re-establish the developmental process you began as a child (and halted as a young adult)?”

Both strategies (isolation and integration) are very useful. The question is, how do you want to spend your training time, and with what higher goal?

Which leads us to our next point…

2. Functional movement has more emphasis on quantification, whereas Natural movement has more emphasis on qualification.

How much weight (ie, intensity)? How many degrees of flexion? How many repetitions (ie, volume)? What score? How much recovery (ie, how do you feel)?

Those are the key questions a functional movement coach is trained to ask. Therefore, these are the types of goals that students are directed toward. And we sometimes ask the same questions in coaching Natural Movement because we are interested in improving capacity (i.e. fitness) as well. But our ultimate qualifier of success is much different. It boils down to a simple idea:

The best indicator of movement performance, capability, and overall vitality is being able to move through dynamic, challenging environments with ease.

So, instead of quantifying, we simply ask “Can you do the task at hand?” and then further qualify by observing the ease and safety (ie, efficiency) in which you do the task at hand. Then, if the answer is “No” (and only if the answer is no) we regress to a more fundamental movement – from a developmental standpoint – to foster the requisite learning and fitness adaptations.

Similarly, when one can perform a movement task efficiently, we can then progress in a couple of ways. First, by increasing the conditioning demands (e.g. increasing training volume or intensity) and second, by increasing contextual demands (e.g. changes to the training environment or situation, requiring adaptability).

A Natural Movement practice is fundamentally about empowering yourself to live a more confident, capable, healthy life through a tangible and deliberate practice. We aren’t so focused on numbers because quality of movement (and life) cannot be reduced to numbers*. Period.

For this reason, we draw the firm conclusion that “Optimizing Natural Movement always leads to improved functional movement; but the reverse is not true.”

So, what about that gym experience?  

In any good gym in the world, you’ll find passionate, enthusiastic coaches and a community of people doing the best way they understand to be the best version of themselves possible. While there is a time and place for functional movement training, only within a gym (or other community) that includes Natural Movement will you find a direct path to connecting to yourself as an integrated whole – to the people around you, as well as the world around you – through natural, practical, efficient movement.

*Though simple 1-3 or 1-10 rating systems can be useful. External rating systems such as FMS or our MCT grading system, as well as internal rating systems such as RPE (rate of perceived exertion) can help quantify quality, but are always limited by the subjectivity of the observer.

Get Started With Natural Movement – TODAY!

The MovNat Level 1 Certification is your entry point into the world’s official Natural Movement Fitness program. It equips you with the knowledge, skills, and methods you need to transform your movement & fitness and build real world capability from the ground up.

Over the last ten years, MovNat has helped thousands of people from all walks of life restore their natural abilities and lay a foundation for a deeper, lifelong movement practice. We are the original, official, and only Natural Movement Fitness certification, with thousands of certified professionals and dozens of MovNat Licensed Facilities all around the world. Whether you’re completely new to Natural Movement Fitness, or a seasoned veteran looking to expand your skillset, the MovNat Level 1 Certification is your launchpad to a deep understanding of natural human movement, how to integrate it into your training and lifestyle, and help others do the same.

If you’re already a MovNat Certified Trainer, feel free to check out our other programs designed for professionals and serious enthusiasts who want to take their movement skills and fitness to the next level.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Are you all familiar with Pete Egoscue? The “Egoscue method” uses the phrase whole body correction with the phrase “functional movement.” It is very compatible with MovNat principals and goals. The way this article uses the phrase “functional movement” as a specific isolated definition, made by MovNat, and is limiting in relationship to other definitions that are applicable. It minimizes any method using this term. I am interested in this MovNat and am deeply involved with and consider the Egoscue work completely worthy. Please reconsider your definition of functional movement as it applies to so many other types of physiotherapies. This article is rather insulting. I’ve been following your MovNat for awhile now.

    • Beth, many modalities address “full body correction” though I’m not familiar with any other modality that cohesively ties in the interaction with the world outside the human body (i.e., practical abilities in nature) for addressing movement related issues. I have much respect for functional movement modalities – we even incorporate some into our certification and collaborations. My apologies if I’ve insulted you (or anyone), as that wasn’t the intention.

      The intention was to help those that do practice Natural Movement, or are considering it, be able to understand some of the distinctions. MovNat is distinctly different than other methods, after all – but many have a hard time explaining how.

      Cheers,

      Danny

Postnavigation