CrossFit: Functional vs. Natural

I love Crossfit. Since the moment when I was first introduced to it almost 3 years ago, nothing has made me think more critically about programming, conventional wisdom (CW) in exercise science, ‘metabolic conditioning’, different disciplines of fitness (power lifting, Olympic lifting, endurance sports, gymnastics, etc.), and most of all, the importance of functional fitness.

What is Functional Fitness?

Functional Fitness is essential to the CrossFit training model, and through my experience with it, has become a part of the foundation of my Free to Move philosophy. In the CrossFit Journal’s “Foundations” article, CrossFit defines functional movements as:  “…movements that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life.” (Foundations, pg. 7)  I think this is spot on. It is why we choose to squat (mimic: getting into and out of chairs) and do pull-ups (getting up over anything) as opposed to isometric (one muscle) machine weights available in your average gym.  A leg extension (or even bicep curl) has practically no real-world application outside of the gym.

Learning to pick up object safely is a part of the functional fitness model. photo credit: crossfit full circle

Continuing with the same train of thought, “functional movements” are compound (multi-joint) movements. Though seemingly simple, this again is a powerful realization that holds up upon closer inspection. Nothing that we do in our day to day lives is so linear and limited as isometric movements would have us believe. Life is more complicated. What’s more, training with these functional movements take advantage of the mechanics of the human body, meaning they are safe to perform, and they also “elicit a high neuroendocrine response” – AKA cause stress that we recover from, thereby getting more fit.

Although functional movements are a large part of the CrossFit model, they don`t tell the whole story. CrossFit also aims to train in all 3 metabolic pathways, and increase your athletic ability by the following 10 measures: “cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.”

The Snatch is a compound movement requiring strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, and balance. photo credit: crossfit

Cracks in the Foundation

Soon, this large capacity for met-cons (metabolic conditioning) and expertise in a variety of functional movements was given a name: General Physical Preparedness (GPP) – or “being ready for anything.” CrossFit argued that its program trained initiates for the “unknown and unknowable.” This idea certainly has it’s appeal, as is shown by the explosion of CrossFit boxes across the country in the past 5 years. [The number of affiliated gyms has grown from 18 in 2005 to over 2,200 worldwide today.]

I myself am no exception – rather than pick one thing to be good at, why not be pretty good at everything? I dove into CrossFit training face-first, my head swimming with images of being able to do anything, compete in any sport, take on any adventure – the world would be my oyster.

And at first, things were great. I felt fit and healthy, enjoyed the variety of new challenges that CrossFit provided, and was eager to share some of the principles with my friends. However, after several years of CrossFit-style training, I felt more and more like something was missing. For all it’s functional, compound movements and varied work loads, in some ways, my CrossFit training still felt controlled.

Functional Fitness & GPP

When we need to pick something up, it is rare that the object is evenly weighted with a bar that fits nicely into our palm. When we are running, jumping, and playing, it is almost never in a straight line. In sport and in play, movement starts and stops suddenly, changes directions, is dynamic – you have to react to your environment and other people around you. There is no schedule for reps, sets, and weights – everything just happens. Can we really call a functional fitness “GPP” (general physical preparedness), when in the natural world things will never be as controlled? What about other skills, such as being able to climb a tree or knowing how to tuck safely into a roll after a fall?

The reasons that CrossFit prescribes a variety of functional movements at high intensity are still completely valid, and will be of great benefit to most people: you get a lot of bang for your buck, they are mechanically safe, and they do mimic real-world movement. The key word here, though, is mimic.  Natural movement, as opposed to functional, does not happen in an environment where we control the variables. So for me, the question then becomes, how do we also prepare for the dynamics of the natural environment? How do we take what’s functional, and apply it outside of the box​​? What is the next step in the evolution of fitness?

The Natural Solution

It might just be that the next step is something along the lines of MovNat. If you’ve never heard of MovNat before, here is an excellent article from Outdoor Magazine about the founder, Erwan Le Corre, as well as some of its founding principles. I was turned on to MovNat through Robb Wolf’s podcast, The Paleo Solution, and was instantly hooked. Here was a program that looked at fitness as an extension of how we interact with our environment. MovNat concepts focus around skill acquisition, learning to move creatively within our environment (ex: barefoot running), dealing with unbalanced objects (such as logs) and play.  I believe these are invaluable training resources that have not yet been fully tapped in to by fitness programs across the country.

Taking what we learn in CrossFit outside is an important next step. photo credit: cactusblossom

The Perfect Marriage?

MovNat will be certifying personal trainers in their methodology starting in 2012, and I can’t wait to get my hands dirty (no pun intended). In my previous article about the future of FreeFit, I talked about a possible gym where one could both practice CrossFit-style functional movements as well as test your skills in a more dynamic environment.  I see this as potentially the “perfect marriage” between two awesome disciplines.

In the gym, the biggest components of natural movement (functional movements) can be trained to great effect, and should be, for in the gym we WANT that controlled environment. We want to learn the best way to do things, given the option. We want to train our bodies to stay safe, get strong, and regain health and mobility as quickly as possible. But looking beyond the gym to how health and fitness fit in to our everyday lives, it is important to also train at playing. At getting outside and getting dirty. At trying things that we can do safely in a gym (such as a muscle-up on rings) on something a little different (like a tree-branch).  We learn through doing, which is why ENJOYing our fitness is one of the basics of Free to Move programming.

I believe the combination of functional movement training (like some of the workouts I’ve already posted), opportunities to take fitness outside of the gym (MovNat, sports, play), and smart, individualized programming will MAXIMIZE our health, fitness, and longevity.


What are your thoughts on MovNat-style training? How do you feel about taking some of your workouts outdoors? What do you see as the next evolution in the world of fitness?

-Stay healthy everybody.

7 thoughts on “CrossFit: Functional vs. Natural

  1. Andrew Durham

    A very interesting article. I too have been crossfitting, or doing crossfitesque style wporkouts, for about two years now. I liked the idea of the whole functional movements and what not. I find your article interesting because you are right, crossfiting is still usually done in a controlled environment. I’ll keep my eye on the MovNat and hopefully also be able to make it back to the States for a possible cert. Keep up the posting.



    1. Matt Post author

      Hey Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment. If you are interested in doing a MovNat cert., I believe they also do them in Thailand on a gorgeous beach. I don’t know where you’re located, but if it’s easier to make it over there, that would also be an amazing experience. It is a bit more expensive, but the island they’re on is so beautiful it could practically be a vacation. (I’ll be it a very demanding, rugged vacation, but great none the less.) Let me know if you ever go and what you think.

      Stay healthy,

  2. KC Parsons

    There are a few gyms out there that do this already, so they might be nice models to give you an idea. The two pictured below are parkour gyms, one located in Colorado and the other in Virginia. They have a lot of functional training equipment (squat racks, gymnastics rings, etc.) but also have many obstacles that can be rearranged for endless challenge and variety. I’ve visited Apex Movement (the CO gym) two years ago and absolutely loved it; not to mention it’s improved much from then. I’ve also heard and seen (though not in person) wonderful things about Urban Evolution (the VA gym). Definitely worth checking out!

    Apex Movement

    Urban Evolution

  3. David Wood

    I agree with you in theory. The problem is practicality. Training 3, 4, 5 people, yeah you can do pretty much anything you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. If you’re trying to train a gym of 100+ clients throughout the day using multiple trainers, that presents several limitations. One is standardization. You need to be able to compare the times from the 6AM class to the times from the 4PM class, such that everyone who “RX’ed” the WOD did exactly the same thing and can compete fairly. The more creative you get with your movements, the harder that becomes because of equipment, space, etc. If you want 15 people to climb a tree competitively, you need 15 similar trees right next to each other. Second is safety. Most boxes have an “on-ramp” program that teaches the basic movements, and even still, good trainers will go over form for all movements before a WOD begins. But you have to be able to do that quickly, and with similar cues. You can’t teach a class of 15 people how to climb a tree safely in a short amount of time. Now, if you take away the competitive aspect of it, then it does open you up a little, because standardization is no longer important, but the competitive aspect of CrossFit is one of the defining characteristics that sets it aside and in my opinion above other fitness programs.

    1. Matt Post author

      You hit the nail on the head there at the end. I am NOT arguing for competition and MovNat to be put together. Rather, I believe the focus on these sessions should be taking box-fitness to the real world, learning to move your body and focusing on individual skill progression rather than time/competition. Competition in CrossFit definitely ramps up the intensity, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be the end-all/be-all of a fitness program. Improving quality of life and functionality, as well as leaving behind the grind and HAVING FUN once in a while, will, I believe, extend your “fitness life.” (i.e. avoid burnout, injury, adrenal fatigue, etc.)

      If you want another perspective from a long-time trainer, check out this post from Andy Deas at Chasing Capacity.

      Not everyone can be as beastly all the time as you Dave 😉

  4. Pingback: MovNat Workshop Review | freefit guy

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