The Difference Between Function and Fitness

I’ve been writing for several months now about the value of functional movement and the need for it as an integral part of the services we offer to you at Practice Fitness. Admittedly, when I get onto a theme I am passionate about, I can end up writing at length, sometimes without taking time to ask really obvious questions. Here’s one that came up for me recently:

What’s the difference between functional movement and fitness? They’re all exercises, aren’t they?

Yes and no. They’re all movement, but it depends on how we use them.

Let’s take a squat, for example, in order to demonstrate three ways we can use this movement pattern to a client’s benefit.

One: While assessing you using the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), I ask you to descend into a squat from a standing position and you tell me that both of your knees hurt when you do this. I stop that portion of the screen and refer you to a medical professional for a diagnosis and possible treatment.

Two: While assessing you using the FMS, I see that you are unable to perform a squat without turning your knees inward toward each other, and folding forward at the waist. I mark the score sheet appropriately and, based on other findings in the screen, provide you with a series of correctives that will help the movement pattern become functional, thereby reducing the risk for injury.

Three: After performing the correctives for several weeks and improving on the deep squat test, I now incorporate both body weight and weighted versions of the squats for multiple sets in order to increase your lower body strength.

In scenario one, I am assessing your movement health, most simply indicated by the absence or presence of pain. Having found pain, my main directive now is to PROTECT you by getting you to a medical professional (MD, PT, AT, Chiropractor, etc.), who is qualified to make a diagnosis and perform or recommend appropriate treatment.

Scenario one highlights a primary difference between the worlds of medicine and fitness. While doctors and fitness trainers are part of the larger allied health continuum, there is a clear, non-overlapping boundary indicated by a history of pain or a pain response in the client during movement. A trainer’s responsibility then is to protect a client’s movement health by assessing a person’s health history, screening for pain, and making referrals as needed.

In scenario two, I am using a reliable system for objectively assessing your movement quality, determining whether a pattern is functional or dysfunctional. Having found dysfunction, I am taking you through a vetted protocol to CORRECT the dysfunction in the pattern by showing you techniques for improving mobility, stability, and balance.

Scenario two demonstrates a valuable role your instructor, if trained properly, can play in clarifying and increasing a client’s movement quality. By objectively measuring movement patterns with tools like the FMS, a trainer can identify and correct a client’s movement dysfunction, establishing a functional foundation upon which a client can increase their work capacity, a.k.a. performance or fitness.

In scenario three, you’ve already demonstrated a functional squat pattern, so now my mission is to DEVELOP you, utilizing the squat as a tool for increasing movement quantity, picking squat variations, weight, sets and repetitions that will meet you where you are today and move you toward your aspirations.

Scenario three illustrates the central way most trainers develop their clients by helping them to increase their movement quantity for a particular training effect that is aligned with the client’s goals. This increase in performance or work capacity is a broad or general way of defining fitness.

Now, before you say to yourself, “okay, function is quality and fitness is quantity, got it,” I should note that that things can be a little more complicated, especially when it comes to defining fitness.

You can also think of fitness more narrowly, or as more specialized, where a certain level of fitness is required for a particular role or activity. For example, you might find that you are a very fit 55 year-old. But are you fit enough to participate in an Ironman triathlon? The demands of this activity require specific marks of fitness (such as high muscular endurance and high cardiovascular endurance) in addition to all of the marks of general fitness. A trainer who specializes in high performance athletics usually best serves clients desiring this goal.

Beyond specialized fitness is the training of skills. In the example of the Ironman competition, there are activity-specific skills in running, swimming and cycling that can be acquired, which provide both a competitive edge and a buffer against sports specific injuries. A serious triathlete might end up working with three different coaches who specialize in each of these activities.

When you put these on a spectrum, with health on the left and skills development on the right, it looks like this*:

The Practice approach to training starts at function, incorporating the Functional Movement Screen and its correctives, includes most aspects of general fitness conditioning, and stretches slightly over the border into working with some of our clients on high performance fitness marks.

Not surprisingly, the needs of most clients at Practice Fitness match this training model exactly. This is partly based on the fact that we have spent over a decade learning about our clients needs and responding to these, while at the same time developing an affinity for clients whose needs dovetail with the kinds of training about which we are passionate, and in which we excel.

If you are a person who consciously chooses to defy gravity on a daily basis, and who has come to understand and value the need for movement health, movement quality, and movement quantity, in that order, then Practice Fitness is a perfect place for you to be.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to convey the key difference between function and fitness in a way that makes sense for you, and yes, I am aware that there still remains a question unanswered:

If quality is a defining characteristic of functional movement, and Pilates and yoga exercises, by design, are taught with particular attention to movement quality, then where do they actually live, function or fitness?

This will be my central topic in next month’s column. Stay tuned!

Best wishes,


*A version of this table appears in the FMS online course, “A Common Sense Approach to Evaluating Movement”, by Gray Cook,

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