Dissing “Dysfunctional”

Recently I read an article published in a local running magazine where a couple of trainers spoke about using corrective exercise towards achieving better form for running.  So far, so good.  My only problem with the article is that it was peppered at the beginning with a word that I personally think is misused a lot.  Dysfunction.  You have read here before about people using words when they have no idea what it actually means, and 90% of the time this word is a prime example of that.  If you do something that isn’t perfect form, then you are dysfunctional.  There is obviously something horribly wrong with you and we need to take you from dysfunction into “functional” movement
(another word that gets completely misused in my opinion).  Functional for what?  But I digress…

So let’s first look at the definition of the word.  Don’t Google it if you are at work, because the first bajillion hits have the word erectile in front of it.  However, if you find the dictionary definition then it reads “impaired or abnormal functioning (as of an organ of the body)”.  So far so good.

But here’s the thing.  If you think about the rules of the body and how it moves, this is based on a huge amount of variables that may or may not apply to the person in question.  There’s a lot of people out there who would define that if movement isn’t perfectly done the way that it is supposed to be (and again, that definition can change easily), then it is wrong for some reason.  If I squat and my knees go past my toes then I’m doing it wrong.  If I squat and my knees CAN’T go past my toes then something is wrong.  If I run and my knee is collapsing in then I’m doing it wrong.  If I don’t extend my hips back far enough I’m doing it wrong.  If I round my back during a deadlift then I’m doing it wrong.  If I arch my back during a bench press then I’m doing it wrong.

But here’s the thing:  all of these things are totally depending on the person doing it, what they are trying to accomplish and also HOW THEIR STRUCTURE AND NERVOUS SYSTEM DICTATES THAT THEY MOVE (at that moment) IN ORDER TO ACCOMPLISH IT.  Your body is not stupid – it will figure out how to get from point A to point B how it feels is the best way to do so.  This is the very definition of optimal function in my opinion.  It is when we try to tell it that it is doing something wrong and shove it into another position it isn’t used to that something will likely go wrong.  So by trying to correct this “dysfunction” so may actually be fighting against what keeps the body sound in the first place.  It is when we push the body too far in some way before it is ready to do so that it breaks down.

Take running, as the example used in the article.  I have a runner that starts off and then after a few hundred meters gets fatigued and starts to lose form from what it originally was at the beginning of the run.  Are they weak somewhere?  Running too fast?  Running too slow?  Tired because they didn’t sleep well?  Stressed due to work?  Ate a fatty burger for lunch?  Socks not quite fitting right?  If they are weak, how do you know what body part it is?

Maybe they are just going to the form their body is used to or which will allow them to continue doing the activity they want to do.  Ah…but they’re dysfunctional, many trainers would scream!  You have to strengthen x muscle or stretch y muscle because obviously something is “wrong”.  My point being you can’t assume that something deviating slightly from the norm isn’t fully in line with the intention of your body at that time.

If you want to be able to improve at a movement, then you simply need to break down the individual joint movements involved, improve your body’s ability to deal with the forces involved so that the muscles don’t fatigue and lose control of the joints, and then you can work on chaining it all together.  Hopefully by then your system will figure it out and get better, faster, stronger, or whatever you like.  It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you – you just need to take the time to teach your body how to improve that specific thing.  Calling it “dysfunctional” isn’t true at all – because your body is doing exactly what it knows how to do – again, the very definition that most would say applies to “function”.

My industry is notorious for taking people who are perfectly fine, finding stuff that supposedly needs to be “fixed” or “functional” and making them feel bad about it so that they will pay lots of money to “get better”.  So we get articles that give exercises to people who maybe run perfectly fine for their structure, but because they can’t do a one legged squat or an overhead press with perfect form something needs to be fixed.  The next time you watch a marathon watch some people who have absolutely horrible running form (according to textbooks) but somehow they still manage to get through a 3 hour marathon without hurting themselves.  Let’s focus a bit more on the movement of the individual and what they are capable of at that time, and what they are doing well, give their body tools to get stronger and try to improve them without worrying about making them perfect.

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