Is your movement balanced and stable, or do you move in a way that could lead to fitness injuries? A functional movement screen (FMS) will help you pinpoint weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
As I wrote in an article called Turn Your Fitness Weaknesses into Fitness Strengths, being fit can boil down to "being able to move through this world with as few limitations as possible." To achieve that goal, we often need to focus on our weakest parts rather than our strongest. The functional movement screen (FMS) is a great way to find those weaknesses.
My job as a coach is to prepare an athlete for the variety of movements they will need to be able to perform in order to participate in their chosen activity. To help with that, I often include some sort of analysis of fundamental movements in their training preparation. This screening can help determine what abilities they possess (or lack), where their strengths are, and where they may need some specific attention. This gives me a great idea of where to start building their fitness program.
At its root, a functional movement screen (FMS) is a test used to identify asymmetries or deficiencies in an individual’s strength, flexibility, and general movement. The FMS aims to identify as many imbalances in mobility and stability as possible, using seven fundamental movement patterns. The seven movement patterns are designed to allow someone like me (coach, trainer, physiotherapist) to observe your performance of basic locomotor, manipulative, and stabilizing movements by placing you (the athlete) in extreme positions where your weaknesses and imbalances are most noticeable.
Then, once these deficiencies have been identified through the FMS, we can create a program of corrective exercises to shore up those deficiencies before they can cause injury or create poor movement patterns that will be hard to unlearn.
Why correcting imbalances is important
Injuries happen for many reasons, but one of the main reasons stems from strength imbalances. Let’s say you're a runner (defined as someone who enjoys running, you don’t have to be a pro or even fast.) If you have one glute muscle that's significantly stronger than the other, that's an imbalance. It’s not uncommon to have one side of your body be stronger than the other. But ideally, we would work to minimize that.
If you have one strong glute and one weak one, the quadricep on the weak-glute side is going to have to work harder to make up for your lazy butt. If you think about the running movement, it’s not hard to imagine how this scenario can lead to a lopsided gait and the potential for injury.
It’s not uncommon to have one side of your body be stronger than the other. But ideally, we would work to minimize that.
On the other hand, even if you don’t eventually end up injured, you may be making that imbalanced movement pattern a habit. Poor movement patterns can limit your speed and potential in the sport.
Let’s say you are a swimmer and you have one arm that's significantly less flexible than the other arm. You're able to move your left arm through a full range of motion, resulting in a lovely freestyle stroke, but your right arm lacks the flexibility to recreate that same motion. Since we humans love efficiency, the more you practice swimming in this imbalanced way, the more your brain will create neuromuscular connections that reinforce the lopsided movement pattern. So even if you spend time increasing the flexibility in your right arm, you'll also have to unlearn that lopsided movement before you'll be able to swim symmetrically.
If we had nipped that lack of arm flexibility or lack of glute strength in the bud, we could have avoided the running injury or the lopsided swim stroke and you would have excelled at your chosen sport for many years to come.
What is a functional movement screen like?
The FMS usually consists of seven movement patterns that take you through a gauntlet of mobility and stability challenges. The seven movement patterns are each scored from 0-3 points and then added up to create a score ranging from 0-21 points.
The seven movements are:
- Deep squat
- Hurdle step
- In-line lunge
- Active straight-leg raise
- Trunk stability push-up
- Rotary stability
- Shoulder mobility
We generally start the test with the deep squat because it challenges total body mechanics. (And because it's exactly what it sounds like, too.) You get yourself into the deepest squat you can—but with a twist! You're also holding a broom (or hockey stick) over your head with both hands.
To do a deep squat properly, you must have a number of components in place. The appropriate pelvic movement, good dorsiflexion in the ankles, the appropriate amount of flexion in the knees, a decent amount of flexion in the hips, and also (since this movement is done with your arms overhead) extension of the thoracic spine and shoulders. This is a good, challenging test. And if I am being honest, I haven't been able to score a three out of three on this one for many years.
The hurdle step challenges the body’s proper stride mechanics by taking the body through a stepping motion. This is done by having the athlete step over a (nearly) knee-high obstacle while holding a broom or stick across their shoulders.
Performing the hurdle step test requires stability of the ankle, knee, and hip. It also requires dorsiflexion of the ankle while also showing flexion of the knee and hip. Since you spend a portion of this movement standing on one foot, this one also tests your balance.
I have found that many people have much better balance on one foot than they do on the other so don't feel bad if you tip on your left side but not on your right.
The in-line lunge tests the lower body while also challenging the trunk and extremities to resist rotation and maintain proper alignment. The athlete steps out into a lunge position while also holding that broom or stick along their spine. Their feet must be parallel and directly in line with each other, which makes this even trickier to do than it sounds.
To perform the in-line lunge test well, you must have good stability in the ankle, knee, and hip as well as decent hip abduction. You also must have good mobility of the hip, ankle dorsiflexion, and quad (thigh) flexibility. But don't let all that scare you, this one isn't all that bad.
I suggest doing the in-line lunge near a wall so you can reach out and stabilize yourself if (or when) you need to.
Active straight-leg raise
This one assesses hamstring and calf flexibility while also demonstrating pelvis stability and active extension of the opposite leg. We start this test by having the athlete lie on their back and raise one leg at a time up off the ground as high as they can without lifting their hips out of alignment and off the floor.
The ability to perform the active straight-leg raise requires functional hamstring flexibility. Functional flexibility is different from passive flexibility, which you would see when you are doing static stretching or during a yoga class. Because it's a leg raise (not a passive stretch), we can easily assess the type of range of motion and flexibility that applies more directly to sport because the muscle is activated rather than relaxed. Think of the motion involved in kicking a ball or jumping over a hurdle.
Trunk stability push-up
This is similar to your garden variety push-up except for the position of the hands. Think of lying on your stomach with your arms in a “this is a stickup!” position. In a regular push-up, your hands would be under your shoulders but in this test, they are up by your ears.
This movement tests the athlete’s ability to stabilize the spine while supporting their body weight in a challenging position. The trunk stability push-up requires symmetric trunk strength as well as coordination of nearly your entire body. Not to mention the upper body strength to be able to do a push-up.
If you aren't able to do a regular push-up, you have already identified a weakness! Skip this test and work on your push-ups first by following my Push-up Zero to Push-up Hero plan.
This is much like the Bird-Dog core exercise you may have done in the past. But instead of getting on all fours and lifting the opposite arm and leg, you lift both limbs on the same side. Tricky, right?
The rotary stability test really challenges your multi-plane trunk stability by putting the body in the precarious position of trying to maintain balance all on one side.
Don’t worry if you fall over during this one. I've never seen anyone hold this position for too many reps.
You may very well have done this in a yoga class. In a nutshell, you are simply trying to touch your hands together behind your back by reaching one arm from over your shoulder and the other from below your armpit.
The shoulder mobility test assesses bilateral shoulder range of motion, combining internal rotation with adduction and external rotation with abduction. That's really just a fancy way of saying it tests how tight your shoulders and chest are.
Scoring the test
Some of the scoring is intuitive—losing your balance or obvious tipping or collapsing in the spine or legs indicates a problem. But some of the scoring is more subtle. For instance, to get a perfect score of three on the hurdle step, you would need to have your:
- Hips, knees, and ankles all aligned
- Minimal to no movement in the spine
- The stick across the shoulders to stay level with the ground
In the trunk stability push-up we're generally looking for the body to simply lift off the ground with no sagging or lagging in the spine. The body should look like a stable, single piece of human meat lifting all at once.
Probably the easiest to score is the shoulder mobility test. If the athlete can reach behind their back and be at least within one hand length of touching the other hand, they get all three points. Each additional hand length apart costs one point, but only to a minimum of zero (you don’t go into negative points if the distance is greater than three hand lengths).
Want to be tested?
If you are interested in getting a test like this done, I encourage you to find someone to administer the test who has been trained properly. But if you're just simply curious, it can be fun to do these seven movements at home in front of a mirror. Or better yet, get a friend to film you doing each movement (from a couple of different angles) and watch it yourself. It is amazing what you can learn from watching these tests.
The FMS aims to identify imbalances in mobility and stability during functional movements, not predict whether you'll get injured or win a race. It's a good tool, but it's not the end-all-be-all in athletic diagnostics.