Functional Movement Screen for Strength Sports
Perhaps the best analogy I’ve heard for the Functional Movement Screen is to consider it as a “blood pressure check for athletes”. It’s a simple series of tests that are used to determine mobility limitations and asymmetries that may increase risk of injury in training. The screening process was originally popularized in physical therapy circles, and has gained merit from strength and conditioning coaches as an effective way to analyze athletic movement. The number one priority of a strength coach should be the quality of movement in their athletes, and this must come before programming for progressive overload.
How does the screening process work?
The traditional screen includes seven movements. There is an overhead squat, a plank/push-up, and five tests that look at unilateral function. Each movement is designed to challenge mobility, stability, and asymmetries between right and left sides of the body. The athlete receives a score of 0-3 for each movement. A score of 0 is given if the movement causes pain, a score of 1 is given when the athlete is unable to execute the movement or has a major deviation, a score of 2 is given if the athlete performs the movement with minor deviation, and a score of 3 is given if the athlete can successfully complete the movement. The highest possible score on the 7-point test is 21. While FMS sells tools to perform these movements in training facilities, it is very simple to modify the test for in-home use.
Why should we care as lifters?
Anyone involved in strength sports understands that there is always a bit of an injury risk in pursuing our goals. We can limit our injury risk to some extent by working to improve right-left asymmetries and muscular imbalances. There is extensive research indicating defects in movement mechanics increase the risk of injury in athletes.2,3,4
The good news is that corrective exercises can easily be programmed into your current routine and progress does not have to come to a screeching halt if one scores poorly on the screen. It is simply a way to evaluate movement patterns and show limitations and asymmetries that may not be clearly visible in the competition lifts.
What does the research say?
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of North Texas found that track and field athletes who scored less than 14 on the FMS had reduced performance ability in competition compared to their peers who scored 14 or better.1 The take-away from this for strength sports is that we may be limiting the amount of weight we can put on the bar with poor functional movement patterns. Improper movement or instability on one side of the body can limit progress and increase the risk of injury until it is addressed. This is similar to how a weak muscle group can limit the progress of a competition lift.
In 2010, Chorba et. al. followed thirty-eight female athletes through the course of a sport season. The athletes who scored less than 14 on the FMS were four times more likely to sustain a lower-body injury during the competitive season!2 Of course the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting are not as demanding in terms of lateral agility, so it would be interesting to see if poor FMS scores were also a reasonable predictor of injury in competitive lifters.
I’ve taken part in a Functional Movement Screen, what’s next?
Your test score and coach’s comments for each movement can provide clues as to what needs to be adjusted in training. Poor movement is often caused by something done repetitively, whether in the gym or in everyday life. If an athlete has poor glute activation during deadlifts, simply stretching the hip flexors will not fix the problem. While there may be some hip mobility and posture that needs addressed, it is important that the increased flexibility and postural awareness is used to create better motor patterns in the competition lifts. In 2013, Moreside and McGill found that increases in passive range of motion at the hip were not enough to bring about improvements in functional movement during hip extension.4 This can be applied with the thought that stretching is important, but actively moving through the new range of motion and developing better mechanics through repetition is equally important.
It is understood that an athlete’s movement can change dramatically when training under heavy loads in comparison to bodyweight movements. As indicated previously, the FMS can simply be considered a “check-up” for athletes. There are plenty of successful lifters who would probably score very poorly on the test, and that’s ok. Perhaps they would be able to minimize injury risk and extend their lifting careers with a better score, or perhaps a certain level of rigidity and inflexibility is necessary in order for them to stabilize during maximal lifts. In most cases, it’s likely that a poor score comes from an injury that was picked up along the way or a general disregard for mobility work. The number one reason for using the functional movement screen in our pursuit of strength is minimizing injury risk. There will always be minor form breakdowns as well as aches and pains when training at a high intensity, but prioritizing quality of movement will allow us to pursue our goals for as long as possible.
Budnar RG, Birdwell R, Moody C, Hill DW, Duplanty AA, Jackson AW, Vingren JL. (2013) "Functional Movement Screentm Scores in Collegiate Track and Field Athletes in Relation to Injury Risk and Performance," International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: Vol. 2: Iss. 5, Article 68.
Chorba RS, Chorba DJ, Bouillon LE, Overmeyer CA, Landis JA. Use of a Functional Movement Screening Tool to Determine Injury Risk in Female Collegiate Athletes. N Am J Sports Phys Ther. Jun 2010; 5(2): 47–54.
Kiesel K, Plisky PJ, Voigt, ML. Can Serious Injury in Professional Football be Predicted by a Preseason Functional Movement Screen? N Am J Sports Phys Ther. Aug 2007; 2(3): 147–158.
Moreside, JM and McGill, SM. Improvements in hip flexibility do not transfer to mobility in functional movement patterns. J Strength Cond Res 27(10): 2635–2643, 2013.