Does the “Functional Movement Screen” Actually Work?

HHave you ever seen someone at your gym squatting or lunging with a marked bar, or stepping over a rope-like device while a trainer watches?

They probably did a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) test. It is one of the oldest and most popular systems for screening injury risk and athletic performance using strength, mobility and movement testing.

“The FMS is our tool for standardized movement screening to see how a person, regardless of their age, moves in everyday life,” says the FMS website. The test is designed to help coaches and trainers develop more informed strength and conditioning programs.

“I’ve found the FMS to be useful as a fundamental tool and as a simple, quick way for clients to identify some of their potential gaps and strengths,” says personal trainer Alexis Lynn. “We can then test again to see the improvements and see what’s working and what’s not working.”

But DDoes the FMS actually provide reliable information? Unfortunately, research doesn’t entirely back up the claims.

When it comes to predicting injury, several studies and systematic reviews have shown that FMS is in fact of no predictive value. For example, a paper that used the FMS on 257 collegiate athletes said it had only a slightly better than 50/50 chance (essentially a coin toss) of identifying the athletes who were at highest risk of injury. A systematic review found that the FMS showed no power to predict injury.

Research on whether it can accurately predict athletic performance is more sparse, but the same trend is emerging. A systematic review found little to moderate evidence that teens who do well on FMS also tend to do better on physical tests of flexibility, running speed, strength, and cardiovascular fitness. Another systematic review found no predictive power for athletic performance, aside from testing the deep squat and lunge.

So what should the FMS be used for?

Although using the FMS to predict injury or sports performance may seem challenging, the tool is can used to assess movement quality, or how well a person is moving. That’s because the tests mimic real-world movements (squats, lunges, overhead holds, steps) and focus less on whether you’re able to complete the movement and more on it how you complete it.

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“Simply putting movement quality at the forefront of a person’s thinking can be a huge win — in both the rehab and performance worlds,” says physical therapist Jessica Lee. “Using the FMS is an easy and relatively quick way to introduce complex topics in a relatable way that people can physically feel as they take the tests.” Concepts like chest extension or how well you can arch your upper back are much easier to understand when you do them, rather than simply being informed about them.

Are there more useful tests?

There are other tests that may be more telling than the FMS. For example, the Star Excursion Balance Test /Y-Balance Test is used to measure the lateral difference in reach while standing. To do this, you stand in the middle of a grid and reach as far as possible in one direction. Research has consistently shown that a difference in forward reach of greater than four centimeters between the two sides of the body can predict an increased risk of lower body injury.

The Landing Error Scoring System Test might also come in handy. But it is a bit more complex: The test leader records the participant’s fall from a 30 centimeter high box from two different angles (straight and from the side) and then evaluates the landing with a point system. Research has shown that a possibly Predictive value, but there is still work to be done to prove it.

Trainers can also use force plates to measure a number of different attributes in movements like jumping. And advanced motion capture systems are being developed to accurately measure things like center of gravity and range of motion of joints.

As technology advances and becomes more reliable, we will only see a greater focus on objective testing to measure areas of our fitness that can be improved. And that will only give us more information that we can put to good use.