Have you ever seen someone at your gym squatting or lunging with a marked rod, or stepping over a rope-like device as a trainer observes?
They were likely taking a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) test. It’s one of the oldest and most popular systems for screening for injury risk and athletic performance, using tests of strength, mobility, and movement.
“The FMS is our tool for standardized movement screening to see how an individual, no matter their age, is moving in everyday life,” shares the FMS website. The test is intended to help coaches and trainers build out better-informed strength and conditioning programs.
“I’ve found the FMS to be useful as a basic tool and an easy, quick way for clients to see some of their potential deficits and strengths,” says personal trainer Alexis Lynn. “We can then retest to see the improvements and see what is or isn’t working.”
But does the FMS actually provide reliable information? Unfortunately, the research doesn’t quite back up the claims.
When it comes to predicting injuries, multiple studies and systematic reviews have shown that FMS actually has no predictive value. For instance, a paper using the FMS on 257 collegiate athletes said it had only a slightly better than 50/50 chance (a coin flip, essentially) of identifying those athletes who had the highest injury risk. One systematic review stated flat out that the FMS showed no power for predicting injuries.
The research on whether it can accurately forecast athletic performance is more scant, but the same trend emerges. One systematic review found only low to moderate evidence that teens who scored highly on the FMS tended to also have better scores in physical tests of agility, running speed, strength, and cardiovascular fitness. A different systematic review found no predictive nature on athletic performance, aside from the tests of the deep squat and in-line lunge.
So, what should the FMS be used for?
Although it seems to be a stretch to use the FMS to predict injuries or athletic performance, the tool can be used to assess movement quality, or how well a person is moving. That’s because the tests mimic real-life movement (squatting, lunging, reaching overhead, stepping) and focuses less on if you’re able to complete the movement and more on how you complete it.
“Simply bringing movement quality to the forefront of a person’s mind 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 manner that people can physically feel as they go through the tests.” Concepts like thoracic extension, or how well you can bend your upper back, are much easier grasped by doing them rather than simply being told about them.
Are there more useful tests?
There are other tests out there that might be more predictive than the FMS. For instance, the star excursion balance test /Y balance test is used to measure side-to-side difference in standing reach. To do it, 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 more than four centimeters between the two sides of the body can predict an increased risk for lower body injuries.
The Landing Error Scoring System test might also be useful. But it is a bit more involved—the person administering the test records the participant as they drop from a 30-centimeter high box from two different angles (straight on and from the side) and then grades the landing on a points system. Research has shown a potentially predictive value, but there’s still work to do in proving it.
Trainers can also use force plates to measure a number of different attributes during movements like jumping. And there are advanced motion capture systems being developed to accurately measure things like center of mass and joint range of motion.
As technology continues to evolve and become more reliable, we’re only going to see more of a focus on objective testing to help measure areas of our fitness that can be improved. And that will only give us more information to put to good use.