Sports Science Update: The Functional Movement Screen

Seven simple moves can be used to assess your injury risk and chart a course toward healthier running.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Winter is the perfect time of year for most runners to perform a Functional Movement Screen and start a program of corrective exercises to address weaknesses. Photo: FunctionalMovement.com

The Functional Movement Screen is a tool that was developed by physical therapists Gray Cook and Lee Burton in the 1990s. It is based on the idea that all sports and exercise movements are built on the seven basic movement patterns and that most injuries are caused by an inability to perform these movements correctly. The test consists of seven basic movements, such as a simple forward lunge, that every able-bodied athlete and exerciser ought to be able to perform with good alignment, stability, and range of motion, and without pain.

A straightforward scoring system is used. The test subject gets three points if he can perform a deep squat, hurdle step, lunge, lying leg left, push-up, trunk rotation, or shoulder mobility test without any “compensatory” movements, such as becoming knock-kneed while squatting. Moderate compensatory movements earn two points. If the subject can’t do the movement right at all, he gets one point, and any pain merits a goose egg.

Composite scores from the seven tests accurately predict future injury risk in everyone from grandmothers in group exercise programs to professional athletes. In 2007, a team of physical therapists led by the University of Evansville’s Kyle Kiesel  subjected 46 members of a professional football team to the Functional Movement Screen. They then tracked serious injuries among the players over the course of the ensuing season and discovered that players with a composite score below 14 were 11 times more likely to get hurt.

The Functional Movement Screen received even broader validation recently in a study involving 874 Marine officers. These officers were subjected to a Functional Movement Screen at the start of a physical training program. Injuries were then tracked throughout the program. Finally, injury risk and types of injuries were correlated with Functional Movement Screen scores.

As in the study involving professional football players, this study used a composite score of 14 to distinguish high-risk and low-risk groupings. The average score was 16.6, and only 10 percent of the officers scored below 14. Again, injury risk among those with FMS scores below 14 was significantly greater than for those with scores of 14 or greater. The FMS also accurately predicted the location of injuries. (For example, officers scoring poorly in the shoulder mobility test proved more likely to suffer shoulder injuries.)

In addition to predicting injury risk and type, FMS scores at the start of the training program accurately predicted scores in a standardized test of physical conditioning performed at the end of the training program. Of the officers who achieved scores of 280 points or more out of a possible 300 points, only 6.6 percent had initial FMS scores below 14.

These findings indicate that people who plan to exercise seriously should screen their movements and work on improving their scores. Doing so will enable them to identify and improve faulty movement patterns before these problems can cause injuries and limit progress in a training program involving repetitive movements (as nearly all serious exercise programs do).

As a runner, you need not be as concerned about your shoulder mobility as you are about your ability to lunge fully without compensation or pain. Nevertheless, everything is connected in the human body, so it’s worthwhile to do the full test and work on any limitations you discover, even if they occur above the waist.

Winter is the perfect time of year for most runners to perform a Functional Movement Screen and start a program of corrective exercises (consisting of targeted stretches and strength exercises) to address weaknesses. Without races on the immediate horizon, you have the freedom to reduce your run training to a minimal level while you focus on movement correction and thereby put a stop to practicing “bad habits” in your stride.

Any licensed physical therapist can take you through the FMS and prescribe a program of corrective exercises. Thereafter you may be able to repeat the FMS periodically on your own, using a mirror to spot limitations and compensatory movements. Use these check-ups to keep you body well balanced, minimize your risk of injury, and maximize the results you get from each mile of running.

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Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.

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