The Functional Movement Screen

Movement is the product of flexibility, strength, endurance and coordination. Each of these characteristics of movement is an important variable to consider with exercise and activity. Trainers and exercise instructors have many ways of measuring and tracking the development of these variables. Many different flexibility, strength and endurance tests have been designed and are widely used. Coordination, however, has often proved more challenging to gauge. The functional movement screen (FMS) is a remarkably simple and effective method of measuring functional performance and tracking its development with exercise. 

The FMS is group of tests that screen for poor motor coordination, or dysfunctional movement, which can get in the way of achieving good results from exercise. Underlying movement pattern dysfunctions and asymmetries can limit exercise effectiveness and increase the risk of injury. The nervous system seems to organize motor control information as complex sets of movement pattern instructions stemming from a number of basic, fundamental patterns. The FMS tests a fairly comprehensive set of generally recognized fundamental movement patterns. It tests three whole body functional patterns: squatting, striding and single-leg standing. It also tests trunk and spinal stabilisation patterns, as well as shoulder and hip movement patterns. Each of these patterns is qualitatively measured within four broad parameters. The tests are scored 3, 2, 1 or 0, which indicate excellent, satisfactory, dysfunctional, or painful movement, respectively.

These scores, and more importantly the relationships between them, allow a trainer or instructor to prioritize exercises to make exercise programs and workouts as safe, effective and efficient as possible. Often the greatest impediment to good results from exercise can be a dysfunctional movement pattern which limits mobility or stability. Correcting this “weak link” can produce dramatic improvements in strength, flexibility and endurance. More importantly, the FMS identifies functional limitations that might introduce avoidable risk to a workout. FMS results can indicate what exercises involve a dysfunctional pattern and should be avoided or discontinued until the pattern is improved. You can heap a great amount of fitness on top of dysfunctional movement patterns. You can even reinforce a dysfunctional pattern with repetition and intensity. Enough repetition or intensity applied to a dysfunctional movement pattern can lead to overuse and repetitive-stress injuries. FMS results can suggest a strategy for safely reintroducing exercises and activities involving a dysfunctional pattern. The FMS is like an exercise GPS. It can tell us at any time where you are functionally, and how best to get you to where you want to be. We can better figure out when to do which exercise to produce the best results.

The FMS is quick and easy to use for both individuals and groups. A trainer, coach or instructor can quickly assess an individual or a group in a matter of minutes. The FMS provides a quick and efficient way to make sure the individuals in a group or a team are ready for an exercise program. This can significantly improve safety for group workouts and team training. We can also use FMS scores to identify when a participant needs individual attention, and ensure no one gets left behind.

We can assess functional patterns before, during and after a workout to determine the usefulness or appropriateness of a particular exercise or set of exercises. Improvement in FMS scores can demonstrate the effectiveness of those exercises. If an exercise isn’t producing the results we want, we can discard it and try another approach. This allows a workout to be flexible and adaptable to individual needs.

We can also use the FMS to monitor the effects of stress and fatigue on coordination. Often your form and technique are the first things to go wrong as you get tired. You can keep moving, but the quality and safety of how you move can suffer significantly. By re-screening a movement pattern between sets, we can know if that pattern is holding up under stress.

In the fitness and sports industries, functional movement has been a misunderstood and often overlooked element of movement and exercise. Functional movement patterns are increasingly recognized as playing a significant role in physical performance and musculoskeletal health. However, until recently, it was difficult and often impractical to try to systematically address these patterns in exercise and training. The FMS provides a practical, reliable and effective way of addressing these movement patterns.

Check out the Functional Movement Systems for more information about the FMS, and contact me for a consultation and functional movement screening if you are in the Seattle area.


During my career I have had the opportunity to extensively study many different forms of exercise and to use many different kinds of exercise equipment. I have much respect for time-tested forms of exercise like yoga and calisthenics. I’ve used dumbbells, barbells and cable machines to great effect. I believe the jump rope is a greatly underestimated and underutilized piece of equipment. However, after all is said and done, the kettlebell is my favorite training tool. More than with any other piece of equipment, I’ve gotten consistent and impressive results with kettlebells. In my professional experience, ketllebells have consistently proven to be the most versatile, safe and effective weights for people to learn to use.

First of all, what is a kettlebell? A kettlebell is very useful hand-held weight. It looks like a tea kettle; or rather it resembles a cannon-ball with a handle. The modern cast-iron or steel kettlebell most people see is typically attributed to Russian design. Kettlebells have been used for strength and athletic training for over a few centuries. Kettlebells have been used for at least a century here in the United States. Their use declined with the increased use of weight machines in gyms during the 1950s, but Kettlebells are definitely making a significant come-back.

The kettlebell and its fundamental design have a proven history. The hand-held weight with an off-center handle is the most common design of exercise weight across cultures and throughout history. Some examples are Chinese “stone padlock” weights, Japanese ishi sashi and chi ishi, Indian gada clubs, Persian meel clubs, and Scottish throwing stones and hammers. At the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Greece, there is an ancient limestone weight with a handle carved into the side dated to early 600 BCE. Even older still are depictions, dating back thousands of years, of almost every Hindu god and goddess wielding a gada. The off-center handled weight is a classic, time-tested design.

There are a seemingly limitless variety of good exercises one can do with just one kettlebell. You can get a high-quality, complete workout with one kettlebell. Literally all of your body can be exercised, and all fundamental functional movements can be trained. You can use kettlebells for weight training and cardio, simultaneously improving flexibility, strength, power and endurance. Moreover, you can hold a kettlebell in a variety of different ways. Simply changing how you hold the kettlebell can significantly change the demands of an exercise. This variety of application makes a kettlebell a virtual gym you can carry with you wherever you go. Kettlebells can also have a significant amount of weight while taking up very little space. This makes kettlebells the ideal exercise equipment to keep at home and in the gym. Like many hand-held weights, kettlebells come in all sizes. Where I train, we use kettlebells ranging in size from 2kg to 48kg. There is literally a size for everyone.

Kettlebells are also very safe to use–if you safely and progressively learn the movements properly. I sometimes hear or read about the risks of using kettlebells. Every claim I’ve seen about the dangers involved in kettlebell training actually speaks to the danger of exercising with poor technique, which is true of any exercise. It says more about the training of the person making the claim than about any danger unique to kettlebell training. Proper attention to detail, mastery of technique and proper progression make kettlebell training safe and effective. In the Russian hard-style system of kettlebell training, we focus on safety and efficiency rather than brute strength. We teach patience and attention to detail. The focus of good kettlebell training is to develop functional skill and balanced strength and endurance.

The less skill exercise equipment like weight machines require for use–the easier the equipment makes the exercise–the more weight and repetitions you can get away with when using it. But using more weight and reps without the necessary skill to stabilize the weight creates strength without coordination. The lack of coordination and timing of prime mover and stabilizer muscles imbalances the stability of your joints, putting them at higher risk of injury. This is clearly a recipe for injury from weight training. Furthermore, extensive use of weight machines can set up the conditions for injury when you have to lift something without the aid of the machine. Ironically, people think machines are safer than free weights.

Kettlebell exercises are actually safer and more effective than most typical free weight exercises as well, specifically because more skill development needed before heavier weights can be used. For example, kettlebells create a unique leverage demand for your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder in overhead positions. The particular shape and handle position of Kettlebells develop a higher degree of neuromuscular coordination and stabilization strength for your upper body, more so than with dumbbells or barbells. In my experience, this builds stable as well as strong shoulders.

Another example is the kettlebell deadlift, a critical exercise for people who sit a lot or have back problems. Since most people need to learn to effectively brace their backs and use their core and leg strength for heavy lifting, they need to use a significantly heavy weight. In my opinion, very heavy dumbbells aren’t easy to use for this, leaving us with barbells and kettlebells for heavy deadlifts. Unlike a barbell, the kettlebell’s shape allows you to easily hold a significant load in an ergonomic, “real-world” suitcase-like position. Using the kettlebell as opposed to a barbell gives you a greater degree of freedom to fine tune your position as you develop your hip hinge motion. This makes the kettlebell deadlift much easier to learn than the barbell deadlift. Beginners can easily learn this real-world functional skill of lifting heavy objects. (Even though you can load significantly more weight at the high end using a barbell, most beginning deadlifters aren’t using more than 96kg, or two 48kg kettlebells. If you are using more than 96kg, your hip hinge and core are probably pretty solid, and you’re good to go for learning the barbell deadlift.)

The most striking example of functional skill development is the kettlebell Turkish get up. The Turkish get up is a centuries-old exercise that basically combines a free weight with a yoga sequence. In a Turkish get up, you must stabilize a weight overhead with one hand while moving your body from a lying position on the ground to a full standing position and then back down in reverse. Each transitional movement and position of the get up requires you to develop body awareness and efficient alignment in a fundamental and natural way. The get up is similar to yoga in this respect, but it also places a greater demand for proper core reaction with the high center of gravity created by the kettlebell. Again, the off-center handle of the kettlebell provides an optimal stimulus to your hand and shoulder, and by extension your core, during the Turkish get up. It makes you develop an awareness of proper alignment simply so that the kettlebell does not fall. In this way, the Turkish get up forces you to not make a mistake. And unlike yoga, by progressively using larger kettlebells, you can progressively build strength without changing the exercise. In particular, building full-body strength with the Turkish get up requires you to master the necessary skill before you can progress to heavier weights.

The most significant aspect of kettlebell training that truly sets it apart from other forms of weight lifting are the swinging and ballistic exercises provided by the kettlebell’s off-center handle. Ballistic kettlebell exercises such as swings, cleans, snatches, jerks and push-presses allow you to effectively train for speed and power, even at novice skill levels. You can incorporate different speeds of motion into a variety of movements to involve the nervous system to a greater degree than in typical, body building-based weight training. This reactive neuromuscluar training develops coordinated proprioception and performance. Although these exercises can be performed with dumbbells and barbells, they are significantly more ergonomic and easier to learn for beginners when performed with kettlebells. Moreover, kettlebells allow these powerful, ballistic exercises to be performed with uninterrupted repetition. This effectively combines heavy weight lifting with aerobic training into a handful of exercises. You can build strength and endurance in an efficient, time-saving package.

Kettlebells safely build true functional flexibility, balance, coordination, strength, power and endurance all at once. For this reason I have found the kettlebell to be the most useful and effective tool for the widest variety of people to use, whatever their exercise needs and goals. When I give my time to help somebody, they deserve the quickest path to the best result. I recommend that everyone incorporate kettlebells into their workouts.


Functional Movement

First build a solid foundation. Work smarter, then work harder.

Although the key to achieving many fitness goals, and weight loss in particular, is to do a certain amount of activity at a certain intensity, we have to possess a certain level of functional ability in order to do so safely and effectively. It isn’t enough to simply say, “get out there and move.” How we move may get in the way of our sustaining an effective exercise program. How we move can in fact put us at risk for injury from activity. To say it another way, the quality of our movement is fundamental to the quantity of our movement. Functional movement supports our ability to move more and at higher intensities. We have to move well before we can move a lot.

The role of exercise in weight management is to stimulate a particular hormonal environment in the body that promotes the utilization of calories stored in fat tissue. It’s pretty clear from scientific research that we need to move and work our muscles at a high enough intensity to stimulate our metabolism. Although, it seems to be the case that we need to move enough to get our bodies to store fewer calories in fat if we want to lose weight, this situation depends on our ability to effectively sustain that volume of activity.

Because our modern industrialized lifestyle typically deprives us of opportunities to move around in a manner that supports good functional movement habits, what we lack in quality of movement limits what we can do in terms of quantity of movement. Most of us sit enough in our lives that our movement habits are unbalanced toward sitting. Sitting is actually a dynamic activity that involves the use of certain muscles over others. This imbalance affects the quality of our posture and gait. Too much of any movement pattern and too little of other patterns will lead to dysfunctional imbalances. Basically a lot of sitting can make other movements, such as running, problematic.

I’ve seen how dysfunctional movement can tear someone down until he or she has to stop exercising due to some kind of repetitive stress injury. Things seem to go great for a while, years even, but then eventually something starts to hurt enough that exercise has to be put on hold. Often recovery is incomplete, and one has to return to activity at a reduced capacity. I imagine most of us know of someone who has been in this situation. Research is increasingly suggesting that dysfunctional movement patterns in neuromuscular control play a significant role in repetitive stress injuries. Moreover, studies also show that musculoskeletal pain due to repetitive stress syndromes makes up the majority of physical therapy cases, even among non-exercisers. The problem of dysfunctional movement is clearly wide-spread in the population at large, and it significantly affects most people’s attempts to exercise and stay active.

Recent study also suggests that dysfunctional movement even inhibits our ability to lose weight even when we don’t experience injury. We can’t yet say why this is, but it may have something to due with inefficient muscle recruitment patterns affecting the hormonal response to exercise. Dysfunctional movement may limit our movement such that we can’t work our muscles enough to meaningfully affect our metabolisms, even though we can get our heart rates up and feel out of breath. Or perhaps poor movement creates a negative stress on the body causing the wrong hormonal response for weight loss. Whatever the reason, movement quality does seem to matter with weight loss beyond its role as an injury risk factor.

Dysfunctional movement limits our ability to sustain safe and effective exercise. First make sure your movement fundamentals are sound. Then get to work on increasing your exercise and activity.

It’s All About the Movement

We’re here to talk about exercise. What exactly do we mean when we talk about exercise? There seems to be a large amount of confusion about exercise. It’s pretty evident that many people–professionals and lay-people alike–don’t have a good grasp about what is good exercise. Why else would a culture, as obsessed about health and exercise as is ours, produce such poor outcomes from our efforts at exercise? For all the billions of dollars invested in the US alone for exercise and health, we’ve gotten a terrible return on that investment. In fact, the more we spend, the less healthy we seem to get. It all seems pretty insane. Why is that?

We all hear that the key to healthy living is to eat right and get enough exercise. I’ll save discussing diet and health for later. I don’t want to open that can of worms just yet. Exercise obviously plays a very significant role in health. I’ll be discussing exactly that role.

My focus here is on exercise, because that’s what I know. After eight years of study and training hundreds of people in a wide variety of situations, I’ve learned a thing or two. I’m here to share what I’ve learned. I want to strip the apparent mystery away from exercise. Hopefully I can help people reach an understanding of exercise and movement.

I mention movement, because it really all comes down to how we move. The way we move defines much of our life on a day-to-day basis and even on a moment-to-moment basis. We know this implicitly if not explicitly. Why else would our culture be so obsessed with exercise?

In future postings, I’ll address in detail the answers to these and other questions. The good new is that once we understand that it’s all about movement we can take control of how we feel physically and emotionally. With an appreciation of the importance of good movement we can shape how we feel about ourselves and our world.