Up until the early ’90s, fitness assessments consisted of measuring body fat, upper/lower body strength, flexibility, and anaerobic capacity. As we learned more about the human body and how it moves, we realized that the missing value which would enable us to better serve our clients relates to the quality of human movement. That’s when functional movement entered the scene.

Consider the following exercises that trainers commonly include in an evaluation session: military press, forward/backward lunge, straight leg raises, push-up, seated rows, and torso stabilizing exercises. While these do not qualify as “typical activities of daily living”, they nonetheless provide valuable feedback for trainers. Yet for some novice clients, introducing such exercises too soon can quickly turn a positive outlook into discouragement.

Focus on the Functional Movements

Fortunately, our industry continues to evolve. We now understand that attempting to capitalize solely upon an individual’s strength, while ignoring inferior movement patterns, significantly increases the risk of injury to the client. An in-depth observation of an individual’s movement abilities better illustrates his capabilities as well as limitations.

If we observe a client’s gait pattern, for example — the integrative movements involved in simply walking — we can discover a treasure trove of clues as to how his limbs/muscles/joints move through space. Movement pattern analysis such as executing an Overhead Squat Assessment allows trainers to assess whether a client can successfully activate the proper muscle targeted with each exercise.

From this information, we can adjust a client’s technique and customize his workout regimen, including specific moves to strengthen weaker muscles. At the same time, we can take advantage of the learning opportunity to educate the client on body awareness, specifically addressing how to avoid activating any assistor muscles. As always, we must stress how correct exercise technique and body positioning optimize the benefits derived from an exercise.

Pure Strength Versus Function

A few years ago, a group of researchers sought to compare functional strength workouts to more traditional strength training exercises. They examined such parameters as movement quality and fitness abilities of females between the ages of 12 and 13. Prior to this study, the subjects had not engaged in a significant amount of training.

The group assigned to functional strength performance engaged in 10 functional-based exercises for 6 weeks, followed by 6 weeks of 10 purely strength-building exercises. The second group of subjects trained solely with traditional strength moves, gradually increasing in intensity over the 12-week study. Both groups trained for 45 minutes, three times a week.

The results clearly showed that a workout regimen incorporating functional strength training had more of a positive impact on the girls’ movement quality and muscular strength than the training based solely upon cultivating pure strength. This in turn could bode well for future injury prevention.

Creating a Functional Movement Analysis

Armed with this knowledge, personal trainers should feel comfortable designing their own functional movement analyses for new clients. This portion of the article outlines exercises involving some element of common movement patterns, with the goal of providing an accurate assessment of natural life-enhancing movement abilities.

In designing such assessments, trainers might keep in mind the order in which they present exercises, encouraging easy flow for the client.

  1. Raising arms overhead

This simple act can reveal upper body dysfunction, especially when paired with a squat (which will expose additional movement compensations)

Note the following when viewing client from the front:

  • The height of each shoulder
  • The position of the head with regard to the body’s midline 

Note the following when regarding client from one side:

  • Did the head pop forward or stay put when elevating the arms?
  • Did the lumbar region sway or arch as the arms came up?
  • Did the hips jut forward upon raising arms overhead?

These observations should provide information about muscle weaknesses or restrictions originating from either dysfunction or injury. In addition, they illustrate how the client’s brain “dictates” the action of raising the arms.

  1. Sitting down/perching on the edge of a chair and rising to a standing position
  • Does client drop onto the chair or sit down with control? Does s/he extend or tuck the gluteals? Does the head jut forward? If so, s/he for may have adapted to turning off key stabilizer muscles.
  • Can s/he stand without support? Initiation of this movement does require use of the stabilizers to initiate the movement; in their absence, the client may need to find a support when rising.
  • When observed from the front, does one butt cheek hit the chair before the other? Do the knees buckle (valgus)? This red flag points to uncontrolled flexion of the hip and weak abductors/extensors.

These observations assist a trainer in choosing the optimal starting point for squats (loaded/unloaded, full/partial squat).

  1. Standing on one leg

When observing from the front, does the client swing his/her body to one side/both sides? This movement may indicate a weakness in the sacroiliac joint or overall poor intrinsic core muscular control.

A “hip drop” occurs on the side of the leg in the air and the pelvis shifts downwards on that side. A weakness in muscles supporting the hip causes of the standing leg is responsible. This may be ameliorated through strengthening exercises; of course, sometimes simply making the client aware of such movement patterns works sufficiently to bring about a healthier change in dynamics, but usually a corrective exercise approach is necessary.

  1. Executing any form of a push-up (floor, knees, against a wall)

Take note of the following:

  • The position of the head –tilted forward or chin extended (forward head)
  • The curvature of the lumbar spine (lordosis) causing anterior pelvic tilt
  • The curvature of the thoracic spine (kyphosis) causing a rounded shoulder position
  • Scapular control/winging

Weaknesses reveal themselves with increased load on the body. Assess what you think the client can safely execute, and make this his starting position. “Push” movements that strengthen these muscles will facilitate many activities of daily life. Keep in mind the ultimate goal of cultivating chest strength while avoiding back/shoulder injuries.

Improve Every Move

By focusing on movement quality analysis, especially when training clients new to the gym, we offer them the opportunity to remain active while diminishing chances of injury. By promoting quality movements, we harness the potential to reduce chronic pain. Thorough assessments, coupled with the advanced technology of “motion capturing”, enables trainers to expose clients’ weak spots; with this knowledge, we can design customized workout programs to meet each client’s unique needs.

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Liao, T, Li, L, and Wang, YT. “Effects of functional strength training program on movement quality and fitness performance among girls aged 12-13 years.”  J Strength Cond Res 33(6): 1534-1541, 2019

Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!