The FMS vs SFMA: Movement Screening vs Movement Assessment

After spending the past year and a half working with Phil Plisky and Kyle Kiesel, I’ve naturally been getting a lot of questions from colleagues about the Functional Movement Systems. A good chunk of them revolve around the differences between the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA).

The thing I consistently see people have the hardest time grasping is that the FMS is a SCREEN. It’s not an assessment.

The analogy you’ll hear from the FMS camp is that the movement screen is like taking blood pressure. If I take your blood pressure, and it’s 150/90, I just found out that you’re hypertensive. I don’t know WHY you’re hypertensive. Likewise, if you score a 9/21 on your FMS, I just identified that you have some serious basic movement dysfunctions that are increasing your risk of injury. I haven’t identified WHAT is driving your dysfunction with certain patterns.

Screens are meant to identify red flags and provide direction. If you are borderline hypertensive, your doctor tells you, “Eat healthier. Make sure you’re exercising. Check-up in 6 months”. If your BP is through the roof, further work-up is likely recommended.

If you’re FMS score is slightly low (14/21 is equivalent to 120/80 mmHg—to oversimplify things) or you have some mild asymmetries, we give you some consistently effective corrective exercises to work on in conjunction with your training. If your scores are through the floor, or you don’t demonstrate improvement at follow-up, further assessment is needed.

That’s where the SFMA comes in.

Unlike the FMS, the SFMA is DIAGNOSTIC. It allows us to systematically breakout movement patterns and identify every mobility and/or stability deficit that’s causing global dysfunction. It’s intended to be utilized in people with pain, but I personally feel it also has good applications in fitness and performance.

Here’s a good example of how things correlate: let’s say you score a “1” on the FMS Active Straight Leg Raise (see picture).

Conventional wisdom tells you, “Just stretch your hamstrings for that”. Sometimes that might work. But the reality is you have no idea if “tight” hamstrings are actually what's driving your low score. It could be the result of a hip joint mobility restriction, compromised neurodynamics, core/hip stability dysfunction, or 10 other different things.

Even if it is “tight” hamstrings, the FMS score can’t tell you why they’re tight. I frequently see athletes who have been stretching their hamstrings for years without improvements. On the other hand, I just completed a research study where we changed subjects’ chronically “tight” hamstrings by 30 degrees with a <2 minute breathing technique!

Bottom line: if you’re not addressing the RIGHT thing, it’s tough to make progress. The FMS tells you there’s a movement problem. The SFMA gets to the root of it.

Key Points:

  • The FMS is a SCREEN (think blood pressure). It only tells you that you have dysfunction with certain movement patterns...and that's all it's supposed to do.

  • The SFMA is DIAGNOSTIC. It tells you WHY you have dysfunction with certain movement patterns.

  • If your FMS score is good or borderline, move on to performance/functional capacity testing, hit some corrective exercises if necessary, and get at it with your training.

  • If you flunk your screen, deeper movement assessment is required to understand why.