To FMS or not to FMS: That is the assessment

This is the second part of a two-part post about personal training client assessment options. Check out part one here where I talk about why I was looking for alternatives for the FMS and what I was looking at.

For the past ten weeks I have put new clients through a dual assessment: the FMS as well as the alternative assessment I shared in part one. Note, I understand that the FMS is designed as “a screen” and not an assessment however I think that distinction is founded in the context of a medical assessment. As a trainer, when I say assessment, I am not referring to a medical assessment, but rather a tool for collection of information about a client that I can use to help guide the exercise program I will create for them. A review of a few dictionaries confirms this as a valid use of assessment.

I ran 15 people through the dual assessment. As mentioned in part one, I made notes after the assessments about what I learned from each for each person, but then I didn’t look at it again until this week as a means to reduce any pre-judgement I might have.

My conclusion:
Ten weeks after starting this test drive, I have decided to stick with the FMS, with a few additions. I know part one had a tone that suggests I would be parting ways with the FMS. I wrote that before I started testing the alternative, and at the time, I thought I would end up dropping the FMS. Even though I felt that way, I am an engineer at heart, and that means I don’t make decisions like that without a proper evaluation. Given my conclusion, I’m thankful for that.

Here are the main contributors to my decision to stick with the FMS:

1. The things I like about the alternative assessment were related to how well they set me up to coach exercises we would be doing during my client’s first training session, but it didn’t have much impact on selecting the exercises. Practically speaking, I was just taking part of the first training session and doing it as part of the assessment. I’m not sure that’s actually a gain.

2. As I ran new clients through the alternative assessment, I realized it wasn’t giving me as much clarity in regards to corrective exercises as the FMS does. I am certain I could map the movements of the new assessment to appropriate corrective exercises, so the new assessment could accomplish this in time. But I am already able to do this with proficiency using the FMS, so at best this falls into the category of different but not better.

3. There were three areas where I like the alternative assessment so much that I will continue to do them after the FMS. In fact they almost won me over to the new approach:

  • Hip hinge: I mentioned in part one of this post that I was moving toward the thought that the Active Bent Leg Raise (ABLR) would be a better predictor of deadlift ability than the Active Straight Leg Raise (ASLR). In practice, it wasn’t. Almost everyone can do a decent ABLR (maybe obvious to some, but it wasn’t to me). The hip hinge on the other hand was very useful.I think this really demonstrates Dr. David Frost’s point about transferability of movement quality to actual movement (part one for more). Whether or not someone can lift their leg beyond a certain angle does not mean that they can deadlift safely. A score of 2 or 3 on the ASLR means they have the hip range of motion to deadlift safely, but a deadlift also requires movement coordination and stability. There are a fair number of people for whom the hip hinge movement is foreign, and for these people, programming a deadlift as their main hip dominant strength exercise in their first training program is a missed opportunity.

This is because we’ll spend too much time teaching, and until it looks good, we will have to limit the load. The hip hinge test allows me to see who is actually capable of doing a deadlift which, in conjunction with the ASLR, helps me to decide who gets a deadlift pattern as a starting strength exercise and who will gets an alternative like a hip lift while working on the hip hinge as a corrective exercise.
The other reason I like the hip hinge in the assessment is that, further to Dr. Frost’s point, I’m no longer convinced that a score of 1 on the ASLR is necessarily a sign that someone doesn’t possess the movement required to deadlift. The ASLR would be a good choice to screen for whether someone possesses the movement to straight leg deadlift, but that’s not an exercise I use. I have clients doing conventional deadlifts (from risers if warranted), Romanian deadlifts (like the straight leg but slightly bent legs), rack pulls, and single leg Romanian deadlifts.

Admittedly a 1 on the ASLR likely means a person won’t be a good candidate for conventional deadlifts from the floor, but that is not the only deadlift option I’m considering. I do like the ASLR because it will help me to determine which deadlift patterns are more likely to be good options – once I have determined with the hip hinge that they are candidates for a deadlift at all.

  • Arms crossed squat: Watching people do the arms crossed squat made it very clear to me that I don’t like the Deep Squat (DS) as a screen for whether someone has the movement to squat well. I saw many people perform poorly on the DS who had a very nice arms crossed squat. Testing the arms crossed squat allows me to decide whether a goblet squat is a viable option for someone’s first program, whereas the DS is sometimes unclear for this. I love split squats as a first program squat option, but there are some people for whom it is a gruelling exercise. Usually (but not always) these are people who struggle with the In Line Lunge (ILL) in the FMS. For these people, I would prefer to work on the split squat as a corrective and build strength with a squat version that more suits their current body.The practical reality is that I want my assessment to help me determine what knee dominant exercises make the most sense for my client initially. Unfortunately the combination of the DS and ILL don’t always succeed at that. If someone scores a 2 or 3 on the deep squat, I can feel confident that they will be a good candidate for the goblet squat. But if someone scores a 1, I don’t know whether or not this would be a good choice for them. I want to know.
  • Bird dog: The bird dog is similar but different from the Rotary Stability (RS) test. I really like the bird dog as a test because it tells me whether someone has the stability for the exercise, and by asking where they feel it, it gives me insight into how well they’ll do at lateral/rotary core exercises like Pallof presses, and side planks. I think a side plank could achieve the same thing.Lateral core stability is an interesting topic for me at the moment. Ever since I started asking clients where they feel rotary and lateral core exercises, I have heard some responses about their shoulders and backs, while others thankfully say core. It turns out many of my clients were looking good while doing exercises to train rotational stability, but they weren’t getting that stability the way I hoped. Finding this out changed the way I program for rotary core stability, and as such, I like either the bird dog or side plank in the assessment.

At the same time, I also don’t care for the more challenging part of the RS test. In fact, if I had my way, I would use the FMS but replace the same side elbow to knee touch test with a bird dog where they perform 3 reps for 5 second holds with one arm leg combination and then repeat with the other. The problem with the stability part of the RS test is that it’s too hard for most of the population, meaning the result provides very little information.
Doing the bird dog in addition to the opposite side arm/leg rotary stability test in the FMS would tell me everything I want to know. The opposite arm leg RS part tells me about range of motion (and stability to an extent), and the bird dog part tells me about their ability to stabilize. Adding the “where do you feel it” question makes it a complete picture.

4. There were two other parts of the alternative assessment that have me thinking:

  • Push-up: I saw people perform poorly on the FMS Trunk Stability Push Up (TSPU) but then do well on a “normal” push up. I still like the TSPU because I think it provides valuable insight into core stability. For example, one such client scored a 1 on the TSPU but could hold a plank for two minutes and could do regular push ups relatively easily. Upon closer examination, his spinal erectors looked like huge metal rods while doing both regular push ups and the plank, which suggests to me that the TSPU did do its job in that it told me that something is off. The regular push up combined with the plank also told me that, but less efficiently, requiring two tests instead of one.
  • Split squat: The split squat is the one exercise that I think often looks right but is actually wrong. Since noticing this with my clients, I now always ask where they feel it, and their response helps me decide how to coach it for them. While I think this is important, I’m not sure it belongs in an assessment. By using the split squat in the alternative assessment, I knew going in to the first training session whether I would need to overly coach the movement. I’m just not sure how helpful that is. Especially in light of my decision to add the arms crossed squat to my assessment. By looking at someone’s ILL and their arms crossed squat, I can easily decide whether split squats are a good strength exercise for them, or whether it makes more sense as a corrective at first. In my mind, this renders the split squat part of my alternative assessment less valid. It’s true that I’m picking two tests over one, which I frowned upon for the push up. In this case, I am getting more bang for my buck though because the ILL also contributes to my understanding of how their thoracic spine and shoulders move, which I value.

5. I have been adding single leg squats to a bench with my clients in addition to the FMS for years, but I think adding the arms crossed squat may render it unnecessary. The single leg squat tells me if the person has decent hip stability, while also pointing out if there is a strength deficit on one or both legs. The arms crossed squat will show me the hip stability part via hip shifting or knee alignment. It won’t necessarily show me the granularity of strength deficit that the single leg squat does, but that won’t affect my programming much. If someone has a significant strength deficit, I will have see it in the ILL, and a minor strength deficit is not going to affect my programming.

Summing it up:

I’m not breaking up with the FMS after all. This experiment has shown me that I want to keep using it as the core of my client assessment. What remains to be seen is whether I continue with the actual FMS with a few extra tests, or whether I start using a modified FMS. I really want to do the latter, but my inner engineer doesn’t like informal system edits, so it’s a tough call for me.

I’ll post an addendum to this in a couple days with the specific modified FMS that I am considering.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa whose inner geek is currently on overdrive.

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