Move Well to Run Well

Here you can see my funky arm swing: chicken wing on the left, arm tucked close to my body on the right
Before FMS: Here you can see my funky arm swing: chicken wing on the left, arm tucked close to my body on the right

As competitive runners, either in spirit or in practice, we can be counted on to rattle off our latest PR, our optimal target heart-rate, how many calories per hour we need during a race…name your statistic.  But if I asked you if you have adequate shoulder mobility or rotary stability, would you know?  My guess is you wouldn’t; you might not even know what they are, and these are two movement patterns that are fundamental to human movement at its most basic level. 

It’s really okay if you don’t know, though! Most of us don’t know whether or not we move well on such a rudimentary level, but if we were armed with this information we might be able to better stave off injuries or take our running past those performance plateaus that limit us.  This begs the question:  how can we gain this awareness?

An extremely smart physical therapist named Gray Cook and his team at Functional Movement Systems have developed a movement screen to help us figure this out.  The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) consists of seven movement pattern tests, and if you undergo the screen you are rated based on how you execute a given movement pattern to determine whether or not you are competent at that particular pattern.

How does this relate to running?  I’ll use myself as an example to illustrate how:  for years I knew I had an asymmetrical arm swing: my left arm jutted out like a chicken wing, and my right arm stayed tucked in too close to my body.  This threw off my running biomechanics and probably led to some of my injuries.  No matter what I did to strengthen my left shoulder or stretch out my right shoulder, my arm swing never changed, so I had my movement patterns tested.

The pattern does not need to be performed perfectly – that isn’t the goal.  The goal is to make sure there is a basic ability to perform the movement well enough that you will not be at high risk for injury if you were to perform it under load (which could be in sport, in the gym lifting weights, etc).  If you don’t execute the movement competently, there are progressions of mobility, stability and motor control drills to work through with a trained professional that can help you gain that competency, lower your injury risk, and thus enable you to train better to elevate your performance.

Movement Patterns

  • The first three patterns in the screen are the deep squat, the hurdle step, and the in-line lunge.  These are meant to test the three stance positions used in all of sport: double-legged stance, single-legged stance, and split stance.
  • The next two patterns are shoulder mobility and the active straight-leg raise; these test thoracic spine extension and rotation and the ability to hinge at the hip — especially important for stride length in running!.
  • Finally, the last two tests specifically examine the core: the trunk stability push-up and the rotary stability test.

Each test is rated on a scale of zero to three, and there are criteria for each score so the screen has to be administered by someone trained and certified in the FMS, such as a strength coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist, chiropractor, etc.  A score of zero is given if there is pain with the movement, which is an indication for referral to a healthcare professional for further work-up, and a one is given for any patterns you are unable to execute.  Score a two or above on all tests with no asymmetries and you are at significantly lower risk for injury when participating in your sport.  But if you don’t, with some guidance and self-motivation you can definitely improve your patterns, so don’t despair!

Four months later.  Though the photo angle is slightly different, you can see my right arm moves more freely and my left arm doesn't jut out quite as much as it did.  Still a work in progress - but getting there!
Four months later. Though the photo angle is slightly different, you can see my right arm moves more freely and my left arm doesn’t jut out quite as much as it did. Still a work in progress – but getting there!

When I was screened with the FMS, my most glaring deficiency was the shoulder mobility test, which, as I mentioned above, is a test of thoracic spine extension and rotation.  So what was really wrong with my arm swing was my stiff t-spine, and focusing on my shoulders alone was never going to get me anywhere at all!  I’m still a work in progress, but by doing drills to improve my t-spine mobility my arm swing has noticeably improved…and I’m running more and healthier than I have in years.  Coincidence?  I think not!

Though the FMS has been used by professional sports teams for a while now, it has only recently started to become widely available as more personal trainers and strength coaches are learning about it and becoming certified.  If you are interested in finding a certified FMS professional in your area to screen you and help you work through your correctives, you can check out the Functional Movement Systems website here.

Have you ever undergone a movement screen?  How have you tried to uncover root causes of your own chronic injuries or performance limitations?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. I never realized the extent of my back issues until last year when my abs were separated and essentially shut off. Wow! I had horrible thoracic pain and spasm. So much so my orthopedist was sure I had a herniated disc or two. I think the back muscles are big and seemingly unrelated to running so we don’t give them their due respect and inspect them for tightness. They can be very tight without causing much pain, but tight enough to wreak havoc on your form – hello wonky arm. I’m really interested in having this assessment done. I know I’m very tight in the hips and still struggle with my back from time to time. Great post!

    1. Thanks Salty! It can be so eye-opening to go through this screen, and sometimes the best athletes are some of the lowest scorers because they can compensate well for their movement deficiencies. Also, traditionally we’ve been conditioned to think about “problems” with biomechanics in terms of body parts, not movement patterns, and our parts don’t move in isolation – they move in concert with one another! So assessing them that way can be way more helpful than just trying to pin weakness or tightness on a specific muscle or joint.

    1. Hi Jasmine! You can’t do the FMS or work through the correctives by yourself – a certified strength coach, personal trainer, physical therapist, etc in your area is needed to screen you and then guide your programming based on your results. For a listing of trained providers, you can go to the website: However, the next best thing is this: Gray Cook (the creator of the FMS) has a great book called “Athletic Body in Balance” which has some similar self-assessments you can do, as well as details on how to progress your own strength and conditioning. It’s excellent – if you check it out, let me know what you think!