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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

The Importance of Movement Screening for Military Recruits and Candidates

Leaders in sports medicine, coaching, and strength and conditioning know that screening is critical to identify athletes at risk for future injury.  Fundamental movement screening augments the normal battery of performance tests such as the 40 yard dash and the vertical jump.  In addition to completing a battery of performance tests, any athletic prospect must also obtain clearance from the medical staff.

Just about anyone who wants to enter the military must pass through a similar clearing process.  After meeting with a recruiter, the next step is a visit to that vaunted American institution known as MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) to obtain medical clearance. (if you enjoy long waits that make the DMV seem efficient, then MEPS is the place for you!!).  MEPS basically offers a long physical examination where the medical staff ensures that each recruit or candidate has two arms, two legs, two eyes, has no diseases and is relatively injury free. 

A second layer of the entrance process involves physical fitness testing. Whereas the physical exam asks "Is anything wrong?" a fitness test asks "Can you keep up?"  Standards may range from bare minimums to simply gain entry to extremely high performance levels for certain specialized units.  Once in uniform, servicemen/women will go through similar medical and fitness batteries throughout their careers.  Nevertheless, a basic medical screen and rudimentary physical fitness test paint a very incomplete picture for predicting injury.  Missing from this process is a basic movement screening to determine fundamental movement ability. 

Modern recruiters bemoan the poor conditioning of the current generation (thanks to video games and less unstructured physical play in youth, to name a couple of factors), but equally troubling is the generation's poor movement literacy.  Quality movement ability is the body's insurance policy for when the body is placed under physical duress.  When someone reaches the outer limits of conditioning, only thing to fall back upon is quality of movement.  A stressed joint doesn't care how mentally tough you are!  If quality of movement is poor, even if performance capacity is high, at some point you will get to stage where you can't compensate through poor movement.  The irony is that the military spends enormous resources on protective gear (and for good reason) but investment into effective screening methods to prevent injuries has occurred only through a select few progressive outlets in military medicine.  (see, e.g. http://www.armymedicine.army.mil/prr/PT_BCT_Guide.pdf) On balance, many recruits and candidates get exercises they don't need and many other don't get the exercises that they do need.   

"Functional" training has been the rage in military conditioning circles in recent years.  Two prolonged campaigns in the Middle East in urban environments have led the military to rethink much of its conditioning paradigm.  Unfortunately, the term "functional" is often misinterpreted to only refer to the purpose of the exercise, not the outcome.  "Functional" training has been touted as a giant leap forward toward reducing injury susceptibility, but a good exercise doesn't improve function if it runs counter to the recruit's basic movement ability.  Young men and women pass through MEPS every day without the ability to perform a satisfactory body-weight deep squat with their heels remaining on the ground at the bottom of the movement (if they can even get their thighs parallel to the ground).  However, only weeks later they will be expected to jump over obstacles and land on a body that can't even support itself in a sterile environment without impact forces!  

I'm all in favor of giving the body neuromuscular problems to solve where it is forced to find a solution with a minimum of verbal coaching, but you don't "solve" problems involving extreme joint laxity limitation without some direct intervention.  Practitioners need to use their mind as much as their eyes: an exercise performed with good technique is not necessarily "functional" if the subject is fighting their basic movement patterns to make the exercise look safe to the outside observer.  Simply being able to do more of something or do something faster is not a telltale sign of function.  In fact, layering power on top of a dysfunctional platform only serves to increase the power with which you can shred otherwise healthy soft tissue.  It is not the tissue that is fundamentally weak; it is the faulty movement pattern that puts the tissue at risk. This concept applies to all physical activities but is especially important when dealing with a young predominantly male population with a high capacity for power development. 

Done properly, a movement screening should take no more than ten minutes.  In fact, it is possible to screen large groups at a time (much like administering a PT test).  Much like a PT test, you can even make screening competitive as recruits will want to have the highest Functional Movement Screen scores among their peers.  Peer pressure and competition will help encourage compliance with any recommended corrective regimens.  Most importantly, making the investment into movement screening, whether through the Functional Movement Screen or with an alternative methodology will ultimately save careers and possibly save lives when applied in a military environment.  To quote FMS founder Gray Cook, "Take a kid excellent movement literacy and put him on a Crossfit type program and you’ll come out with Tarzan, the complete athlete. Take a kid with fundamental movement limitations and put him on that same program and you’ll come out with a patient." 

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