Functional Tests vs. Individual Muscle Tests: Different yet Complementary


Jumping executiveFirst, let’s describe what functional and individual muscle assessments are and their differences. Then we’ll get into why both of them are essential to a complete fitness development program.

What is Functional Muscle Testing

This is the type of assessments most of you have already experienced.  These are tests that are closely related to real world activities. such as:

  • How fast can you run?
  • How high can you, jump?
  • How much weight can you dead lift. press or pull?
  • How many of the following can you do: push ups, chin ups, squats, jumping jacks, etc. etc. etc.?

Whether you are a professional athlete, in the military, an emergency responder, in construction, a waiter, stock person, or involved in any job that requires some degree of physical capability, the scores you get on these tests will give you very good indications on how well you will do with their counterparts in real world careers.

What functional tests are not always so helpful on is distinguishing why you are getting those results.  Most of these tests will involve multiple muscles, joints and even multiple parts of the body.  Of the 5, 10 or 20 muscles involved in any of these functional tests, what is the rate limiting factor?  What muscle or joint fails first to allow you to distort into poor form, stretch a joint, experience pain or reflexive inhibition against further exertion?

Let’s take a simple functional test to demonstrate what I mean by this.  How high can you jump?  You do this functional test and receive a score of x number of inches.  Was the weak link limiting the height you were able to jump from: a weak glut max, one of the 4 hamstrings, 4 quads, soleus, gastroc, tibialis posterior or flexor hallucis longus?  Perhaps it was muscles in your back or even in your arms, etc. etc.?

If all of your muscles are well balanced, there is no weak link, continued development of height jumped may be best obtained through various jumping exercises.  If instead, all of the muscles involved in jumping are strong, but one is dramatically weak, continued jumping exercises are more likely to deliver limited improvement.

What is Individual Muscle Testing

This type of testing is not based so much on real world activities as much as it is based upon your anatomy.  These tests isolate as much as possible one muscle at a time to look for imbalances in strength.  Imbalanced muscles can be detected by comparing the strength of each muscle to its corresponding muscle on the opposite limb.  Imbalance evaluations can also be made by comparing each muscle with all of the other muscles crossing the same joint.

If you do a test on somebody’s Tibialis Posterior muscle for example and it comes up weak, that information isn’t so meaningful regarding what you will be able to do in your career.  It does tell you that your will have a weakness in one of the primary muscles that holds up the long arch of the foot and will have a tendency or outright issue with dropped arches, foot pronation, shin splints and excessive strain on the medial side of the knee.

Jumping goalie - MSGoing back to the example of the  functional test for jumping,  If all the individual muscles involved in jumping test normal, except that an imbalanced weakness is detected in the tibialis posterior, there is a significant chance that this weak link will limit jumping height.  This would tell you to put some extra time into exercises focused specifically on the tibialis posterior muscle.  It  is interesting to note that jumping exercises provide very little benefit on improving this muscle.  Correcting this weakness through a specific ankle exercise, you would typically find that jumping can improve, even though no direct jumping exercises have been done.

Functional & Individual Muscle Work is Complimentary

Functional and individual muscle testing and exercise activities are complimentary with many options for integrating both of them.

Implementation – For example, one option for how trainers could use individual muscle strength testing along with functional testing is: start each new client with a screen of individual muscle strength tests.  Any weakness identified are brought up to appropriate strength 1st through individual muscle strength exercises.  Then, you would proceed with functional testing and exercises to achieve your client’s goals.

The transition from individual muscle activities and functional activities need not be discreet, but could overlap with a gradual shift in emphasis.  Periodic testing of your client’s individual muscles would assure that imbalances are not developing from the inherent variability of muscular physiological responses to exercises, client exercise preferences or injuries.

Benefits to Trainers – The implementation example above demonstrates how you would be in a position to achieve superior results through a more versatile range of exercise programs.  This type of testing also enables clients to clearly see which muscles are weak and know that they receive the needed exercises.  This will help the client avoid painful exercises by avoiding activities that exceed what the weak links can handle, but will also increase client satisfaction, compliance and results.  All of these factors combined, fosters your ability to see more clients visits and receive more referrals.

Seminar - MSEducation

The Diagnosis Foundation offers courses on individual muscle strength testing in many different formats.  These courses are available for individuals or on a group basis, at our locations or through your own venue.