The Active Straight Leg Raise, which focuses on hip mobility and core stability, is the first of seven exercises that we’ll cover in our functional movement series. It’s considered to be a foundational movement pattern, as many higher level movements are built on top of it.
Let’s start with this video, in which I provide a quick introduction to the Active Straight Leg Raise. I’ve also included several videos at the end of this article that demonstrate corrective exercises.
Purpose of the Active Straight Leg Raise
Like any exercise in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), the goal of the Active Straight Leg Raise is to identify limitations in our movement patterns. We can then use this information to improve physical performance and protect against injury.
The Active Straight Leg Raise is one of the two foundational mobility/stability exercises of the FMS. It’s classified as a primitive developmental pattern, as it’s a necessary precursor for rolling and crawling patterns. For this reason, dysfunction should be taken seriously and addressed as soon as possible.
Specifically, we are assessing three dimensions of movement:
- active mobility of the moving leg
- ability to maintain extension of the non-moving leg
- initial AND continuous core stability throughout the pattern
Performing the Screen
Lay in the supine position with the back of your knees in contact with a 2×4 or board of similar size. Your feet should be together with your toes pointed straight up to the ceiling and the soles of your feet perpendicular to the ground. Your hands should be down by your side with your palms up. The back of your head should be flat on the ground.
To perform the screen, simply lift one leg up in a controlled manner to the highest point possible, then return it to the starting position. Repeat with your other leg.
Film yourself (or grab a buddy) and look for the point that you see any of these compensations:
- the foot on the non-moving leg turns out
- the foot on the moving leg turns out
- the non-moving leg loses contact with the board at the back of the knee
- the moving leg bends at the knee
- the head comes up
Perform the screen three times. Mark the highest point before any of the above compensations occur.
Scoring the Screen
As with the other exercises of the Functional Movement Screen, the Active Straight Leg Raise is scored on a scale of 0 to 3. Here’s how each score looks visually:
A score of 3 will appear as almost a right angle between your moving and non-moving leg. If you can achieve this (without overexertion), you are fully functional in this screen. In this case, you can move on to the next part of the series.
A score of 2 will appear as somewhere between a 60 and 90 degree angle between your moving and non-moving leg. While this score is considered functional, there is some room for improvement.
A score of 1 occurs when the ankle of the moving limb does not come past the start of the 2×4. In this case, you should improve your performance on the screen before advancing to other exercises.
A score of 0 occurs when there is pain. In this case, see a medical professional.
Interpreting the Screen
It’s important to understand that both the hips and core are involved throughout the movement. While your moving leg demonstrates mobility, which is a conscious task, your non-moving leg and your core are engaged for stabilization, which is an automatic task.
The screen often becomes dysfunctional when muscles that span two or more joints lose flexibility.
Muscles that could prevent functional flexion of the moving leg include the glute max/IT band complex, hamstrings, and gastroc-soleus complex (in blue). Muscles that could prevent functional extension of the non-moving leg include the iliacus, psoas, quads and other muscles of the front of the hip (in green).
In some cases, an individual may be unable to process the neurological signals required to produce stability. This means that the screen will be dysfunctional even if there are no muscular limitations. Luckily, these signals can be restored using the same corrective process that I’ll discuss below.
Correcting limitations in the Active Straight Leg Raise is a two-part process. First, you must remove any “red light” movements that are causing or exacerbating the dysfunction. Second, you must incorporate corrective exercises meant to improve the limitation. I’ll discuss both below.
“Red Light” Movements
If you are limited or asymmetrical in the ASLR, it’s essential to clear these dysfunctions before moving onto higher level exercises that challenge the movement pattern. If not, you will be at an increased risk of injury. You will also cement the dysfunction, which will make it more difficult to reverse in the future.
The first step is to identify and correct the activities in your daily life that produced this dysfunction in the first place. Gray Cook, the co-founder of this system, notes:
“Don’t assume that a faulty movement pattern only requires the addition of corrective exercises. Movement habits, exercise programs, activities, occupational duties and athletics can all perpetuate faulty movement patterns. Consistently repeating these behaviors, even in the presence of corrective exercise, becomes a tug of war within the central nervous system.”
In my experience, I’ve seen many clients develop dysfunctional ASLRs through long-distance running (based on improper form). Sitting at a desk all day in a flexed-hip position may also result in short or stiff structures on the front hip.
The second step is to avoid any exercises with hip dominant patterns, such as these “red light” exercises:
- kettlebell swings
- olympic lifting
- box jumps and other plyometrics
The good news is that the removal of these exercises is temporary. The Active Straight Leg Raise is typically quick and easy to correct once you remove the sources of the dysfunction and incorporate corrective exercises into your workouts.
In the videos below, I demonstrate several exercises that will help improve your performance on the Active Straight Leg Raise. It’s easy to include them in your warmup, as well as during rest periods between higher level exercises. In cases of severe dysfunction, the corrective exercises will be all a person can safely perform. In this case, the corrective is the exercise!
Prior to performing the corrective exercises, it is typically a good idea to use a foam roller or similar object in order to address muscular/fascial restrictions and/or neurological tension. Simply rolling out the muscles surrounding the hip and knee can produce significant improvements on the screen. Perform Better has a detailed manual and video on this technique.
As you perform the corrective exercises, keep two things in mind:
- Always improve mobility before working on stability.
- Once you improve range of motion, you must work on stability to “cement” the pattern.
Keep in mind that the exercises I mention are not right for everyone, nor are they the only exercises that will improve the Active Straight Leg Raise. Your duty is to carefully choose exercises that result in the best improvements to YOUR screen. Once you identify those specific exercises, hammer them home until your improvements stick. Keep advancing and challenging the movement pattern and you will ensure the dysfunctional pattern does not return.
Assuming your ASLR is dysfunctional, improving your performance on the screen will give you the most “bang for your buck”. This exercise represents basic mobility and stability, which impacts every higher level pattern of the Functional Movement Screen. Focus on improving the ASLR before you move on to correcting any higher level patterns.
Stay tuned for Part III of this series, in which I’ll discuss the second fundamental movement pattern, the Shoulder Mobility screen.
About the Author
Sean holds certifications from Functional Movement Systems, National Strength and Conditioning Association, and International Youth Conditioning Association. Read his full bio or visit ChicagoPrimal.com. Email him at Sean@ChicagoPrimal.com.