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Evaluating the Functional Capacity of Athletes and Clients

What is Functional Capacity?

Functional capacity measures a person’s ability to perform activities necessary at work, in daily life, or sports. It depends on various fitness characteristics, including endurance, strength, power, balance, flexibility, agility, and coordination. By evaluating a person’s capacity, coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists can build better training plans to optimize performance while keeping the injury risk low. 

Why Does Functional Capacity Matter?

1. More Tailored Training Experience

The first and most obvious benefit of understanding an athlete or coaching client’s functional capacity is that you have more information to build a workout plan that suits the person’s abilities, limitations, and goals. 

For instance, by evaluating an athlete’s abilities, you can determine what areas need more work and help them develop the skills and characteristics that matter most. This includes prescribing corrective exercises when necessary.

Let’s say you coach a basketball team and notice that a player has excellent agility and is capable of changing direction and reacting quickly but lacks power and struggles with sprinting and jumping. 

This data allows you to shift the focus to power development by including more plyometrics and strength training.

2. Sustainability and Adaptability

Monitoring functional capacity allows you to better understand a person’s ability to recover, making it easier to create sustainable workout plans.

While athletes can often handle more intense training and progress fine, fitness enthusiasts typically benefit from a more moderate approach. This is particularly true for people with more stress and less free time.

With that information in mind, a coach can focus on recovery strategies, include more frequent deload weeks, encourage clients to autoregulate their workouts to some degree, and more closely monitor RPE to avoid overtraining.

3. Safer Workouts

As a coach, part of your job is to understand the physical and mental demands of the activities you program. 

For example, in the case of bodybuilding and strength training for general populations, that means paying attention to the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio; in other words, how much fatigue a movement generates versus the results it provides.

However, you must also understand each client’s ability to handle the activities you prescribe and determine if they need additional help in any area.

For instance, let’s say you coach a group of older clients. Having a good understanding of their functional capacity (e.g., strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, and endurance) would allow you to adjust the difficulty of their workouts and even modify exercises to suit their needs.

4. Rehabilitation and Recovery

A key goal in physical therapy is to help clients regain functional capacity following an injury. Coaches with experience in functional fitness can evaluate their clients’ abilities and prescribe movements that improve range of motion, strength, and balance.

For instance, let’s say a client is returning to training after a knee injury. Assessing that leg’s strength (and comparing it to the other leg to see if there is an imbalance) and range of motion, as well as monitoring for pain, would allow you to:

  • Assign the correct exercises
  • Control the movement pattern to avoid discomfort
  • Provide the necessary overload at the right times

With patience, the trainee can regain the knee’s functionality and gradually erase any imbalances that might have developed.

How to Evaluate Functional Capacity in Athletes and Clients

1. Movement Screening

Movement screening, such as the FMS (Functional Movement Screen), is typically the first option for coaches to assess an athlete’s abilities. 

The test includes a variety of movements designed to test the athlete’s range of motion, balance, and motor control while looking for asymmetries.

For example, a coach can have the athlete do a deep squat with feet flat on the ground to assess stability, range of motion, and spinal alignment. The coach can take it a step further by 

2. Performance Tests

The appropriate performance tests can evaluate the athlete’s functional capacity related to their sport or practice. A test can examine strength, power, endurance, agility, and other characteristics.

For instance, a coach may perform various vertical jump tests to assess a player’s explosiveness, which is particularly important in sports like volleyball and basketball.

3. Sport-Specific Drills

Once the coach understands an athlete’s capabilities, the next step is to see how that translates to sport-specific performance. The easiest way to determine that is to perform a series of sport-specific drills.

For example, a coach may arrange cones for a football player to run around while dribbling a ball to simulate a game scenario. It could test the player’s dribbling ability along with their change of direction, acceleration, and endurance.

4. Daily Activities Evaluation

This is essentially ‘sport-specific drills’ but for regular, everyday folks. Rather than examining a football player’s dribbling abilities and change of direction, the coach might look at things like:

  • Standing up from a chair
  • Walking a certain distance
  • Climbing stairs
  • Reaching up to grab something

Such tests are particularly beneficial for people with reduced fitness capacity, such as older individuals, sedentary folks, and those returning to training following an extended break due to injury, surgery, or illness.

5. Observation and Feedback

Performing an initial assessment is helpful for coaches to understand their clients’ functional capacity and build safer, more sustainable, and more effective workout plans. But assessment doesn’t end there.

A good coach will continue to monitor each client during workouts and collect feedback regarding comfort, pain, or difficulty when doing specific activities. 

Clients can also record videos of training segments and send them to coaches (easy to do through the chat option on Hevy Coach), making it easier to monitor balance, range of motion, and performance over time.


1. How to measure functional capacity as a coach?

As a coach, you can measure functional capacity through a Functional Movement Screen (FMS), various performance tests (like vertical jump tests), sport-specific drills, and by evaluating a person’s ability to carry out everyday tasks like getting up from a chair. 

2. Is functional capacity important to measure in non-athletes?

A functional capacity assessment is beneficial regardless of who you’re coaching. It helps you evaluate the person’s physical abilities and limitations, which allows you to create safer and more effective workout plans.

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