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The Fitness Zone

Accelerating your Fitness Needs Through Physical Literacy
February 7, 2015

Do you want your clients to become stronger and better coordinated? We’re sure the answer is yes! However it’s incredibly important you make sure they don’t injure themselves in the process of getting fit.

Mark Atkinson from the Australian Institute of Fitness’ Richmond Campus explains how becoming physically literate might minimise the risk of getting injured.

“Physical literacy refers to the fundamental movement skills (FMS) that underpin all functional activity. These primal movements allow us the ability and motivation to capitalise on our movement potential.”

This probably doesn’t make much sense at this stage, but that’s ok. Let’s break it down a little further.

Human beings are mentally and physically smart, which means we have a variety of ways in which we learn, react and develop.

Mentally smart

To gain knowledge and communicate in the modern world we must become literate (able to read, write, gain meaning from information). The more literate we are, the better and quicker we are at gaining knowledge. In other words, we become smarter.

Physically Smart

But what if we want to be ‘physically’ smart as well? This describes our ability to perform difficult and challenging movements, complete taxing exercises, look fit, and most importantly, having the physical capacity to improve our quality of life.

To become physically smart we must first develop our physical literacy, which is being competent at not only performing but also integrating FMS. This allows us to fast track our fitness goals, as we don’t have to spend as much time learning, recovering and adapting our body, as we already have the tools (like being able to read, write, and gain meaning).

If you have any formal qualification in exercise prescription you have already learnt the tools, but you might not have gauged their importance and application within training for physical literacy.

Fundamental Movement Skills Tools

Fundamental Movement Skill


Exercise Examples


Stabilising structures both statically dynamically

Prone Hold (static)

Scapula control during chin up (dynamic)


To a depth specific to our daily living and activity while maintaining postural alignment

Back Squat

Front Squat

Single Leg Squat


Both statically and dynamically

Static Lunge

Walking Lunge

Step Up


Flexing and extending at the hips

Deadlift and its derivatives


Vertically and Horizontally with close and wide grips while maintaining postural alignment

Shoulder Press

Push Up


Vertically and Horizontally with close and wide grips while maintaining postural alignment

Pull Up

Seated Row


Twisting movements while maintaining postural alignment

Cable Woodchop

Int/Ext Shoulder Rotations

The better you and your clients can perform these movements individually and as an integrated unit (e.g. lunge + rotation or squat + vertical push) the greater your physical literacy. This means you have a heightened capacity to:

  • Reduce injury – via maintenance of postural alignment in varying positions.

  • Increase force production and hypertrophy of muscle fibres – as you work muscles through their optimal range and angle.

  • Perform any type of activity – as these movements are the foundation of all physical activity.

  • Maximise cardiorespiratory fitness and fat loss – via optimising biomechanical efficiency (the ability to move with the least amount of effort).

Pretty neat, huh!

Achieving physical literacy sounds straightforward, but like anything attaining it takes times and dedication. You won’t get it right by being slack with technique or getting wooed into trying to take short cuts. There are accelerated ways to gain physical literacy (e.g. utilising VAK methods - visual, auditory and kinaesthetic - and identifying weaknesses in the movement chain), but just like general literacy you need to learn the foundations (e.g. the alphabet) before you can excel. As Kelvin Giles says (ex UK and AIS Track Field Coach) “if it was just about sets and reps, a donkey could do it”.

It has been shown that people who are active in their younger years are more likely to be active during adolescence and beyond. This is why fostering physical literacy is important for the younger generation. Making physical activities enjoyable during childhood will encourage people to stay active as they reach adolescence and during their adult years, helping to reduce obesity rates later in life, which will in turn help to reduce obesity related illnesses.

As well as helping with health issues in later life, physical literacy assists in the development of motor skills, improves mental health and fosters a healthier outlook on lifestyle and diet. Therefore, assisting in physical literacy from a young age is important. We don’t have the ability to go back in time (yet!), so when training adult clients you need to start with basic moves and patterns to get the enjoyment for physical activity ignited.

In summary, if we truly want to get results for our clients and ourselves, we need to develop the tools that will best allow us to do so. This means becoming competent in FMS static and dynamic functions, and then progressing and integrating these accordingly.

As a personal trainer, your challenge is to find innovative, engaging and motivating means to do this with your clients – in other words, make physical literacy sexy! It may not be a simple task, but by ensuring the basics are covered when looking after clients, they’ll be able to perform better, reduce their risk of injury and enjoy physical activities a lot more, knowing they are capable of completing the routines set out for them. 

This content is not intended to be used as individual health or fitness advice divorced from that imparted by medical, health or fitness professionals. Medical clearance should always be sought before commencing an exercise regime. The Institute and the authors do no take any responsibility for accident or injury caused as a result of this information.

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