The Perfect Assessment Tool?

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Lets be clear from the start: there’s really no such thing as a “perfect” assessment. I’ve seen coaches and trainers spend as little as ten minutes assessing their clients, as well as those who take roughly the same time it would take to read the Harry Potter series, and both have been equally as successful with getting results.

Although, in the case of the latter, I’d argue that some fitness professionals spend an inordinate amount of time assessing things that don’t really matter and/or are outside their scope of practice in the first place.  Big toe dorsiflexion?  Really?

The person standing in front of you is 25 lbs overweight and moves about as well as a one-legged pirate.  It’s not rocket science. Get them moving.  End of story.

Nevertheless when it comes to assessment I’ve always lived by the mantra of “different strokes for different folks.”  As an example, at Cressey Performance, we work with a metric boat load of baseball players which is a unique population with regards to the demands placed on their body.  Much of what we look at with them – comparing total glenohumeral ROM between dominant and non-dominant sides, for instance – may not be relevant to someone that walks into the facility who’s just looking to get a little stronger, fix their nagging lower back pain, or not be embarrassed to take their clothes off with the lights on.

That said, how we go about assessing our athletes and clients at Cressey Performance suits our needs, our facility layout, and our business model.

Put another way:  how we go about doing things isn’t to say that we’re right and everyone else is wrong; nor is it to imply that our way is the end-all-be-all of assessment; nor is it suggest that everyone should kneel before us General Zod style:

It all mounts down to what we’ve found works for us. It’s as simple as that.

However, I will say that I do (and always will) feel the push-up is an unsurpassed assessment tool that should be a staple in most assessment protocols.

Not many “tools” can give as much information and feedback to the fitness practitioner than the push-up, and it behooves anyone to dismiss it.

Did you hear me?  I said it behooves you!  I’m bringing back old-English people, so you know I mean business.  You’re just lucky I didn’t grab a white glove, slap you across the face, and challenge you to an old-fashioned bare knuckled boxing match.

Taking actual technique out of the equation (it amazes me how many guys come in to see us with cranky shoulders, only to have some of the worst push-up technique this side of Charlize Theron in the movie Prometheus), the push-up assessment parlays very well to a variety of populations.

With our baseball guys – and even our general population clientele – it gives a good scope to see how well their scapular stabilizers (particularly the lower traps and serratus anterior) are working – if one or both are weak, the scapulae will be more anteriorly tilted and abducted (not “hugged” against the rib cage) which can result in compromised stability.

Too, and an often overlooked component, is anterior humeral glide.  You can see this in someone’s standing posture very easily, but it also becomes very pronounced when you watch someone perform push-ups, or just hold the push-up position isometrically.

This can be detrimental in that if it’s not corrected or just left to it’s own vices can lead to increased anterior instability of the shoulder, which as we all know, not only kills baby seals, but also makes your shoulder hate you.

Using a more glaring and obvious anecdote, push-ups are also a fantastic assessment tool because they make it abundantly clear where someone’s weak points are.  And almost always, many are going have weak lumbo-pelvic-hip control – to the point where they’ll be hanging on their lumbar spine as well as rocking a nasty forward head posture.

On the flip-side many may also demonstrate a dominant rectus abdominus pattern, which typically means their external obliques are non-existent and they probably spend way too much time in front of a computer stalking people on Facebook.

Again, in both scenarios it’s just valuable feedback for you which will dictate that person’s programming moving forward.

Another dimension of the push-up assessment that I never really thought of before – and something I stole from Mike Robertson – is the concept of ‘core delay.’

In short, instead of starting someone in the standard push-up position – away from the floor with arms fully extended – you start from the floor.

In this way you can see whether or not someone has adequate stability or if there’s a delay in firing, and the hips come up first.

The key is to make sure that whoever it is you’re testing is completely relaxed on the floor, and then you just observe and make a judgement call from there.

The first rep would be considered a “passable” rep and shows that the person (me) has good core stability.  They (me) were able to keep the spine in a “neutral” position and everything seemed to fire simultaneously.

And, not to mention their (um, me) triceps were gunny as shit……;o)

With the second rep, though, there was a little wackiness, and you’ll notice how my hips shoot up first and my lumbar spine goes into immediate hyperextension.  This shows a ‘core delay,’ which is just a fancy way of saying “dude needs to work on getting his glutes to fire to posteriorily tilt the pelvis more, along with the external/internal obliques and RA.”

In the end I just feel utilizing the bottoms-up push-up is another great way to evaluate clients and to better ascertain where their weaknesses lie and how their programming may manifest moving forward.

Agree?  Disagree? Tell me more below.

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  • Louie Guarino

    I learn something new every day. Nice Robin Hood reference btw. lol

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Louie! Really appreciate the kind words.

  • Sean

    Excellent post Tony, I have not thought or tried the bottoms up assessment…It can tell you a ton! Thank you.

    • TonyGentilcore

      My thoughts exactly Sean, and glad I was able to provoke a light bulb moment on your end.

  • Daniel Freedman

    Great post. Except for this:

    “You’re just lucky I didn’t grab a white glove, slap you across the face, and challenge you to an old-fashioned bare knuckled boxing match.”

    Everyone knows that what follows the white glove slap schtick is not a bare-knuckled boxing match, but rather a duel.

    I remain, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant,
    -Daniel Freedman

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahaha. Thanks Daniel.

  • Guillermo Muñoz Mireles

    Nice! I’ll be using this variation on my next assessment. Thanks Tony!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Guillermo. Hope all is well on your end.

  • Brent

    Wait, you didn’t steal the bottoms up PU from Robertson, you stole it from the FMS…you horrible person! Ha. Kidding aside, why wouldn’t you just do the TSPU with your clients for the push-up? I think it gives a little more accurate assessment of what’s firing first (and it’s just harder for people, and I like seeing people fail miserably, ergo I do it!) You can’t outsmart Gray Cook. It’s impossible!

    • TonyGentilcore

      It’s not that I’m opposed to it Brent, just a personal preference I suppose. And, I like giving people some semblance of “success” during their assessment. I’m not as masochistic as you…..;o)

      • Brent

        Preference smeference! My motto has always been ‘if at first you don’t succeed, give up damnit. Dreams are for suckers anyways!

        Kidding aside, solid material as usual. Looking forward to your cameo when Eric comes to Seattle in October! I can probably get you a good rate on a Motel 6. They won’t leave the light on for you, but its a straight shot to the airport!

    • Rob

      Exactly where I was going to go. ANd I’m glad someone recognized Gray Cook as the smartest person alive!

      • TonyGentilcore

        In my own defense, there was absolutely no intention of short changing Gray Cook. I’m obviously a fan of his stuff and I respect the heck out of him. I just got the idea from Robertson and felt the need to give credit to him.

  • Eric Guthrie

    Nice stuff. I would like to see how you would attack whatever issues you see from this assessment. Whether it be anterior humeral glide or scapular instability. As a young strength coach what to do after assessing or seeing movement is something I struggle with.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Anterior humeral glide = lots and lots and lots of cueing on your end. Much of what will help that person is you cueing them into proper position. Plus, hammering the lower traps – which will posteriorly tilt the scapulae – will help a lot too.

  • Tim

    I started using the push-up from the floor a couple months ago and have had a much easier time with my assessments since. The FMS has a version with your hands by your head, which I’ve never been a fan of. Do you use that one too?

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’m familiar with that version, but don’t use it Tim.

  • Matthew Norris

    Great article,

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Matthew!

  • kara

    i dig it. we’re using a lot from Kritz assessments too. Have you used them?

    I also agree: get people moving. I also can say that people can be a ticking time bomb–you never know what will make or break them. Assessments are hard to perfect. Should we have a gold standard? Lets dig deeper…

    • TonyGentilcore

      Couldn’t agree more Kara. We’re always tweaking our assessment process and trying to fine tune it in order to garner more info. But, at the same time, we can’t clutch at straws. It’s just as important to people moving, as I feel it makes them feel like less of patient than anything else.

      Can’t say I’m familiar with Kritz assessment. Might have to check it out.

  • Patty

    I know that my neck sticks forward when I do pushups even ones on my knees…what would you say I should do to correct that?

    • TonyGentilcore

      If you could have someone place or hold a dowel rod on your backside that will work like a charm. You should have three points of contact at all times: back of the head, in between the shoulder blades, and the sacrum. If you lose contact, you know you’re doing it wrong.

      Also, tossing in some drills like standing wall chin tucks – to help with forward head posture – will go a long ways as well.

  • Aaron

    Always enjoy your style of writing and your info Tony!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Aaron – really appreciate it.

  • Eli Jurado Ortiz

    Great Article.
    Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge!

  • Valentin Lange

    What excercises/regressions would you recommend for persons who can’t control neutral lumbar spine during a push up or even a static prone plank?

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’d modify the push-up to place them in a “successful” range of motion. Teach them how to perform a plank correctly. Hammer anterior core strength, usually the external obliques. Also hammer glutes and hamstrings to help promote a little more posterior pelvic tilt.

  • KW

    Just started following your blog and I am very pleased to read your post. Keep up the good work!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks KW. Hopefully I can keep your attention and you continue reading.

  • Shane McLean

    Kneel before Tony………………………………………. Great post mate.

  • Clement

    I too agree that the push-up is an excellent assessment tool. But how would you cue someone to correct their push-up form if their forearms and elbows start moving in all sorts of directions instead of remaining in a stable position perpendicular to the ground?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Regress it and place them in a position where they’re more stable. I’d probably revert to elevated or incline push-ups where they’re using less of their own bodyweight.

  • Trish

    This concept is so simple but I never considered looking at it that way. And here I was overcomplicating things. Great post!

  • Carolyn Box

    can’t wait to learn more about assessing in push up and also building better reflex stabilization in October in Edmonton! I find it a challenging one…

    • TonyGentilcore

      Looking forward to meeting you in a few weeks!