The Peculiar State of Fitness Assessments

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Assessment.

For all intents and purposes most people don’t like the feeling of being judge – especially by complete strangers. However, when it comes to working with a coach or personal trainer for the first time, an “assessment” is pretty much standard procedure; a means to an end with regards to collecting data to better ascertain someone’s starting point.

Moreover, the assessment, generally, guides the coach to help figure out the safest and most efficient path for a client to reach his or her’s goal(s).1

I feel many of us are approaching it the wrong way.

The Peculiar State of Fitness Assessments

I am not writing this as an attack against assessment

Likewise I am also not here to say one way or the other how you should assess your clients.

I don’t care if your assessment of choice is the Functional Movement Screen, the Selective Functional Movement AssessmentPRI (Postural Restoration Institute), DNS (Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization), FRC (Functional Range Conditioning), whatever institutions like NASM or ACE prefer, or, I don’t know, duck-duck-goose.

Everything has it’s strengths and weaknesses.

More to the point, I would think that as people progress through their careers they’d take it upon themselves to actively change their minds the more they learn and gain experience, experiment, and to “cherry pick” a little from here and a little from there to best fit their philosophy and approach to training.

Ideally “assessment” should be a smorgasbord of reaches, rolls, carries, squats, hinges, toe touches, twists, presses, and bicep curls (<— only half kidding on that last one), among other things.

Here is Gray Cook’s definition of assessment (a good one, mind you):

“In the assessment you take your education background, your professional wisdom, the particular situation, the time constraints, other historical information like a medical history or previous problems…and put all that together. That’s an assessment.”

Pretty hard to disagree with that, right?

Here’s my lame attempt:

“Can the person sitting/standing in front of you do stuff?”

I’m not tossing darts at everyone, but I do find that the bulk of fitness professionals out there use the initial assessment as an opportunity to search every crevasse (not that crevasse, get your mind out of the gutter), nook & cranny, and area of the body for “dysfunction.”

Many use the assessment as an opportunity to demonstrate to someone how much of a walking ball of fail they are.

“Okay Mr. Jones here’s what we got: your hip flexors are tight, you have forward head posture, you lack frontal plane stability, you lack ample scapular upward rotation, your left big toe has zero dorsiflexion, you have weak glutes, you’re quad dominant, your shoulders are slightly internally rotated, you’re probably gluten intolerant, your wife is cheating on you, and I’m about 37% convinced you have cancer.

If you purchase a 24 pack you’ll save $13 per session. Whataya say?”

via GIPHY

Some of the above may be relevant and stuff you should focus on as a trainer. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and belabor a coach for wanting to improve a client’s thoracic spine mobility.

However, if I were the person listening to some laundry list of things I suck at or need to improve on, I’d be like………

………..”fuck off.”

Be Careful of Being Told to “Fuck Off.”

There’s much I can wax poetic on when it comes to the topic of assessment. My biggest pet-peeve, though, is when coaches/trainers place waaaaaaaaaay too much emphasis on someone’s resting/static posture.

Lets revisit the picture from above.

Many high-end gyms implement this advanced form of “postural assessment” as an up-sell to seduce more people to purchase training.

Said individual stands in front of a giant gridded screen and is then hooked up with a bunch of probes and what not that are placed at strategic locations around the body that bloop and bleep.

It’s reminiscent of one the most terrifying movies I have ever seen, Fire in the Sky.

Remember that one?

You know, that alien abduction movie from the early 90’s where the main character is relentlessly poked and prodded by a bunch of aliens on their spaceship?

It’s effed up.

Anyways, I can’t help but be reminded of that movie whenever I see someone being told to stand in front of a grid so some trainer can scrutinize every inch of their posture in the hopes they’ll be hired to “fix” it.

Who says it needs to be fixed in the first place?

A few weeks ago I saw a photograph shared by Fort Worth, TX based physical therapist, Dr. Jarod Hall which I felt hammered this point home.

Here’s what he said/posted:

“I want everybody to look closely at this picture and tell me what you see…”

“I see 20 of the world’s top athletes that have tremendous range of motion, strength, body control, and physical capacity… Yet all have significant variances in their static posture as determined by the holy grail plumb-line.

Static posture is near worthless to measure for injury or pain prediction.”

Placing all your eggs into one basket – in this case static posture, which a lot of fitness professionals do – is unfortunate.

Posture is a position, it’s not a death sentence.

To steal from another really smart physical therapist, Dr. Quinn Henoch, “posture will always be relative to two things: the task at hand and load.”

If you’re not taking into consideration those two things during an assessment – in addition to movement, repetition, speed, etc – and you’re only assessing people based off static posture, well, you’re not smart.

The question, then, is….”what should an assessment look like or consist of?

via GIPHY

I don’t know.

Like I said: you know your clients better than I do.

I know one thing is for sure: it would behoove any fitness pro to get their clients moving.

I am not saying you shouldn’t take static posture into consideration or that it’s a complete waste of time.

In the end, it’s all information.

However, LOAD is a game changer when it comes to assessment – especially as it relates to movement (and yes, even posture).

Far too many coaches are reticent to load their clients on Day #1.

As an example most people stink at a bodyweight squat, and we’re quick to assign some arbitrary number that they feel ends up defining them.

Add load.

  • Goblet Squat
  • Plate Loaded Front Squat

Almost always there’s a dramatic improvement.

Sha-ZAM….you just showed someone success and that they’re not broken. Now THAT’s an assessment.

Add load. Add variety of movement. Don’t rely solely on static posture to assess your clients.

Just, don’t.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  1. If at any point a pair of rubber gloves makes an appearance….run. Or not, if that’s your thing. I’m not here to judge.

  • Carla

    Hi Tony! I agree with most of what you write regarding assessments. How do you address the importance of static posture, how it relates to breathing, intrinsic core strength, tension and pain? The athletes you show are boxers/mma fighters? If you consider they are trained to be in a protective stance for years, it explains the posture of most of the men pictured. I have much less experience than you, and I work with gen pop. How much effort is appropriate in discussing the position in which people live most of their lives and how it will affect the few hours they spend in the gym? Btw, loved Fire in the Sky. No one else seems to have heard of it. Hahahaha!

    • Tony

      Remember what I said: “it’s all information.” This post wasn’t to say “avoid looking at posture and not take that into consideration.” Of course you should. However, the bigger issue at play is when you have fitness professionals placing waaaaaaaaaaay too much emphasis on it where they’ll go so far as to say “oh man, you’ve got some pretty significant forward head posture. If we don’t fix that you’re going to be in pain.” That’s just not true for everyone at all times. Hope that clarifies a bit.

  • Gary H

    Love this Tony. Sometimes I have 3-4 different movements I want to check out for a new client. But as I watch them squat I just chuck the other 3 out the window and know that this person can barely plop onto a toilet why the hell do I need them to do anything else. Also the laundry list of things wrong was something I used to do, you’re 100% spot on, nobody wants to be told they suck at life lol

    • Tony

      Agreed. On the flip side, too, if I ask someone to show me their squat and they drop it like it’s hot I can be pretty darn sure (s)he will be able to do a lot of things; no need to go to far down the assessment rabbit hole.

  • Shane Mclean

    Slow hand clap Tony. Spot on mate. Nobody like to be told they’re broken and then be told, “hey I can fix you”. We are all wonderfully made but coaches can help you be a little bit better. Nice work mate.

  • Chris Chippendale

    This is totally anecdotal, but I’m pretty convinced that when I started emphasizing to patients what they did well at during their assessment, I started getting better results. My personal theory is that if you can give someone more of a hopeful outlook and empower them to move more, they’ll be more motivated, more active, and some pretty cool psychoneuroimmunological shit starts happening. Maybe I’m way off, but it’s nice seeing people feel reassured when you tell them “The good news is you did really well at XXX”

    • Tony

      Couldn’t agree more. Not to mention it’s likely to create better “buy in” with the patient/client,

  • Rob

    Agreed. Fire in the Sky is terrifying

    • Tony

      Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.