The woman in the above picture is lifting a massive tire. To her credit, if she wasn’t bending down so low she would have amazing form–her leg spacing and degree of hip and knee flexion are perfect. As it is I’m a bit worried about her back.
You’ll probably recognize this exercise from televised Strong Man competitions, and therefore think it is “normal”. But its not normal at all. Unless she drives a monster truck that is prone to flats, when in her life would she ever need to lift a tire this size? The belief that it is normal is an assumption we don’t know we’re making.
In the same way, most standardized Fitness Testing protocols are assumed to be normal, but have more in common with a “feat of strength” than an actual assessment.
Let’s look at a few examples:
1. The Squat Test
Description: Have the assess-ee perform as many squats as they can within a given time frame, say 60 seconds. Variations include the jump squat, burpees, and the timed step-up used in WSIB fitness assessments.
The Problem: Assumes the person’s pelvis is balanced and that their muscles are working evenly. If they are, great, but most of the time they’re not. Without getting into why not (there could be a hundred reasons), the resulting inhibitions will be the same: rectus femoris & gluteus maximus on one or both sides will be shut off. The assess-ee may not experience weakness in their quad or glute, but they will fatigue sooner, and more often than not from back pain rather than muscle fatigue. If the pelvis is put under load when its support muscles aren’t firing, it tilts to one side, causing lateral flexion (side flexion) of the lumbar vertebrae, which in turn pinches nerves, causes pain and shuts off even more muscles.
The Conclusion: Squat tests are only appropriate once the assess-ee has passed a muscle testing evaluation to determine that their pelvis is balanced. Statistically this will only be the case about 20% of the time. For this reason, squat testing is a completely inappropriate tool, likely to do more harm than good.
2. The Push-up Test
Description: Have the assess-ee perform as many push-ups as they can within a given time frame, usually 30 seconds. As their form progressively deteriorates they are said to be fatiguing, and upon the last, tortured repetition, they have “gone to failure” which is somehow an indication of their fitness level.
The Problem: Push-ups are even more advanced than squats because they require the shoulder joint to be functioning at a high level: the assess-ee must have even balance between the counter levers of the pectoralis minor and rhomboids or else they will have internally rotated posture and be unable to hold the shoulder joint in a position of optimal biomechanical advantage. Considering that in addition to this, a percentage of people–let’s say 20%–have some kind of lingering shoulder pain, and most others (myself included) can’t move their wrists into the 90º of wrist extension necessary to support the arms in traditional push-up posture, the likelihood of finding someone who can perform a push-up A–properly, and B–without pain is probably lower even than the percentage of people who have a balanced pelvis. The “progressive deterioration” of form actually starts on the first repetition, so that we are not testing the assess-ee’s strength but rather their resilience under a forced compensation pattern.
The Conclusion: Push-up tests are only appropriate for advanced athletes, and even then only when they have passed a muscle testing evaluation to determine that the muscles of their shoulder girdle are firing properly. Statistically this will only be the case about 10% of the time. For this reason, push-up testing is a completely inappropriate tool, likely to do more harm than good.
3. The Sit-and-Reach Test
Description: Have the assess-ee sit down and reach forward to assess their hamstring flexibility. They are assigned a number (usually -20 to +20) and if they fail to get to at least 0 (the equivalent of touching their toes), hamstring stretches are prescribed.
The Problem: Hamstrings are difficult to look at in isolation. They could be tight for one of a hundred reasons, and until you find the cause(s), stretching will create a literal tug-of-war that the assess-ee will lose as soon as they stop stretching. Why? Because tight hamstrings aren’t the cause of tight hamstrings–something else is. Take away that cause and the hamstrings loosen up without stretching. Some examples of what causes tight hamstrings: 1) over-contracted toe extensors 2) inability to activate toe flexors due to #1… 3) shortened stride on one side because the pelvis is off–same side glute will also be tight 4) over-contracted gastrocnemius… to name a few. Fix any one of those and you’ll see hamstring flexibility increase by 10-20% in seconds.
The Conclusion: Sit-and-reach tests only give us useful information when the assess-ee has passed a muscle testing evaluation for pelvis and lower leg balance. Fixing these two things will often loosen hamstrings up sympathetically, not fixing them will render hamstring flexibility tests, and stretches, useless. While it won’t do any harm to stretch the assess-ee out, the test distracts our focus from the underlying cause and is therefore an inappropriate assessment tool.
The Big Picture
Fitness Assessments that presuppose the assess-ee to be fully functioning before they have even been assessed are not assessments–they are athletic drills, and more importantly, a mockery of an actual assessment.
The entire Standardized Fitness Testing mentality needs to be completely dismantled and replaced with an actual fitness assessment: a muscle testing assessment. This is the only appropriate fitness assessment methodology, whether the assess-ee is an athlete or completely sedentary. Consider the following examples:
1. The Squat Test – put to rest
The assess-ee shows up for their fitness assessment. I perform a muscle testing assessment. Pelvis is off, rectus is off, glute is off. I don’t even check the upper body because when pelvis is off, half or all of the upper body won’t be firing. I ask if they’ve had a neck injury, they say no, eliminating that as a cause of pelvic misalignment. I compress the tibia & fibula on one side, re-check pelvis – its still off. I compress tib/fib on the other side, re-check pelvis, its balanced. I test rectus, now its strong. I tap the heel the undo the tibial-fibular compression and re-check pelvis – its off again. I re-compress tib/fib, its back on. I’ve found the cause: collapsed tibialis posterior.
Conclusion: this person isn’t ready to do a squat, half of their body isn’t even working. They need a lower-leg reconditioning program and it will require them to work with a trainer. Its that or they work out in compensation every day. Let’s face it, this is a more appropriate foundation for a recommendation of personal training than “Lookit, you didn’t do very many squats so you should really hire me, I can make you do more squats”.
2. The Push-up Test – put to rest
The assess-ee shows up for their fitness assessment. I perform a muscle testing assessment. Pelvis is off but not because of the lower leg – that’s a first all week. This time pelvis is off because of something referring down from the upper body. Their posture is noticeably internally rotated. Pec Minor is over-contracted, the shoulders are translated forward about an inch. I test Pec Major, its off. Pec minor is super-strong, but rhomboids are off and so is Latissimus. This has resulted in anterior head carriage (the head is translated forward about 2 inches, looks really awkward from the side) and a complete inhibition of the neck extensors – I can tell this without testing them, and I prefer not to because I don’t like touching people’s necks – the likelihood of injury is too high and there’s no benefit or up-side to it. I stand them up and teach them the Pec Minor stretch (full external rotation, arm up at a 45º angle above the head, lean into it and breathe). They hold it for 1 minute on each side. I re-test, everything is strong now and pelvis is balanced, but it won’t hold.
Conclusion: They’re walking wrong and will need gait cycle reconditioning before they’re ready to bear load on their upper body, otherwise they’re only strengthening their existing compensation pattern and making it worse every time they lift a weight. I explain this and they’re willing to hire a personal trainer to get it fixed. Let’s face it, this is a more appropriate foundation for a recommendation of personal training than “Lookit, you didn’t do very many push-ups so you should really hire me, I can make you do more push-ups”.
3. The Sit-and-reach Test – put to rest
The assess-ee shows up for their fitness assessment. I perform a muscle testing assessment. Pelvis is off. It’s lower leg again but this time it is the toes, not the tib post. The toe extensors are so tight the assess-ee can’t even perform 10º of toe flexion. The flexors haven’t been worked in years. I teach them how to do a safe extensor stretch which they hold on each side for 1 minute. I re-test pelvis and its balanced. I test hamstring flexibility one leg at a time in the supine position and they have about 45º of hip flexion. I then perform agonist/antagonist on the toe flexors/extensors for about a minute and re-test hamstring range of motion. Hip flexion has increase to 85º without doing a single stretch.
Conclusion: They’re looking at months of stretching out their toe extensors. These are among the hardest tendons in the body to stretch because they get so over-contracted from years of neglect. This will need to be done in conjunction with all sorts of foot exercises, and initially, load-bearing activity will need to be supported by taping the arches, otherwise the pelvis will go out as soon as they put weight on their feet. This is too comprehensive to be feasible without ongoing supervision, and they agree to work with a trainer for the next 6 months to fix the imbalance once and for all. Let’s face it, this is a more appropriate foundation for a recommendation of personal training than “Lookit, you couldn’t reach very far so you should really hire me, I can make you reach farther”.
Depending on how strong your anatomy is, some of the terminology I’ve used may seem complex, but the muscle tests are all very simple. The point is that I only know what I know because I’m able to test it–otherwise I’m stuck guessing and let’s face it, one guess is as good as another. With muscle testing we no longer have to guess, we can actually know, on the spot. How cool is that? More importantly, its very, very effective.
I used to get annoyed about the Fitness Assessment issue because I saw that it was the result of calculated resistance to change by various organizations within the fitness industry. I finally realized that I was wrong to be annoyed. There’s no such thing as an organization calculating anything. Organizations are made up of people and people don’t know any better. Until I knew how to muscle test, I have to admit that I used to do the same old assessments everybody else did.
The way to change the whole industry is one person at a time and it starts with you. The way I see it, I seem to have figured out a better way of doing fitness assessments and I’d like to share it with you so that you don’t need to take 15 years to figure it out like I did.
Good luck with it, and if questions about your muscle testing assessments come up, feel free to post them in the comments to this article – I personally read all my comments and I’ll answer questions were I can.
Where to go from here?
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