Are you an Athletic Athlete?

The name says it all. Are you a complete, athletic athlete? Do you possess the athletic skillset you need for both peak performance and lifelong health? You can determine the answer to those questions by using the Athletic Assessment.

When we talk about assessing fitness, conditioning or athletic ability, we are generally considering the 5 major capacities of human performance: strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance. These categories describe the necessary and evolutionarily consistent abilities every athletic human beast should possess. Each of these is relatively easily defined and measured. I’m going to come back to these capacities in a moment, but first let’s talk about the parameters of the Athletic Assessment (AA).

What I want to add to our discussion is the topic of movement competency. You can even break this down a bit further if you’d like — into movement literacy and movement proficiency. Literacy is understanding how to move and proficiency is doing so with aplomb. Put simply, the ability to move optimally is a foundational ingredient in any of the 5 capacities. 

Movement competency can be looked at in many ways, and I’m going to use 3 today. These perspectives are the developmental sequence, the basic movement patterns we use in training and life, and functional tasks which are performed in sports as well as everyday activities. 

The developmental sequence is a progression with which we all have experience. As infants, we progressed from lying on our backs (supine), to rolling, being face-down (prone), getting up on hands and knees (quadruped), ascending to tall kneeling (both knees down), moving to half-kneeling (one foot forward), to climbing and pulling ourselves upright, to standing, and then walking (ambulating). Plus a fair amount of falling in that process. Getting down and up off the ground, and moving around, continues to be a part of our daily existology (or should be). You’d be amazed at how many highly skilled athletes I’ve seen who looked like a train wreck when asked to flow through those positions and movements. It’s all about the ability to own the shape and position in which we put our bodies, and we will start The Athletic Assessment assessing this parameter.

The basic movement patterns will also all be familiar. They are squat, hinge, push (horizontal, vertical, etc.), pull (also multiple angles), twist, lunge, and locomote (walk, jog, run, sprint). We employ these in our exercises as well as general daily activities. It’s important that we have a reasonable (or higher) amount of proficiency in each of these patterns. We’ll address this in The Athletic Assessment as well.

The list of functional tasks that an athletic human utilizes is quite long, but I want to highlight a few that I feel are especially common or essential. The ability to lift and carry heavy items, particularly in front of the body with 2 arms or at the side with 1 arm, is critical. So is the need to throw, catch, jump, land, rapidly change direction, maintain balance, and push, grapple with, or drag heavy objects. These things come up all the time on the playing field as well as in the game of life.

As I’ve cruised through the last few years developing a number of models that I use with my coaching clients, they’ve often asked me if a truly valid assessment tool for overall human athleticism exists. My answer has been “not completely.” We certainly know what characteristics we need for a given sport or position, and what body types or traits potentially best fit these needs. But establishing norms across the population, with respect to gender, age, training experience, body type, and other factors has been difficult for even the most intrepid researchers. We can certainly identify what we expect of a 17 year old female midfielder in high school soccer, or of a 28 year old male outside linebacker in the NFL, but being more global across a broad spectrum of athletes is challenging.

But what we can do is appreciate the need for all these competencies and capacities in every athletic human, at least to some degree. It all comes down to 2 simple questions. The first question we should ask ourselves is “can I do every one of the movements mentioned above, with decent proficiency, and no pain?” If so…then we can start to consider “how well can I perform those same tasks?” 

This thinking steers us toward two different considerations. The first is that everyone is going to have some assets (gifts, strengths, etc.) in which they will invariably perform very highly. Perhaps equally, most of us will have some other areas in which we struggle a bit. That’s fine. The game of learning your inner athlete is figuring out what you do well, and then doing it even better. And this is complemented by finding your deficiencies and shoring them up so that they do not detract from overall performance or health, even if they will never be a true “strength.” 

The second consideration is the inward versus the outward comparison. In very similar individuals, such as those of the same age and gender, playing the same sport and position, comparing amongst athletes can yield somewhat normative data. This can drive research, training, and competition. But pitting a 14 year old gymnast or swimmer against an 80 year old tennis player or golfer isn’t as realistic. This leads us to hypothesize that comparing yourself to yourself might actually be more meaningful than doing otherwise. At least with The Athletic Assessment.

So here’s how we do it. I’m going to offer up a workout/test that you can use to see if you check all the boxes we’ve been discussing. There will be a warmup which uses the developmental sequence. You’ll be able to evaluate your ability there. Next, we’ll go through a series of exercises/tests that explore your proficiency in the movement patterns and functional tasks. And finally, you’ll look at how these results allow you to rate yourself in the 5 capacities of human performance (again, those are strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance). This test isn’t perfect and it may not be the most comprehensive, but it can give you some really great insights on what you might want to emphasize in sports (based on your high scores) or what you would benefit from working on to ensure well-rounded health and athleticism (the areas in which you identify deficiencies).

Before we can begin we should have a disclaimer. If you are interested in exploring some of the following suggestions, it is absolutely essential that you accept full personal responsibility for your health and well-being. If you are receiving medical treatment for obesity, a disease process, an injury, a surgery, or other malady, it is contraindicated for you to attempt The Athletic Assessment. Be sure you have adequate health and conditioning, and/or appropriate medical clearance, to participate. If you are recovering and rehabbing, focus on that for now and wait until you are truly ready to fully assess your athleticism with the AA.

The Athletic Assessment includes a set of measures that you can periodically test, and determine your status or progress. To begin, our goal is to do a pre-test, then conduct a post-test in 4-6 weeks. You can use the test as a workout once per week in the interim. This is a great way to increase test-retest reliability because your familiarity with the movements will be helpful. 

The exercises have been selected so that you can conduct all the tests using whatever equipment you have available. If you have a gym or training facility that you can utilize, you will have no problem duplicating all the exercises. However, even if you have very little to no equipment available, you can still improvise and get the job done.

Developmental Sequence Flow: This is a flow methodology that uses the developmental sequence as a platform in which to incorporate additional exercises. It also serves as a warm up procedure.

  • Walk for several minutes.
  • Descend to 1 knee and stretch both arms overhead for a few seconds.
  • Switch to the other knee and repeat the overhead stretch.
  • Kneel on both knees and sidebend/reach for a few seconds to each side.
  • Lower to all 4’s and do 4 cat-camels.
  • Perform 4 leg flexion-extensions on each leg from the same position. 
  • Move hands forward and do 5 pushups (from knees or feet depending on your ability).
  • Lay flat (face down) with arms overhead.
    • Roll to your right onto your back and return leading with left arm only and no leg assistance.
    • Roll to your left using only your right arm as above.
    • Roll to your right and return using only the left leg and no arm assistance.
    • Roll to your left using only the right leg as above, but do not return (stay on your back).
  • Perform 4 alternating straight leg raises while reaching up with hands to touch shins.
  • Do 4 alternating knee-to-chest squeezes.
  • Now roll back onto your stomach (face down).
  • Press up into a backward arch (cobra).
  • Push back into a folded position (child’s pose).
  • Raise hips up into air, weight bearing on all 4’s.
  • Slowly straighten your knees and attempt to maintain contact with your toes.
  • Stand up slowly.

The goal with this flow procedure is to determine if you feel comfortable in each position and can move from one to another with relative ease. If you can do all of these movements comfortably, you have good control of the developmental sequence. If you noticed that any positions or movements felt awkward or challenging, you may want to practice them during your workouts until you feel that you have restored mastery.

Now we are going to test the basic movement patterns. Each of the tests will yield data regarding your ability to move effectively in the patterns, as well as determining your performance limits. Warm up further for each movement by working up through a few sets (per your preference) to reach a maximum state of readiness. Record your results in each test.

  • Squat – Select the best style (back, front, goblet, zircher, etc.) that you can load, and choose a weight with which you can get somewhere between 5 to 10 reps, roughly. Perform with good form for max reps, to failure, or 0 repetitions in reserve (RIR). Record your number and when you retest, use the same weight and look for higher reps. If you don’t have barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells, you can use a weighted backpack or even hold a heavy stone, etc. #noexcuses #findaway…if you need help…contact me.
  • Hinge – Perform the deadlift exercise (your choice on stance and grip) and pull 5 reps from the floor. At retest, attempt to add weight, but keep your reps at 5. Olympic bar, trap bar, or heavy dumbbells off blocks will be the standard options, but you can also use a crate filled with sandbags or other heavy objects.
  • Lunge – For this pattern, we are going to use a light-to-moderate load and employ an isometric hold which places the rear knee just off the floor. Perform this test with each leg forward (one for left, one for right) and record the max time you can hold. You can put load on your body with a weight vest or backpack, by holding dumbbells at your sides, or with a barbell on your shoulders. Just use the same weight and technique when you retest.
  • Twist – This is a very simple assessment of mobility. Stand with your feet placed together (touching). Slowly (not violently) rotate as far as you can go to the left, and then to the right. Let your whole body move as a unit and don’t try to fixate anything. Take notice of the furthest point behind you that you can clearly see when turning in each direction. A reasonable measure is approximately 180 degrees (referring to your line of sight). Estimate the degrees of rotation of vision and record for each side. It is highly likely that you will find an asymmetry with this test. It is worth noting that not all asymmetry is either evil or correctable, but working toward minimizing the differential can be valuable. Our main concern is that you possess reasonable rotational capabilities through your system.
  • Push – We’ll divide this into horizontal and vertical pushing patterns.
    • Horizontal – You can use push-ups or bench (flat) press (dumbbell, barbell, machine). With weights, self-select your load at about a 15-RM poundage. The test is max reps in 1 minute. Expect to see this number go up at retest.
    • Vertical – For this exercise you can use any implement (bar, sandbag, log, etc.) Estimate a load that is roughly 10RM, and  overhead press for max reps but don’t over arch your back or use your legs.
  • Pull – This test will also be subdivided.
    • Horizontal – Use any row that you can set up. A barbell or dumbbell bent row, supported row over bench, loaded bodyweight row (weight vest or backpack), machine, or even very heavy resistance tubing will work. Estimate a 10RM setup, and work to beat your standard over time.
    • Vertical – Sometimes I like to use pull-ups or pull-downs for this movement, but in the interest of standardizing the test to some degree, we are going with a dead hang. This is an unsupported hang from a bar, hands shoulder width with palms forward. How long you can hold is the measure and most people have huge room for improvement here.
  • Locomote – We are going to break this pattern into 3 related divisions.
    • Sprinting – 40 yard dash, on grass, from a 3-point or crouch start. This represents pure speed as you transition from acceleration to maximum velocity.
    • Running – run 1600m (just less than one mile) on a local high school or college track (4 laps) as fast as you can, or jog as slowly as you have to without taking a rest break or walking. This is a research-supported measure of aerobic power.
    • Walking – Walk 5 miles continuously on any terrain. This is a general endurance measure. You can go further if you want.
    • *Here is some additional information about locomotion. These are basic standards which any athletic athlete (barring orthopedic injury) should be able to complete. The ability to run an all-out mile is quite dependent on the athlete’s body type and sport, and is not applicable in all circumstances. However, jogging one mile slowly without stopping is a nonnegotiable requirement…even if you are a cyclist, swimmer, or lifter. And regarding sprinting, if you immediately feel you would tear a hamstring if you tried, that’s a problem worth addressing.

Finally, let’s examine a number of functional athletic and life-related tasks. You may need to be creative in your setup of each exercise and several will require a partner.

  • Carry – we’ll examine two common methods.
    • Front Carry – hold any heavy object in front of your abdomen and walk as far as you can until your form starts to deteriorate, then stop and record your distance in total steps. It’s important that you select a fairly heavy but safe weight and hold it in front. This is not a farmer’s carry in which you carry two buckets, dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides. Use a big stone, log, sandbag, cinder blocks, etc.
    • Unilateral Side Carry – this is the familiar suitcase carry. Use any object with a handle (suitcase, duffel bag, kettlebell, etc.) and record how far you can walk with it in your left and right hands.
  • Throw – this function is considered to be a cornerstone of our evolution as hunter-gatherers, as well as being integral to much of athletics..
    • Unilateral Overhand Throw for Accuracy – Use your dominant arm and throw 10x, recording hits and misses. An example would be to throw a tennis ball from 30 yards into an overturned bucket…or a spear at a target…or a football through a tire…whatever you come up with. Goal is to increase hits and eliminate misses.
    • Bilateral Underhand Backwards Throw for Distance – Use a medicine ball, rock, gymbag, log, or anything else you have, but make sure you keep safety in mind. Use a powerful compression and swing and measure your distance when the implement stops rolling. Record your best of 3 attempts.
  • Catch – The ability to catch is critical in many sports but it comes in very handy in many life situations.
    • Horizontal Catch – Use any ball (baseball with glove, basketball, soccer ball, football, etc.) and have your partner throw you a rainbow of catching options (from low outside left to overhead to low outside right), 10 times. Record number of successful catches and seek to improve it over time.
    • Vertical Loaded Catch – This tests the ability to absorb force and control multisegmental flexion. Use a medium-weight medicine ball or similar object and have your partner toss you lobs 10x. Goal is to be graceful and spring-like, avoid dropping the ball, and record successful catches.
  • Jump – This skill explores one of the great energy conversions (kinetic to potential to kinetic) in biomechanics.
    • Vertical Jump – Set up a suspended string that you can adjust the height. Use a tape measure to determine height from the floor. You can use any technique you prefer, such as a standing countermovement, approach hop, or run up to jump up and touch the string. Just do the same thing every time. Progressively raise the height of the string until you hit your limit. 5 trials. Record your max height.
    • Standing Broad Jump – With feet squarely set, perform a large countermovement and a powerful horizontal jump, sticking the landing. 3 trials. Record your longest jump.
  • Directional Management – These tests are best performed on a grass or turf field. 
    • Diagonal Cutting – Set 4 cones (or hats, water bottles, etc.) in a zigzag fashion with about 10 feet (give or take) between each cone. This can be an almost straight line or a very “accordion-like” arrangement. Just pick what you like and use the same setup every time. Goal is to run the zigzag pattern making hard cuts in which you load and explode each time you change direction. For this drill, try to avoid stutter steps and crossover running. Run 3 times through with complete rest between efforts. Record your fastest time.
    • Lateral Shuffle – Set two cones 5 yards apart. From a basic athletic stance, side shuffle (keep facing forward as you shuffle, no crossovers) right-left-right-left for 5-5-5-5 yards. Record the fastest time of 3 trials.
    • Backpedaling – Set cones 10 yards apart. Backpedal as fast as possible. Record best of 3 trials.
  • Landing – This is a critical skill for both performance and injury prevention.
    • Unilateral Hopping – Stand on one foot and maintain balance. Hop up and down 10x with moderate force and good control of energy and elastic recoil. Repeat on the other side. The goal here is to subjectively rate the quality of your landings (smooth, controlled, powerful) and your performance on each side. Use poor-fair-good-excellent as your descriptors.
    • Bilateral Depth Drop – This is just what it sounds like. Step off what you determine to be your highest safe height (board, stool, box, bench, picnic table, etc.) and drop into the landing. Flex, absorb, and control the force. Be safe and use good judgement. If you are new to this, you might start from a height of only an inch or two. Work up to being able to land comfortably from several feet in the air. Record your best height in inches as you progress.
  • Balance – We are going to test this in an athletic context more than a clinical one.
    • Single Leg Athletic Stance with Catch/Throw Perturbations – Stand on one leg, slightly flexed, in a position of athletic readiness. Toss a ball back and forth with a partner. Record time until loss of balance requires touchdown on foot that was in the air. Repeat for the other leg.
    • Tip and Touch “T” Position – Balance on one foot with leg straight. Tip forward until you can touch your fingertips to the floor. Try not to bend the support leg and don’t round your back. Straighten the rear leg so it aligns with the trunk and forms the horizontal portion of the letter “T.” Arise slowly. The goal is to be able to do 10 repetitions on each leg without a loss of balance. Record your best number up to 10. 
  • Whole Body Push – If you have a sled or cart designed for this purpose, you are good to go. If not, consider adding weight to your lawnmower, or even sliding a large, loaded cardboard box on grass. I’ve even seen folks load up a chair or bench and push it using sliders or old towels on a smooth floor. Don’t bag this test…keep searching until you come up with something, even a car in a parking lot with a partner at the controls for safety. Mark off 50 feet. Lean into the device and push hard. Keep your trunk rigid and don’t let your heels collapse down. If the device is light, run it…if it’s really heavy, just grind. Either way, record your time.
  • Backwards Drag – Rig up a heavy object such as a tractor tire, several sandbags, large log or timber, etc. with a rope (preferably with a handle). Walk backwards and drag it as fast as you can for 30 feet.

Here’s a simple table you can copy and paste for recording your AA.

ATHLETIC ASSESSMENT TESTSMEASUREMENT CRITERIADATE AND RESULTS
DEVELOPMENTAL SEQUENCE FLOW?Easy or Difficult
SQUATMax reps with fixed moderate weight
HINGE (DEADLIFT)5RM (Max weight for 5 reps)
LUNGE (ISOMETRIC HOLD)Time for loaded position L/R
TWIST (FULL BODY ROTATION)Degrees for line of sight (e.g. 1800) L/R
HORIZONTAL PUSH (PUSH-UP OR BENCH PRESS)Max reps in 1 minute
VERTICAL PUSH (OVERHEAD PRESS)Max reps with moderate weight
HORIZONTAL PULL (ROW)Max reps with moderate load
VERTICAL PULL (DEAD HANG)Max time
SPRINTING (40-yard dash)Fastest time
RUNNING/JOGGING (1600m)Best time/no breaks
WALKING (5 miles)yes/no
FRONT CARRYDistance in steps
UNILATERAL SIDE CARRYDistance in steps L/R
UNILATERAL OVERHEAD THROWHits out of 10
BILATERAL UNDERHAND BACKWARD THROWFurthest distance of 3 trials
HORIZONTAL CATCHSuccessful catches of 10
VERTICAL LOADED CATCHSuccessful catches of 10
VERTICAL JUMPMax height of 5 trials
STANDING BROAD JUMPMax distance of 3 trials
DIAGONAL CUTTINGBest time of 3 trials
LATERAL SHUFFLEBest time of 3 trials
BACKPEDALINGBest time of 3 trials
UNILATERAL HOPPINGQuality x 10 L/R (P-F-G-E)
BILATERAL DEPTH DROPMax height in inches
SINGLE LEG STANCE CATCH/THROWTime to loss of balance L/R
TIP AND TOUCH# up to 10 L/R
WHOLE BODY PUSHTime for 50 feet
BACKWARDS DRAGTime for 30 feet

Now we can return to the 5 capacities of athleticism. Just to be redundant, they are strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance. Here is a quick description of each term.

  • Strength = Maximum Force Output
  • Speed = Maximum Velocity
  • Power = Force x Distance/Time (anaerobic and aerobic)
  • Agility = Mobility + Stability + Reactivity + Fluidity
  • Endurance = Fatigue Resistance (muscular and cardiorespiratory)

As you can see from those descriptions, the tests in The Athletic Assessment do a fairly good job of addressing each capacity, some in combination. Heavy lifts describe strength. Sprinting is the purest representation of athletic speed. Explosively moving objects and your body exemplifies power. Multiplanar movement and balance exhibit agility. And producing submaximal output for a given duration showcases endurance. 

How you go about the Athletic Assessment is entirely up to you. Admittedly, doing everything in the same session is a big day. It takes a full 90 minutes to complete the tests and when the AA is performed in that manner some of the events will impact the others due to localized muscular as well as general systemic fatigue. That’s OK if you always retest in the same order and manner. However, you may want to split some of the test up over 2-3 days if you really want to explore your maximum potential in every category.

You’ll notice that most of the tests, when viewed in isolation, represent entry-level athleticism. Many folks will find that they can do much more than what some of the tests require. In these instances, feel free to make the exercises more challenging or complex. In many of the lifts, if you have the weight available, just go heavier. A lot of the lifting maneuvers were set up to allow those who have no access to equipment to still do the test, but true strength measures are definitely in the 1-6 rep ranges (just be safe).

Part of being an athlete is embracing and engaging in competition. If you have some like-minded peers of relatively similar ability, turn the AA into a contest. Competitive upregulation will bring out your best. Just be smart about that and make sure everyone’s training status allows them to engage in this “athleticathlon” safely.

However, the main objective of the AA is to allow you to critically examine your own athleticism and compare yourself to yourself. This tool can help you to become more aware of what total athleticism looks like and the areas in which you have assets or liabilities. This knowledge will then help you to recognize and utilize your gifts while at the very same time you can focus on addressing any shortcomings you’ve discovered. 

In the end, the AA tests where you are with your athleticism and what you might need to emphasize in training going forward. There is no one best way to train. There are myriad approaches to getting and staying completely athletic. Many, many methods will work quite well and these will change within an individual as he/she progresses through the lifespan (the athletic journey). It doesn’t matter what you do to achieve solid athletic ability. It just matters that you have it. The AA helps you to remain a Lifetime Athlete. You achieve the state of HTK…Hard to Kill — on the playing field and in the game of LIFE!

In closing, if you will allow me, I’d like to offer a few words of advice. Be kind to yourself. Don’t get despondent if you find yourself lacking in a number of areas. Rarely is all lost. Don’t think it is hopeless and that you are destined to exist with dwindling athleticism. You can rebuild your athletic qualities. You just have to be innovative and patient. Personally, I’ve got several areas where I’m just not functioning as well as I’d like. I’m working on them. Despite my age and injury history, most of these challenges have the capacity to improve significantly. I’ll get there. And on the other hand, don’t be delusional. Don’t deny it if you aren’t quite up to par in a few categories. That’s not a character flaw. But don’t go through life thinking you don’t need the abilities that aren’t there. Liabilities will build up to take away your joy in your sports, and they’ll eventually diminish the quality and possibly the length of your life. Get and stay athletic. Believe and achieve.

Want to see the Athletic Assessment in full detail? Check out this video. Just want a quick look at the movements? Here’s your quick watch! You can also listen to a discussion about it here.

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