A Lion in Iron: Assessments are Not Complicated

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So we are back to ranting...fair warning to all...

During the past decade or so, pre-training “assessments” have become an integral process for training most clients and athletes. Aside from the initial consultation where the trainer meets his client and speaks with him, the physical “assessment” has come to encompass a multitude of screenings, gradings, analyses, and whatever else the trainer or coach feels like assessing. Although acquiring this information may seem prudent and put the trainer at an advantage in regards to programming, it also gets taken way, way too far.

Before I get ahead of myself, this is my major issue with the utilization of assessments: Are you assessing the person in order to demonstrate how you will help them? Or, on the contrary, are you assessing your client simply to tell him what is wrong with him? Unfortunately, if it's the latter, telling someone all the things he can't do doesn’t help him to do anything.

Now, in the athletic field, assessments can be used much more specifically. Depending on the athlete's sport, certain standards can be set in regards to strength, mobility, flexibility, conditioning, etc. However, after having personally worked within the commercial side of the industry, I have often seen the pre-training assessment turn into an hour-long shit show of endless tests derived from whatever a personal training certification has outlined. What's more, most of these tests are not really understood beyond, “Have them do this, and if it doesn’t look like this, then mark down everything you think is wrong according to this chart.”

Once the assessments are completed, the rest of the trainer's time is then spent telling the client everything that is “wrong” with him while, of course, emphasizing how long it will take to fix. (And that length of time is somehow always exactly three months at three times a week for X amount of money). You also cannot ignore the fact that the “assessments” these trainers use are often not even movements that will ever be used in the programming itself. Yeah...that makes so much goddamn sense. Assess someone on something that he has never done, emphasize how bad he is at it, and then don’t use that movement ever again during the training process.

Oh, but keep testing him on it though—that’s how you were taught after all. (Which, of course, you have never bothered to fucking question because your certification is the end-all be-all of training knowledge).

I have witnessed managers brag that they, can find something wrong with anybody, and then proceed to instruct their staff to scare the shit out of them so that they have no choice but to buy training. While I would like to believe that this was an isolated incident, I know the reality of it. This type of practice likely happens across many facilities nationwide, especially in the larger gym chains that I have worked for in the past.

With that said, I can readily tell you (with near certainty) what will be “wrong” with 99% of a trainer's prospective clientele:

1. Their posture will be “bad”—Kyphosis, forward head, internally rotated shoulders, upper cross syndrome, etc.

2. Their whole posterior chain, from top to bottom, will be weak—all of it.

3. Their hips won’t work. I consider hip hinging/hip shift/deadlift pattern to be the foundation of all movement...and most people are awful at it.

4. They need to get stronger because they are weak, and this limits how much and how well they can move.

5. They don’t move much, and they are bad at moving in general. (Imagine that).

6. Their balance/stability is also bad because they are not strong; hence, they cannot create enough stability to be good at “balancing.”

Since I know the question will be asked, I will go ahead and clarify that I use a combination of different assessments whenever I work with a client (depending on the client's needs and goals), but the basics are always the same:

  • Can he hip hinge/shift?
  • Can he squat?
  • How posturally aware is he if I ask him to stand up straight and pull back on a band (looking at the action of the shoulder blades)? Can he do pull-ups?
  • Can he support his bodyweight and project force from a pushup position (or an elevated position or standing position)?

So, we have four foundational patterns—hinge, squat, pull, and press—that we are assessing in order to find a baseline off of which to order our program. However, his should only be used as teaching tool—not just simply a system of critique. The first movement goal of any sound training process is to get the person utilizing a full range of motion in the foundational patterns (or, at the very least, to be working towards those patterns). The next goal is then to get stronger at those patterns—safely and without pain.

That’s my basic assessment, and I don’t consider it any better or worse, nor do I consider it to be set in stone. It is simply what I’ve used and have found to be effective the majority of the time. If something needs to be added in, I add it in. If something can be taken out, I take it out. It doesn’t take an hour and I don’t spend time on unnecessary and irrelevant critiques. I am not saying that you should cease using any particular assessment or that you should stop looking for asymmetries or pain...but that doesn’t take an entire hour to find out either.

Whichever system you utilize, it should be effective and safe relative to the client/athlete you are dealing with. It should also be directly relative to the programming goal, and if nothing else, it should make sense to be using it. Get your clients moving, get them stronger, get them strong at moving, and get them better at moving for periods of time. That’s not complicated at all.

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