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If we consider the definition of the word ‘fitness’ as being related to a person's capability in performing a task, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find that as long as humans have been engaged in tasks that require some amount of physical effort, there has been some form of testing to measure its effectiveness. An acknowledgement of the importance of fitness dates back thousands of years, with training designed to improve performance in soldiers documented in many of the ancient civilizations.
Several militaries had loosely defined fitness requirements, which related to a person’s battle-ready capabilities, but it wasn’t really until after the Renaissance period and the development of more modern approaches to science that we started to understand the human body at a mechanistic level and notice that structured, progressive exercise could create documented adaptations. However, when it comes to standardised fitness testing to rank a person's task-specific ability, this is a much more modern pursuit. At least in the context of creating large scale, normative values anyway, with testing protocols and scoring developed and being introduced after the turn of the 20th century.
In the late 20th century, it was the creation of a new science ‘exercise physiology’ that started to document how humans responded to different types of physical stress in relation to sports performance. And that led to the development of more sport-specific and sport-related testing that has evolved into what we know as modern athlete assessment, which includes everything from simple field tests (that inform us how the body performs as an entire system at a given task), to more detailed assessment (specific components of metabolism that allow us to target specific adaptations at a cellular level through our coaching).
It is logical that the type of testing we use to inform our practice is related to the demand of the sport. However, in many sports there are likely to be more generic, baseline fitness requirements required to perform that activity, even if that requirement may not on the face of it be key to success in the sport itself.
For example, if an athlete in a heavily skill- dominant sport such as motor racing does not have at least a solid amount of strength and endurance, no matter how skilled they are, the demands of racing will mean they do not have a solid foundation to perform their ‘skill’. Understanding where the athlete is relative to these foundational ‘markers’ of performance is key.
Fitness testing is important for several reasons;
Strength is the expression of task-specific maximal force in a muscle or group of muscles and can be measured in several ways. The most common and accessible method is 1-repetition maximum testing, performed during compound lifts such as the squat, deadlift or bench press.
The problem with strength testing and ‘normative values’ is that studies can use very different protocols. ‘A squat’ or bench press could be performed in any number of unstandardised ways , depending on range of motion and how strict the researchers are on adhering to this. Even in terms of reporting, some research will report absolute values whilst others will report relative to bodyweight. Which of these measures is most important to you will depend largely on the ‘why’ you are measuring strength... and in what sport. This is why it is important when comparing our athlete values against the literature it is important to understand the exact testing method and protocol being used, otherwise comparisons may become meaningless.
Of the big three lifts, it is arguable that the deadlift would be the most consistent between studies, however it is rarely measured. Of all the commonly performed compound lifts in sports, it is the bench press that has the most data and consistently described methodology as seen below.
Bench Press maximums across different sports
When we think of ‘power’ we often think of explosive dynamic movements. In this context, what we are often actually referring to is the rate of force development in reference to our bodyweight, or our body weight relative to some external load. During absolute strength testing, we can in fact estimate power (in Watts). The most common method for measuring lower body power though (particularly in the published literature) is jump performance.
Other test metrics such as flight time, ground contact time (in hop or multiple jump tests) or reactive strength index can give us useful data that can also be used to understand an athlete’s power production strategy and potential.
The countermovement jump (CMJ) is the most widely used test in the literature and is one of the more standardised protocol movements to test power output. It has a much greater ability to predict power output across different studies (assuming the method for actually measuring jump height is accurate).
As you can see from the table below, although we might assume athletes from jumping sports might achieve greater jump performance, it is often counterintuitive; this is one reason why we need to consider additional tests and metrics alongside simply jump height (or any other performance indicator) to understand athletic potential and/or comparison against other athletes.
Counter Movement Jump Height across different sports and populations
Accurate speed testing for coaches can often be impossible due to the need for expensive speed gates. When conducting tests for speed it is important to ensure that you standardize the type of surface used. Pitch based sprints will differ to court based sprint. Also, at different times of the year grass based pitches will vary in their hardness, which will directly influence the results of any running based tests.
Below are some normative values for 10m and 20m sprint times in soccer players of varying age grades reported in the literature as summarised by Nikolaidis et al.
The most obvious measurement of interest for endurance athletes (when aiming to compare them to other athletes) is the performance time for a given event or competition. However, in some situations/sports direct comparison of endurance capacity with other athletes is difficult... especially if the sport is performed in different conditions, terrains or is not directly measured during performance.
There are several intermittent shuttle tests, including the (in)famous bleep test. These tests are standard across many sports, military and emergency services to assess ‘fitness’ and may provide the basis to extrapolate data and predict maximal oxygen outcome. Research assessing athletes’ scores across different sports to define comparative values is surprisingly scarce.
Male Beep Test Scores
Instead, much of the physiology research used to assess athlete endurance capacity uses more expensive and time consuming measurements including maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) and blood lactate analysis.
Generally speaking, the higher the level of the athlete, the more specific the testing protocol needs to be. For example, in some situations, a simple shuttle run 'bleep test’ might be a useful measure of improved aerobic fitness. But at the elite level, an understanding of the mechanisms under which this improvement has taken place needs to be determined to guide future adaptation specific programming. Has the improvement come from improved aerobic fitness, or is it a learning effect, change in body mass or some other variables that has changed which has led to a change in score?
To put it simply, does the test actually measure what we want to measure and does this information direct our decision making with an athlete. If not, then why are we doing it?!
If we are going to make training decisions based on scores from the fitness test, we should understand how well informed those decisions are likely to be. This doesn’t mean that all of our fitness tests have to be incredibly accurate, but the measurements we obtain should at least give us enough confidence that the decisions we are making are sufficiently supported. This might mean that we have to combine several less accurate tests in order to make effective decisions. Again though, this is likely to be governed largely by the other ‘considerations’, especially time and resources when working with large groups of athletes.
Working with an individual is going to give you more time to test than in a team setting (although this might not always be the case depending on the level of support, budget and importance a coach/manager/performance director places on fitness tests). Therefore, we need to understand how long a test takes to perform, and if it is a viable option for multiple athletes. There might be a trade off between time and accuracy in some situations that as coaches we have to ‘absorb’ into our thinking.
Unfortunately, the more accurate the measurement, the greater the cost typically associated with it. We need to ask the question of whether the accuracy we obtain is worth the cost for that athlete of course, and this can be summarised with the word value.
Throughout the course of his academic studies Paul has covered many areas related to sport science, including nutritional biochemistry, physiology, psychology, elements of physiotherapy and nutrition and exercise programming. His area of academic expertise is in biomechanics – in particular functional and clinical measures of strength and performance, which is what his PhD was involved in. Paul has also developed and delivered courses and seminars covering many aspects of health and fitness. Paul is the owner of Nexus Performance and currently works in an applied sports science capacity with a range of elite athletes including boxers, ice-hockey players, endurance athletes and bodybuilders.
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