B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 3

Performance Anxiety

Reassessing the implementation of performance testing for young athletes.

By Mike Mejia CSCS

This might sound a little weird coming from a strength and conditioning coach, but I’m really not a big fan of performance testing. Or, I should say, the current way said testing is typically administered at both the middle and high school level. Not that I fail to appreciate the desire to somehow quantify an athlete’s physical capabilities. It’s just that I think most of the “tried and true” tests young athletes are subjected to not only do a pretty poor job of predicting athletic potential, but often place kids at risk of unnecessary injury. Does it really matter, for instance, how explosive a vertical jump a kid has if their landing mechanics make them a prime candidate for blowing out a knee? Or, how many sit-ups they can do inside of a minute if they’re using momentum and jerking their torsos up so forcefully you can almost hear their discs herniating? Call me crazy, but I’m having trouble seeing the value of this little game of “how much can your body withstand?”, all in the name of having some hard and fast numbers to convey to coaches, parents and possible college destinations.

Don’t get me wrong; I realize that knowing an athlete’s time in the forty-yard dash, or having at least some idea of their explosive power potential is important information for a coach to have. The problem I have with it is twofold: the tests that are administered often fail to accurately measure the actual demands of the sport (i.e. hockey players being tested in a one mile run- last time I checked, that sport was almost completely anaerobic)! and even when they do, are often trained for solely to replicate success in a testing situation. How many kids for example that go to these “speed schools” for 6-8 weeks at a time actually hold on to what they’ve been taught six months down the road? After all, anyone can clean up someone’s 40 yard dash, or pro agility with a few form cues, but the lasting impact that an athlete carries with him or her onto the field comes from things like strengthening the muscles responsible for both acceleration and deceleration, correcting postural and/or flexibility imbalances that might be impairing muscular function and imparting a need to continually work on these areas to keep the gains coming.

I think that a lot of the problem stems from the fact that many of these tests are still being administered for no other reason than sheer tradition. I mean, hey, if this is how it’s always been done, why change, right? Because too many kids are getting hurt, that’s why! And, the one’s who aren’t often wind up picking up bad training habits that increase their chances of becoming injured down the road. That’s why I’ve decided to take a critical look at some of the more popular performance tests that young athletes are routinely subjected to. Besides just pointing out their obvious shortcomings, I’ll offer up what I feel to be some more effective alternatives that carry with them much less risk of injury. They’ll also hopefully help instill better training habits going forward.  

The Bench Press: Designed to measure upper body strength, the bench press has long been considered one of the staple lifts when testing athletes of all levels. Many coaches however, myself included, have come to question its application to actual sports performance. After all; as an athlete there, aren’t many times when you’ll be lying on your back attempting to push hundreds of pounds off of you. That is, unless of course you’re an offensive lineman who just isn’t very good and continually gets buried by opposing defensive tackles. At which point, you might want to examine other aspects of your training. All kidding aside though, the lift really doesn’t correlate very well to any viable form of athletic strength expression- making it’s continued appearance in both testing and training protocols all the more confusing. Rather than detail the numerous factors that make this so (i.e. disruption of normal scapulothoracic rhythm, limited core activation due to the position of lying on the bench etc), my issue here is more with the form- or more accurately, lack thereof- with which the test is typically administered. I’ve seen everything from kids using their chests as trampolines to “bounce” the weight back up, to lower backs arching so high off of the bench that you could drive a small automobile beneath them. And of course, my favorite, where the athlete squirms under the bar while contorting his body in various ways as a couple of spotters bellow out “It’s All You!” Typically, upon finally getting the bar back to the rack, the athlete jumps up, stoked about his effort and brags to everyone within earshot about “how much he can bench”. Are you kidding me? What are we even measuring here- the kid’s ability to withstand serious injury?

The sad part is not only the fact that this goes on, but that it instills poor lifting habits in these impressionable young athletes. Before you know it, using more weight than they can handle to measure up against their peers becomes the norm, rather than the exception. Needless to say this sets the stage for a whole host of potential injures down the road. So, rather than subject kids to an outdated lift for no other reason than sheer tradition, why not test their pushing strength in a much more functional manner? A push-up test for example, would give a much more accurate gauge of an athlete’s pushing mechanics, while also more accurately mimicking a functional movement they might actually use on the field of play (i.e. a runner who’s fallen to the ground needing to get back up and into the play). I’m not talking about just any push-up mind you, but one in which the athlete holds a neutral spine position to better engage their core musculature and uses a strict cadence of two-seconds to lower, a one-second pause at the bottom of the movement and a one-second ascent. Performing the push-ups this way accomplishes a number of objectives: 1. It almost completely eliminates the use of momentum, making it an excellent way to assess upper body strength. 2. It makes athletes appreciate the need to have a strong core. and 3. it dramatically reduces injury potential by keeping kids who have absolutely no business bench pressing away from the bench press!

Alternative: The Push-up Test

Graded on a pass/ fail basis. The athlete needs to be able to do 10 reps while holding a neutral spine position, at the cadence described above to earn a passing grade. If they alter their spinal position in any way (excessive arching of the lower back, or poking the butt up into the air), or fail to execute the drill at the proper cadence they fail the test.

The Squat: Before I begin my diatribe against the squat, allow me to genuflect for a moment and acknowledge it as “the king of all exercises”, “the greatest strength exercise ever created” and yada, yada, yada. Sarcasm aside for a moment, I should point out that I really do love and respect the squat and completely agree with its placement at the top of the exercise heirarchy. I just hate seeing kids rush into them before they’re ready. I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve assessed a new athlete and he, or she told me that they squat X number of pounds. As you might imagine, they get pretty demoralized when my assessment reveals that they can’t even squat their own body weight properly and as a result, shouldn’t be using any form of external resistance until any existing strength and flexibility imbalances have been addressed. Think about it for a minute; if you can’t squat your own body weight without rounding your back, your knees caving in towards each other, or noticeably shifting your weight to one side as you perform the lift, what sense does it makes to put a loaded barbell on your back? Right, absolutely none! Yet, this is exactly what continues to go on in high school weight rooms all across the country!

Alternative: The Pistol Squat 

A much better gauge of lower body strength potential would be a one legged, a.k.a. pistol squat. With these, there’s no throwing unnecessary stress onto the lower back, or knees, or shifting the brunt of the exercise onto your stronger leg. You can either do these, or you can’t. And, since during most sports activities most of your weight is on one leg at a time, pistol squats carry with them the benefit of lots of functional carryover. To begin, stand on one leg with your other leg held straight out in front of you, about a foot or so off the floor. Next, reach your arms out in front of you as you sit your hips back and begin to squat. Continue descending until you reach your lowest point possible without excessively rounding your back. How far down you actually get will be determined by several factors- including the mobility around your hip and ankle joints, as well as your current level of strength. Most young athletes should at least be able to execute a pistol squat to the parallel position (where their working thigh is parallel to  the floor). Advanced trainees may be able to get all the way down to the point where their butt almost touches their Achilles tendon. The thing I like best about these is that they’re an incredibly humbling exercise. Even athletes who currently squat considerable amounts of weight have trouble doing a single pistol squat properly. This signals a definite need to work on joint mobility and unilateral strength. I usually consider about 5 reps done to at least parallel as a passing grade. Look out for huge strength imbalances on the non-dominant leg though.

Hang Clean, or other Olympic style lift: What do you get when you combine growing young bodies that are typically, shall we say, “flexibility challenged” for lack of a better term, with the explosive movement of free weights? Can you say, an injury waiting to happen? Again, I have nothing against the Olympic lifts per se and think that they’re one of the best ways imaginable to improve explosive power development. It’s just that in order to for them to pay off from a risk/reward standpoint, the athlete in question has to have sufficient joint mobility and be absolutely meticulous with their form. Not to burst anyone’s bubble here, but believe me when I tell you that this is seldom the case. The bottom line is, unless an athlete has been properly instructed as to how to perform these lifts and/or there’s a qualified strength coach supervising them during testing, I just have a hard time advocating their presence in a testing protocol.

Alternative: Med Ball Overhead Throw

I’d much rather see kids tested in the overhead medicine ball throw. It gives you all the explosion of an Olympic lift, without any of the associated danger. You get the vaunted “triple extension” that Olympic lifts are predicated on (extension at the hip, knee and ankle), but you don’t have to worry about the catch position of a clean, or the overhead stability required for the snatch- which is where most adolescents falter by the way, due to their subpar flexibility/mobility of the shoulder girdle. With these, you simply hold a medicine balls at its side while standing in a squat position, with your arms extended down towards the floor. Begin with a rapid descent of the hips as you sit back into a squat position. Immediately upon hitting the parallel position of the squat, quickly explode upwards as you swing your arms above your head and throw the ball up and slightly back behind you. Shoot for maximal height of the ball and really try to jump off the ground as you throw. Take the best height of three throws as your score.

About the only issue you’ll run into with these is selecting the appropriate weight ball. You want to make sure you’re using a ball heavy enough to require you to explode, but not so heavy that you have difficulty moving it rapidly. Your best bet is experimenting with several different weight balls and then ensuring that you retest with the same weight ball so you can monitor your progress. Then, when you feel you’re ready, move up to the next level ball.

Sit-ups/ Pull-ups: To be perfectly honest, I probably could have written the entire article on my disdain for these two tests alone. I dislike the sit-up test because the form with which it’s performed is usually so poor, I fail to see how it measures the endurance capacity of the torso musculature in any viable way. For instance, if you have extremely tight hip flexors- as many young athletes do-you unknowingly have a built in advantage on this test. You’ll be able to fire yourself up and down without using your abdominal muscles very much at all. And yet, this is somehow supposed to demonstrate that you have good “core endurance”? And as far as pull-ups are concerned,  I’ve seen so many different variations of this exercise over the years, I’m not even sure what this test is measuring anymore. I mean, which do you think means more-an athlete who does 3 to 4 reps with perfect form, engaging the right muscles throughout the entire duration of the set, or the kid who cranks out 10-12, looking more like a trapeze artist than someone performing a strength test? I know which one I’d pick, but given our societal fascination with young athletes’ “numbers,” I fear that I might be in the minority on this one.

Alternative: Plank/ Reverse Push-ups

If you really want to measure muscular strength and endurance, at least do it with tests that have more functional application and are harder to cheat. That’s exactly why I’d prefer to see these two test swapped out for planks and reverse push-ups (a.k.a. inverted rows). The great thing about the plank is that it engages the core musculature in a manner similar to the way you’ll use it during sports participation. Think about it; how many times during practice, or competition do you need to curl your spine up the way you do during crunches and sit-ups? Not many, right? But you often need to brace your core to provide the foundation your limbs need to propel you across the field, court, or pool. To get into a plank position, get down on the floor as if your about to do a push-up, only instead of bracing up on your arms rest your weight on your forearms. Once there, you’ll want to maintain a good neutral spine position (no excessive arch in your lower back, but don’t allow your lower back to round either). Now, you simply hold for time. The baseline you’re looking for is at least 15-20 seconds, although I usually like to see a minimum of 30 seconds to start. At higher level, it’s not uncommon to see athletes holding planks for 2-3 minutes- often while slowly moving limbs to further increase the difficulty level.

As far as reverse push-ups go, they offer two major benefits: 1. They de-emphasize the often over used lats and target the scapular retractors of the shoulder girdle (the muscles that pull the shoulder blades together). This not only helps balance out the strength and stability of the shoulder joint, but it’s a huge help with posture as well. And 2. They’re a lot harder to cheat then pull-ups. Because your feet are in contact with either the ground, or a bench (depending on how strong you are) it’s virtually impossible to swing your legs upward and create momentum. This means that you’re forced to rely on nothing but upper body and core strength to get you up to the bar. To do these, lie on the ground beneath a bar that’s set at about waist height in a squat rack, or Smith machine. Next, reach up and grab the bar with your arms a little wider than shoulder’s width apart, using a pronated (palms facing your feet) grip. Begin by lifting your hips off the ground so that only the backs of your heels are in contact with the floor and your body forms a straight line. Once there, pull yourself up towards the bar by pinching your shoulder blades together until your chest nearly touches it. Hold for a second, then slowly lower until your arms are straight and repeat. Record the maximal number of reps you can do.

Mile run: Okay, I’m just going to come right out and say it: how many competitive sports do you know of where the athletes run anywhere near a mile at a time? Baseball? Nope, even legging out a triple only requires to run approximately 300 feet. Football? If you’re lucky enough to break away from the pack, the best you can hope for is about 100 yards? Tennis? Come on, what’s a really long rally last-maybe 30-40 seconds? That’s a whole lot different than several minutes! The point being, there’s just no basis for using the mile to test an athlete’s “endurance” when more often than not, the type of endurance they’re going to have to exhibit in their sport is of a completely different type. Take hockey players for instance, who are typically out on the ice for anywhere between 45 seconds and two minutes at a time- often pushing the limits of their anaerobic endurance. Do you really think that testing their time in the mile is going to give you an accurate prediction of their ability to withstand multiple shifts?

A much better test would be the 300 yard shuttle run. This is a grueling test, where the athlete has to complete six complete trips between two agility cones spaced 25 yards apart. This test is typically administered at least twice with a 90 second to 2 minute rest interval between the two attempts. You then look to see what kind of drop off, if any there is between the two tests. It’s a tremendous measure of anaerobic endurance and is far more applicable to a number of sports including tennis, lacrosse, basketball  and of course, ice hockey.

Hopefully, I’ve raised a few questions in your mind as to the validity of some of these “time-honored” measures of athletic potential- at least as they pertain to younger participants. The truth is, for kids who’s bodies are not yet fully matured, the administration of certain types of testing presents far more problems than it does solutions. Exposing kids to the risk of serious injury, while promoting a “numbers first” mentality that instills poor training habits going forward just doesn’t make any sense. Which is precisely why we as parents, coaches and trainers need to band together and try to change the status quo. Let’s face it, given the hyper-competitive atmosphere that currently permeates youth sports, the call for assessing the physical abilities of young athletes only figures to increase. The least we can do is try and help ensure that in assessing those abilities, we’re not putting these kids in harm’s way.

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