By Carl Valle
Objective testing of athletes is now the new normal. While coaches scramble or rush to find the next best test or technology, the reality is that they just need to do assessments better. Most of the classic tests we use in strength and conditioning are excellent options for most situations, but a few tests need to be administered with better protocols.
I have written extensively on testing, but now it’s time to look at those tests and make sure they are done with the best repeatability possible. In this article, I review the top tests used in performance and make sure they are polished with the right amount of applied science and responsible coaching. Most of the article talks about testing correctly and doesn’t spend too much time on what is done wrong. Part of testing better entails focusing on workflow, safety, and even motivation.
Sports Testing Data – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Good data helps drive better decisions, and the precision, accuracy, and repeatability of that data needs to be at a standard that renders it trustworthy. It’s easy to keep trying to be perfect, but the reality is even Olympic training centers still struggle for quality data because much of sports testing is up to the athlete. You can have a million-dollar facility with world-class sport scientists and it won’t matter if the athlete doesn’t give two cents.
At the end of the day, reliable and valid tests done with enough quality control should guide coaches to train with a little more direction than simple gut feelings. Data collection isn’t going to do much for programs that won’t adjust things even when the information shows that change is needed, so if you collect data, make sure your situation is actionable. I get frustrated when teams talk about force plates in the NBA, while entire rosters haven’t lifted a weight in months and simply do physical therapy exercises.
I believe there are two types of data: honest data and deceptive data. While the quality of information will vary, data must be blind like the scales of justice, as bias will always ruin the numbers collected if they have been sabotaged or inflated. I see this all the time, as the goal for coaches should be to see change, not necessarily improvement.
I try to remove myself when I can by having others contribute to testing when possible, as I don’t want athletes to feel like great training may be biased. While coaches will claim that they have their athletes’ trust, this is not entirely true as some doubt always exists. The goal of testing is communicating truth, not looking for ways to punish athletes or feed coaching egos.Testing’s goal is to communicate truth, not look for ways to punish athletes or feed coaching egos. Click To Tweet
I recently gave a presentation at a local strength and conditioning workshop on testing, and was pleased to see coaches eager to make sure their programs are better. In the past, I had issues with many coaches who wanted to find out how well their programs were working, almost assuming that they were only looking for the positive. Coaches should not see sport science as a sterile responsibility or burden, but a way to enhance the trust between athletes and staff.
The Usual Suspects in Testing Errors
Here is a breakdown of important concepts to know when testing athletes for performance:
Repeatability: Each test has specific considerations that must be reviewed, but overall, the biggest mistake I see is that the repeatability of the test is poor. Even if you use the best lab in the world, a test can be rendered null and void if variables are tainted, even if they appear small and unimportant. Changes in training are sometimes very gradual and barely perceptible, and language such as “smallest worthwhile change” and “trivial” are used to help illustrate the stubbornness of homeostasis and training.
If you want to improve your data quality, try to repeat the process as much as possible, within reason. Time after time, I see teams with no data at all, as they are waiting for perfect rather than acceptable. As long as the effort is there, acceptable should be seen as the best possible. If a sport science department is seeing data that they would include in their research, it’s perfectly fine to use the data in your own program analysis.
Precision: After repeatability, precision is important because coaches look for the change in the data more than the accuracy. The best example of this is a scale that is always 1 kilo too heavy—it may not be as accurate as other instruments, but if it can show positive and negative change with great precision, down to the gram, it’s still useful. Most of the equipment and practices that are precise will also be accurate, so it’s not a compromise, but when I look at equipment and protocols I want to how much precision they have.
Precision is not just about the technology, it’s the language you use and the environment you prepare for testing. Attention to detail is a great mantra, but I prefer using the term “precision,” as it really drives a higher standard. Precision outside of testing is equally important, as testing is just a slice of time and good record-keeping is paramount so that testing connects with the longitudinal training and prescription.
Validity: Validity is simply asking if the test actually measures what it is supposed to measure, but I prefer asking, “Does the test transfer to results later?” Transfer is the holy grail, but it’s more complicated than simply cause and effect or correlation. The concept of transfer means it’s valuable in contributing to success on the field.The concept of transfer means it’s valuable in contributing to success on the field. Click To Tweet
Some research has shown that many valuable training or recovery methods don’t show up objectively in short studies or with studies that don’t effectively evaluate what the change is, falsely concluding something doesn’t work. I have been involved directly with studies where I was a test subject and know that the follow-up testing was bogus because of outside interference, or factors that would affect the data. I see this phenomenon when a college coach does testing right after an exam period and the data doesn’t show progress. While the workouts may be done correctly, the stress of the week may ruin the results of the testing but the improvement may show up later.
These testing issues are relevant for all tests shared in this article, but the list of factors is hardly complete because so many variables are at risk of interference when testing.
Jump Testing – The Need for a Quiet Period
Jump testing is a topic that I have shared a few times, but for some reason there is still a slow adoption of testing with best practices. Most of the time I see coaches wanting to get the best heights, not the most accurate assessments of specific leg power. If you want to inflate numbers, you can look the other way with a Vertec or contact grid or mat, but eventually time will catch up with you. Once you fake it, there is no room left to fake it more.
Video 1. You can perform rebound jumping and other tests with a portable contact grid. When testing, think about how practical the setup is, not just how many metrics they provide.
Jump testing is the dirtiest data not because of the equipment necessary to do it, but because the coach and athlete can conspire to get better numbers versus actually trying to get better abilities. Chasing numbers is not a bad thing, but there is a big difference between chasing improvements for the talent you have and chasing numbers by gaming the test. The NFL Combine still uses the Vertec, but if I had my way, I would add a force plate and simply use the Bosco tests and other more athletic options like conventional broad jumps, vertical jumps with arms, reactive jumps, and situational jumps like those with run-ups.Before using any system, you need a proper quiet period to make sure the test is valid and reliable. Click To Tweet
Before using any system, you need a proper quiet period to make sure the test is valid and reliable. Time after time, we see rocking and momentum styles of jumps before squat jumps, the most static starting of all jump testing to cheat the test. Static starts are important as direct ways to see concentric power and any NFL coach sees the value of power off the snap with linemen. If you move or fail to produce power quickly from a static position, you lose. Even if your sport allows pre-motion, it’s important to use static squat jumps to compare and contrast countermovement jumps. I could go on, but I would rather let Dr. Mundy explain the value of the quiet period. Dr. Mundy writes:
“Numerical integration is the most accurate way to calculate both vertical jump flight height and vertical jump height. The numerical integration method requires vertical acceleration, vertical velocity (flight height), and vertical displacement (jump height) of the centre of mass to be calculated from force-time data. When calculating these preceding variables, one of the biggest sources of user error is the accurate determination of body mass. An incorrect body mass has several implications, although perhaps the most obvious is that force / mass = acceleration (Newton’s Second Law rearranged), is not meaningful if mass is incorrect. As vertical velocity is calculated using vertical acceleration, and vertical displacement is calculated using vertical velocity, such a seemingly small, and controllable error has significant consequences for the accuracy of our output.
Commonly this source of error is a result of manually entering a value for bodyweight, or determining bodyweight based on a single arbitrary point prior to the initiation of the countermovement. To minimise this error, it is imperative that athletes stand stationary for at least one second prior to their initiation of movement. As such, we can then take an average of this period for each vertical jump, ensuring that variability both within and between vertical jumps is accounted for. Variability within this quiet standing period also influences the identification of the onset of movement, which has implications for calculating eccentric (unweighting-braking) phase force and temporal variables.
A further key source of error is ensuring the initial assumptions of null velocity and displacement are true, which is fundamental for the numerical integration method. If we start numerical integration when the athlete is in motion, then our initial integration conditions are invalid, which means the accuracy of our vertical velocity (flight height) and vertical displacement (jump height) are compromised. As such, it is imperative that the athlete actually stands quiet during this period (not talking, not looking around, not rocking, etc.), as slight deviations induce artificial vertical velocities and vertical displacements (drift), again having significant consequences for the accuracy of our output. Practically speaking, ask your athlete to stand still, start data collection, and then cue the athlete with ‘3, 2, 1 JUMP.’”
As you can see, testing isn’t a casual measurement and you must respect it. It’s not that sport science is being picky or excessive, it’s that quality data requires quality protocols and adherence to the instructions. Dr. Mundy goes further and summarizes the process:
“Controlling the controllable through robust data collection practice not only ensures the accuracy of our vertical jump output, but facilitates the ability to actually effect a meaningful change within our athlete’s performance.” –Dr. Mundy
My parting thought is that controlling the controllable is the soul of the article, and doing an honest job means simply following the expectations and standards of the sport science, and repeating it over and over. There are other errors that exist with jump testing, such as changing instructions and surfaces, but overall, nailing the quiet phase or silent period is a great step for proper jump analysis.
Speed Profiling – The Details Matter
An athlete improving by .01 in a 10-meter interval means something in sport. The difficult part of speed testing is that running velocity is a delicate assessment to do properly, as sprinting is the most sensitive to outside variables and internal readiness. Athletes all want to get faster, and speed is the most limiting and slowest area in sport to enhance. For the most part, we see faster changes in strength than power, and more improvement in power than speed.
The reason for stubbornness in speed development is that time frames for improving propulsion are short and very limited to genetics. The best way to develop speed outside of coaching is good recruiting, as plastic athletes are great investments because they have high ceilings. Athletes that are naturally fast may not be great candidates for elite status because they have genetics that make them great, but not greater when training is introduced. Great talent is about overall potential, not just an early head start with gifts. For the most part, athletes that are successful in the long run have talent in the beginning, but blossom later when other gifted athletes seem to stop improving.
The reason I focus so much on talent with speed is that speed is the biggest challenge in athlete development. Due to its scarcity, athletic speed is the most valuable of all general physical traits. Knowing that speed changes are small and require coaching experience to see them year after year, the need to fight tooth and nail for just small incremental improvements must be valued or the challenge will be futile.When a coach commits to performance, picking the hard battles will pay off in the long run. Click To Tweet
When a coach commits to performance, picking the hard battles will pay off in the long run, and that means all those involved in the coaching program must be patient in the beginning. When the going gets rough, it’s tempting to chase easier goals like size and strength and find the athlete stagnating later. A focus on objective improvement of speed means the athlete is actually faster in ability, not testing better. Several times, conditions in sprinting improve an athlete’s time, but they are not actually faster—they just have a better performance in competition. If an athlete is not actually running with a higher velocity, it’s likely that they became a better tester and not a better athlete.
The perfect example is an athlete rehearsing three-point starts in the NFL Combine and polishing their acceleration steps with amazing refinement, but in a game they are not globally faster and play at the same speed. On the other hand, if they polish their acceleration and improve afterwards, they are likely importing faster speeds to their nervous system and have a good chance at better playing speed. The entire myth of “football fast” and “track speed” is dying, but the stereotype continues today.
The best piece of advice I can give to anyone doing speed tests is to bring both video and electronic timing to the picture. If you have laser timing or radar, it helps you see how the athlete is creating speed step by step. In addition to velocity-tracking systems, contact grids and IMU solutions can add further richness and granularity to ensure that real progress is made. Having both video and sensor data not only tells you why athletes are faster, but actually helps a coach ensure that they are improving speed that has a higher chance of being weaponized for games and competition.
Other than instrumentation, athletes who are tested for speed must be very fresh but not tapered. Tapering is deliberate reduction of work to temporarily peak for performance, while resting is just strategic timing of the next work session so that athletes don’t have fatigue baggage that will spoil testing days.
Finally, specific stances and setups must be extremely tight; meaning that letting an athlete roll into an acceleration or modification of environmental factors like testing later in the day instead of a morning session can falsely inflate times because of chronobiology factors. I could go on and on, but serious attention to details and focus on the little things will ensure that improvements on the watch or screen really are changes in athlete speed development.
Conditioning (Repeat or Continuous Power) – Equate to the Willpower and Deep Adaptations of Athletes
Testing an athlete’s fitness is just as hard as testing any other quality, as better performances can come from other areas outside actual physiological adaptations to oxygen transport efficiency and other contributions to energy systems. More elegantly stated, coaches need to know that the athlete is indeed more efficient with heart, lungs, muscles, and their mind. While toughness and resilience are both buzzwords, a hard conditioning test really reveals a lot of information, not just an athlete’s finishing time or distance on an intermittent recovery test.While toughness and resilience are buzzwords, a hard conditioning test reveals a lot of information. Click To Tweet
Field tests with some extra tools like heart rate monitors and blood tests (lactate and cellular/nutrient biomarkers), as well as near infrared spectrometry (NIRS) assessments such as the Moxy Monitor, explain how the improvements are occurring with the athlete. When no evidence exists of cause and effect, my confidence in a personal record being a sign of adaptation is very low. Sometimes an athlete is more motivated or has fresher legs, thus showing up with better field test performances. I actually find conditioning tests to be more of a burden than speed tests, as neuromuscular performance is rather straightforward and athletes tend to want to perform.
Here are five simple enhancements to field tests for conditioning that I’ve learned from great coaches.
Subjective Communication: What is going on upstairs is still an art, but we are getting better at understanding how emotions, personalities, and values interact with performance. Sport psychology is usually the lowest on the performance staff totem pole, but what is going on in an athlete’s brain matters. If an athlete doesn’t care about their fitness, they will not try and the data will not be as useful. Willpower, or how much effort is placed into a bout of exercise, can be estimated, but the deep core feelings are still something that no piece of technology can measure. It’s up to the staff to be educated on the psychology of sport, and interpret the results with caution.
Athlete Tracking: Just because the duration of a conditioning test is long, doesn’t mean that coaches should think that a stopwatch and a set of cones is the gold standard. True, for years I have received enormous information from general field tests with nothing more than a watch and a tape measure, but a lot of the newer technologies makes this much easier and include IMU data as well.
Biochemical Evaluation: Lactate testing, along with blood analysis of nutrients and red blood cell indices, is especially helpful in modeling what is going on internally with the athlete. Total hemoglobin mass assessment is perfect for cycling and other endurance sports, but for many team sports this won’t happen on a regular basis or even more than once with some sports culturally. Quarterly tests for ferritin and CBC measures really screen out problems, but they are not gas exchange or true ways to show precise reasons why an athlete is performing better on conditioning tests. Still, blood panels are worth using.
As for lactate testing, I only recommend it if athletes are willing to be participants in research or similar internal investigations. Some athletes are curious and care about giving back to coaches, however, so don’t dismiss the idea.
Mitochondrial Modeling: NIRS is emerging as a nice way to see the product of possible mitochondrial changes (not specific mitochondrial changes) to local muscle groups. This is still in its infancy, but NIRS does show some very interesting data that is both useful and potentially game-changing down the road. The main limit is that NIRS testing is a little cumbersome, but biopsies are just an administrative nightmare and are very difficult to access in the majority of settings, including professional levels. As more research comes out, the limit on how far NIRS can help sport will be clearer. For the most part, I feel it’s a great option for coaches who really know their stuff with bioenergetics.
ANS and Heart Rate Monitoring: The final metric layer is an old one, but heart rate telemetry, while crude, does show if an athlete is stopping or slowing down because of demand rather than motivation. A lot of interpretation and some intuition is needed with heart rate analysis because a better athlete may have the same number of peak values as earlier tests, but how they got there may be different. For example an athlete may have a heart rate elevated from overtraining, not because they are trying. Conversely, a lower than normal heart rate may be a good thing, as those numbers could be indicative of a stronger and more efficient system. Lastly, heart rate variability adds a lot of longitudinal context to the equation and provides insight on readiness.
Performing the conditioning tests with one or more of the above tests really adds extra information. Remember that you need interpretation of the data with a sport scientist or experienced performance staff, as no one or even handful of metrics can fully tease out the precise verdict of what is going on internally. However, it does give more of an educated guess than just doing a few shuttle tests and going home.
What is unique about conditioning tests is that unlike the other assessments that are pure bursts of neuromuscular power, conditioning is about fatigue rather than maximal output. Many of the tests that are field tests without any physiological data are not true endurance tests—they are displacement tests with time—and it’s hard to separate improvements in running efficiency (technique or even drive) from actual bioenergetic efficiency. It’s not that the tests without a physical data set are not worthy of use, it’s just they are just summaries of improvisation in locomotion capacity rather than assessments of physiological efficiency.
Strength Assessment – Dynamic and Static
I employ four tests now, and I have most of my experience with single rep tests that are either maximal strength or power. Loaded jumps and the isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP) demand more instrumentation and provide more information on the force-velocity abilities of an athlete. Three of the tests are dynamic, meaning actively moving during force expression, while the IMTP is static.
I prefer to use a front or back squat for dynamic near-maximal strength, and a clean or snatch derivative for power. Some coaches will scoff at using Olympic weightlifting as a power test, and they are right—it should not be used for leg power because it’s too slow and technical to be a great fit for most sports, but that’s why I use loaded jumps. While a jump with just bodyweight is very useful, in my experience a loaded jump is extremely convenient when training. I don’t use a loaded barbell anymore, but find that a hex bar is good enough. Coaches can perform the Raptor Test (Bosco Series) or isolate one test repeatedly before lower body squatting.
Most of the challenge of strength testing is safety and style, and that means coaches want to estimate as much as possible what an athlete can express maximally. Why bar speed and load can help with estimating maximal strength is simple, but only if the athlete is above 95% of their previous best performance. Power, whether very ballistic (jumping) or faster expressions of strength (snatch or clean and jerk), requires valid and reliable methods and interpretation, while isometric tests are far easier to evaluate.
Barbell Max Strength Testing: Depth and foot spacing are issues, as some athletes will go wider and shallower as the weight gets heavier. What I find extremely valuable is the distance readings on barbell tracking systems that have accurate displacements, as keeping the distance uniform during all reps is essential. Visually, a good eye may pick up a small stance chance that adds a few centimeters of depth, but even an experienced coach will struggle when team testing is done with large groups.
Additionally, repetition speeds near maximal loads may help judge when it’s time to walk away from the next incremental load if the athlete is satisfied with their performance and needs feedback on when is enough. The goal of maximal repetition tests is for the athlete to see a potential improvement, not injure themselves or waste energy fighting a rep that will not happen for that day.
Snatch, Clean, and Jerking (Weightlifting): Bar speeds and displacements matter with weightlifting exercises. The most common problem is that repetition maxes without additional information are fruitless, and even with barbell speeds some athletes maintain the same timing with different loads. Load-velocity relationships with competition lifts are not recommended, but for portions of the lift and lighter than maximal loads they are better alternatives to measuring power than jumps alone. Speed and elastic abilities are very talent-driven, but no athlete will be able to “jump into” a lifting program without training.
Focusing on higher velocity ranges with slightly lower loads, peak expressions are great ways to safely test and see faster contractions in action. I have found that 85% loads are great for seeing higher speeds, and using those thresholds for loading works for us. Peak loads for thresholds are not estimates of what an athlete can do for one rep, but they are good reliable indicators of training improvement over time.
Loaded Jump Squats: Static squat positions with load are a great way to test athletes, and they deliver a nice training effect as well. Holding a weight isometrically, and doing so repeatedly, really exposes an athlete’s tolerance to work more than a few vertical jumps. Like squat testing for maximal strength, using a linear position transducer (LPT) is extremely useful for barbell displacement and peak velocity of the bar.
While takeoff velocity from a force plate is not the same as the highest reading of speed of a bar tracking device, more speed with more load is better. Loaded jump squats are great alternatives to weightlifting derivatives if an athlete can’t perform those exercises and bridge the relationship from max squatting and jumping. Some athletes are skilled lifters and poor jumpers, so a medium load reveals more about power ability than weight room experience.
Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull: The pull variation of isometric strength and squat options is very easy to perform and analyze. The IMTP only has one real decision to make for implementation: whether to allow a self-selected position or a strict joint angle configuration. There are a lot of theoretical ideas about transfer or the value of specific angles, but to me the benefit of using set angles is speed of testing.
The question is how to measure joint angles of athletes quickly and that is why I like simple anatomical positions such as head and foot positions and height of the bar relative to the hip. Some athletes need to use a different barbell position and can’t be straight up, while some find being tall uncomfortable. A simple photo is easy to take and can help make the next test session by breaking down the lift into angles and then converting it to landmarks.
Most of the errors in strength testing are from discipline in training, as strength tests are simply best effort with exercises the athlete should be able to do. One of the biggest problems I see at pro levels is the death of conventional barbell training due to coaches simply wanting to be buddies rather than leaders. If athletes are fed “candy instead of steak,” they will simply get cavities and bellies and not size and strength.Testing frequency should not interfere with preparation or keep the athlete in the dark too long. Click To Tweet
Generally, most of the strength tests are natural parts of the training and preparation rhythm, as they are maximal efforts and should complement a program without interference. Like most tests, they are actually great growth stimulators as they are absolute efforts and often have so much arousal the numbers are off the charts. Too much testing is a doomed mistake, as it expects way too much from an athlete to recover from and emotionally sets up an athlete and coach to fail. Testing frequency should not interfere with preparation or keep the athlete in the dark too long. The optimal spacing between true maximal strength tests is hard to say, but I don’t like doing anything that demanding more than once a month.
Throwing Output – Velocity and Distance
Sport-specific throwing tests are beyond the scope of this article, but I do cover medicine ball throws, a favorite of many coaches. Most of the throws for distance can be made more intelligent with very inexpensive technologies. In the Buyer’s Guide to Sport-Velocity Tracking Devices, SimpliFaster covered ball speed and other variables briefly, as the overhead back throw is an extremely popular way to reveal what an athlete can do with both the coordinative demands that they need and total body global power that is a platform to their movement.
I have a very successful history using medicine balls as teaching tools and ways to increase capacity, but Dr. DeWeese is a wizard with throws and tosses. Rotational throws and chest passes may have value, but the total body throws are timeless and more useful for getting athletes more athletic.
The argument against velocity trackers is that throws can be easily assessed with distance from a throwing sector or football field. This is true, as a very skilled athlete can manage a consistent angle in the middle 40-degree range, but for the most part throwing for distance with many athletes becomes a motion that resembles a suplex in wrestling. I wrote three articles on medicine ball training, including a big contribution from Sean Smith of Exceed Sports Performance. They are:
All of the information above can help shape a training program and even demonstrate technique, but the best way to help move the profession forward is to put our egos aside and let another coach share great examples of proper throws:
Video 2. Throwing up and back is one of my favorite ways to add fun and energy into a speed day or a micro-priming session. Coach Brad (Dr. DeWeese) is a great resource on programming throws into training, and someone I rely on.
Video 3. Rapid hinging of underhand throw options work well to teach unfolding as well as extension. Another Dr. DeWeese athlete shows synchronization of pushing is great for acceleration patterns.
Video 4. Chest pass options are different than underhand throws, and are great for teaching patience. Athletes can work on extension into a sprint or simplify it with a landing into a crash mat, like the underhand throw.
As these videos from Dr. DeWeese demonstrate, a lot of skill is involved if you want the exercises to be meaningful. Just doing the throws isn’t good enough. Many social media clips show athletes throwing medicine balls with an OK technique, but to really make an impact, the timing or temporal needs of coordination must be tight. Medicine balls may be the best way to teach power application time frames in regard to the athlete’s internal clock.
In addition to timing, the ball sometimes adds a needed distraction to remove overthinking, or challenges athletes to be able to express power athletically while forcing additional tasks into the explosive action. Nearly every coach has a reason they feel medicine ball throws add value to a program, but most will agree that good throws can help other actions in sport like jumping and sprinting.
Testing Smarter and with More ConfidenceIf we dismiss testing as not worth it, we will regress into the world of ‘voodoo’ science. Click To Tweet
The goal of this article was not to scare coaches into believing that good data is a pipe dream, but my hope is that those administering tests try to do their best, as training data is only a set of clues. If testing is dismissed as inconvenient or not worth it, we will regress into the world of voodoo or cargo cult science, as William Sands calls it. Good testing helps coaches ensure their athletes are on the right path. Testing with a sharper methodology isn’t that painful and will improve any program that invests in education.