I’m putting myself through a 2-week cycle of assessments right now and reflecting on the history of this concept. We didn’t always know how to assess fitness. Here’s some history for you.
One of the first people to attempt a holistic system of fitness assessments was Dave Werner. These photos are from his first system of “Skill Levels” released in 2006. Before that time, the ideas of fitness and assessments weren’t really operating in the same sphere. They were like things from different worlds that didn’t have any relationship to each other.
Fitness practice is actually very old, but our ideas about it (talking about it, defining it, practicing it as such) are actually very new. Originally, people just did physical things to survive. Perhaps we found some sense of thriving in that. Later, strength and conditioning practices were done by warriors & soldiers preparing for battle. At some time in history, athletes emerged, who practiced physical feats for competitions, points, and awards.
In the 20th century, we saw the rise of the modern Olympic Games, the proliferation of sports and training techniques, the emergence of gyms and health clubs, and the widespread availability of home exercise equipment. Out of this milieu emerged the fitness nuts (like me!) who were into cross-training. Our concept of fitness was based on practicing a lot of different things, such as weightlifting, gymnastics, and sprinting. We started to say that “fitness” meant being well-rounded, capable in a lot of different realms of sport and physical expression. Truthfully, we were echoing very ancient ideas about the “golden mean” (Google it).
At this point in the story, assessments were very rudimentary, if they existed at all. The concept of assessment was practiced differently in every sport or physical discipline. A 50m sprinter would assess their 50m sprint time, and maybe their coach would assess other aspects of the physical function of their body as it pertained to sprinting, but they wouldn’t care about their 1-rep max clean & jerk! Likewise, an Olympic Weightlifter did not care about his 50m sprint. Doctors and physical therapists were also assessing range-of-motion and aspects of strength as they related to basic physical function, like being able to walk after a car accident.
However, assessment in “fitness” was constrained to things like measuring the diameter of your biceps and stepping on a scale. When we started defining “functional fitness” and practicing multiple disciplines, we needed some way to measure what we were trying to achieve. It wasn’t related to physique or BMI was all about physical abilities. How would we know if we were keeping these things in a proper balance? How would we quantify if we were actually any good at anything? That’s where Dave stepped in with his Skill Levels.
The Skill Levels conceptualized our physical abilities in 6 categories: Hips, Push, Pull, Core, Work, Speed. The first four–Hips, Push, Pull, and Core–were looking at strength abilities in different basic movement patterns or areas of the body. Work and Speed were looking at metabolic aspects. The idea was to simplify the entirety of strength & conditioning into a few simple categories, then to create a system of measurements within these.
He said he was basing this on martial arts. Like, in Karate, you have to test to gain a belt, showing that you’ve learned the fundamentals of the level that you’re on before you move up to the next level. This was Dave’s idea with the Skill Levels. Master the Level 1 stuff, then master Level 2, then Level 3. If you look at mine up there, my Level 4 bench press, rope climb, and overhead squat were way out of balance when compared to my Level 1 kettlebell swings. This was the assessment’s way of telling me to work on my work capacity with kettlebell exercises because that was my weak spot.
This idea had legs, and nowadays there are numerous systems of holistic functional fitness assessments out there. We’ve become much more sophisticated at this and I’ve now learned and practiced several of these systems. It’s all about balance in the fundamentals, then developing with balance into the harder and more advanced stuff. Assessment for anyone starts in the same place, but what is relevant to a working mom is not the same stuff that’s relevant to a competitive athlete (unless they are the same person).
If you come to work with me as a client, I’m not going to make you do the stuff on Dave’s chart. I’m not gonna send you climbing up a rope (unless you really want to). What I will do is take a look at some basic movement patterns, see how you squat and lunge and if you can touch your toes, watch how your shoulders move, and definitely test how long you can plank! The idea that we’re looking at a variety of basic abilities is still there, as well as the idea of testing fundamental levels of function. The first goal is balance in the basics. After that, the sky is the limit and the journey is up to you.