9 Steps to Measure a Complete Athlete
by Dave Thomas, NSCA, USAW
Performance360 Owner, Head Coach
When I think of an athlete, I think of someone who trains and uses their body to express every component of human physicality. That’s really it.
Yes, athlete is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the fitness industry, however, I find this to be a net positive. The more people believing they are an athlete and treating their body’s as such, the better.
There’s no need to be a snob about the word and apply it to only those who compete or played sport.
If you wake up with the belief that your body is a highly capable instrument and you train it in ways mentioned in this article, you’re an athlete.
If you compete, you’re a competitor.
As someone who has been a high level athlete and competitor, that’s the personal lens in which I view it.
In the pursuit of our own version of athleticism, I think sometimes we may tend to get a bit caught up in skill sets we enjoy, and neglect the ones we may need in order to complete our athletic profile.
Let’s take a look at the nine measurable parameters of athletic testing set forth by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
1. Maximum Muscular Strength (Low Speed Strength)
Without absolute strength, there is nothing. You cannot run far, you cannot jump high, you cannot cut, you cannot maneuver, you cannot inflict force, you cannot be productive in anaerobic training. You are a mushy pile of overcooked spaghetti trying to serve as the foundation of a house.
In the words of Ivan Drago, “You will lose”.
Building absolute maximum muscular strength is the first parameter that every athlete must check off, regardless of sport or goal. There are no if, ands or buts about it. This is the most important.
This arena typically involves lifts that are relatively low speed. Duration is typically around four seconds and the only energy system used is Phosphagen System (ATP-PC), the first energy system we have in which our maximum strength applies.
Quick time out.
Let’s take a very brief step back and look at the different energy systems our body’s use during exercise.
- Phosphagen System (Anaerobic) – This is high power output and low duration. Typically lasting merely a few seconds at 80 -100% of output. It runs exclusively off of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and phosphocreatine (PC). It is anaerobic.
- Glycolytic System (Anaerobic) – This is a moderate amount of power and a moderate duration. Typically the middle ground of a few seconds to a few minutes at 60 – 80% of output. It runs off of glycogen, the stored carbohydrate in our liver and muscle tissue. It is anaerobic.
- Oxidative System (Aerobic) – This is low power and high duration. Typically several minutes or longer in duration at about 40-60% of output. It is aerobic, as in, it requires oxygen to metabolize stored fat to produce energy. However, do no go thinking oxidative is the exclusive fat burning zone. A lot of modern research shows that anaeorbic training like HIIT is a highly productive fat burning tool to go along with it’s power and athletic benefits.
Real talk for a minute. This process is murky because it’s highly variable and complicated process, rarely progressing in the exact manner described above.
The important takeaway is that you’re rarely every just in one energy system during exercise (except for perhaps strength training), and in order to round out your physical capabilities it’s important that you train all three.
Okay, time in.
Absolute strength is your bedrock. It is the foundation for all that you will build aesthetically and athletically.
It will improve your performance, improve your running economy and enable you to burn more fat. However, it is not the only capacity and way too many athletes get constantly caught up in testing their strength rather than allowing it to serve as the foundation for further athletic endeavors.
Testing includes your max squat, deadlift, bench and press.
2. Maximum Muscular Power (High Speed Strength)
Raw strength is great. But can you take this next step and apply it athletically?
This kind of anaerobic power relates to the ability to exert high force while contracting at a high speed.
Whereas low speed strength involves a slow grind, this parameter involves high speed, explosive movement. Duration is typically around one second. Like the Maximum Muscular Strength category, the only energy system we use here is the Phosphagen System (ATP-PC).
Testing includes your max clean, jerk, snatch, muscle up, box jump or broad jump.
3. Anaerobic Capacity
This is the ability to sustain power for a few minutes. In this realm, our athletic pursuits exit the Phosphagen System and begin to include the Glycolytic System. We are still anaerobic, so everything is still in the realm of strength and power but it’s down a few ticks and we must maintain it for a bit longer.
This is a highly demanding space to be in because you’re not quite endurance and you’re not quite pure strength. You’re in a purgatory of shit. We begin to need a hybrid of the two which is where horsepower must be built and maintained.
This is your “go” skill set.
Testing would include your higher rep set of an unbroken power or Olympic lift, a timed round in the IWT workouts, 500m row, 800m run, etc.
4. Local Muscular Endurance
This is the ability of concentrated muscle groups to perform repeated contractions against low-level resistance in an allotted amount of time.
In this parameter, we must have trained and developed our Muscle Buffering Capacity, which is the ability to regulate the accumulation of hydrogen ions that build up in our muscles and fatigue us, preventing further contractions.
McGuigan et al showed a strong correlation between our MBC and short volume exercise performance in Physiological Tests for Elite Athletes. (1) (Anaerobic Capacity requires the ability to buffer hydrogen and regulate pH, as well.)
Testing would include the 100 kettlebell swing test, max pull-ups or push-ups or any singular movement with no break or resting.
5. Aerobic Capacity
This is when we begin to enter what we think of as traditional endurance. We’ve exited the anaerobic systems and are now into aerobic energy, where we oxidize carbohydrates, fats and proteins as energy.
Our aerobic capacity is usually expressed as a volume of oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight, otherwise known as our VO2 Max. In layman’s terms, VO2 max is essentially a measure of our work capacity and how long we can go before we can’t.
Since finding a true VO2 max is only attainable in a laboratory setting, the next best thing is simply testing our mettle against benchmarks like a mile run, mile row and anything distance related.
We also start to see that Anaerobic Capacity and Aerobic Capacity are very different, which is why some athletes can blast through a 500m row but fall flat when they must run one to three miles. Going all out, all the time is not the answer.
Testing of the aerobic capacity includes a long distance run or a longer, sustained workout. A one mile run may be the closest version of a true gym test, however, since part of the mile is high power, there are aspects of anaerobic work in it, as well.
6. Agility & Body Control
This our ability to stop, start and change direction of the whole body rapidly. In my personal opinion, this skill set is a highly necessary human function of athleticism and one most of us don’t train nearly enough.
In all of the top athletic team sports, agility is paramount.
The defensive back must react to a wide receiver’s changing route.
A striker must be able to maneuver around defenders quickly.
A second basemen has to be able to make a quick reaction to a ground ball in under one second, get to the bag and hurdle the defender sliding in.
A point guard must be able to break past defenders into the lane.
You get the idea.
While there is no man-to-man defense in strength and conditioning (making this the hardest parameter to develop), informal testing would include the speed of lateral hurdle hops, how well you flow through ladder-based movements and the ease in which you can shuffle and control your body.
Speed is movement distance per unit time and is typically expressed as the time taken to cover a fixed distance. This is Phosphagen system at it’s finest, how fast you can get from A to B in a power-dependent mode.
Components of acceleration and maximum speed reached are both important here.
Testing of speed most commonly includes sprinting and anything very short distance that is an all out effort. Given that most strength and conditioning professionals are off by up to 0.24 seconds using a manual stop watch, it makes consistent timing of a benchmark somewhat of a fruitless endeavor.
Pairing up, racing and going off of feel of how well you move at maximum speed is most suitable way to benchmark it.
8. Mobility & Flexibility
Check out Coach Will’s article on the difference between mobility and flexibility, here. Both are needed for optimal athleticism.
Examples of mobility demands include a kettlebell windmill, deep squat, the ability to press a barbell overhead at complete elbow flexion and completing an overhead squat.
9. Balance & Stability
Balance is our ability to maintain static and dynamic equilibrium or the ability to maintain the body’s center of gravity over its base of support.
Stability how well we control force.
Balance and stability test include your 1 to 5-rep overhead squat and 1-rep Turkish Get-Up. I also include body weight movements into this category, since our ability to perform gymnastic movements on the rings and holding the hollow rock are greatly dependent upon our ability to stabilize.
If you can pull five hundred pounds from the floor, yet cannot overhead squat your body weight, you have excellent Maximum Muscle Strength, but poor mobility, balance and stability.
Can You Catch and Throw a Football?
Not really. Though that is kind of my own personal one and done test of all as it involves arm strength, coordination, acceleration, deceleration, cutting and sprinting.
If developing your athleticism is an important goal for you, start mixing this one in with your friends from time to time. Just getting out there and playing will do the most wonders for your athleticism. Throw the football, shoot hoops, play Quidditch. Whatever allows you to feel comfortable.
Our strength coach in college, Jim Roney, used to have us play ultimate frisbee a few times per month in the offseason to get some cutting, sprinting, coordination, balance, agility and speed work in. Brilliant idea.
Determining what constitutes athleticism is always a fun debate, because it’s completely subjective and you can rate athletic skills in a number of different ways. These happen to be mine.
The bottom line is, those who train like an athlete succeed.
Every single human has complete control over their development of all nine parameters.
Perhaps you test very well in your 1R weightlifting movements but suffer greatly during a mile run.
Maybe you can rep thirty pull-ups with ease yet fold underneath a squat double your body weight.
Maybe you can run a half marathon in the top five percentile yet tear a hamstring at full speed.
We all fall somewhere along the continuum of beginner to complete athlete, and chances are, can use a little work in all parameters and a ton of work in others. It’s what makes the pursuit of athleticism so great. That it’s never a finished product.
Some of us have differing goals that may include sport or parameter-specific competition, but for the lot of us who wish to reach our true human potential, it’s recommended you focus on building all nine parameters to start shaping out your complete athletic profile.
Dave Thomas is owner and Head Coach at Performance360. Dave is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting and is a former NCAA athlete.
(1) McMaster, MR, Sheppard, JM, Cormack, SJ, and Taylor, K. Strength and power assesment protocols. In Physiological Tests for Elite Athletes. Tanner, RK and Gore, CJ, eds, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 207-230, 2013.