Jan 29, 2015Talk of the Test
A roundtable of strength coaches offer their thoughts on tracking and improving athletes’ performance, as well as their own, through testing.
By Dennis Read
Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Sports are a bottom-line endeavor. Most contests have a clear winner and loser, and the results are there for all to see. Athletes are judged by how they perform in the heat of competition, but the evaluations don’t stop there.
Athletes typically spend more time in training than they do in competition, and that training time usually includes testing. The main goals of this testing are to assess the gains athletes have made, plan the next stages of training, and, hopefully, give them a boost of confidence. At the same time, strength coaches also use the results to evaluate themselves and their training programs. While the ultimate barometer is on-field performance, strength coaches are tasked with helping athletes become bigger, stronger, and faster, and testing is the best way to gauge their success.
With so much at stake, we asked five strength and conditioning experts (see “The Panel” below) to share their ideas on testing. Their thoughts reveal a variety of approaches, but all have one common goal–helping their athletes improve.
How do you use test results to help your athletes get better?
Andrew Bosak: We compare the athletes’ results to what they have done previously and what they should be doing in comparison to others. Those standards help you zero in on their needs. If you have a basketball player who is short on power, then you would design a program to improve their vertical jump. If a football player needs to work on foot speed, you find ways to make him more explosive. Chris Ruf: We use the results to identify how each player needs to improve from a physical standpoint to be better on the field. For example, take an offensive lineman who moves pretty well, but his strength numbers are below the other guys at his position. Even though he may be doing okay on the field because he can move, we know he has to spend more time getting stronger so he can hold up at the point of attack and push people around. Or, we may find that a defensive back has good strength, but his jump output is a little bit lower than the other guys in his group. He’s a good candidate to spend more time on power development. Jon Jost: We look at testing results for each athlete in order to evaluate their progress and identify areas where they need to improve, and then we set corresponding goals for their next training cycle. But sometimes the results reveal deeper issues. For example, if an athlete hasn’t made any progress in several areas while others around them have, then we know the problem isn’t with our training program. So using the individual’s results, we can then sit down with members of our staff like our doctors, psychologists, or registered dietitian to identify the root of the problem and figure out what’s been holding them back.
Joey Batson: We use the results to pinpoint each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses, and then we develop a training program that will help him maximize his athletic performance. But it’s more than simply having guys lift more weight. If we have an offensive lineman who did a 600 squat and a 395 power clean as a junior, it doesn’t make sense to have him chase a 605 or 400 as a senior. He’s plenty strong enough already and lifting those five extra pounds won’t benefit him out on the field.
So instead of trying to get more weight on the bar, we’ll focus on quick-ladder work to improve his foot speed or plyometrics to help him unlock his hips and move a little better on the field, while continuing to have him squat and clean at submaximal weight to work on speed.
What other benefits do athletes get from testing?
Alissa Goldman: To me, the biggest benefit of testing is that it shows the athlete in black and white that their hard work is paying off. That feedback usually gets them to take greater ownership of their training, which makes it less likely that I’ll have to persuade them to work hard. When they see positive results, they appreciate that the training is helping them become a better athlete.
Jost: Test results can provide motivation for the athletes, but you have to find the right approach to take with each individual. For some, this means illustrating how much they have improved in a certain area. In other cases, the key is comparing them to their teammates or other athletes. For example, some of our athletes have aspirations of playing professionally, so I’ll compare their results with those from the NFL combine and tell them, “If you want to pursue playing in the pros, you’re going to have to improve in these areas, and it’s going to take a lot of work. This is the average vertical jump or 40 time for a defensive back in the NFL combine, and this is where you are.”
How do you use test results to evaluate the effectiveness of your strength and conditioning program?
Goldman: I look to see how the results from the current season compare with those from the same time of the training schedule in previous years. I also look at the results by class year, so I can see how the current sophomores are doing compared to the sophomores from the past. Those can be a little arbitrary due to changes in the athletes involved, but it still gives me some idea how the program is progressing.
However, if I see major changes in results from one year to the next, before I assume they’re a result of changes I’ve made to my program, I’ll first talk to the sport coaches to determine whether the differences could be related to modifications they’ve made to their practices. For example, if our swimmers see a dip in their test results, it may be because the coach is working them harder in the pool this season and their energy levels just aren’t as high at testing time as they were in years past. Jost: First, we look at testing trends to see if the athletes are improving. Then we’ll compare the current team averages to those from years past. This can be a little difficult to do since the quality of athletes is always changing, but sometimes you’ll see a change that forces you to go back and re-examine your training program.
Bosak: I once had a high school sport coach come to me and say, “I know there’s a problem with my strength training program. I don’t know what it is, but here’s what I think the signs and symptoms are.” He explained that some of his athletes’ performances actually started to get worse toward the end of the year instead of better. We tested his athletes regularly the following season, and midway through, we saw some of their results start to decline. We determined that these athletes were overtraining, and we were able to suggest ways the coach could prevent this in the future.
What specific tests do you use and why?
Bosak: You have to know what you want to measure before you can decide what tests to use. Are you assessing the strength-training program? Do you want to know what’s working and what’s not? Are you looking to see if there’s overtraining or under training? Based on those answers, I start choosing the specific tests I am going to do. I use a lot of different tests based on specific needs, but some of my favorites are maximal oxygen consumption test or maximal aerobic capacity, Wingate test, and vertical jump. I’ll usually use a 40-yard dash and then some agility tests like a volleyball hexagon test as well.
Ruf: Players who come through our program have aspirations of playing in the NFL, so we use many of the same tests used at the NFL combine. This way, they’ll be familiar with the tests should they go to the combine, and they can use the results to know where they stand and as something to strive for.
At the end of the winter program and again at the end of the summer program, we test strength movements in the weightroom using a five-rep bench, five-rep clean, five-rep squat, and a 225-pound bench max-reps test. For our best and most experienced lifters, instead of doing a five-rep max on the clean or squat, we’ll use a Tendo unit to measure the bar speed and set a threshold they have to hit. That way the focus is on speed rather than chasing some really big weight number.
We’ll do our agility testing three or four times during the winter conditioning program. We test the 40-yard dash with splits at 10 and 20 yards, plus vertical jump, broad jump, pro-agility drill, and the three-cone drill. Jost: We want to test what we consider to be performance indicators. When an athlete improves on a test, it should be an indication that they’ll improve in their sport. For a sport that has a lot of change of direction, that means agility tests. If a sport requires a lot of explosive power, we’re going to focus on a test like a vertical jump. The key is that as the athletes improve their performance in the tests, they should see a corresponding improvement on the field.
For most sports, we generally do an upper body strength test, a lower body strength test, and an explosive strength test, which are typically a bench press, squat, and power clean. Then we also usually do a 10-yard dash, a 40-yard dash, an agility run, and a vertical jump. Batson: We do our strength testing twice a year–in late February and then late June. We test one-rep bench, 225-pound bench max-reps, three-rep squats, three-rep power cleans, and three-rep clean and jerks. We formally test for speed and agility twice a year using the vertical jump, broad jump, 40-yard dash, pro-agility drill, 60-yard shuttle, and a sit and reach. However, we’ll often pull the clocks out during training sessions and do some informal testing as well. Finally, we do a conditioning test in the summer using a 110-yard shuttle and 300-yard shuttle.
Goldman: I like tests that focus on the main principles of athletic performance–strength, power, speed, and conditioning. To test strength, I use the power clean, back squat, and bench press, and a vertical jump or a standing long jump for power. We do a one-rep max for all these tests because they’re reliable and easy to repeat. I also use a 40-yard dash to test speed, a 300-yard shuttle for conditioning, and a 50-yard shuttle for agility.
How do you modify your tests based on sport or position?
Jost: We generally use the same seven tests for most sports, but we’ll omit or alter some based on a sport’s performance requirements. For example, we don’t put our golfers through all of the strength tests because that’s not important for their sport. Our baseball and softball players do a dumbbell bench instead of a bench press and they skip the clean tests completely to reduce the chance of shoulder injury. We also have them run a 60-yard dash as opposed to a 40.
Goldman: The main difference is that the jump tests vary sport-by-sport depending on the movements the athletes use in competition. For example, our divers will do a vertical jump, while the swimmers will do a standing long jump. And for volleyball, I use an approach jump because that is such a big part of the sport.
How often do you change the tests you use?
Goldman: For the most part, I stick with the same group of tests year after year because they’ve been so reliable. But I do talk to our sport coaches about the components of strength and performance that they would like to see tested, and I have added tests based on their input, such as the approach jump in volleyball. I also like to research what kind of testing other strength coaches are doing. Batson: We’ll get together as a staff and examine any new trends and ask if we’re missing any information we would like to have. We also go through our notes from the previous season to determine if anything beyond the tests needs to be changed, like the timing of the test. Maybe we did a heavy leg day on a Monday and then we tested vertical jumps on Tuesday, which affected their results.
Bosak: Unless a coach can switch to a test that more accurately replicates performance on the field, they’re usually better off sticking with a test they know is valid and that has provided reliable data previously they can look back on. Sometimes, technology advances can prompt a switch. For example, there are now mobile metabolic testers that some athletes can wear during practice to determine maximum oxygen consumption. If we can do a trial with an athlete running outside, it’s going to more closely resemble their competitive setting than when they run on a treadmill, and thus provide better data.
Do you do anything differently in the training sessions leading up to a testing day?
Batson: A few days before testing, I remove a lot of the auxiliary things we typically do and focus on doing big movements to see if we can maximize their performance on the tests. I’ll also reduce the loads to help them get some recovery leading up to test day. The other thing I do is emphasize that it’s important for the athletes to properly handle their nutritional needs, academic loads, personal lives, and anything else that could affect their results. Bosak: I want the athletes to approach a test day the same way they would a game day, including how they eat and sleep. And if the team is practicing, I ask the sport coach to use the same intensity during the preceding practices that they do before a game, if possible. And I make sure we do the same in the weightroom. Ruf: We generally try to administer testing at a time that best fits in with the rest of the training program. For example, we do most of our weightroom tests on Mondays because athletes have the weekend to recover and their central nervous system should be primed. On the flipside, we do our movement testing on Fridays, even though that’s when they’re most fatigued.
Most books say you shouldn’t do that, but it gives us an opportunity to reinforce to our athletes that they need to take care of themselves during the week–they need to make sure they’re sleeping enough, eating properly, and getting hydrated properly so they produce when test time comes on Fridays.
Are there common testing pitfalls that coaches need to watch out for?
Jost: Testing is an important part of the training and evaluation process, but it can be dangerous if not performed correctly. Athletes are extremely competitive and will push themselves to great lengths, but this can put them at risk for injury. So if we see any breakdown in technique, we will stop the lift. There have been a number of times when athletes have believed they can complete another rep–and they were probably right–but we wouldn’t let them do it because the rewards of making that lift did not outweigh the possibility of injury. We have to remember that we’re doing a test, not holding a weightlifting competition. I would rather play it safe than risk an injury by putting five or 10 more pounds on the bar–even if the athlete can do it.
Bosak: It’s important to make sure that the tests we’re using are applicable to the athlete’s sports performance needs. We’re passionate about what we do, and sometimes we can get caught up in the testing data and forget about who we are testing and why. We have to take a step back and ask whether the improvements in test results will transfer to the field. If not, then we need to find something else to test.
Batson: When I was a younger coach, I was all about chasing the big numbers. But as I got older, I realized it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the fundamentals of lifting–learning how to lift the proper way and how to handle the load.
We’re not training these guys to be Olympic weightlifters. Guys want to max out all the time, but the intent is not to see who can lift the most weight. The goal is to help these athletes develop more muscle mass and flexibility and show improvement in overall strength, explosiveness, and power. Ruf: I think the biggest thing to watch out for is making sure you’re consistent in how the tests are administered. If you want to compare numbers from year to year, you need to have data that’s been measured the same way every time. There are a lot of variables that can affect the results, such as differences in the surfaces, equipment, and intensity of preceding workouts. You need to account for as many of those variables as possible, and minimize those you can’t control.
Andrew Bosak, PhD, CSCS, is an Associate Professor in Sports Medicine with an emphasis in Exercise Physiology at Armstrong Atlantic University, and has served as a sport scientist and strength and conditioning coach at the collegiate, high school, and club levels. He also conducts presentations on testing and assessments at clinics and has additional research interests, including evaluating recovery in sports performance and physiological changes in athletes during sporting seasons. He currently serves on both the Southeast American College of Sports Medicine Executive Board and the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Georgia State Advisory Board.
Joey Batson, MSCC, is in his 17th year as Director of Strength and Conditioning at Clemson University and his 27th as a strength and conditioning coach. He works most closely with the Tigers’ football team and has coached 20 All-Americans and seven NFL first-round draft picks. Before coming to Clemson, Batson was Head Strength Coach at Furman University and Bowling Green State University, as well as an Assistant Strength Coach at the University of South Carolina.
Jon Jost, MEd, MSCC, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Speed for Olympic Sports at Florida State University, where he has worked since 2001. During his time with the Seminoles, he has worked with all sports, including football, and he oversees a staff of six full-time assistants. He was also Head Strength Coach at the College of the Holy Cross for two years and an Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Nebraska for seven years.
Alissa Goldman, MS, MSCC, USAW, is Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Virginia, where she works closely with the men’s and women’s swimming teams. She joined the department in 2007 after previous stints as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of South Carolina, the University of Tennessee, and Ball State University.
Chris Ruf, MS, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, is Director of Football Athletic Performance at Baylor University, where he also oversees training for the track and field program. He came to Baylor in 2008 after serving as an Assistant Strength Coach at the University of South Florida, where also he worked at Rich Lansky’s OPTI as a strength coach. Before that, he spent eight seasons at Iowa State University as an Assistant Strength Coach.