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Fitness Testing - the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

In this page we look at the purpose and benefits of fitness testing for your clients, and the unfortunate consequences of poorly performed testing.

What is fitness testing?


Fitness testing is simply taking measurements of the body and its responses to exercise so that we can work out where a component of someone’s fitness is, at any given moment in time.  Examples of fitness testing include weighing someone, taking their girth measurements, blood pressure or having them complete the Harvard Step Test etc.

What is monitoring?


Monitoring, on the other hand is checking that someone is completing the tasks they have agreed to undertake to the standard agreed.  For example, monitoring could include identifying how many times a client turned up versus Personal%2525252525252525252520training%2525252525252525252520monitoringthe number of times they had agreed to turn up or, how hard a client had been training compared to how hard they had planned to train.


In general, monitoring is checking that the shorter term activities are being completed so that the long term results of testing are sure to show progress.  Therefore, monitoring is generally more important than testing as it shows the likelihood that the client will experience test improvements.  One hundred percent achievement in attendance and adherence should always cause improvements in test results, if the tests are accurate and appropriate.  Monitoring and supporting clients is an art form in itself and as such is covered in greater detail in another folder at ptdirect, it is important however for you to understand that there is a significant difference between testing and monitoring.

Why fitness test at all?


The three key reasons to fitness test your personal training clients are:

  1. Safety
  2. Training focus (goal setting, training targets)
  3. Motivation (feedback, urgency from timeframes established, and reward)


Testing, done for the right reasons, at the right time, in the right way, thoroughly, can have the following benefits:


  • Ensure the client is safe to exercise with you and independantly
  • Establish if your client may have underlying health issues that require medical screening
  • Focus your client on their goals
  • Create some urgency and accountability in their training efforts because testing is just around the corner
  • Provide tangible targets for the client in the short term
  • Provide the client with evidence of progress and validate the effort they’ve put in
  • Improve adherence to the training programme because testing provides a clear purpose, that is – a measurable improvement in an aspect of fitness
  • Improve attendance in line with the exercise plan because clients understand that if they don’t turn up their fitness won’t improve and the tests will show that
  • Enable clients to solicit positive feedback from others – a good result is always positive and clients will tell others – particularly if the number they are touting is easily understood – for example 15% increase in strength rather than 5kg improvement in bench press.
  • Enable you to adapt the clients training appropriately in line with progress


What are the potential problems with fitness testing?



Testing, poorly done, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, can unfortunately:



  • Punish your client by undermining their efforts because the test may show no or low progress or actually show ‘regression’ (the client is losing fitness!).  Getting numbers that show you are not improving after all the training effort can easily upset you.
  • De-motivate your client in the future because poor results may reinforce beliefs they have that ‘exercise just isn’t for them’.  Remember, references support our beliefs or challenge them.  Bad testing results can easily become references a client uses to support limiting beliefs.
  • Make your client uncomfortable because some tests can be intrusive.  This is why doing the testing on the right person, in the right way, at the right stage of the ‘fitness relationship’ is important.  New clients, with shirts off, and tape measures or cold callipers being used on them can very quickly become ‘testing phobic’! Not everyone enjoys having their 'wobbly' bits squeezed and prodded!
  • Put your client at risk because poorly chosen or executed tests can result in the wrong information being used in programme design, session delivery and safety and referral decisions.  If the testing is poor, your client may suffer.
  • Embarrass your client because often clients who have testing coming up have told significant others (friends, family, co-workers) and when they see them again your client is asked about their results.  Peer and family support for exercise is vital, poor results will undermine that support whilst embarrassing your client.

What if you didn’t test at all? 


Not testing your clients at all means you miss out on all the benefits testing can provide.  In our view all clients should undergo some form of testing that is conducted at the right time. 


Initial tests can simply focus on establishing safety (examples include blood pressure, and pre-exercise heart rate).


Secondary testing will usually provide information on where to spersonal%252520training%252520losttart with exercise for each client.  They may include looking at movement assessment and exercise heart rate / ratings of perceived exertion on any equipment you will be training on.  These types of tests are more ‘performance’ tests as often they are based on training responses or are more ‘personive’ (that is without documented and researched protocols).  These measures allow you to prescribe clearly for your client with strong justifications and logical progressions or regressions.


Protocol based fitness testing is testing using established protocols where we know the accuracy and validity of the test.  These tests usually require you to practice and perfect the protocol including the calibration and use of equipment.  There are a myriad of tests available with established protocols and, at times, ‘normative’ data.  Normative data is where a test has been applied to a large number of people and ranges have been generated from that testing so that others can compare themselves to the rest of the population.  For example body weight, body mass index (BMI), the beep test and jump tests all have normative data.

Who should you test?


As we’ve recommended above, all clients should be tested in some way. 


Firstly, you must apply some testing for safety reasons.  These are usually done as part of your initial consultation with a new client.


Secondly, you must apply some testing for prescribing initial training sensibly and to set training targets.  These are often done as part of the first few sessions with a member.


Lastly, you could apply protocol based testing to give your client ‘normative’ data and / or set training targets.  These tests can be used where you feel they are most appropriate.


How much time and effort you spend on testing will depend on your clients:


  1. Personality  – if your client likes numbers and information, likes to be in control, or is task focused (dominant personality style), testing may be very attractive to them so you might do more of it.  A client who seeks safety and care may also like some non-intrusive testing as reassurance (steady personality style).  A client who likes logic and a clear plan may enjoy having clear targets with links to their training (cautious personality style).  So, you can see that testing is simply one tool in motivating clients rather than a tool that is applied to everyone for the sake of it.
  2. Confidence – if your client is confident, comfortable and willing to be tested you may do more of it if other factors indicate the need.
  3. Goals – if your client is trying to achieve a particular goal then there will be tests that can inform you both of the clients progress towards those goals and allow you to adapt the training in the best possible way.
  4. Barriers – if your client has more barriers to overcome you may test less and do more monitoring of attendance and the factors that affect attendance first.  This ensures you’re focusing on the member’s situation rather than the numbers coming out of it.  If you had a cold is there much point in the doctor reminding you that you have a cold or is there more progress to be made in the doctor figuring out with you why you got the cold and what to do about that.  With ‘exercise adherence’ the key is to focus on the cause, not the symptom.
  5. Beliefs – as mentioned earlier testing is going to provide ‘references’ to your client.  If those references reinforce negative beliefs then you are going to discourage the client.  So, if your client has strong and positive beliefs toward exercise they will be more resilient if a bad test result comes through and will likely see those results as a challenge and focus more effort on their training.  If your client has a lot of negative beliefs about exercise and they get a bad result those results are likely to reinforce their beliefs.  The worse a client’s belief structure is, the less testing and more monitoring and support should be done.
  6. Preferences - if your client clearly states a preference for testing, do it for them.  If they want testing, but the tests are potentially risky because of other factors, then do testing but choose which tests, when and how much focus you put on the results, very carefully.
  7. Support network – if your client has a strong support network (for example a partner and friends who are active and encouraging) then testing results can be very rewarding when they are positive or very damaging when they are negative.  This is because the people around the client will be taking an interest and maybe more likely to compare and give meaning to the results.  So, choose your tests carefully and possibly ensure the ‘secondary’ testing, which is not so easy to compare and gives good training targets and feedback, is the focus initially. 
  8. Health risk – if your client has a high level of health risk then some baseline testing with protocol based tests may allow you to have more information about what the risks are for exercise and where to start them.  For example there are a number of tests that have been correlated to cardiovascular risk within the ‘normal’ population.  Using these may be better for those with a troublesome family or personal health history.


As you can see there is a lot to think about before you commit to testing a client beyond the tests needed for ‘safety’.  The key, as is the case with most of what we do as fitness professionals, is in making decisions based on the stage each and every client of ours is at.  Are motivation, lowering the client’s barriers to exercise, and improving the client’s feelings and efficacy toward exercise, more important than giving them data on their current state?   Every client and situation differs and your choices regarding testing should be carefully made for this reason.

If you decide to conduct fitness testing with your client you also need to consider to extremely important variables, namely validity and reliability which you can learn all about by clicking on those terms.  And if you're not sure about how to conduct a fitness testing session then we've put a case study together here to help you out.


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