The history of fitness testing: how it has guided our decision making at MVP

The history of fitness testing: how it has guided our decision making at MVP

There is not much documented about the origins of human assessment and exercise testing in a sporting context. The name of pioneers and scientific groups are associated with specific tests, such as the Cooper test (physical fitness) and the Sargent Jump (explosive power). Towards the latter part of 20th-century human-performance testing started to become increasingly popular and now it can be seen in some way at almost any level of sports. We have written a brief overview of the history of fitness testing to help you to understand why we have chosen the performance tests we use to help us develop an all-round view of a persons' physical attributes.

 

Stop Watch

 

Vertical Jump

 

The first measure of vertical jump performance was developed by Dudley Allen Sargent in 1921. The test is conducted by chalking the athlete’s hand, they then stand next to a wall with their arm raised overhead and are instructed to stretch upward. The measure at the tip of their middle finger is the start point. The athlete then jumps and slaps the wall at the peak of their jump to leave a chalk mark on the wall. The measurement from the start point to fingertip 2 at the peak jump is taken, the difference between measurements equals height jumped.

 

This has since progressed to a bespoke piece of equipment used to measure jump height, this machine is known as a Vertec (pictured below). The athlete is required to jump and swing their arm at peak height to displace the bars that are separated at 1.25cm intervals. The measurement is taken from the highest bar that is moved. 

 

The Vertec test has been shown to both over and underestimate jump height when compared with a jump mat, force plate and 3-camera motion analysis. Therefore, the validity of this test is questionable as one cannot determine whether the measurement is true. It can be considered reliable but lacks accuracy.

 

 

In the vertec test you may have an athlete who jumps 51cm, 54cm, 53cm across three tests. You can use this data because it’s reliable, however, it may be overestimating the true score, if the athlete was to re-test on a force plate, they may, in fact, be jumping 46cm, 49cm, 51cm. 

 

There are a few issues revolving around the athlete to reduce the reliability and accuracy of both Sargent jump and Vertec test. It takes skill to jump up completely straight, then time the swipe of the arm with the point at which peak height is briefly maintained. A novice athlete may not be able to perform this movement consistently to achieve reliable results e.g. 36cm, 41cm, 58cm with inconsistent technique, there is too much variability between scores to trust the data. Secondly, if the athlete mistimes their arm swipe and they hit the lines too early or late it will underestimate their score versus their actual jump height achieved. 

 

Jump mats and force place can calculate jump height by flight time. Thanks to gravity being constant we know the forces acting upon the body while it is in flight, creating a consistent method to measure how high someone has jumped based off how long they are off the ground for. The issue that arises from this comes from the athlete, their technique has to remain consistent and bringing back the idea that athletes love to cheat, tucking their knees increases flight time and thus the jump height equation. 

 

At MVP we use an impulse-momentum calculation. Our force plates automatically take the athlete’s weight, then during the acceleration phase to take off, the force and the time it has taken to apply said force provides an impulse score. As the software knows the athlete’s weight their momentum is calculated at the precise point where feet leave the ground. Gravity is constant therefore the prediction equation is reliable. This approach removes the error that arises from technique mistakes and becomes impossible to cheat, only if someone can increase the force they produce or produce force more quickly can they improve their score. See below for an example force trace of a countermovement jump.

 

 

Strength

 

Historically the only way to measure maximal strength was to test an athlete’s ability to perform a lift for one repetition. Most commonly a deadlift, back squat or bench press, this method of testing is so popular people compete against each other to acquire the biggest total from all three of these lifts. This sport is known as Powerlifting. The main complication with testing on a mass scale is it requires months, if not years of practice to perform a maximal effort safely and it be a true maximal measure. There is a significant warm-up process to reach a maximal lift and such technique requires flexibility throughout the body, because the muscles go through a period of lengthening and shortening under stress it can cause soreness post-testing in novice lifters.

 

 

At MVP we have chosen a test known as the isometric mid-thigh pull. This is a maximal strength test where an immovable bar is placed at mid-thigh height in front of the participant who is standing on two force plates. Isometric means the muscles do not change length under contraction, meaning there is minimal risk of injury and negates the soreness felt from a maximal squat, bench press or deadlift. The force plates are much more sensitive to change, measuring at 1000 times per second.

 

Detecting a change in the maximal lift requires an athlete to add 1kilogram to the bar and complete the whole movement successfully. If that is successful, they may add another 1kg and repeat, however, the fatigue from the first lift will affect the second and ultimately they may have been able to lift 5kg more on the day, however, are unable to due to the progressive attempts.

By contrast, jumping 5kg in one go is also challenging to keep technique, if the lift is failed it may prevent any improvements being noticed on test day. 

 

We chose to use two force plates to monitor changes in the left and right side of the body, not just improvements in strength. A large asymmetry between limbs has been associated with a greater risk of injury, by testing for this we can provide training advice to narrow the discrepancy in strength between limbs. 

 

 

Speed 

 

At the inaugural Olympic Games in 1896, each judge had their own stopwatch, which brought obvious issues of human error, each judge had to react to the gun to press start, plus the differing error of each stopwatch as judges had a variety of brands. Omega became the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games in 1932 and began to revolutionise the timing systems, improving accuracy to 1/100th of a second, introducing photographed finishes and touch boards in the swimming pool amongst many other innovations. The removal of any doubt in the time achieved has seen great interest and excitement in world records. 

 

At MVP we use electronic timing systems which measure 100 times per second, meaning it will start and stop precisely at the exact moment your body passes through the beam. Being able to measure this accurately means we can detect a smaller change in performance. If a stopwatch only measured to 1 decimal place you would have to improve by a 1/10th of a second to notice a difference (2.4-2.3). Whereas with 2 decimal places we can measure all the changes in between (2.39,2.38,2.37…2.31,2.3) being able to detect smaller changes means we can see how a program is affecting performances sooner. 

 

Reactions

 

Ruler drop is a test where a partner holds a ruler just above your thumb and index finger, at any given moment they drop the ruler, you have to catch it as quickly as possible, the distance travelled down the ruler indicates how long it took you to react. With only one element to the test, an athlete may achieve a better score simply by anticipating the drop rather than measuring their true ability to react. Clearly taking the average of three measurements is necessary however there may be a learning effect to repeating the trials. Rarely does an athlete have to grip in response to a stimulus in sport therefore how transferable are the results to this test?

 

At MVP we use 4 screens that light up red, green, blue or remain blank. You are to react to the blue light only by moving their hand in front of the screen, once deactivated the blue light will appear on one of the other 3 screens. This test requires you to react to the positive stimulus (the blue light), ignore the negative stimulus (all other colours and blanks), then accurately move your hand to where you have seen the stimulus. There are 25 lights, meaning you must repeat your success, there is a 1/100 chance someone would correctly predict every light, which means their ability to react is truly tested.

 

 

It is more closely related to a sporting context because in sports you must ignore distracting stimuli and correctly react in response to the necessary stimuli. It also shows the MVP team an athlete’s proprioceptive abilities; this is the awareness of your body movements. In context of our test: your eyes scan the distance required to move your hand, you then engage the muscles in your arm to accelerate towards the light and retract at speed back to your body. If you retract your hand too soon the sensor won’t see your hand and the light won’t change, by contrast overextending your arm will give you a slower time because you are travelling a further distance or even knock the screen and as such, failing the test. Having good proprioception of your limbs is key in sport, particularly gymnastics for balance and cricket for catching the ball. It becomes even more complicated when your limbs are extended by an object such as a tennis racket, golf club or hockey stick.

 

Agility 

 

Most pupils who have been to school in the last 30 years have experienced the Illinois Agility Test (pictured below). The test has dropped out of favour in recent years mainly due to the length of the test. It is ~60m and takes around 15-20seconds to complete. From a practical point of view, you can complete 3-4 trials of other agility tests in the time it takes to complete 1 Illinois test. With a team of 30 players, this would make a huge difference and spend the spare time wisely, training to improve agility. Two-thirds of the test is spent running in a straight line, meaning athletes who are quicker will naturally get a quicker time, masking their ability to change direction. Every test a coach administers should be specific to the demands of the sport they play. It is very rare anyone is continually zig-zagging about for 60m.

 

At MVP we chose the Pro-Agility test, also known as the 5-10-5 test. We chose this test because the cumulative distance is 20m, which matches up against the 20m sprint, by comparing the two times we can decipher how long the athlete took to complete the two turns. This way an athlete who is fast in a straight line may also score well in the Pro Agility test, however, if there is a large difference between times, we can see that they are fast however their change of direction is poor. The test is simple to teach and takes most athletes 4.5-6.5 seconds. 

 

 

Thank you for reading a brief history of fitness testing and how it has guided our decision making at MVP, we hope you have found this informative and can see that at MVP we take our testing seriously and ensure the equipment, procedures and analysis is to the highest standard. We hope you can experience the MVP way soon at a venue near you.

 

If you would like to find out more about MVP, and how we can support you in increasing your physical health and mental well-being through customising training programmes, then click here or email hello@projectmvp.co.uk.

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Team MVP