Intro To Functional Fitness Testing

One of the most frequent questions I get is on testing. Testing for fitness, strength, balance, potential injury and the ability to perform one's job. The point that I have been trying very hard to get across to everyone is simple; if the injury rates are so high, workers' compensation costs are soaring and re-injury is prevalent in most field personnel, are the tests currently being used valid? Do we have to lay on our back while on a call and do crunches? (which have been proven do actually damage the lumbar disks) (McGill).

One of the many misconceptions that we are constantly confronted with is simply what is wrong with what we test for now? The answer is that there are better and more 'functional' tests that can be implemented into our pre/yearly fitness testing. Take the bench press as an example, one of the venerable 'test' exercises. One of my favorite questions to ask athletes is... what good does a bench press do for you?


It still baffles me that from the NFL to public safety that exercises like the bench press and crunch are still considered standard and accurate tests. I personally am unsure when those exercises became 'valid' as tests. Laying on your back pressing or crunching does nothing but damage your body. Spend the time to research any biomechanical journals and you will see that the detrimental strains put on the body performing these exercises completely outweighs any benefit from performing them. We already spend too much time sitting and leaning forward, encouraging exercise that re-enforces faulty posture, which in turn encourages injury is stupid.

As I said earlier, there are better tests out there. Testing movement along with strength is much more valid and accurate than testing in isolation. A police officer does not apprehend a suspect while laying on their back, and exercising that way will not help you to perform better. Fire Fighters work in dynamic environments where balance and strength should be equally matched, so laying down and crunching does what?

Functional testing and exercise is weird and taboo to most, because it looks different and seems unconventional. Remember, this type of training has been around for a long time in clinics and Olympic training centers. Public safety is one of the most demanding careers you could choose; it is constantly changing and you must be ready to go with no warning. This dictates that 'traditional' exercise done on machines and on stable benches just will not work.

Think about it logically: take an NFL lineman and an Olympic gymnast. Who is the better athlete? Who is Stronger? I fear that most of you said the Lineman, but the Gymnast is by far the better and stronger athlete. Why? It's simple, the gymnast has perfect balance, awesome power and complete control of their strength. The lineman may be strong but that strength can only be directed in one direction. Life is 3 dimensional, train that way, test for it.

The Overhead Squat Test

The Overhead Squat Test is by far one of the best tests that I use in the Fit Responder Program. It is extremely accurate, valid and has excellent carryover into public safety. Think about it, we squat all day long! Almost every movement we perform with the legs and hips involves a squat like pattern. Don't believe me? Try it.

As you do the exercise, pay close attention to what you feel and what the mirror tells you. If you are an old dog pay close attention to your elbows, lower back and heels. Any break of the proper pattern is a fault and the more faults in the pattern the greater your risk for injury.

Want to have a lot of fun and be slightly humbled? Have 5-10 people try it and you will be amazed at the role flexibility plays. You will also see lots of what we call cheat patterns... the body compensating for inefficient movement by bending / twisting / rotating / leaning when it should not, and that is what will eventually cause breakdown and injury.

The Over head Squat Test is just one of many in the Fit Responder Book/Program, it happens to be my favorite because of its simplicity and accuracy. The bigger question now is what do you do after pattern/movement dysfunction has been identified? Believe it or not the answer is easier and cheaper than you think, but that is for another column.

Performing the Overhead Squat Test

Preparation: Stand facing a full mirror, feet shoulder width apart, toes straight. Hold a broom stick overhead with elbows locked.

Movement: Perform a squat, just like sitting down in a chair. Avoid letting the heels come up off the floor, keep your elbows locked.

Observe for:

Knees: They should have remained straight ahead, no rolling in or out.

Feet: They should have stayed straight and level.

Pelvis: Should not have twisted to either side.

Torso: Should have had only a slight lean forward, with a small arch in the lower back.

Head: Upright

Arms: Elbows remained locked.

If you or your department has fitness testing for Medics please drop me a line and let me know what you do and how you do it, at