Performing initial fitness assessments is a great way to begin building strong, lasting relationships with your new or potential clients. Assessments showcase your knowledge and professionalism, building your clients' confidence in your skills from day one. When you take the time to observe for postural deviations, muscular weaknesses, tightness, imbalances and other faulty movement patterns, you demonstrate your attention to detail and genuine investment in determining their specific needs and designing customized programs based on the assessment results. When you invest this way in your clients, it's much more likely that they will invest in you and your services.
In this article, we'll walk through one way to conduct a fitness assessment, and how that assessment can be used to close a high percentage of potential new clients.
Choosing the Right Assessment Tool
There are many fitness assessment tools available, and I am not convinced that one particular assessment approach is better than the rest. Most important is that you find an assessment tool that you feel comfortable with, and then become consistent, comfortable and competent at using it. When I train interns to perform assessments, I pretend to be a client and demonstrate deviations from norm to determine whether they observes those deviations. Sometimes they pick up on them, sometimes they don't. The best advice it to just start assessing as many bodies as possible – neighbors, friends, family members…the more bodies you can look at, the more obvious “normal” will be. As personal trainers, our goal should be to look for gross deviations from normal – not microscopic deviations. A great resource that is regarded as the bible for muscle testing is Muscles: Testing and Function (Kendall, 1983). As trainers, we may not know exactly what is causing the deviations, but it can be very helpful in directing where we focus our attention.
Performing the Assessment
It is important to explain to the client what will be happening during the fitness assessment and why you are doing it. At my studio, we assess new clients in the first 10 minutes of the first session, starting with the following script:
“Joe, I am going to take you though a full body postural and movement analysis. I’ll be looking for where your muscles are strong and weak and for any imbalances that may exist. This will provide me the information I need to really customize the program to your body. It will help me determine which exercises we need to incorporate to strengthen any weak muscles and which stretches to help lengthen any tight muscles. An assessment will also make sure I’m not including any exercises that may compound an existing issue.”
Nine times out of ten, the client will state something like “That makes sense. I’ve worked with trainers before and no one has ever done that!”
The reality is that most trainers don’t do an assessment. So when you do, it instantly sets you apart from other trainers. It immediately shows the client that you take a scientific approach to training and you must know what you doing. And, of course – you do!
My studio's assessment tool isn’t very “sexy,” doesn’t require any fancy equipment, and doesn’t generate any snazzy reports. But it does allow us to observe the client’s body while both stationary and moving, and to begin to draw some general conclusions and/or awareness. The 10-minute assessment is done in three parts and includes a postural assessment, a movement analysis and a flexibility assessment. It provides for a basic review of the body that we can expand on with time and we will continue to analyze the client’s body once the training relationship begins.
Part A: Instruction for Performing the Postural Assessment
Have your client remove any sweatshirts or jackets and expose as much of the body as they feel is comfortable and appropriate. Let the client know that this is important so that you can get a really good visual of their alignment. Have the client stand in a very normal and relaxed position, breathing naturally. It may help the client to close their eyes for a moment, then reopen them, to achieve a more relaxed posture.
Using the “Initial Fitness Assessment” form, start with the postural assessment and work your way from the head to the feet. You will want to do a profile of the front, back and both sides, looking for gross deviations and taking notes on what you see.
- HEAD: Notice if the head is rotated or tilted, forward or neutral.
- UPPER BACK: Is it kyphotic, flat or neutral?
- SHOULDERS: Are they dropped or elevated, forward or internally rotated? Look at all profiles. Are the scapula “winged”?
- PELVIS: Are the hips level? Have the client stand with hips and shoulders touching a wall. Do you see an anterior (lordotic) tilt or a posterior (under-tuck) tilt?
- Q-ANGLE: Are the hips significantly wider than the knees when the client stands with feet together?
- KNEES: Are they the same height? Do they have a gross medial or lateral rotation?
- FEET: Ask the client to remove their shoes in order to look at their feet. Are the feet excessively arched? Are they flat?
- GAIT: Have the client walk and notice if the feet internally or externally rotate. Do they pronate or supinate, or is the weight evenly distributed on each foot? As the client walks, look from the feet up and from the head down and notice if you see anything that you did not notice while they were standing still. What’s going on at the feet? Is the client able to rotate through the torso as they walk? Is the arm swing consistent from side to side?
Part B: Instructions for Performing the Movement Analysis
Have your client perform the following movements and make notes on their ability to maintain proper joint alignment and form without pain. Provide very little technique instruction during this segment. Demonstrate a rep to show the basic movement, and then observe their natural tendencies. You can make technique corrections once you actually begin the training process.
Directions to Client: Stand with your feet hip to shoulder width apart, chest lifted, abs engaged and arms reaching forward. Slowly lower into squat position to about 90 degrees at the knee (use a bench if needed), then return to standing. Repeat 5-10 times.
Trainer Notes: Look for internal rotation of the hip (knees knocking), external rotation of the hip (knees bowing), leaning to one side or the other, knees sliding forward beyond the toes and heels lifting up. Ask the client how their body feels. Make notes on your observations and the client’s feedback.
Directions to Client: Stand with your feet hip to shoulder width apart, right foot forward and left foot back with heel lifted (weight is in the heel of the front foot and on the ball of the back foot). Slowly lower back knee toward the floor then return to standing position. Repeat about 5 times each leg.
Trainer Notes: Look for hip, knee and ankle alignment, internal/external rotation of the hip, front knee sliding forward beyond the toes, front heel lifting up and/or balance issues. Notice if there is a difference on each side. Ask how their body feels. Make notes on your observations and the client’s feedback.
Directions to Client: Stand with your feet hip to shoulder width apart, chest lifted, abs engaged and knees slightly bent. Using a tube or cable machine, perform a row by pulling elbows toward ribs. Return to starting position. Repeat 5-10 times.
Trainer Notes: Observe whether the client is able to keep the shoulders down and to retract the shoulder blades. Watch for activation of muscles (lats/rhomboids/mid traps), control through concentric and eccentric phases of contraction, and symmetry on both sides of the body. Ask how their body feels. Make notes on your observations and the client’s feedback.
Directions to Client: Perform a knee push-up with your hands outside of shoulder width apart. Lower the push-up to 90 degrees at the elbow and press back up to the starting position. Repeat 5-10 times.
Trainer Notes: Look for back swaying, scapular stability/scapular winging, symmetry (during both the eccentric and concentric phase). Ask how their body feels. Make notes on your observations and the client’s feedback.
Directions to Client: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. [Place your hand under your client’s low back.] Now, maintain pressure on my hand with your low back. Keep your abs contracted and bring one leg up to 90 degrees at knee and hip and lower down without arching through your spine. Do the same thing on your other leg.
If client has no problem with that, continue as follows:
Lift one leg to 90 degrees and hold, then bring the opposite leg to 90 degrees without arching through your spine.
If client still has no problems, then place your hand under the lumbar spine and continue with the client as follows:
Lower both heels to the floor while maintaining a 90 degree angle at your knees.
Trainer Notes: Ideally, client should be able to maintain the same pressure on your hands until the feet touch the floor. Ask how their body feels. Make notes on your observations and the client’s feedback.
Part C: Instructions for Performing the Flexibility Assessment
Record “Good” or “NI” (Needs Improvement) after each analysis. You do not need to record exact ROM measurements. We are just looking if the client is generally tight, average or hypermobile. We are looking for differences in flexibility from the right to left side of the body. If improvement is needed, you will plan to work on releasing these areas (strengthen the opposing muscle group and lengthening the tight muscle groups).
Directions to Client: Sit upright on a bench and place an ankle on the opposite knee. Do this with both legs.
Trainer Notes: If the shin is somewhat parallel to the floor, range of motion (ROM) is good. If the knee is pointed slightly upward at an angle, ROM is limited. Notice whether there is a difference between the right and left side. Make notes on the symmetry of ROM.
Directions to Client: Lie on your back on the floor. (If the client has any kind of back pain when they lay on their back with both legs extended, then bend one leg with the foot on the floor.) Contract your abs, fully extend your leg and dorsiflex the foot, then lift your straightened leg as high as possible. Repeat with the other leg.
Trainer Notes: Observe how high the client can lift the leg before they start to bend at the knee or press their spine into the floor. Ideally the client should be able to lift their leg close to 80 degrees. Again, make notes on the symmetry of the ROM.
If the client has a lot of body fat, movement may be restricted by the mass of their abdomen and not the tightness of their hamstring.
Directions to Client: Keep lying on your back on the floor. Bring one knee to the chest with your opposite leg extended.
Trainer Notes: If the hip flexors are tight, the extended leg will bend at the knee and/or the client's head will lift off the floor. Be sure to observe differences on the right and left side of the body.
If the client has a lot of body fat, movement may be restricted by the mass of their abdomen.
Directions to Client: Keep lying on your back on the floor with abs tight, spine neutral and arms down at your sides. Extend your arms up over your head until they are resting on or towards the floor.
Trainer Notes: Observe whether the client is able to touch their hands or wrists to the floor. If not, the client may have tight pecs and/or lats. Make notes on the symmetry of ROM.
Directions to Client: Keep lying on your back on the floor with your abs tight, spine neutral and elbows directly above your shoulders. Keeping your elbows in position, externally rotate your forearms towards the ground.
Trainer Notes: Observe whether the client is able to touch their hands and wrist to the ground without arching their spine. If the client is unable to reach the floor with the wrists and hands, they have tight internal rotators and weak external rotators. Make notes on the symmetry of ROM.
Directions to Client: Lie face down on the floor with your arms crossed, your head resting on your arms and your legs extended. Bring one foot to the glute. Repeat on the other side.
Trainer Notes: The client should be able to bend more than 90 degrees at the knee. Make notes on the symmetry of ROM.
If the client has a lot of body fat or muscle, their movement may be restricted by the mass of the back of the leg and not necessarily by the tightness of the quadriceps.
Part D: Explaining the Results
This is the cool part, and where you get to show them how smart you are! The conversation might go something like this:
“Joe, thank you so much for letting me analyze your body. It’s really provided me with some really great information. Let me share some of my observations with you.
First, when you were standing, I noticed that your shoulders fall forward of where they really should and that they are slightly internally rotated. This often indicates that you’ve got some weakness in your mid back muscles and some tightness in your internal rotators or chest muscles. This makes sense to me because you sit at a computer a lot in your work and it was further confirmed when you did the rowing test because your muscles had a difficult time fully retracting or pulling the shoulders back. And when I tested the flexibility of your shoulders, it was clear that there is a definite restriction there. So when designing your program, I’m going to place an emphasis on really strengthening your back muscles and stretching your internal rotators and then we’ll see how your body responds to that.
I also noticed when you were standing that you have an excessive lordotic curve in your low back. That can indicate tightness in your hip flexors and/or a weakness in your core muscles, and other testing did show that you have tight hip flexors and some weakness in your core. So I’m going to make sure I really focus on strengthening your core muscles, which includes your abdominals, your back and hip muscles, and lengthening your hip flexors.
Last, I noticed you’re a little tighter on the right side of your body than on the left. And whenever you have one side tighter than the other, it’s just more likely for the body to be pulled out of alignment. And when you’re moving your body, you really want things to line up the way they are supposed to so there is less wear and tear and injury. So whenever we stretch, I’ll spend a little more time on the right side to see if that helps develop better symmetry and we'll see how your body feels with that. Sound good?”
At this point, the client is typically really impressed with your attention to detail, your scientific approach to the training process and your ability to customize the program to their body. After this, it’s really easy to have the “sales” conversation starting with “Excellent, Joe, all we have to do now is decide how you and I are going to work together. There are lot of options, so let me explain…”
Part E: Body Composition Assessment
Since the majority of our clients are seeing us to lose or manage their body weight, it’s critical that we also record baseline measurements and monitor progress to ensure we are moving in the right direction. Perform girth measurements, skinfold measurements, body weight and take a photo to provide an objective assessment of progress and program results.
Part F - Performance Assessment
A Performance Assessment is another objective tool to monitor progress, demonstrate strengths and weaknesses, and direct the program design. My studio's performance assessment includes a variety of tests including a 1-mile walk/run, an indoor bike test (5 minutes at set level – record distance), rowing (5000m test), skip rope (#RPM in 1 minute), assisted chin-ups, dumbbell bench press, hover and push-up test.
When you take the time to perform a comprehensive fitness assessment, you have a much better chance to demonstrate the value in your services and influence the client to invest in training with you. Find an assessment tool that works for you (the one described here is just one of many, but it works with 80-90% of our prospective clients) and get as much experience using it as you can, with a wide variety of people. Using a structured tool and following scripts can help take the guesswork out of your program design and get you on a profitable path to changing the lives of your clients for the better.
Reasons personal trainers should NOT perform initial fitness assessments:
- To diagnose an injury – that is not our scope of practice.
- To diagnose the cause of a postural deviation or imbalance – this is also not our scope of practice.
Remember, we are NOT physical therapists:
- Look for obvious deviations vs. microscopic deviations.
- Refer to a qualified professional when needed.
- Kendall, F. (1983). Muscles: Testing and Function, 3rd Ed. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.