12 Tests of Functional Strength and Body Mechanics
This article is exclusive to AHP. It represents the uncut, fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured on t-nation.com
Perform heavy RDLs with 75% of your 1RM deadlift and keep your spine neutral. Try to pause at the bottom without your spine bending or shoulders rounding. If you're unable to do this, your ability to stabilize your spine needs improvement.
Protect your shoulders by testing your bench. On the dumbbell bench press you should be able to handle at least 80% of your normal barbell load when combining the weight of the dumbbells. If not, you'll need to change your pressing mechanics.
You should be able to close your eyes on any exercise. If you can't lift 80-90% of what you regularly lift with eyes open, then start using eccentric isometrics in your training.
Overhead press 80-90% of your 1RM and close your eyes. You should be able to hold it for 10 seconds while maintaining control.
You should be able to sprint at any time anywhere without warming up. Inability to do so indicates neuromuscular inhibition, strength deficits, imbalance, weakness, etc.
You should be capable of handling 80-90% of your 1RM without warming up. Being able to this reveals movement competency, neuromuscular efficiency, and solid body mechanics.
Since the dawn of the iron game era there’s been no shortage of strength training standards and 1-rep max guidelines. Ask any strength coach or read any training book and you’re likely to come across a number of subjective recommendations listing the amount of weight you should be capable of handling.
Whether it’s a double bodyweight squat, 225 bench test, or max pullup challenge these numbers are often used as a means to measure alpha superiority, boost egos, and eliminate inferiority complexes. Unfortunately, these guidelines are very quantitative and fail to analyze any significant level of movement quality.
Testing Strength or Function. Why Not Both?
When it comes to strength training, using proper technique and perfecting movement patterns are probably the most important factors for long-term success. Doing so not only optimizes muscle recruitment for maximal strength and size gains, but it also minimizes stress on joints and connective tissue.
Over the last decade trainers and therapists have gradually come to accept this, which has led to the development of numerous muscle assessments and movement screenings. However, these tests rarely examine muscle function during heavily loaded movements, which can be problematic.
Specificity of Testing
Assessing movement patterns with bodyweight and light training loads is sufficient and often safest for the average person as these will typically uncover more obvious imbalances and dysfunction. However, for the more advanced trainee, light to moderate loads when paired with standard lifts often fail to elicit significant deterioration in technique and mechanics. In these instances, you’ll likely need something a bit more strenuous and taxing to expose subtle movement deficiencies and less-obvious areas of weaknesses.
Furthermore you’ll probably want the ability to self-diagnose and assess your own movement patterns rather than relying on the subjective opinion of other so-called “movement experts”.
How it Works
The following 12 tests and assessments are simple criteria I’ve developed over the years to better diagnose movement efficiency and muscle function in my own athletes. Not only will these tests inform you regarding your current levels of stability, symmetry, proprioception, mobility, muscle tightness, balance, neuromuscular efficiency, spinal alignment, posture, and overall muscle function but they’ll immediately enlighten you regarding your levels of complete-body strength.
Remember, it's one thing to be strong on a few lifts (selective strength) but its another to be technically efficient while using heavy loads on a variety of movement patterns (complete strength). These tests will provide you that information.
At the end you’ll have a chance to rate yourself using the chart below. If you’re able to pass a majority of these “checks and balances” with no significant pain or technique deterioration I can just about guarantee you your chances of acquiring training-related injuries is slim to none not to mention the fact that you’re as strong as an ox. So let’s get started.
Test 1 – RDL Posture Test of Deadlift Efficiency
The ability to maintain proper posture and spinal alignment during heavy lifting is probably the single most important factor when it comes to strength training technique. Correct positioning on squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, hip hinges, horizontal presses, lunges, kettlebell swings rows, pull-ups, and other compound movements is predicated on this notion.
Once spinal alignment is lost everything else immediately deteriorates. The chance for injury greatly increases, force production is compromised, and stimulation to the appropriate muscles is negated. Faulty spinal positioning also mitigates the lifter’s ability to set the shoulders and hips in their proper position making it impossible to perform any movement correctly and safely not to mention near maximal lifting attempts.
One simple test I use to assess this is the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) Test of Spinal Positioning. After thoroughly warming up with progressive ramping, load the bar with roughly 75-80% of your 1 RM Deadlift. You should be able to perform a few perfect (RDL’s) while keeping a neutrally arched spine throughout. Besides testing spinal alignment this also examines the hip hinge – a fundamental human movement pattern.
If you’re unable to pause near the bottom (just before touching the floor) while simultaneously keeping your spine locked in then you really have no business using whatever weight you currently handle on deadlifts or any other lift for that matter. In fact you probably lack the ability to set your spine and scapula on most heavy lifts particularly axial loaded movements.
If this describes your form you’ll need to strengthen your entire back with plenty of rows, pullups, RDL’s (with manageable loads) as well as work on hip mobility and strength throughout the entire posterior chain. Most importantly start reinforcing perfect posture and scapula positioning on all of your movements. You may even want to video record yourself to assess posture as its pretty obvious when spinal positioning begins to degrade.
Test 2 – Dumbbell Press Strength
Its always great to have a strong bench press but if your form is setting you up for shoulder and chest injuries then its time to re-assess your technique and activation patterns. Choose any chest press variation such as flat, incline, or decline bench press and use dumbbells held in the neutral position (palms facing each other) with your elbows tucked close to your sides. You should be able to handle at least 80% of your normal barbell load when combining the weight of the dumbbells. For example if you typically handle 200 pounds on an incline barbell press then you should be able to handle 80lb dumbbells in a similar fashion.
This pressing technique may feel strange at first but this actually represents proper mechanics for any bench press variation whether it’s with a barbell, dumbbells, or any other loading mechanism. Because most individuals lack the proper lat strength, stability, and motor control in their upper torso, this position often feels very weak. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone with a 300+ bench press to struggle with 100lb dumbbells. This indicates they’ve become very efficient with faulty movement mechanics – a common problem even for advanced lifters.
Besides requiring the lifter to stabilize each side individually, this dumbbell variation confines them more closely into the correct position while eliminating their ability to use the compensation patterns and momentum they’ve so desperately relied on over the years.
If this describes your form, you’ll obviously want to start incorporating these dumbbell presses into your routine. More importantly work on pulling your scapula down and back on any and all pressing movements and tuck your elbows by activating your lats. A good dose of upper back work and shoulder stabilization training is also warranted.
Test 3 – Eyes Closed
This next one is a true test of motor control, movement efficiency and proprioception. Simply close your eyes on any exercise such as a squat or bench press and feel your way through the lift rather than relying on visual cues to guide you. You should be able to handle at least 80-90% of the load you typically handle for that lift.
Because most athletes severely lack the proper motor control, stability, and sensory feedback from their muscles spindles, this one often overwhelms their nervous system making it feel impossible. If this describes you its time to slow down the eccentric movement and learn to control the load while staying as tight as possible throughout. Consistent use of eccentric isometrics with a 3-5 second eccentric phase followed by a several second pause in the stretched position will do the trick. Read more about eccentric isometrics here
Test 4 – Renegade Row
Possessing a proper balance of strength between the anterior or posterior sides of your body is critical not only for performance and posture but for overall joint health. Heavy renegade rows are one of the few all-in-one exercises that demand such a fine balance. When performed correctly they represent a combination of back strength, core stability, anti-rotation, shoulder stability, lumbo pelvic control, and hip stability to name a few.
If you’re unable to perform these with 80-90% of the load you typically use for other rowing exercises (such as single arm rows) or if you’re unable to use a load equivalent to your body weight (a 200-pound individual would use 100 lb dumbbells), then you’re likely lacking strength and function in the aforementioned areas. It’s also worth noting that heavy renegade rows eliminate the ability to use excessive momentum, rotation, and low back thrusting commonly witnessed in rowing movements. If you have to lower the load significantly from what you typically use then you’ll need to clean up your rowing technique and learn to control the weight.
Test 5 – Mid-Rep Pause
Use approximately 80% of your maximal load on any compound movement and pause midway through both the eccentric and concentric phase. If you lack the ability to perform this on any lift then you’ll want to quickly remedy it.
This is a strong indicator of whether your muscles continuously fire and activate throughout the entire motion with proper motor unit recruitment. Any lifter who cheats through the movement, uses excessive momentum, is asymmetrical, lacks tightness, demonstrates instability, or has a significant strength deficit in the involved muscles will be in for a rude awakening with this test.
As a remedy, try incorporating this technique into your training using lighter loads and working up to heavier percentages. The use of accommodating resistance such as bands and chains is also a legitimate antidote, as your muscles must fire through the entire movement rather than relaxing or relying on momentum.
Test 6 – Single-Arm Pressing
Lack of core activation and full body tightness particularly during upper body pressing movements is a common training mishap that even the most experienced lifters can fall prey to. Because a majority of these movements are performed while either lying or sitting on a bench, it’s quite easy to become neuromuscularly complacent while allowing much of your body to relax. Not only does this reduce the amount of force you can generate but its likely to compromise form, posture, and lifting mechanics.
One way to test this is to perform single arm variations of your favorite dumbbell pressing exercise. You should be capable of using the same load for the unilateral movement as you would during the bilateral/isolateral counterpart (both arms working in unison). If you feel like you’re about to flip off the bench using a 70-pound dumbbell but typically handle 100 lbs in each arm then you're probably lacking significant levels of core activation, rotary stability, and full body tightness. To remedy this, a solid dose of single arm planks, Paloff presses, loaded carries, and of course unilateral dumbbell work will do the job.
Test 7 – Heavy Lunge
Proper lunge technique particularly when performed with heavy loads represents the epitome of lower body muscle function as it involves high levels of strength, stability, symmetry, and mobility. In fact, the lunge and variations thereof (split squats, Bulgarian squats, and traditional lunges) is the only lower body movement pattern that involves eccentric lengthening of all lower body musculature including hip and knee flexors and extensors.
With this in mind you should be able to perform several controlled lunges on each leg with at least 50% of your 1RM squat (or 50% of your 1RM Deadlift for the ultra advanced). If this is problematic, then it's time to incorporate more lunges and Bulgarian squats into your training using controlled repetitions with a full range of motion.
Test 8 – Overhead Efficiency
When it comes to strength training, having the ability to properly lock a heavy load into the overhead slot position is perhaps the most underrated upper body skill a lifter can possess. Various exercises including Olympic lifting variations, overhead presses, and even horizontal pulling movements such as pull-ups require efficient overhead mechanics with ample levels of stability, strength, and mobility through the upper torso as well the core, hips, and spinal stabilizers.
Determining your level of competency for this skill is simple and insightful. Using either your bodyweight or 80-90% of your 1 RM on the barbell push press, hoist the weight overhead and slightly in back of you, then close your eyes and hold this position for a minimum of 10 seconds. If you’re unable to complete this without looking like you’re about to have an epileptic seizure, its time to address mobility, stability, and strength from head to toe as well as incorporating more overhead movements into your training.
Test 9 – Single-Leg RDL
As some of you know I’m a huge advocate for addressing foot and ankle function. Without proper strength, stability, and activation in the feet and ankles your chance for injury due to faulty movement mechanics exponentially increases. Although there are numerous ways to test this, the single leg RDL challenge epitomizes complete foot/ankle mechanics, while simultaneously examining strength and function throughout the entire posterior chain.
Using dumbbells equivalent to either your bodyweight or 50% of your estimated max on Romanian Deadlifts, perform a few controlled repetitions of single leg RDL’s in an eccentric isometric fashion. You’ll receive immediate feedback as it’s literally impossible to perform this with anything but perfect form. If it feels like you have a greater chance of winning the lottery than successfully completing this challenge, its time to work on foot and ankle function as well as mobility, stability, and strength throughout your entire posterior chain.
Test 10 – Olympic Rings Equivalency
With the rise of Crossfit games and gymnast style workouts it's no surprise Olympic rings and suspension training systems have become more commonplace in performance centers. Ask anyone who’s ever had a chance to train on rings and you’re likely to hear them mention how difficult these movements are in comparison to their more stable and standard counterparts.
In fact, it's not uncommon for athletes to brag about the dozens of traditional dips and pushups they can consecutively perform while being able to complete only a handful of these movements when suspended from rings. This is merely an indication that form and function are greatly amiss.
So let's cut to the chase and set the record straight. There should be little if any discrepancy when comparing your numbers on rings to the same movement pattern performed on a stable base such as the floor, bar, or fixed handles. So choose a movement like dips or pushups and see how your numbers stack up when comparing the ring variation and the normal rendition. For example, if you can perform standard weighted dips with 90 lbs for 5 repetitions you should be capable of doing nearly the same on Olympic rings.
For most trainees the instability is a byproduct of the body’s inability to properly stabilize and not so much a result of the rings themselves being inordinately challenging.
This is a result of neuromuscular inefficiency, faulty recruitment patterns, poor mechanics, and week core activation. Learn to stabilize by addressing these issues and the rings will begin to feel nearly as fixed as a set of parallel bars cemented into the floor.
The same concept is true of other forms of stability training methodologies. Fortunately, the fix is relatively simple. Improve technique, train on rings and utilize other forms of unstable training methods such as the Hanging Band Technique, eyes closed movements, and perturbation training.
Test 11 – Sprint LIke A Human
This next one is sure to spark a bit of controversy so lets get right to it. If your muscles are functioning properly and your movement mechanics are optimal you should be able to go into an all-out sprint anywhere at anytime. Now, I’m not necessarily recommending you do this on a regular basis nor am I suggesting this will produce optimal demonstration of speed and performance. Rather its something you should be able to do without injury, discomfort, or restriction.
Well before the modern era of fitness arrived, sprinting was considered a normal means of survival necessary for fleeing, chasing, hunting, and basic playground activity. The idea of performing a 20-30 minute warm up consisting of contortionist movements, foam rolling, and excessive mobility drills was a luxury few real-world sprinting scenarios allowed not to mention that fact that its completely unnecessary and counterproductive.
Because sprinting represents the epitome of explosive, rapid and, violent movement, being able to perform such an activity without warming up is probably the single most informative diagnostic tests of muscle function you can perform. Any neuromuscular inhibition, muscular spasticity, strength deficit, excessive co-contraction, activation impairment, asymmetry, imbalance, weakness, immobility, instability, faulty posture, or any other movement deficiency will almost immediately be exposed. Although the remedy for these goes far beyond the scope of this article, by working on the other aforementioned criteria first I guarantee you the sprint test will gradually become more feasible.
Test 12 – No-Prep, No Warmup
On a similar note you should also be capable of performing 80-90% of your 1RM for any lift at anytime even under semi-cold conditions. That’s right. Having the ability to quickly summon your nervous system and perform a relatively heavy deadlift, squat, or press without significant preparation is not only a great way to expose areas of inflammation or weakness but it represents a level of movement competency that any well-trained athlete should be capable of. This is something other strength coaches including legendary Charles Staley have alluded to in the past.
If half of your training time is devoted to warming up your joints and blunting the pain and inflammation associated with dysfunctional movement, chances are your lifting technique needs a serious overhaul.
How Do You Stack Up?
Muscle Function Rating Score
Passed 12 Tests = Near Perfect
Your form, mechanics, technique, and strength are in a class of their own.
Passed 9-11 Tests = Well Above Average
You're probably safe in terms of injury vulnerability, but with a bit of extra work you can dominate and become near bulletproof.
Passed 5-8 Tests = Average
Although you have several strengths, there are also glaring weaknesses putting you at risk for injury and training stagnation. Address these issues so you can continue making progress and avoid setbacks.
Passed 1-4 Tests = Below Average
It's time to take a step back from heavy lifting before a severe injury sets you back indefinitely. Revamp your training protocols, address your deficiencies, and spend at least 4-6 weeks mastering form and mechanics on the basic movement patterns.
Passed 0 Tests = Extreme Dysfunction
Your body is a walking time bomb on the brink of physiological destruction and neuromuscular catastrophe. Hire a competent professional to help you fix these issues.
Although the above 12 tests represent my go-to assessments for analyzing functional strength, here are 15 honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list but are still excellent assessments. It’s worth noting that some of the following assessments are indications of pure strength more so than muscle function and movement mechanics. It’s for this reason that they didn’t make the top 12 but are included below.
1. Squat 2x bodyweight for males and 1.5 x bodyweight for females
2. Bench 1.5x bodyweight for males and 1 x bodyweight for females
3. Deadlift 2.5 x bodyweight for males and 1.75 x bodyweight for females
4. Push Press bodyweight for males and .75x bodyweight for females
5. Overhand Pullups 10 reps at bodyweight or 5 reps at 1.25 x bodyweight for males and 5 bodyweight reps for females
6. A few single arm pushups on each side
7. Bent over row 90% of their max bench press (male or female) or 1.25x bodyweight (for males) and 1 x bodyweight for females
8. Weighted pushups 1.5 bodyweight x 5 reps for males (200 lb male would use 100 lbs of additional loading) and 1.25 x 5 reps for females.
9. Weighted dips 1.5 x bodyweight x 3 reps for males or 1 x bodyweight 8 reps for females.
10. Single leg stand with eyes closed and hold 60 seconds on each side.
11. Broad Jump at least 7 feet if you're a female or 8 feet if you're a male.
12. Hang power snatch at least 75% of your bodyweight for males and 60% bodyweight for females for 1 or more reps.
13. Strict barbell curl while kneeling on bench at least 50% of your bodyweight for 5 reps for males or 40% bodyweight for 5 reps for females
14. Kettlebell swing with eyes closed 50% of your bodyweight for 15 consecutive reps
15. Single arm plank 60 seconds on each side consecutively (2 minutes total)