True Indicators of Fitness and Athleticism

“…and his body seemed impervious to gravity’s pull, as if he were one step ahead of its grasp, or maybe composed of some ether-world thing, immune, impartial to the tug; a sea with a tide of its own biding…”  — Keith Norris, from The Blood of Samuel

Have you ever listened to the NPR program, This I Believe? I really love those segments.  You never know what you might hear, and many times the stories or “beliefs” hit just like powerful line of poetry, worming into the brain and having you to unexpectedly ponder the meaning of it all at odd points throughout the day.  I love a story or a line or poetry that sticks to me like that.  Well, anyway, here’s a little of what I believe.  It may not worm into your brain like a line from Keats, but here it goes, nonetheless:

I believe that I can rank any sized group of athletes, from the most athletic to the least, having never seen them before and by only (1) watching them take 10, normal walking strides, (2) having them perform a single, simple, athletic test, and (3) measuring their height and body weight (no need to measure body fat, it’d just be an unneeded waste of time).  What’s more, if I were a recruiter for any field or court sport, I could effectively and quickly narrow down which athletes I would consider granting a scholarship to — assuming the mental and character aspects — and of course, heart — were on par with their athletic ability.  And what’s more again, I can observe the same data from any group (and again, knowing nothing about them and having never seen them before) and predict, with a high degree of accuracy, who is fit and well and who is a mishap or an illness waiting to happen.

What am I, some kind of Edgar Cayce wannabe?  Well, hardly.   Although, having Edgar’s talent for prediction would be a nice plus 🙂

So,what is this “magical test” I’m speaking of?  Some kind of muscle biopsy technique adopted from the old East German system?  Well, no and there’s really nothing “magical” about it at all — it’s simply the basic vertical jump.  In some, more scientific circles, it’s known as the CMJ (counter movement jump).  And why is this test so predictive of athleticism, not to mention relative well-being?  Because, pure and simple, it’s a measure of raw power production.  It’s you against gravity, with very little in the way of technique to skew the outcome.  Oh, the argument could be made for a handful of other “tests” — the various dashes, broad jumps, standing triple jump, various agility runs, caber toss, and hang clean, to name a few — but if I had to pick one — just one — I’d go, hands down, with the simple vertical jump, due to the ease of test administration and tight control of variables.

Now, let me tell you how I use this simple test on myself.  Every few weeks or so, I’ll do a vertical jump “test”, just to see if my training has been “on cue” and if I’m firing on all cylinders, so to speak.  One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not so much the outcome of the jump itself (in raw vertical inches) that matters, but the peak (or average) power generated that is of interest.  For example, is a lean 175 lb athlete with a “vert” of 32 inches a better raw athlete than a 220 lb athlete with a vert of 30 inches?  Hmmmm.  Or, what if I’ve trained a female (who just wants to be “fit and well” ) for a solid 8 weeks.  She’s lost 25 lbs of body weight, but only increased her vert by an inch.  Has she lost muscle fiber in her weight loss efforts and/or suffered conversion from fast to slow twitch fiber?  Do I need to do more strength or more power work with her — or both?  Maybe she thinks she’s doing well on her diet, but in reality, maybe somethings amiss.  These things are easily sorted by using the vertical jump as the measured effort, and then converting that result to an equivalent power using the Sayers Formula.  Power is the great equalizer, and it allows us to compare the relative fitness (or athleticism) of any two dissimilar body types.  And don’t let the math scare you.  It’s so easy, even a Liberal Arts, PoliSci major like myself can handle it.  Here we go:

The Sayers Formula

The Sayers Equation (Sayers et al. 1999) estimates peak power output (Peak Anaerobic Power output or PAPw) from the vertical jump.

PAPw (Watts) = 60.7 · jump height(cm) + 45.3 · body mass(kg) – 2055

Example

  • PAPw = (60.7 x jump height(cm)) + (45.3 x body mass(kg)) – 2055
  • PAPw = (60.7 x 60) + (45.3 x 75) – 2055
  • PAPw = 3642 + 3397.5 – 2055
  • PAPw = 4984.5 Watts

Reference: Sayers, S., et al. (1999) Cross-validation of three jump power equations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 31: 572.

My personal fitness goal is to maintain this peak anaerobic power marker as high as possible.  It’s a quick and easy test to see if I’m keeping myself reasonably fit, relatively athletic, and on track.  Now, obviously, I could train specifically for this test (i.e., never training chest, shoulders or back) and better my power mark here, even while neglecting other attributes.  I won’t cheat myself like that, though.  In fact, I’m currently trying to figure out an equivalent “push-up vert” equation (I’m leaning, though, toward a med. ball press-toss variant for this purpose).  Maybe a pull-up vert, or a timed rope climb as well.  But for now, and for my purposes, the standing vert works just fine.  And now the hundred dollar question: do I think that eating in a hunter-gatherer fashion has helped increase my peak power production? Most definitely, yes.  And I know it’s a direct result of my diet because I’ve trained the same manner for years.  I’ve only lost about 10 lbs or so, but I’ve gained a couple of inches in vert height and, overall, I’ve gained about 100 watts in peak power production.  And remember, this increase comes while I’m in my 40’s — and I was already a fairly well trained athlete to start with.  The diet was most definitely the difference maker.

This simple test can be used by anyone. It’s just a fantastic and easy-to-perform tool to use to track progress.  In a later post, I’ll discuss how to compare and interpret your previous to current PAPw outcomes.  Do you need to focus your future work on power, strength, speed…or what, exactly?  Again, the vert never lies; it’ll point you in the right direction — if you can properly interpret the results.

And for those who would like to delve a little deeper into the science behind athletic screening — and predicting future athletic talent is, in my opinion as much science as it is “horse knowledge” — I’ll add, here, a couple of my favorite sites:

SPARQ Magazine

Boyd Epley’s Fly Solo Program

Boyd Epley’s site.  Boyd is the Godfather of strength and conditioning, and a very, very intelligent man.  If you’re interested in such things, I’d get my hands on anything you can written by him.  He’s forgotten more in the last year than most trainers will ever come to know.

As an added plus, I ran across this podcast that happened to have an interview with Boyd Epley himself.  Strange how these things work out.  There must be a vibe in the air; the serendipity of it all.  Anyhow, this podcast, along with a question from reader Bryce, gave me the idea for this post.  In the interview, Boyd speaks a bit toward the “index” that the University of Nebraska (a friggin’ machine back in Boyd’s day) used in selecting scholarship athletes and about his Fly Solo athletic assessment program.  Guess what was (and is now) used as the primary athletic screening tool for Boyd’s index?  Uh-huh, you guessed it — the vert.  Check out the show, it’s well worth the listen.

Oh, and you’re probably wondering why, in my athletic/wellness screening, I wanted to see the subject walk for 10 or so paces?  Quite simply, I’m looking for “spring” in the step, a certain “stiffness” and “rebound quality” in the limbs.  I’m looking for a pronounced pelvic tilt.  That’s where the “horse sense” comes into play.  Spring and stiffness are highly genetic and there’s not a whole lot you can do to train for it.  Recruiting the right athletes can make a strength and conditioning coach look like a genius.  Recruit speed; train what remains.

In Health,

Keith

9 responses to “True Indicators of Fitness and Athleticism

  1. Fascinating post Keith. Dumb question: Is this the kind of test that requires a partner to do the measurement or is there some clever way of self-administering it?

    • I just use a piece of tape on a wall. It’s not perfect, but close enough. I know “about” where I should be & this mark gives me something to shoot for, something to beat. Then I just adjust the final mark up or down as need be.

  2. Hi Keith,
    I enjoy when Chris (conditioningresearch) posts the videos of guys jumping. Some of them get some insane height.

    Off topic;
    following up on my before workout eating experiment.
    It was a one time deal. Never experienced the same thing as that one time. 4 days ago, I even felt a little nausea coming on. I had a few blue berries and an egg. I never have that feeling. So I’m chalking it up to just one of those mornings when you’re really firing on all cylinders.
    I’ve also tried eating post workout. You know the window of opportunity 😉
    Well I can tell you my body doesn’t like it at all!! I’ve gone for to long waiting at least an hour if not 2 (and even 4 at times) to eat after a workout. It just feels natural.
    Thanks for the feedback as always Keith.
    Happy holidays to you and your loved ones.

    Marc

    • Yeah, I like Chris’ jump clips as well. Great displays of athleticism. The jumps don’t lie. And I’m glad to hear you got your meal timing worked out.

  3. Larry Bird and John Stockton would have ranked very low on your shoot-from-the-hip vertical jump test of athletic ability. As would have Joe Montana. Stories abound how un-athletic Montana looked, and how rookies often disrespected and questioned his athletic prowess, until they stepped on the field with him and watched him do his thing.

    I suspect many white athletes, such as QBs in the NFL, would not do very well, (although I think Steve Young probably would), yet it is clear that QB is one of the most athletic positions in the game.

    A vertical jump tests simply measures how well you can jump. That’s it. It may be correlated with athletic ability, but does not cause it. That is to say, I train my Mother every day for 3 months on jumping and she increases her vertical leap by 6 inches, yet she is still as unathletic/athletic as before.

    It is very difficult to measure athletic ability. We fool ourselves by thinking we can do so facilely.

    • Larry Bird and John Stockton would have ranked very low on your shoot-from-the-hip vertical jump test of athletic ability. As would have Joe Montana. Stories abound how un-athletic Montana looked, and how rookies often disrespected and questioned his athletic prowess, until they stepped on the field with him and watched him do his thing.

      Which is where “horse sense” and recruiting for position comes into play. I think everyone would agree that a more athletic “John Sockton” would have been a better overall basketball player. Let’s not confuse athleticism with the skills particular to the game. Two different entities.

      I suspect many white athletes, such as QBs in the NFL, would not do very well, (although I think Steve Young probably would), yet it is clear that QB is one of the most athletic positions in the game.

      Gotta respectfully disagree with you here. I do think that QB is the most skilled position on the field, however, it’s been my experience that cornerbacks are by the large the best all around athletes on the field — and usually (there are always exceptions) have the best verts.

      A vertical jump tests simply measures how well you can jump. That’s it. It may be correlated with athletic ability, but does not cause it. That is to say, I train my Mother every day for 3 months on jumping and she increases her vertical leap by 6 inches, yet she is still as unathletic/athletic as before.

      …and a 40 yd. dash simply measures start & acceleration ability, and a caber toss simply measures the explosive ability of the posterior chain, and the pro agility simply measures the ability to re-direction at speed…and we can certainly train, specifically for each of these events and improve upon technical ability (thus the proliferation of combine “prep” camps), but one thing is certain — the best raw athletes are superior performers in all of these events — including the vert. Particular athletic (or position-specific) skill, desire, game intelligence et. al. is something else entirely.

      It is very difficult to measure athletic ability. We fool ourselves by thinking we can do so facilely.

      Again I respectfully disagree. Raw athletic ability is quite easily measured — as is athletic progress within an individual. Particular skills, heart, desire, intelligence, character, social intelligence, leadership — these are the “unknowns” and the “not easily identified”.

    • Training to increase vertical leap will also increase your speed and quickness. It is closely related. Though increase in vertical leap wont make you a better basketball player for the most part. Skill is most important.

  4. Great post. Squat double your body weight and most will have a good vertical jump…and there is a strong correlation with vertical leap and running speed for the most part. NFL scouting combines are a good indicator. Most guys with 36″+ verticals with a good squat strength to body-weight ratio have 40 yard dash times under 4.5. Although, I did now one guy who had a 27 Inch vertical and was able to run 4.4 in the 40. But for the most part the statement above, along with your post, is true.

  5. I think having passion for health will help in your weight loss success as when you get healthy you lose weight. Most people think the opposite. They think just losing weight is going to equal better health. People need to look at weight loss less superficially.

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