Athleticism vs Skill, and the Correlation Between Athleticism and Health/Fitness

TTP reader Patrik brought up a very good point in a comment to my vertical jump post of a few days back.  For those who may not have seen the comment, I’ll include it below, along with my reply to Patrik’s comments (in red).  But first, you might be wondering why the differentiation between skill and athleticism is is at all important for your everyday TTP’er.  Isn’t this a concern for only the competitive athlete, coach and/or recruiter?  Well, the short answer is no; however, a little more explanation is required (which was pointed out to me by Patrik) to justify this answer.  Here was Patrik’s comment, separated by my replies:

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”.

Interestingly (and again, that serendipity thing has come into play), I ran across this short video clip, courtesy of Elite Track of Dan Pfaff discussing the differences between strength, power, and skill, and the fact that strength and power are not necessarily correlated with particular event skills.  I always advise young athletes (my own son, a high school baseball player, in particular), never to think that the weight room (in general) and/or strength and conditioning (in particular) can take the place of, or compensate fora lack of, skills training.  Done properly, though, an intelligent strength and conditioning program can certainly enhance acquired skills and, given two athletes with a similar skill level, can make the difference between time on the field and watching the action from the bench — the difference between the medal podium and the loneliest place of all — dreaded 4th.

Now, let’s make sense of all of this for the deckplate level, fitness/health enthusiast that most of us are (or aspire to be).  How does this in any way apply to us?

My premise — the TTP premise — has always been this: A high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fiber (in relation to slow-twitch fiber) within an individual is desirous due to the fact that it is precisely this fiber type that represents the metabolic “big engine” that will induce, under the correct dietary influence, a rapid and (more importantly), sustained fat loss.  It is also my premise that an individual is at his or her healthiest and fittest when they have achieved the highest peak, anaerobic power output they are capable of.  Taking this idea of the correlation between Peak Anaerobic Power (PAPw) and overall health a step further — and noting that it is precisely fast-twitch muscle fiber concentration, in conjunction with an efficient central nervous system (CNS) that is responsible for this power output — it should (and in my experience, does) follow that as an individual’s PAPw trends upward, that individual has both increased their bodily fast-to-slow muscle fiber concentration ratio and reduced their body fat concentration.  To what degree each of these variables has tracked is hard to say — but really, in the short term, does it matter as long as the long term goal is achieved?  What we really need, though, is a simple tool to allow us to more adequately quantify our progress.  Of course, the “mirror test” or “pinch test”  is probably most applicable in the early stages of one’s health/fitness quest, but what to do after that has played out?  This is where the vertical jump test comes into play, with the reasoning behind that being as follows:  a better vert. = an increased PAPw = either an increase in fast-twitch fiber concentration or a decrease in BF %, or both = a healthier, more fit person as compared to that same person at the time of previous testing.

I suppose if there is a leap of faith (pardon the pun) to be made here, it is that a more anaerobically powerful individual is necessarily a fitter/healthier individual.  And though I cannot “prove” this assertion scientifically, I can say that the results of all of my study, and all of my to-date empirical knowledge supports this hypothesis.  This powerful state, in my opinion, is the most natural, (and healthiest expression, i.e., phenotype) of the human genome.

Patrik, though, does make a salient point in his comment.  He rightly points out that the skills aspect of my preferred power testing method (the vertical jump) might be preferentially influenced while the athleticism component (correlated to fast-twitch fiber concentration and CNS efficiency and, therefore, the “health/fitness factor”) might very well remain stagnant — or even decrease — and, therefore skew the outcome (or, more importantly, our interpretation of the results).  He is absolutely correct, of course.  However, this is another reason (actually, the over-riding reason) that the vertical jump (or, CMJ) is the preferred, non-invasive (i.e., as compared to the muscle biopsy) method of testing for relative fast-twitch fiber concentration within an individual.  In a nutshell, the test is technically, rather easily mastered.  Hell, there’s just not that much to it, and any betterment in the vertical jump that can be attributed solely to skill improvement is scant compared to improvements attributed to actual improvements in raw athletic ability.

As an interesting aside to the issue of muscle biopsy testing, I’d like to mention the recently-made-available ACTN3 Sports Performance Test ™. Basically, this test is a measurement of the natural propensity of an individual to preferentially maintain and/or acquire fast-twitch muscle fiber.  Why is this important?  Well, this takes us back to the correlation between fast-twitch muscle fiber prominence in an individual and that individual’s ability to generate a high PAPw, and the correspondence between a high PAPw output and success in power dominated sporting events.  The old East German sporting machine would have certainly appreciated such a test.  It would be interesting to see a study comparing the vertical jumps of people who tested high on the ACTN3 scale vs those who tested low on the scale.  I’m not normally a betting man, but I’d be glad to place money on the outcome of such a study.

In Health,


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


  • 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,