Seventy, 71, 72. Time's up. "Your resting heart rate is 72." Beat, beat, beat, silence. "Your blood pressure is 136 over 84." Pinch, bend, stretch, yawn. It grew tiresome, this same, repetitive routine I'd introduced as a "new client ritual." The procedure I'd gone through more times than I'd care to count became a mundane necessity. It was the textbook fitness assessment, and I believed, back when it started growing tiresome, that I had mastered it. I realize now how mistaken I was.

Letting Go of the Assessment

            Early on in my career, the ritual of the assessment brought me a sense of pride. However, over time, I abandoned the assessment, not because of accidental neglect but because of a conscious choice to "skip it." In hindsight, I can explain both my foolish abandonment and my renewed enthusiasm for the assessment process, one that I hold to this day.
            If you were to ask me early on why I did an assessment with each client, I would have almost robotically answered, "To protect the client, to identify risk if it's present and to aid in program design." The words would come out of my mouth, but over time, I came to question their validity. Did the assessment protect the client? Did it assess risk? Not really. The only test, beyond a subjective health history questionnaire might lead to a reasonable suspicion of risk was the blood pressure reading, and that would take all of three minutes. So did I really utilize the information in program design?     
            As my client base led to referrals and as my professional confidence developed, I no longer felt I needed "the sales tool." I didn't find the expressing of numbers and ratings particularly valuable and found I could gauge exercise intensity without reliance on rigid scientific formulas. It wasn't long before the entire assessment process became expendable and, I daresay, unnecessary. But I was young, naive and had a lot to learn.
            Oddly, three years after I abandoned most of these tests, three years after finding the process tiresome, I not only re-committed to a complete and thorough assessment but, in fact, developed the assessment into an adventure in and of itself — one with a beginning, a progress check, a thrill moment and, if all goes well, an endless number of thrill moments to come.

The Reframing

            The primary reason I returned to assessing and came to fully embrace the process was a reframing of the purpose behind the ritual. I didn't need it as a sales tool or to build rapport with the client. In fact, I didn't actually need the assessment at all, but in recognizing its true value, I gained an entirely new respect for the power of the process.
            The mindset shift happened when Dave, a three-year client, wanted to show off how far he'd come. He had some relatives visiting from out of town and asked if I still had the reports from the original tests that were done. Both Dave and I were aware of the progress he'd made, but returning to the documentation of the "before" was mind-blowing. Dave's relatives gaped at the "before photos," but when I did a three-year follow-up, I could also evidence that although he'd lost 20 pounds on the scale, he lost nearly 30 pounds of fat and packed on muscle. Dave had gone from an unfit, uncertain, insecure "couch potato" to a bona fide fit person, and in my hand, I held the proof.
            I came to understand the real value of the assessment, the resource for indisputable evidence. The more "before" scores I could document, even if I opted not to share them with the clients on preliminary assessment day, the more opportunities I had to document the reality and prove my value. It was no longer a sales pitch, it was science. The assessment process became, in my mind, a vehicle for documenting information that would 
allow, down the road, new prospects to gape at real results. It wasn't going to "sell" the person I was assessing as much as it would sell multitudes of new clients to come, and with that mindset, I went far beyond the simple ritual of physical performance tests.

The Three Bases

            Today, my assessment goes way beyond the preliminary tests and measures and includes a thorough health history, a stress assessment questionnaire, a personality profile and a very thorough evaluation of motivation, goals, attitudes and commitment. In addition, the assessment also includes a detailed informed consent and a client/trainer discussion of the next steps. The standard one-minute pulse, blood pressure and skinfolds are part of the package but so too are the assessment of hip flexor flexibility, hamstring flexibility and shoulder adduction. A simple assessment of posture, a strategic recording of measurements with a standard measuring tape  and an estimated VO2 max using a graded exercise test are all performed for the primary purpose of establishing "the before."
             With all considered, the assessment is a comprehensive exploration of what makes each client biologically, psychologically and experientially unique, and it is also a determination of how that data can be considered in program design, communication and motivation. My trainers learn that the assessment is an opportunity to get to know the client, to understand the client's present beliefs toward exercise and eating and to explore the potential relationship between previous experiences and the desired outcome.

10 Suggestions for the Fine Art of Assessing

  1. Avoid ratings, and whenever possible, avoid sharing "scores" on an initial assessment. Pull out those scores when a future assessment reveals distinctive progress.
  2. Use specialty devices to position yourself as an expert. People may be impressed by technology, but they won't retain you and keep you in their lives because you're good with a computer. Be very hands-on when assessing blood pressure and body composition.
  3. Discuss the tests and the intention of each one to further demonstrate your expertise and to build the client's comfort and confidence in working with you. If it appears as if you're performing a ritualistic series of tests that may embarrass the client, comfort is traded for apprehension. Your willingness to continually educate and empower as you assess allows the perceived value the client attaches to your service to escalate throughout the hour (all of my assessments are one hour in duration).
  4. Before you break out calipers or a scale, begin with a discussion of outlook, expectations and goals, spending 95% of the time listening and the other five percent probing.
  5. Probe thoroughly specific to medications, physical limitations or medical concerns. I'm amazed how often people answer "no" or "none" and then reveal, upon subtle probing, pages of meds or scores of medical issues.
  6. Document as much data as possible so your follow-up assessments allow for an illustration of indisputable progress. Even if a triceps skinfold is 23 mm on the first test and 19 on a follow-up, it's enough for you to illustrate progress. The more data you collect, the more opportunities you have to evidence "results."
  7. During the emotional base of the assessment, elicit not only "fitness goals," but also acquire a clear sense of what the client believes are primary obstacles. These are issues you will have to coach the client through if results are going to manifest as desired by you and your client.
  8. Without judgment, get a clear sense of clients' beliefs related to nutrition. Examine not only nutritional history and eating habits, but also inquire as to what the clients believe optimal nutrition will be. Here too, you'll identify areas where an absence of direction and coaching can hinder results. If a client believes "eat less, weigh less" to be an absolute truth, you're going to want to educate and bring about some belief shifts before you attempt to associate "fitness" with "eating the right foods."
  9. Incorporate tests in the process, which you will use in determining the specifics of exercise prescription for individual clients. In addition, be certain to consider incorporating assessments of power, rotational ability, balance and posture.
  10. Schedule periodic re-tests, but avoid the gratuitous, "Can you just check my body fat?" Think of the assessment as an event, a bundle of tests, not a menu where clients can pick and choose areas they want periodic updates. Respect the professional value of your service, and make certain your clients do the same.

            I know great trainers, trainers I admire, who frown upon the assessment process. But as I've come to know them and explore their methodologies, I find that they are expert assessors, and they assess during every workout and exercise session. They develop an innate sense of evaluating posture, balance, movement and power as the clients move through strategic routines. I made the mistake of abandoning the assessment before I had mastered a true innate sense of the outcome. Now, I've corrected that mistake, and whether you choose to call it an assessment or it becomes integrated into "what you do," recognize the value of evidence, of probing and of identifying those traits that make each client unique.
            Phil Kaplan is a fitness professional committed to excellence. He shares his strategies in his master coaching programs titled, "The Be Better Project." Find details and programs at