Home Blog Weight Training Programs: Assess, Don’t Assume

Weight Training Programs: Assess, Don’t Assume

Written on May 10, 2011 at 8:06 am, by Eric Cressey

Late last week, my buddy Nick Tumminello made the follow comment that some folks, unfortunately, took out of context:

“Everyone is talking about assessments (and that’s cool). But, no one seems to talking about simply not allowing poor form in training. If you can’t keep good form in a certain exercise (movement pattern), simply don’t do that exercise until you’ve improved the movement or decided that you’re simply not built for it to begin with. Not sure why things need be any more complicated than that!”

For the record, I agree 100% with Nick and understood what he meant, but it would have been easy to assume that he was referring to “trainers train, and therapists assess.”  In other words, many folks assume that as long as you aren’t symptomatic in some way, then you’re safe to start exercising because you can simply “feel” things out as you go and, if something hurts, you don’t do it.

While you obviously shouldn’t do something if it hurts, just because something doesn’t hurt doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful long-term – and to me, that’s the difference between “working someone out” and provided them with an optimal training experience.  As physical therapist Mike Reinold has said, “Assess; don’t assume.”

To illustrate my point, here are a few examples.

Let’s say you have someone with a chronically cranky acromioclavicular joint or osteolysis of the distal clavicle that might only be apparent upon reviewing a health history, palpating the area, or taking someone into full horizontal adduction at the shoulder.  While direct over-pressure on the area (as in a front squat) would surely elicit symptoms, my experience is that most folks won’t notice a significant amount of pain until the next day if the strength exercise selection is inappropriate (e.g., dips, full range-of-motion bench pressing).  You might have avoided what “hurt” during the session (presumably because the individual was warmed up), but you find out after the fact that you just set an individual back weeks in their recovery and fitness program.

How about right scapular winging?  It’s not easily observed if a client has a shirt on, and if you simply throw that individual into a bootcamp with hundreds of push-ups each week, you’re bound to run into trouble.  Here’s the thing, though: even if you observed that winging and wanted to address it in your training, you really have to consider that it can come from one or more of several factors: weak scapular stabilizers, a stiff posterior cuff, insufficient right thoracic rotation, faulty breathing patterns, or poor tissue quality of pec minor, rhomboids, levator scapulae (or any of a number of other muscles/tendons).  Just doing some rows and YTWL circuits will not work.

Also at the shoulder, a baseball pitcher with crazy congenital and acquired shoulder external rotation may have a ton of anterior instability in the “cocking” position of throwing (90 degrees of abduction and external rotation), but be completely asymptomatic.  Back squatting this athlete would exacerbate the problem over the long haul even if he didn’t notice any symptoms acutely.

Finally, in my recent article, Corrective Exercise: Why Stiffness Can Be a Good Thing, I spoke about how someone can have crazy short hip flexors and still manage a perfect squat pattern because his stiffness at adjacent joints is outstanding.  If I don’t assess him in the first place and just assume that he squats well, I’m just waiting for him to strain a rectus femoris during sprinting or any of a number of other activities.  Gross movement in a strength and conditioning program wouldn’t tell me anything about this individual, but targeted assessments would.

The point is that while Nick’s statement is absolutely true – demanding perfect form is corrective in itself – you’ve still got to assess to have a clear picture of where you’re starting.  Otherwise, many cases like this will slip through the cracks.

To that end, I’m happy to announce that my long-time friend and colleague, Mike Robertson, recently released his Bulletproof Knees and Back Seminar DVD Set.  This comprehensive product covers anatomy, assessments, program design, and coaching.  In fact, almost the entire second day is focused on coaching, and that’s an area in which most trainers really do need to improve.  All in all, this isn’t a collection of bits and pieces; it’s Mike’s entire philosophy on training someone who is suffering from knee or low back pain (and how to prevent it in the first place).  Effectively, Mike covers what both Nick and I are getting at in the paragraphs you just read.

This is tremendously valuable information that fitness professionals need to hear, so be sure to check it out.

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14 Responses to “Weight Training Programs: Assess, Don’t Assume”

  1. Michelle Roots Says:

    great article!!!

  2. Mieke Says:

    Excellent article.

  3. Ken Says:

    Great explanation

  4. Rick Kaselj Says:


    Great article.

    Excellent point about the other 4 factors that affect scapular winging.

    I attended Mike’s seminar. It was amazing!

    Rick Kaselj of http://ExercisesForInjuries.com


  5. Nick Tumminello Says:


    Classy, concise and on point!
    Big thanks for the shout out!

    I’ve found that sometimes more scientific minded folks misinterpret simplified things and or dismiss simplicity all together, simply because it doesn’t sound/ seem scientific or technical.

    I’m guessing that was the case in this instance. Regardless, I really appreciate you taking the time to clarify and for sharing your knowledge.

    Coach N

  6. Luka Hocevar Says:

    Mike’s seminar was one of the best and most thorough I’ve ever attended. If you weren’t there then this is a must have resource!


  7. Kellie Says:

    Great article! I have some humbling moments when I learned that I wasn’t firing the right muscles during a given exercises. I had to regress back to basics until I learned how to properly fire those muscles. It bruised my ego for a bit, but in the long run it paid off because I am now stronger in the exercise.

  8. Nick Tumminello Says:


    As always – Classy, concise and on point stuff!

    Many thanks for the shout out and for adding your insights.

    Coach N

  9. Speed and Agility Says:

    Sweet Deal! I will order it. Thanks Eric, a very insightful post. I get so excited when you post new stuff up on the blog

  10. Rachel Guy Says:

    Excellent article. Thanks

  11. Stacey Says:

    All true. But what I really need to know is who’s doing assessments around here (central Ohio) and how do I cure myself of chronic left adductor issues that have stopped my training for a year now…

  12. Brian Bott Says:

    Wouldn’t using a screening tool like the FMS before in depth assessment answer both your and Nick T’s comments. Your individual who banged out the perfect squat would probably have been a 1 on either the in line lunge or hurdle step or obviously ASLR? This failure would then lead you to check Thomas and FABER… etc.? Great topic I’m just finishing a blog topic on.

  13. Michael Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Top stuff! Just wondering if you can extend the offer of your uppe extremity seminar if I purchase mikes bulletproof knees and spine dvds cheers!

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    Sure, Michael.

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