Here's what you need to know...
- Do heavy RDLs and keep your spine neutral. See if you can pause at the bottom without your lower spine bending. If you can't then you're going too heavy.
- 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 the way you press.
- 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, train using slower, controlled negatives.
- Overhead press 80-90% of your 1RM and close your eyes. You should be able to hold it for 10 seconds.
- You should be able to sprint at any time. Inability to do so will expose neuromuscular inhibition, strength deficits, imbalance, weakness, etc.
- Try lifting 80-90% of your 1RM without warming up. Being able to do this reveals movement competency.
Why Test Yourself?
Use these tests to find out more about your strength, athleticism, and overall muscle function. If you're able to pass a majority of these "checks and balances" with no problems, your chances of injury are slim, not to mention the fact that you're as strong as an ox.
1 – RDL Posture
The Romanian Deadlift Test of Spinal Positioning will tell you if your posture is out of whack. Maintaining your posture during heavy lifting is the most important factor when it comes to strength training technique. Once spinal alignment is lost, everything else immediately deteriorates.
Without proper posture, your chance for injury increases, force production is compromised, and stimulation to the appropriate muscles is negated. It also limits your ability to set your shoulders and hips in their proper position, making it impossible to perform any movement correctly and safely.
Thoroughly warm up with progressive ramping. Load the bar with roughly 75-80% of your 1RM deadlift. Perform a few perfect RDL's while keeping a neutral spine throughout. See if you can pause near the bottom and keep your spine neutral.
If you're unable to pause near the bottom (just before touching the floor) and keep your spine locked in, then you have no business using whatever weight you currently use on deadlifts. 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 situation, strengthen your entire back with plenty of rows, pull-ups, and RDLs with manageable loads. Work on hip mobility and build strength throughout the entire posterior chain. Most importantly, reinforce perfect posture and scapula positioning on all of your movements. You may even want to video yourself to assess posture. It'll be readily apparent when spinal positioning begins to degrade.
2 – Dumbbell Press Strength
If your bench press form is setting you up for shoulder or chest injury, it's time to re-assess your technique. Choose any chest press variation such as flat, incline, or decline bench press. Use dumbbells held in the neutral position (palms facing each other) with your elbows tucked close to your sides.
Ramp up in weight and to determine how much you can handle. Note the weight. You should be able to handle at least 80% of your normal barbell load when combining the weight of the dumbbells. If you typically bench 200 pounds on an incline barbell press, then you should be able to handle 80-pound dumbbells in a similar fashion.
This tucked-elbow position 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.
If you fail this test, start adding 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. Because most individuals lack 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 100-pound dumbbells. This would indicate 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.
3 – Eyes Closed
This 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. 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 lack the proper motor control, stability, and sensory feedback from their muscle spindles, this one often overwhelms their nervous system, making it feel impossible. If this describes you, slow down the eccentric (lowering or negative) 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 pause in the stretched position will do the trick.
4 – Renegade Row
Having a proper balance of strength between the anterior and posterior sides of your body is critical for performance, posture, and joint health.
Heavy renegade rows are one of the few all-in-one exercises that demand such a fine balance. When performed correctly they're a combination of back strength, core stability, anti-rotation, shoulder stability, lumbo pelvic control, and hip stability. Renegade rows eliminate the ability to use excessive momentum, rotation, and low back thrusting commonly witnessed in rowing movements.
If you're unable to perform these with 80-90% of the load you typically use for other rowing exercises (such as single-arm dumbbell rows) or if you're unable to use a load equivalent to your body weight (a 200-pound individual would use 100-pound dumbbells), then you're likely lacking strength and function in the aforementioned areas. If you have to lower the load significantly from what you typically use for rows, then clean up your rowing technique and learn to control the weight.
5 – Mid-Rep Pause
This is a strong indicator of whether your muscles continuously fire and activate throughout the entire motion with proper motor unit recruitment.
Use approximately 80% of your maximal load on any compound movement. Pause midway through both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phase. If you lack the ability to perform this on any lift, you'll want to quickly remedy it.
If you cheat through the movement, use excessive momentum, are asymmetrical, lack tightness, demonstrate instability, or have a significant strength deficit in the involved muscles, the test itself will be a rude awakening.
Incorporate 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.
6 – Single-Arm Pressing
Lack of core activation and full-body tightness, particularly during upper body pressing movements, is a common training mistake. Because a majority of these movements are performed while either lying or sitting on a bench, it's 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 it's likely to compromise form, posture, and lifting mechanics.
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 you typically handle 100-pounds in each hand, 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, Pallof presses, loaded carries, and of course unilateral dumbbell work will do the job.
7 – Heavy Lunge
Proper lunge technique with heavy loads involves high levels of strength, stability, symmetry, and mobility. All lunge variations (split squats, Bulgarian squats, and traditional lunges) are the only lower body movement patterns that involve eccentric lengthening of all lower body musculature, including hip and knee flexors and extensors.
Ramp up in weight. Perform several controlled lunges on each leg with at least 50% of your 1RM squat.
If you're unable to do lunges with at least 50% of your 1RM squat, then it's time to incorporate more lunges and Bulgarian squats into your training using controlled reps with a full range of motion.
8 – Overhead Efficiency
Properly locking a heavy load into the overhead slot position is perhaps the most underrated upper body skill a lifter can possess. Various exercises – like Olympic lifting variations, overhead presses, and even horizontal pulling movements such as pull-ups – require efficient overhead mechanics. They also require 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. Use either your bodyweight or 80-90% of your 1RM 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, it's time to address mobility, stability, and strength from head to toe. Incorporate more overhead movements into your training.
9 – Single-Leg RDL
Address foot and ankle function. Without proper strength, stability, and activation in the feet and ankles, your chance for injury exponentially increases. The single leg RDL test determines foot and ankle mechanics and the strength of your entire posterior chain.
Use 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 – go slow on the negatives, hold at the peak of contraction.
You'll receive immediate feedback on this. It's impossible to perform without perfect form. So if it feels like you have a greater chance of winning the lottery than successfully completing this test, work on foot and ankle function as well as mobility, stability, and strength throughout your entire posterior chain.
10 – Olympic Rings Equivalency
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 push-ups they can consecutively perform while only being able to complete a handful of these movements when suspended from rings. This is merely an indication that form and function are greatly amiss.
So let's 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.
Choose a movement like dips or push-ups. See how your performance stacks up against the ring variation. If you can perform standard weighted dips with 90 pounds for 5 reps you should be capable of doing nearly the same on Olympic rings.
For most, 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 weak 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. 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.
11 – Sprint
If your muscles are functioning properly and your movement mechanics are optimal, you should be able to go into an all-out sprint anywhere, any time. It's something you should be able to do without injury, discomfort, or restriction.
Sprint without warming up. This is the most informative diagnostic test 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, working on the aforementioned criteria first will assure that the sprint test will gradually become more feasible.
12 – No-Prep
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 shows movement competency that any well-trained athlete should be capable of.
Perform any lift any time, even under semi-cold conditions using 80-90% of your 1RM.
Unable to do it? 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?
|Score||Muscle Function Rating|
|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.|