Taking a Thoughtful Approach with Client Fitness Assessments

The types of fitness assessments and screening protocols are varied and diverse. Previous thinking would have personal trainers conduct as many assessments as possible with their client because collecting data is valuable and measurable. Theoretically, the more data you have, the better. Practically, this isn’t true.

When it comes to conducting fitness assessments and baseline activity screenings, it’s important to take a more pragmatic and thoughtful approach and base your decisions about which assessments to conduct on an individual basis with each client.

Pre-screening Documents

There are certain “tests” or forms that cannot be dismissed. These include items such as a PAR-Q+, a basic informed consent that clearly describes and outlines risk and benefits associated with the intended activities. Further, a health status and behavior questionnaire is valuable as this document functions to gather information regarding current medications, preexisting conditions and medical history, past and present activity, nutritional, and lifestyle behaviors, stress-related measures, and health-related attitudes.

Physical Fitness Tests

Ideally, we would assess a client’s resting measurements (i.e. body fat percentage, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.), his or her muscular strength, cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, and flexibility using a variety of different protocols and equipment. That said, this isn’t an ideal world and evaluating a client’s physical fitness has a fair amount to do with a client’s current skill level, ability, comfort level, and health status.

For example, if you had a client who noted being sedentary for the past several years both at work and at home, we can make an educated guess that his or her cardiorespiratory endurance level is notably low. We don’t have to require that this client complete a one mile walk or 1.5 mile run to determine that the level of performance would be well below average. Similarly, if you have a client who is considerably overweight, you wouldn’t perform a skinfold test. Calipers only open so far and a client in this category doesn’t need the emotional stress. It’s safe to assume the body fat percentage is higher than is healthy.

Alternatives to Physical Fitness Assessments

This is not to say that physical fitness assessments aren’t important or that you don’t need to conduct any. It is, however, an encouragement to think outside the skinfold calipers and step tests. Take time to set SMART goals with each client and build the necessary rapport. Nothing will derail a client’s motivation faster than forcing him or her to go through a battery of tests they aren’t entirely comfortable performing. It’s often about the nonscale measurements – a client’s energy levels throughout the day, for example.

If you have a client who you feel isn’t ready for a full assessment, stick to the basics of conversation, goal setting, and offering alternatives to data-driven measurements. Some things you can try might be:

  • Asking a client to journal his or her clothing fit. As a client progresses, clothes will fit differently and become looser.
  • Encourage a client to keep a sleep inventory and evaluate how his or her sleep habits/patterns/quality change as the weeks go on.
  • Have a discussion with a client about what each type of test involves and let him or her decide what might be the most comfortable and valuable initially.
  • Evaluate a client’s stress level and determine how that changes as the program progresses.

Not all progress is measured with tools and stopwatches. Sometimes progress is about the less tangible outcomes such as stress, energy, clothing sizes, and positive internal emotional health. These elements should be regarded as equally important as other directly measurable results. Be thoughtful and considerate in your approach to testing your fitness clients. Encourage them to feel better – not just look better.

Written by Dr. Erin Nitschke

NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, NFPT, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune.Visit her blog at: