Litmus Tests for all Training Goals

Litmus Tests for all Training Goals

Imagine a penniless homeless person asking a financial advisor for a plan to buy a $10 million home. That’s like when a brand new remote coaching client once asked me for a plan to achieve the coveted Beast Tamer title. This involves doing a pull-up, a strict military press and a pistol squat each with a 48kg (106lbs) kettlebell, a.k.a. the beast. Fair enough, great goal!

My initial assessments include a flexed-arm hang, which means you hang from a bar holding your sternum tightly against it for as long as possible. His flexed-arm hang time was less than 10 seconds. He said he could do six pull-ups. If said client can’t hold his sternum against the bar for 10 seconds, doing six good pull-ups (bringing sternum to bar for each rep) is completely impossible. I didn’t need to watch the video he made to know his pull-up reps were going to be weak, unsafe and leagues away from where they need to be in order to be able to even start adding volume or load — elevating shoulders, extended neck, loose grip, over-extended lower back, disengaged legs and hips.

I politely explained the path. Essentially, from almost-zero to hero. Before starting any high volume or high load pull-up program, I want people to hit at least 40 seconds for this flexed-arm hang assessment (along with a few other prerequisite benchmarks), so I know they have the necessary scapulae depression strength. I deemed his journey to taming the beast as being a good five years of consistent and well-structured training (a no BS policy is essential). He took it pretty well. His initial bespoke programs involved many activities that he enjoyed and was capable of, but he had a healthy portion of the foundational work that he needed spliced in. However, after three months, impatience got the better of him and he fell off the training wagon.

Cases like this are very common. You’ve probably heard of the phrase, learn to walk before you can run. For every movement, activity and exercise possible there’s a prerequisite ability that should be in place before any injury-free progress can be made. I call these litmus tests and here are some of my most common ones.

Everyday Litmus Tests

The following litmus tests are to help everyday, able-bodied people improve their quality of life and longevity. If an everyday exerciser or athletic person says no to any of these, alarm bells should ring — I respectfully suggest that fixing these basics will help everything else you do at the higher end of performance. I can’t offer blanket litmus tests for disabled folk due to the highly individual nature of disabilities.

Can you balance on one leg and tie a shoestring?

No: Try every day. It’ll help you in the long run. If you regularly work out, this should be a priority since it’s essentially a squat as far as a single side is concerned. Pulling your laces up to your hand is the same movement that both legs perform during a squat pattern.

Yes: Great. Work on your posture when you do this and try to remain as tall as possible.

Can you balance on one leg with your eyes closed for more than 10 seconds?

No: Probable vestibular issues that are negatively affecting all movement and could well be related to (or even be the cause of) any chronic pain you may have. Seek a Z-Health practitioner to assess and address.

Yes: Cleared!

Can you hold a plank for two minutes?

No: Sub-optimal torso strength. Moderate-to-high risk of lower back injury if you want to pick up baby or do anything remotely physical. Work on crawl patterns, plank variations and hang out on the floor a lot more.

Yes: Good.

Without using your arms or hands at all, can you sit down on the floor with your legs crossed comfortably, remain there for two minutes (sitting upright) and then get back up again?

No: In America, fall-related injuries are the leading cause of death for adults over the age of 65 (according to the CDC). Most desk bound westerners would fail this litmus test. I think it’s is a way of assessing your likelihood to fall into this high-risk category.

Yes: Nice! Keep up the good work. Visit the floor daily, so you never lose this important skill.

Do you walk briskly for at least 20 minutes every day?

No: Do your cardiovascular system a favor and work it into your daily schedule. It’s probably the highest value exercise we have available. Plus, it’s free.

Yes: Check. Now work toward 40 minutes.


Self-Assessments and Litmus Tests for Everyday Exercisers

If you regularly exercise, here are some simple self-assessments. They may shed light on what you could prioritize in your training regimen to avoid performance plateaus and injury.

For how long can you leopard crawl in an infinity shape (figure 8) without putting your knees down or allowing your butt to rise above the level of your shoulders?

0-2 minutes: Build torso strength as a priority (before almost all forms of resistance training). Forget push-ups — your torso and shoulders are not strong enough for proper push-ups.

2-4 minutes: Acceptable for entry-level resistance training, but continue to develop torso strength to help avoid injury and training plateaus.

4+ minutes: You’re good to go for all athletic activities. Strength, conditioning and BJJ legend Steve Maxwell said that pro MMA fighters should reach 10 minutes. #goals


For how long can you balance on one leg with your eyes closed?

0-20 seconds: Red flag. A likely underlying vestibular or neurological issue is present if you can’t fix this within a few weeks. Seek an assessment from a Z-Health practitioner. All movement and performance improves with better balance.

20-40 seconds: You’re out of the red for everyday life, but still in the red for running. Address your stability and balance issue with regular three-dimensional movement and rolling patterns such as those found within the Original Strength syllabus. Regular yoga would help too!

40+ seconds: Congratulations! You’re OK to run provided you pass the next litmus test. Gravitate to natural running surfaces such as trails, sand or wooden boardwalks. I LOVE running. But I don’t think most humans are built for being able to run on concrete or asphalt. I understand that accessibility can be a major issue.

Can you jump rope nonstop for five minutes? Tripping up is ok if you crack on immediately.

No: Your lower limbs are probably not strong enough to run without risking injury.

Yes: Green light for running. Keep to natural surfaces if possible.

How long can you hang from a bar (using any grip and holding your upper sternum against the bar)?Stop the clock when your sternum drops below the bar.

0-20 seconds: Address this scapulae depression and/or grip weakness before even trying to train for pull-ups

20-40 seconds: Scapulae depression/grip strength is OK, but could be better. Hit 40 seconds to help secure a good quality pull-up

40+ seconds: Standard baseline benchmark goal for any athletic individuals, to improve pulling strength

Can you sit into a deep squat position for three minutes?

No: Aside from light goblet squats to aid with this movement, I advise against loading your squat pattern. No barbell squats, no front squats and no box jumps. Adding load or speed to poor movement is a recipe for injury and only strengthens poor movement.

Yes: You’re OK to add load to your squat pattern, but I advise reaching a level of comfort for at least four minutes before any high-volume, high-load or high-speed squats.

Adopt the six-point position (below). Rotate upward and try to look at a single point directly overhead. Can you see it?

No: Your thoracic spine (ribs attached) is restricted so much that pressing overhead is probably unsafe. You’re also a likely candidate for neck or shoulder problems. Probably in need of a lot of breathing work. Sleepy diaphragm = restricted T-spine.

Yes: Good. One eye gets you out of the red. Being able to see your single point with both eyes indicates that your thoracic spine mobility is ok for most athletic tasks.


Can you broad jump (two-footed take off, two-footed landing) the length of your own body height?

No: Developing some basic power will make you feel lighter and give you a spring in your step. I suggest a lot more daily walking then adding some jump roping to your program.

Yes: Good! If you’re athletic, increasing this skill to 120% of your body height offers a good all-round carryover effect to most activities.

From the six-point position, can you perform five camshafts (scap rolls) forward and five backward without any relative head or spine movement? (See video below)

No: Owning the position of your scapulae (shoulder blades) is key to developing good strong push-ups. If you can't stop your head from nodding about you may have weak deep neck flexors, which usually means your entire deep core is weak too. Develop this skill as part of your warm-ups and clear the path to stardom in all pressing movements.

Yes: Great. Now add load and perform the same movement from the plank position to further aid your strength at the high end. Being able to do this from the single arm plank position should be a pre-requisite goal for anyone in competitive contact sports and anyone with upper body strength goals: one arm push-up, heavy military pressing, high-volume push-ups, freestanding handstand or handstand push-up, etc.


Can you pass the ipsilateral bird dog assessment (see image below)? Place same-side hand knee and foot in a straight line. Touch opposite side knee to elbow then fully extend those opposite side limbs fully. Repeat this for three smooth reps.

No: You probably have some underlying stability issues, specifically in the lateral line or rotationally. Address these to unlock more power and performance.

Yes: Check

Can you sit into a deep squat position and hold a naked (20kg) bar locked out overhead for 90 seconds?

No: Unless under one-on-one supervision from an extremely good professional coach, Olympic lifting is not for you (yet). If some unlearned trainer instructs you to do the O-lifts (without your being able to pass this test) and it results in any pain or injury, they were 100% responsible and completely negligent.

Yes: If I were your trainer, you would have my blessing to find an O-lifting coach and begin the extremely rewarding and highly athletic journey, should you wish. The more comfortable you are in this position the better, so I suggest continuing to develop this to 2 minutes as a standard baseline.

Can you walk while holding a kettlebell locked out overhead for 45 seconds per arm? Can you perform a get up with that same kettlebell?

No: Don’t try to snatch or press that kettlebell. You don’t own the top position, yet. Work on your overhead carries and bottoms-up lifts.

Yes: Snatching and pressing that KB is OK.

Keeping your feet flat on the floor, feet together and knees together, can you sink down into a deep squat?

No: Your hips and ankles could use some more love if you want to hit goals such as pistol squats. Maybe try stability work so your nervous system unlocks more range of motion (groundwork, rolling patterns, breath drills, etc.)

Yes: Excellent! Good pistol squats are within your reach.

Can you swing a kettlebell (one arm and hardstyle) that’s 25% of your bodyweight 200 times in under ten minutes in the following specific format? Set timer to bleep every 30 seconds, 20 times. 10 single arm swings on every bleep then put it down. Alternate arms from one set to the next. Kettlebell must be grounded after every set of 10 swings.

No: Spend more time on swinging before you try snatching. A good snatch lays in a well-patterned swing. A good snatch also relies on a vice-like hook-grip that you can develop with lots of swings.

Yes: You’re OK to snatch a light KB, provided you can pass the other snatch litmus test above. However, achieving this with a kettlebell that’s 33% of your bodyweight is a very respectable benchmark and achievement that will produce very noticeable positive effects in many other areas of your athletic performance. Complete this protocol with the beast (48kg) and you can join me, Levi Markwardt and Mateusz Kwiatkowski (globally) in swinging the hall of fame.

Well, I hope that was interesting! If you’d like to take yourself through the series of self-assessments that I assign to new clients, CLICK HERE. There are unlimited training possibilities available to all of us that are enjoyable, effective and within our capability without risking long-term injury.

Strength and honor!

Phil McDougall

PS. Acknowledgements & credits: I learned the broad jump test and the Zenith twist test from Dan John. The ipsilateral bird dog assessment was inspired by Gray Cook and FMS. The rest are my own based from assessing and training hundreds (maybe even thousands) of everyday people over the past ten years as a trainer and massage therapist. That said, humans have been assessing and training to help their health and performance (on the battlefield) for many thousands of years. Nothing in fitness is new - just the way it's marketed.

IG: @phil.mcdougall

Youtube: @philipmcdougall9675

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