Simple Group Assessment in Seconds

by Brett Klika on Apr 18, 2014

Skills & Drills

Begin with the basics and help participants exercise smarter, not harder.

Group exercise remains a popular option at fitness facilities, and instructors are being stretched to teach in smarter and more strategic ways. In one class you may have a multitude of experience levels, physical abilities and personal motivations. While this generates a unique energy, it also creates a challenge—and may make it more difficult to provide a safe, effective environment for everyone.

By using a simple, movement-based group assessment during the warm-up, you can screen for possible injury concerns and create progressions and regressions that address individual needs. Participants don’t just move— they improve! When your attendees move better, they move more, which improves health and wellness markers.

Assessment: Quantity or Quality?

All too often, assessment is based on movement quantity, not quality. “How many [insert gold standard exercise] can you do?” People with high maximal numbers are considered “fit” and are aggressively progressed, regardless of their ability to move correctly. People with low maximal numbers are considered “out of shape” and regressed, or moved to the back of the room. These people are rarely taught how to move.

While the “maximal numbers assessment” may provide a baseline and benchmark, it doesn’t reflect coordination, mobility, pain with movement, or structural integrity. These important variables play a significant role in a person’s ability to move well, to progress and to prevent injury. If participants don’t improve or they get injured, the program becomes ineffective. Remedy this by assessing everyone’s ability to do certain foundational movements.

Wait—how do you do this with a group? Individual movement screens are the industry standard; however, it’s difficult to do them in large groups with one instructor. While it is impractical to assess every individual, during a short, dynamic warm-up, you can lead simple self-assessments that will provide valuable feedback about each person’s specific needs and abilities. You can then use this information to create safe, effective and engaging workouts for everyone.

Foundational Training

When assessing movement, consider how humans learn to move. We begin as babies on our backs, and we learn to roll over, creep along the floor, get up on our knees and rock, and from there we crawl, hip hinge/squat, stand, walk, run, jump and so on. Every new skill builds on a previous one and is the predecessor to an even higher-level skill. If you can’t stand, you can’t walk.

Adults still build on the basics. Nearly every advanced exercise can be traced to a simple foundational movement. There’s a continuum. Advanced exercises are basic exercises with extra coordination, load or range of motion applied to them. A person’s ability to do an advanced movement safely and effectively hinges on his ability to perform the basic movement in the same manner.

Take the squat, for example. Barbell or other loaded squats, jump variations and lower-body movements evolve from the squat. The quality of this basic movement will affect the safety and effectiveness of more advanced versions. This is true for a variety of foundational movements.

The Basics

The most common exercises can be traced back to these basic movements:

  1. squat (loaded squats, jump squats/plyometrics, lunges)
  2. push-up plank (push-ups, crawls, presses)
  3. skipping or marching (running, agility drills)

While there are many more possibilities, assessing an individual’s ability to perform these movements will provide you with important feedback on how to create safe, effective programming for all levels. If a participant can’t do one of these moves correctly, or if it causes her pain, progressing to more advanced exercises may result in injury or frustration. It’s more important that she learn how to do them correctly and that she practice regressed versions as much as possible.

While you can very easily lead the class through these movements during a warm-up and get a good feeling for the group’s proficiency, it’s possible to get even more specific and personalized, even in the group environment. How? By creating clear, objective criteria for each movement and by using a simple numerical scoring system.


The squat is the foundation of many lower-body movements. Without the basic mobility, strength and coordination needed for a proper body weight squat, more advanced movements are impractical and unnecessary.

Test: Wall Squat

  • Have participants face a wall, toes touching it.
  • Cue them to reach their hands toward the floor, inside the knees, while keeping arms straight.
  • Ask them to squat as low as possible, keeping the head forward, heels on the ground, hands reaching toward the floor.
  • Once participants have touched the floor, reached a terminal depth or fallen away from the wall, have them return to the standing position.
  • If a participant falls away from the wall, or if part of the body makes contact with the wall, have the person move 2–4 inches away and repeat the test.
  • If a participant completes the assessment perfectly, have him repeat the test with arms straight overhead.


  1. The movement causes a participant pain.
    Do not let the participant do any version of this movement; recommend that the person see a healthcare professional.
  2. A participant can’t reach a minimum of 90 degrees of knee flexion before a part of the upper body touches the wall, the head turns sideways, the participant falls backward or the heels come off the ground.
    Have the participant improve mobility, strength and coordination by performing regressed versions of the squat: static squats, floor-up reach squats or goblet squats.
  3. A participant completes the entire movement with hands touching the ground without turning the head, contacting the wall or lifting the heels off the ground.
    Proceed with squat-based movements in addition to basic progressions, such as jump squats, broad jumps, cone hops, box jumps and so on.


Skipping is the foundation of rhythmic locomotion. While marching and crawling precede skipping developmentally, the rhythmic demands of most fitness classes more closely match the demands of skipping. If someone is unable to achieve the rhythm and coordination needed for skipping in multiple directions, agility drills that require change of direction, reaction, acceleration and deceleration will prove difficult and may be unsafe. Skipping is also the foundation for advanced running and sprinting.

Test: Box Skip

  • Have participants line up facing forward.
  • Cue them to skip four times forward, four times to the right, four times backward and four times to the left, completing a “box.”
  • Instruct them that the forward/backward skipping motion should include an opposite arm/leg movement, and that the ankle should clear the knee at a consistent rhythm.
  • Note that in sideways skipping, hips face forward.


  1. The movement causes a participant pain.
    Do not let the participant do any version of this movement; recommend that the person see a healthcare professional.
  2. A participant cannot maintain an opposite arm/leg pattern. She may have difficulty maintaining rhythm or may fall/trip.
    Perform regressed versions of skipping drills (marching) or basic agility drills (shuffles, forward/backward runs).
  3. A participant maintains the skipping and opposite arm/leg motion throughout the test. He may lose the motion or rhythm but, after a short reset, successfully reestablishes the pattern. During the sideways skip, he is able to keep the hips oriented forward.
    The participant displays the basic rhythm and coordination needed to progress to acceleration/deceleration, direction change and other more advanced agility drills.

Push-Up Plank

Being able to maintain a plank position is the foundation of static core work and of push-up variations. The push-up is popular and regularly designed into programs, so it’s important to know whether or not participants have the prerequisite postural setup to perform this move correctly.

Test: Push-Up Plank for Set Time

  • Have participants get into a push-up position with a flat back, shoulders directly over hands.
  • Ask them to hold this position for 30 seconds while maintaining good posture.
  • Cue them not to let the hips rise or fall during the assessment and to keep the shoulders over the hands.


  • The movement causes a participant pain.
    Do not do let the participant do any version of this movement; recommend that the person see a healthcare professional.
  • A participant can’t hold the plank with hips parallel to the floor and with shoulders over hands for 30 seconds, or she must come to her knees.
    Perform regressed versions, such as elbow plank, elevated standing plank and crawling movements.
  • A participant can hold the position correctly for the allotted time.
    The participant displays the structural strength and stability to do standing plank movements such as push-up variations and prone trunk stability variations.

If you have a smaller group (3–6 people), you can assess everyone and record the scores yourself. In larger groups, participants can assess each other. While these assessments are easily integrated into a dynamic warm-up, it’s not necessary to perform them every day. However, you may want to do them consistently in larger groups where attendance can be somewhat transient, so that you can determine individual proficiency levels within class.

Integrating the Assessments

The following example shows how to integrate the assessments into a group warm-up.

  • supine hip raises
  • supine Frankenstein kicks
  • prone swimmers
  • push-up plank test
  • mountain climbers
  • squat test
  • standing Frankenstein kicks
  • one-leg balance reaches
  • jumping jacks
  • skip test
  • shuffles
  • cariocas

When each individual knows his level on a given exercise, you then refer to “1s, 2s and 3s” and provide the proper progression/regression for each one. For example, at the push-up station in a boot camp, you would suggest the following:

  • 1s on the plank test: Do lunges (or another movement avoiding the position).
  • 2s on the plank test: Do elbow planks.
  • 3s on the plank test: Do push-ups.

When you address individual needs objectively, you truly become a movement educator instead of merely a cheerleader. Correct movement skills become the foundation of your class, and you encourage participants not only to “do it,” but to do it right. The class environment becomes a valuable opportunity to improve fitness and create happy, healthy, pain-free lives.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 11, Issue 5

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About the Author

Brett Klika

Brett Klika IDEA Author/Presenter

Brett Klika is the director of athletic performance at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, California. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance. Brett oversees a staff of eight strength coa...