Many people hear the term “benchmark” and immediately think of the fitness challenges they had to do in phys-ed class (I’d refer to the “Canada Fitness Challenge” but that definitely dates me, and anyone under the age of thirty-five – and/or not from Canada – would have absolutely no idea what I was talking about). Unfortunately, that memory often also comes hand-in-hand with an elevated anxiety level, meaning that people skip this important part of a training program.

Now, before we go any further it’s probably a good idea to define what we mean when we use the term “benchmark”. For our purposes, a benchmark is simply a point of reference – for example, how many push-ups can you do? It’s how the information gets used that narrows the definition to a screen, a test or an assessment.

More specifically, using the push-up example:

  • A benchmark that is used as a sign-post (ie. “I can do 25 push-ups) is simply a notation at a specific point in time.
  • A benchmark that is being used to determine if there are any red flags (ie. “When I do a push-up, my left shoulder clicks and hurts”) is a screen.
  • If we take that information and compare it to a norm (ie. “I can do 25 push-ups and the average for other people of my age and gender is 23”) it becomes an assessment.
  • If the information is a criterion that has to be met for one reason or another (ie. “I can do 25 push-ups, but to earn my spot on the team I need to be able to do a minimum of 28”) then it becomes a test.

So screens, tests, and assessments are a type of benchmark, but benchmarks are not necessarily a screen, test, or assessment.

Now, at True North when we begin coaching someone we always start with a very basic movement screen that doubles as an assessment (a “Fundamental Movement Technical Assessment”) – we take a series of basic movements with little to no additional load (weight) and use the results to determine what level of programming is appropriate for the individual. If, however, any of the movements cause a noticeable and limiting pain – not a tightness or restriction, but acute and definitive pain – then we’ll recommend being seen by a manual therapist to determine the right course of action. Lastly, if one of these aforementioned limitations (a tightness or a restriction) does show up, and if it’s asymmetrical (only on one side) then we may break this down further with a movement screen. [1] On the other hand, if this initial technical assessment suggests a solid foundation of the basic skills then we will instead look to establish your current fitness with the “True North Strength and Fitness Standard Benchmarks”.

TheFundamental Movement Technical Assessment

If you are doing this on your own as a precursor to choosing a program, then it’s going to be a self-evaluation of how close your movement is to the videos or images that accompany the instructions – if it is an in-person session (online or otherwise) then we will also be looking at what type of coaching works best for you.

For all of the exercises, we are either doing them with no weight (hinge, squat, split-squat) or at a level that reduces the load significantly (push-ups and rows), and repetitions are only to 5. Remember, this is only to establish a technique baseline and “pre-screen” – it’s not to establish any fitness parameters.

TheTrue North Strength and Fitness Standard Benchmarks

If the FMTA shows a solid foundation of the technique [2] then we’ll “benchmark” your current fitness level. We don’t want this to be a soul-destroying experience, especially if this is your first one (either ever, or in a long time) so we cap the number of repetitions you’re going to be doing at 10-15, limit the amount of weight you do and try to keep the RPE or percentage of maximum heart rate on the aerobic assessment under 65%.

For both the training program and future benchmark session you can use the results to determine the weight selection, either directly or by inferring it relative to the difficulty of the other movement.

Other Tests and Assessments

We also run other tests and assessments, some based on our own design and some that have been designed by other organizations. Whether or not you use one of these rather than our Standard Benchmarks will be dependent on the direction you decide to take with your programming, or if you are training for specific requirements of a job/sport.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned at the start, for some the idea of benchmarks, assessments, and tests can create unpleasant anxiety – if this is the case for you, I’d recommend taking a little closer look at your “why”. In other words, a) since the benchmarks are determined by the program, and the program is determined by your goals, would you be better served by establishing some new goals? and b) if the goals are fundamentally necessary (ie. you need to pass the POPAT in order to earn a place as a recruit in a municipal police force) then what can you do to adjust your mindset with the benchmarks?

Regardless, keep in mind that without doing benchmarks it may be difficult to know if you’re moving in the right direction – a well-kept training log can do this as well, but it may not give the specific measure that’s needed for honest self-evaluation, and training without goals can be like running endlessly on the treadmill – a lot of work and increasing difficulty, but you’re not really getting anywhere.

Hope this has been helpful – remember that part of training smart is having a plan, and training smart lets us train hard… safely!


[1] Remember, we will only do this if there is a restriction or limitation in absence of pain, as pain automatically puts it outside our scope of practice. And if you are a virtual member – goal-based or otherwise – you will likely need to book in for a 30-minute virtual session if a screen is recommended by the Fundamental Movement Technical Assessment.

[2] There may be some movements that are sound and others that need work – if you are working with a goal-based program (as opposed to customized) then this can factor into program choice. If you are on a customized program, then we will figure out the best way to get all skills up to the same level through program choice and modification.