In this article, we are challenging you to asses your flexibility and balance with these tests.
Why we should test flexibility and balance
Flexibility and balance assessments may be used to evaluate general health and mobility. However, their relationship with performance is not well understood. As such, results from evaluations of flexibility and balance are typically compared to minimum values that reflect acceptable levels of function.
With respect to flexibility, extreme laxity (or looseness) at a given joint may increase the potential for injury. The process of ageing is often coupled with declines in both flexibility and balance. While diminished balance may be of little concern for most healthy athletes and young people, assessments in those with limited functional mobility or those recovering from an injury play a crucial role in return-to-play or return-to-activity decisions. Therefore, it’s important to collect baseline measures of balance for an athlete or client that can be used for comparison in the event of an injury.
Flexibility and balance tests
The assessments we have looked at to test flexibility and balance are:
- Sit-and-reach test
- Back-scratch test
- Lumbar stability tests (trunk extension, trunk flexion and side bridge)
These are taken from our new and popular book Assessments for Sport and Athletic Performance.
In the book you will also find:
- Balance error scoring system (BESS)
- Single-leg stance test
- Tandem gait test
- Shoulder elevation test
- Functional reach test
- Total body rotation test
As well as assessments for:
- Muscular strength and endurance
- Cardiorespiratory fitness
The sit-and-reach test measures a combination of hip and low back flexibility.
Sit-and-reach length in centimetres or inches
Measuring stick and adhesive tape
Before You Begin
Secure a long measuring stick to the floor and place a strip of tape at the 23-centimetre (9.1 in.) mark. A standardised warm-up followed by moderate-intensity stretching should be conducted prior to beginning the assessment.
- Shoes/trainers should be removed.
- Sit with the measuring stick between your legs and place the bottom of your heels along the tape at the 23-centimetre (or 9.1-in.) mark. Keep your knees straight and your feet 30 centimetres or 10 to 12 inches apart (see figure 5.1).
- Now overlap your hands and fingers and slowly reach forward as far as possible along the measuring stick. Once you’ve reached as far as you can, hold that position for two seconds.
- Record the greatest length achieved to the nearest centimetre (or 0.25 in.) during the movement, relax prior to making three more attempts.
Alternatives or Modifications
A sit-and-reach box with heels placed at the leading edge of the box may also be used. For individuals who might experience discomfort during the standard protocols, the back-saver sit-and-reach test examines each leg separately with knee of the uninvolved leg bent and the heel placed on the floor. The back-saver sit-and-reach can be further modified by having the athlete or client sit on a bench with the foot of the uninvolved leg placed on the floor.
After You Finish
The highest value of the trials (typically the fourth attempt) is the final result. If a sit-and-reach box is used and the heel placement is not at 23 centimetres (9.1 in.), a zero-point adjustment accounting for the difference may be needed to compare with normative data. For example, if the sit-and-reach box places the heel at 26 centimetres (10.2 in.), subtract 3 centimetres (1.2 in.) from the final result.
While much debate exists regarding the relationship between low-back pain and sit-and-reach values, considerations for sport- and activity-specific requirements may be particularly relevant. Within a given sport, positional characteristics may provide an indication of the potential for success. An analysis of the athletes participating in the National Hockey League Combine demonstrated that, while goalkeepers tended to possess greater body fat and lower strength and explosiveness than other positions, they had significantly greater sit-and-reach scores. This indicates the benefits that flexibility provide when attempting to block shots.
Sit-and-reach classification values are provided in figure 5.3 for boys, figure 5.4 for girls, figure 5.5 for men, and figure 5.6 for women.
Figure 5.3 Sit-and-reach classifications for boys: low—30th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—70th percentile.
Figure 5.4 Sit-and-reach classifications for girls: low—30th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—70th percentile.
Figure 5.5 Sit-and-reach classifications across the lifespan for men: low—30th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—70th percentile.
Figure 5.6 Sit-and-reach classifications across the lifespan for women: low—30th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—70th percentile.
The back-scratch test is used to measure shoulder flexibility.
The overlap or gap between the fingers in centimetres or inches
Ruler or yardstick/measuring stick and measuring tape
Before You Begin
A standardised warm-up, including arms swings, arm circles and shoulder rotations, should be conducted prior to beginning the assessment.
- Raise your right elbow toward your right ear and reach down your back as far as possible. Now start with your left arm directly by your side and slowly move your elbow towards the middle of your back while reaching your left hand up as far as possible toward (or past) your right hand. Try to hold this position for two seconds.
- Use a ruler or measuring tape to record the greatest finger overlap length achieved to the nearest centimetre or quarter-inch. If you are not able to overlap your fingers of the right and left hands, measure the gap between the fingers and record the result as a negative value.
- Repeat the same procedure but with your left hand coming from above and your right hand coming from below.
- Once again, use a ruler to record the greatest finger overlap length achieved or gap between the fingertips to the nearest centimetre or quarter-inch and prior to making three more attempts.
After You Finish
The highest value of the trials (typically the fourth attempt) for each side are the final results. The individual values for the left and right sides can be evaluated or the average value from both sides can be calculated as follows:
Many training programmes attempt to incorporate both strength and aerobic components into a single concurrent exercise regimen. An 11-week intervention (with training 3 times per week) showed strength and aerobic improvements for women engaged in serial (consisting of a strength session followed by an aerobic session) and integrated (consisting of alternating sets of strength and aerobic training in a single session) concurrent exercise. However, the women in the serial exercise group exhibited no changes (or even potential decreases) in back-scratch scores while the women in the integrated exercise group showed significant increases.
These results are interesting but should be interpreted with caution and within the context of the chosen activities of the athlete or client. For example, in the sport of judo, where a well-developed upper-body musculature may provide some competitive advantage, professional athletes have demonstrated lower back-scratch scores compared to recreational athletes.
There are also mixed reports on concurrent training in general. In a recent article Is concurrent training effective we wrote about how cardiovascular and resistance modes of training compete with one another at a molecular level. The body tends to favour cardio over resistance.
Back-scratch classifications for boys (left and right side): low—30th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—70th percentile.
Back-scratch classifications for girls (left and right side): low—30th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—70th percentile.
Back-scratch classifications across the lifespan for men: low—25th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—75th percentile.
Back-scratch classifications across the lifespan for women: low—25th percentile; typical—50th percentile; high—75th percentile.
Lumbar Stability Tests
Lumbar stability tests measure the endurance of the trunk muscles.
Accumulated time, in seconds, until the athlete or client is unable to hold the desired position
Sturdy table; belts or an assistant to serve as a spotter; stool or chair; 60-degree wedge for adults (or 50 degrees for youth); stopwatch or timing device
Before You Begin
A standardised warm-up followed by moderate-intensity stretching should be conducted prior to beginning the assessment.
- Lie with your hips facing downward and your legs on top of the table. Adjust yourself so that your lower body (from the waist down) is supported by the table, and use your arms to support your upper body on the stool or chair.
- Secure the athlete or client to the table with belts around the calves and thighs, or direct the spotter to hold the athlete’s or client’s ankles.
- Next, the athlete should remove their arms from the stool or chair and cross them against your chest while keeping your body straight for as long as possible.
- If you are the coach/teacher verbally signal the athlete or client to begin and use the timing device to record how much time is accumulated until the horizontal position can no longer be maintained.
- Sit on the table or floor with your arms crossed against your chest and your back against the wedge.
- Secure the athlete or client to the table with a belt across the feet, or direct another assessor to hold the athlete’s or client’s ankles.
- Next, if you’re the coach explain to the athlete or client: “After I say ‘Begin’ and remove the wedge from your back, try not to move from this position for as long as possible.” If you are doing performing the exercise ensur you have a spotter.
- Verbally signal the athlete or client to begin and use the timing device to record how much time is accumulated until the original position can no longer be maintained.
- Lie on your right side on top of the table or floor and prop yourself up on your right elbow. Keep both legs straight and place your top foot in front of your bottom foot for support.
- Next, if you’re the coach explain to the athlete or client: “When I say ‘Begin,’ lift your hips off the table or floor and keep your body, from your feet to your shoulders, straight for as long as possible. Continue to use your right elbow for support and place your left arm across your chest with your left hand on your right shoulder”.
- Verbally signal the athlete or client to begin and use the timing device to record how much time is accumulated until the hips touch the table or floor.
- Next, direct the athlete or client: “Repeat the same procedure but on your left side.”
Alternatives or Modifications
Each of the lumbar stability assessments can be conducted on its own as deemed appropriate by the coach or fitness professional.
After You Finish
In order to evaluate potential deficits among the individual muscle groups, ratios can be calculated by dividing the endurance times from the trunk flexion and side bridge tests by the endurance time from the trunk extension test.
Flexibility and balance are paramount for gymnasts. Due to the repetitive stresses on the body incurred by competitive gymnasts, low back pain is common, with as many as 86 percent of athletes reporting this issue. After completing a 10-week trunk muscle training intervention (twice weekly lasting approximately 15 minutes, including isometric holds with body weight as well as manual resistance and various abdominal exercises, female collegiate gymnasts improved endurance time during side bridge (+50%), trunk extension (+10%), and trunk flexion (+32%) assessments. Furthermore, no new issues related to low back pain were reported over the course of the competitive season.
Endurance Ratios for the Trunk Stability Tests
|Ratio||Flexion/extension||Side bridge right extension||Side bridge left extension|
Normative data for trunk extension endurance in males
Normative data for trunk extension endurance in females
Normative data for trunk flexion endurance in males.
Normative data for trunk flexion endurance in females.
Normative data for right side bridge endurance in males
Normative data for right side bridge endurance in females