Diane Vives Designs Austin’s FITTEST

By Melanie Moore – May 14, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

She’s an international speaker for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, she has coached the Chinese Olympic Team coaches, and serves as the only female on the Under Armour Performance Advisory Council. A well-known trainer of trainers, Vives has a rich background in strength and conditioning, exercise testing, personal training and working with universities. This year she helped Austin Fit Magazine design the tests to be used in the 2012 AFM FITTEST presented by Nexersys on June 9, which will determine Austin’s ten fittest people.

“More than anything, we said ‘How would we approach this from a scientific standpoint?’ as well as ‘Let’s make it very accessible,’” she said. “Taking [the event] parameters into consideration, we went to what are the components of fitness that can actually be tested in that kind of event setting.

“We’ve got the med ball throw and standing broad jump that are both power tests,” she said. “Then speed tests, which are also power but translated into speed itself, and then we’re testing strength and endurance. The agility—coordinated patterns using skills for turns and changes of direction—tests a combination of speed, strength, and endurance. Again, it’s overall athleticism.

“The precision throw gives people the opportunity to go, ‘Okay, I may not be the strongest person out there but I’m actually very athletic in terms of skill sets and precision.’ That adds a different dimension to the testing and rounds it out really well.”

Vives pointed out that the tests don’t allow a power or an endurance athlete to dominate the event. “Somebody who has proficiency to a certain level in each one, or at least in a majority of [the tests], and excels in certain ones is really going to have a great potential to win and be in that top ten.”

An important aspect of the 2012 AFM FITTEST Vives emphasized is that eight of the ten tests have norms. “The tests have very specific fitness components and are established as testing protocols with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA),” Vives said. Vives was on the NSCA board of directors from 2006-2009.

Vives said the cool part of the 2012 AFM FITTEST is that contestants can find where they fall in a national norm to compare to others, as well as comparing to their own performance year over year.

“The great thing is that you can go through this event here in Austin and then go on certain web sources and actually compare the 40-yard dash, the standing broad jump, the med ball throw, the agility, the pull-ups—and I realize pull-ups are going to be the bear for most everybody because it’s an aspect of strength that’s really difficult and it’s also relative to body shape, size, mass. But that’s also the reason we round that out to make it a competitive testing system, where the hand grip comes into play, because it shows upper body strength as well, as it relates to overall body strength. It takes out the relative body size as an advantage or disadvantage.

“If you think about grip strength, it’s the limiting factor for a lot of people doing some of the other major movements and it’s involved in a other athletics like being able to throw, catch, and being able to pull yourself up.”

“Hopefully [the 2012 AFM FITTEST] is an inspiration to get involved and wake up the inner athlete, to have fitness be your sport. From elite athletes all the way to beginners, there’s always a potential to improve with training,” she said. “A big factor in this is you can train on your own but it also helps you connect to a community of people who are like-minded and to groups you can get involved in. The tests inspire you to connect with the Austin fitness community. Most people are shocked at how much fun and motivation come out of a testing event like this.”

There are more and more competitions, even in the Austin community, these days but Vives says many of them are “community-specific” competitions. “Many training groups’ testing is going to mimic the style of training that is specific to their community and some sports [have testing] that becomes specific to that sport.

“What I did was get back to basic science, things that will be reliable in testing and re-testing, versus just being an event with extreme challenges,” she said. “For that reason this is different from what anyone else has done because we really need to know who Austin’s fittest ten are, so this is a legitimate test and competition. The tests stand out versus the entertainment factor.”

“Combine” is a word often used to describe some of the tests used by sporting organizations. Vives explained that the combine system basically started as a way for university athletic departments to physically evaluate athletes as they came into the university, to look at their strengths and weaknesses. This evolved into testing athletes in order to train them to be stronger and faster. It has since caught on as part of the recruiting process and became a big business when a lot of companies saw a marketing opportunity in the scouting system. Scouting demands information and now companies are following kids from a very young age to put them through a modified combine. The result is that student athletes now specialize at a very early age, with the push to master certain sports.

“It’s that double-edged sword,” Vives said, “where you kind of see the capitalists coming in, but I can say that I’ve seen a very positive effect in this too.” Students are developing skills, working with coaches and athletes who are good role models, learning nutrition, and some companies, like Under Armor, conduct sessions to educate parents.

Vives is a self-described “nerd” who loves both education and the science of fitness and sports performance. She joined the NSCA even as she was finishing her undergraduate work. She also holds a masters in exercise science. “I always liked the idea of connecting science to the training and the [NSCA’s] purpose is to bridge the gap between science and application.

“There are a lot of popular things in the fitness industry that catch fire very quickly but don’t have a lot of validity,” she said. The NSCA is one of the largest and most credentialed programs for strength and conditioning and is required by most universities for strength and conditioning professionals.

Vives is repeatedly invited to speak internationally and, in addition to being the first female strength and conditioning expert invited as a featured speaker in Ireland, she is regularly asked to work with the Chinese Olympic team coaches.

“The Central Sports Administration of China brought me over to do educational workshops for the Olympic coaches at the Olympic centers in Beijing and Kunmiing,” Vives said. “They asked me to be their Olympic tennis coach for strength and conditioning. They brought me out of my room at 1:30 in the morning to interview me for that unexpectedly.” They offered her the job, but she declined.

One of the first experts to speak on the applications of functional training, Vives has authored chapters in strength and conditioning textbooks as well as fitness texts.

“Functional training is based on multi-dimensional planes of motion at varying speeds and applied based on the target activity,” Vives explains. “Functional training is meant to look at how the kinetic chain really works and looking at it as a system versus isolating individual muscles.”

“Bodybuilding taught us a lot of great things about isolation and it’s not that [bodybuilding] is bad because it’s a sport and allows you to really change the composition of your body. But at the same time it doesn’t specifically relate to movement efficiency, performance, and actual health in terms of avoiding lower back pain and being able to recover from injury and resist injuries.” Vives likes the foundational philosophy and the fun part of functional training, pointing out that the fitness industry has responded by making equipment—stability balls, medicine balls, bands, suspension training (like TRX)—to add a lot of variety to training.

“The goal is to make the body pain-resistant,” she said. “When you look at being able to be more efficient and stronger—and we hear everyone talking about core strength—it’s being able to maintain the posture and alignment that prevents wear and tear on the body. When you can move through a full range of motion without restrictions, then the body supports itself and there’s no need for pain to occur.

“That’s from a general fitness perspective,” Vives clarified. “Athletes who put their bodies through a lot of training based on the individual sport and the need to perform often overtrain. In that case, functional training can support them through that process in a way that reduces the stress and adds balanced strength so the body can continue to recover and the athlete can continue to compete. Now, as people become better educated professionals, the strength coaches at universities, even the body-building community, have learned that they can actually sustain the training for a longer period of time and have better results by integrating functional training.”

Vives designed the 2012 AFM FITTEST tests as functional training tests, all focused on movement and the ability to perform a skill. “Even with the pull-ups,” she said, “that’s a multijoint movement for the upper body. The medicine ball throw is very much a skill-related action. These tests require athleticism and have functional aspects to them.
Which tests will Vives herself ‘slam-dunk’ and which ones will she struggle with? “Wow, well, my biggest challenge by far is the pull-ups, which I think is going to be the bear for a lot of people,” she confessed. “My slam dunk, if there is one, is honestly either the agility or the 40-yard dash.”



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