Call it a fitness catch-22: In order to meet your goals, your training has to be specific. But get too specific, and you can reduce or even eliminate other important physical capabilities. “I know many strength-training athletes who only focus on weights and no cardio because they believe that stronger muscles are the key to overall fitness,” says Scott Weiss, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist and owner of Bodhizone in New York City. “The truth is, they will be out of balance, and by the same token, aerobic athletes who do not weight-train will have deficits as well.” Unless you’re, say, a decathlete, it might not be that important to you to excel in all areas, from strength to endurance to balance to flexibility. But these tests, used by top trainers to assess their clients, might teach you a thing or two about your fitness successes… and failures.
Fitness benchmark: Lifting the equivalent of your body weight for multiple reps
Test yourself: “Benching 250 for a few reps is great, but if you weigh 350, it's not as impressive,” says Victor Adam owner of Axiom Health and Fitness. For the major lifts—squat, deadlift, bench press—you should be able to, at minimum, move your body’s weight for some reps to consider yourself in good shape. “If you want a classic test of strength, try to bench your bodyweight for 20-plus reps,” Adam says. “If you can do that—whether it’s 135 or 250—you've earned some boasting rights.”
To improve: Practice! In true work-for-the-test form, you simply have to work on your lifts until you’re there—but making sure to keep your routine both balanced (i.e., don’t only do chest to get your bench up) and functional, by incorporating full-body workouts. And slow your lifts down. Speeding through allows you to use momentum, which isn’t going to help you improve your actual strength and can even cause injury. Adam suggests a rep tempo of 3 to 5 seconds both on the concentric (lifting) and eccentric (lowering) portions of the lift. If you can only complete a few reps with good form at this pace, reduce the load.
Test yourself: “Nothing separates the men from the boys in the weight room like a good deadlift,” says Brian Durbin, CSCS, personal trainer at Winning Health Sports Medicine in South Carolina and founder of 212° Fitness. That said, if you’re new to heavy lifting, and especially to the deadlift, save this test until you’re not: Maxing out is serious business and could cause injury if your form isn’t perfect and your strength isn’t there yet—something Durbin says can take six months or more of consistent training. He also notes that there’s no published standard for a “good” one-rep max, but suggests that deadlifting two or more times your bodyweight is excellent, one-and-a-half times is good, one-and-a-quarter times is average.
To improve: You’ll have to do deadlifts, of course, but also target the glutes, hamstrings, and core. Try adding this once-per-week workout to your routine, with loads being enough that you could eke out just two more reps than required.
* Five sets of deadlifts; 8/5/5/3/3 reps, respectively
* Five sets of front squats; 5/5/5/3/3 reps, respectively
* Five sets of glute/hamstring extensions; holding a heavy DB and pausing for a one count at the top; 10/10/8/8/8 reps, respectively
* Maximal farmer’s walk with 60- to 100-pound dumbbells, then a 60-second plank
* Do a kneeling plank for two minutes with a 50- to 100-pound kettlebell: On a mat, stand tall on your knees, holding that heavy kettlebell behind your back. “The position of the kettlebell forces a perfectly balanced core integration pattern, as long as you keep your glutes engaged,” Durbin says. “Almost everyone is shaking like a leaf by two minutes, provided they have used enough weight.”
Fitness benchmark: Doing bodyweight exercises for reps
Being able to lift heavy weights is cool and all, but if your muscles can’t work in an integrated manner, your actual fitness can be called into question. “If you can throw some reps up with 315 on the bench and you can't do 15 to 20 pushups, or you can row 225 for reps but can't perform 10 clean pullups, there's something missing,” Adam says. Functional strength is how your body works in coordinated movements. One way to test it is to look at your endurance when it comes to certain movement patterns—that is, how many reps you can do for time or until failure. The most popular tests for this involve pushups, chin-ups, and curl-ups.
Test yourself: Do as many full pushups as you can until you lose form and/or can no longer continue. Start in the “down” position; reps only “count” if your elbows go to 90 degrees and the chin reaches the ground, so the range of motion isn’t compromised. More than 36 is excellent if you’re aged 20 to 29, more than 30 for ages 30 to 39, and more than 25 for 40 to 49.
To improve: Pushups and chest work, like bench presses, are important, but “you should also concentrate on strengthening your core muscles,” says Franklin Antoian, personal trainer and founder of iBodyFit.com. “Your core has a bigger role in pushups than you may think.”
Test yourself: With an underhand (palm-forward) grip on the bar, pull the body up from a straight-arm hang to bring the chin above the bar, then lower all the way down—no kipping or short-arming. “The chin-up is a great representative of total upper body strength and can be used as a diagnostic tool to point out discrepancies between pushing and pulling muscle groups in the upper body,” says Durbin. More than 13 full chin-ups is excellent, 9 to 13 is above average, and 6 to 8 is average.
To improve: Start by hanging around a bit more. “Often people wonder why they cannot do 15 or 20 chin-ups, but the reality is they could not even hang from the bar for the time required to do that volume,” says Durbin. Do isometric hangs in three phases: chin above the bar, elbows at right angles (midpoint of a chin-up), and fully extended arms for 10 seconds each. Do twice through without stopping for 60 seconds of “hang” time. Take 60 seconds off in between, and do three times through. Durbin also recommends incorporating deadlifts once a week. “They build the grip muscles, traps, spinal extensors, and core integration that are essential for improving in a chin-up test,” he says.
Test yourself: Lie on your back, knees bent, and arms at your sides with palms down. Lift your shoulders up so that your fingers slide forward four inches then lower down (the official test involves putting tape on the floor to mark the start and end point for the fingers). Do as many as you can in one minute without shortening the range of movement. For men ages 20 to 39, 45 curl-ups is average, and more than 65 is exceptional.
To improve: Core work! Include both crunches for abdominal strength and integrated core exercises such as planks and bridges. Also, full-body workouts that include big, multi-joint movements incorporate the core in the most functional way, training it to be strong as a stabilizer, which is ultimately its job.
Fitness benchmark: Steady-state running for time or distance
Test yourself: Putting one foot in front of the other is the easiest and most efficient way to gauge your cardio capacity. There are two common ways to look at it: how far you can run in 12 minutes, which requires some way to measure distance (Durbin recommends a Cooper 12-minute test smartphone app, but you can also use the GPS on a smartphone or a watch set to kilometers, or measure laps and distance on a standard 400-meter track), or by timing how long it takes you to run 1.5 miles (again, using GPS, or six laps on a regulation track). For the 12-minute test, “excellent” is defined as 2800 meters or greater if you’re in your twenties, 2700 meters in your thirties, and 2500 meters in your forties; average is 2200 to 2399 meters (twenties), 1900 to 2299 meters (thirties), and 1700 to 2099 (forties). For the 1.5-mile test, anything faster than 10:08 (twenties), 10:38 (thirties), or 11:09 (forties) puts you among the elite; 11:58 (twenties), 12:25 (thirties), 13:05 (forties) puts you in the 50th percentile.
To improve: “Any form of cardiovascular training is acceptable to improve aerobic endurance but if you are looking to score better on these run tests, then running should be the primary training mode,” Durbin says. A mix of steady-state distance runs plus interval workouts that incorporate sprinting will boost your aerobic capacity. Durbin recommends working at a 4 to 1 ratio of moderate to hard; i.e., running at about a level 6 to 7 out of 10 for, say, two minutes and then a 30-second sprint at level 8 to 9.
Test yourself: Wanna know how well that HIIT training is actually working? A test like this one will gauge your body’s ability to work at max effort. Mark out a distance of 25 yards. Sprint back and forth between your two lines six times, for a total distance of 300 yards, and record your time. The bulk of the results data is for college athletes, but you can figure you’re in exceptional shape if you finish faster than 60 seconds; 60 to 70 seconds is excellent and 70 to 80 seconds is above average.
To improve: To bring the intensity, you gotta train at intensity. “Sprinting, agility, and plyometric work, heavy bike intervals such as those performed in Tabata, and any activity that pushes the body to a maximum in less than two minutes are great ways to train this component of fitness,” says Durbin.
Test yourself: It’s not just about getting your fingertips and toes to meet. “A proper hip hinge pattern is important for many reasons: good jumping pattern, proper gait, and good glute function,” says Bruce Kelly, MS, CSCS and owner of Fitness Together in Media, PA. It’s also essential to the movement pattern of the deadlift: Too-tight hamstrings and back extensors can lead to disaster when trying to pick up a lot of weight. As you bend down with legs straight, rather than reaching with your hands, lead with your butt. Stick your hips back as far as you can to keep the back flat, leaving the arms loose to see where your hands land. Not even close? You need some work.
To improve: Open up your hamstrings with this dynamic stretch. Elevate the toes on a half foam roll. Place a ball or yoga block between your knees and squeeze, to activate the hips. Stick your butt back while hinging down, and bend your knees as far as you need to so that your fingers graze your toes. Bend your knees even further, then press your legs to straighten even just a little, while keeping your fingers in toe range. Flex the knees in and out slowly 10 times. Roll up, then shift your feet so your heels are elevated and repeat. Do this three times through at the beginning of every workout.
Fitness benchmark: Loaded carries for time or distance
Test yourself: “Loaded carries, like the farmer's walk, are a great measure of overall fitness,” says Lauren Saglimbene, MS, CSCS, founder of Total Lifestyle Management. “They test grip strength, core strength, conditioning, and more.” She likes her average clients to start with a 60-second straight-arm carry holding dumbbells that are 75 percent of your body weight in each hand (the advanced ones carry 100 percent of their body weight). Wanna push yourself even further? Measure how far you can walk in that 60-second time frame, and see how you improve week to week.
To improve: Do more farmer’s walks! Saglimbene suggests adding them at least once a week and up to three workouts a week, varying the intensity: lightweight for a longer duration (up to 75 percent of your body weight for over a minute), medium weight and medium duration (say, 65 to 85 percent of your body weight for around a minute), and heavy for short duration (your body weight or greater for less than a minute). “Expect to take brief breaks at first, particularly because of grip strength and slippage,” she says. “This lift has tremendous carryover, so don't be surprised if you see improvements in other lifts as well.”
Test yourself: This test uses reactive, or trunk stability, pushups to measure not just strength, but also neuromuscular control, or how well your brain and your body work together. Start lying flat on your stomach on the floor, toes tucked, hands by your shoulders, elbows back. In one powerful movement, push into the ground and press your body up into a plank position. Make sure your spine stays perfectly aligned. “I recommend exhaling forcefully as you push up,” says Saglimbene. “My ultimate goal is to see my clients perform a set of 15 repetitions perfectly.”
To improve: Planks, planks with movement (say, reaches), regular pushups, and plyo pushups will all improve your core control and ability to stabilize. “Make it easier by performing the pushup from the knees. Make it harder by placing a small weight plate on the small of the back,” Saglimbene says.
Test yourself: Balance is one of the most overlooked areas of fitness, says Melissa Fernandez, Ph.D., a personal trainer based in LA. It’s also one of the most important, as it’s an ability we lose as we age and good balance is responsible for helping to prevent falls. When barefoot, shift your weight to one foot and pick up the other, placing it lightly on the lower part of the standing leg, making a narrow number 4 with your legs (kinda like yoga tree pose). Time yourself, and give yourself three tries each side. Average is 31 seconds, while 50 seconds or more is excellent.
To improve: Stand on one foot more often. Do it while you wash dishes, brush your teeth, cook… To really hone your balance, also incorporate balancing move such as single-leg deadlifts, side-to-side single-leg hops, or exercises performed on uneven surfaces.
Test yourself: To be clear: It’s not true that you can’t be fit if you’re also fat. But a reduction in body fat is a sure sign that your fitness efforts aren’t wasted. Ask a trainer to perform a skinfold caliper test (somewhat accurate but most likely free) or opt for an underwater test (very accurate but pricey) to see where you are—and where you end up after a few months of consistent training. Average scores for men are in the 15 to 20 percent range, while peak fitness is in the 5 to 10 percent range, Weiss says.
To improve: “The body will always have some body fat, as essential fats are found internally throughout the body,” Weiss says. “However, the storage fat underneath the skin is a different story.” Sadly, there’s still no magic bullet. To lose body fat, you simply have to eat healthfully, and exercise more, incorporating both cardio and strength training into your routine.