‘I feel soooo unfit! I’ve really got to start working out!’
But how fit are you actually? Have you ever thought to find out what your starting point is and monitor your improvements and successes as you motor on with your exercise regime?
Well testing and monitoring is a standard and crucial consideration for a Personal Trainer working with clients (well it should be if you’ve got a decent trainer). That’s what got me thinking… Surely everyone should be able to monitor their own fitness levels and at least have an awareness of their own fitness or ‘unfitness’, whenever and wherever they like? It’s a great way to see what’s working and what isn’t. Perfect for those who like to compete against and challenge themselves. And if nothing else you could turn it into some friendly competition with your mates.
Note: Firstly just so we’re clear I’m referring to physical fitness here; not mental, nutritional, medical or social (which are also important for your overall health).
Unless you’re in the privileged position of having access to a sports science laboratory, you’re not going to be able to get super accurate measurements. However, I’ve shortlisted a few standard fit tests that you can use at home with very limited equipment (although you may want to use a friend to help / watch / provide moral support / compete against). We will be testing cardiovascular and muscular endurance, flexibility and power. I wouldn’t advise doing these tests all on the same day, just select the ones that seem right for you. Make sure you have warmed up first; 3-5minutes of brisk walking and/or jogging with a few dynamic stretches will be fine.
Testing your cardiovascular endurance
Your cardiovascular fitness is a great indicator of your cardiovascular health; your heart and your circulation. Poor cardiovascular fitness can present warning signs of a raised risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks, strokes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and angina. Being physically inactive, smoking and being overweight are all risk factors when it comes to cardiovascular disease. So, having an awareness of your cardio fitness and monitoring improvements is a great way to stay in control of your health.
Your resting pulse is a good initial indication of your fitness level. Your pulse rate tells us the number of times your heart beats in 1 minute. As a general rule, the slower your pulse, the fitter you are. This is because if you’re fitter your heart is stronger due to exercise, is therefore more efficient and so pumps more oxygenated blood to the cells that need it in fewer beats. However, to truly test you out you need to get moving!
Step tests are better for beginners as they measure sub-maximal exertion i.e. not until total exhaustion.
A multitude of ‘Step tests’ have been devised over the years, each with it’s own procedure, height of step, pace of stepping and duration of testing.
The things that the tests all have in common is the fact that you will step up and down, at a constant rate, for a set period of time, after which your pulse should be taken for 1 minute.
Some of the tests will have been conducted with large groups of people to establish the average scores and so will have sets of data that you can compare to. These sets are called normative data. For some tests there may also be a small equation that you can use to calculate a rough (and I mean very rough!) indication of your VO2max (ml of oxygen your body uses per kg of body mass per minute- in simple terms, the higher the number, the fitter you are).
A good example of a step test to use is the YMCA Step test. This uses a 30cm step and a stepping rate of 96 beats per minute (step up (left), step up (right), step down (left), step down (right)= 4 beats) for 3 minutes. You can download metronome apps on your phone which will keep you to time. After the 3 minutes are over you can rest on the step and then take your pulse immediately (or within 5 seconds).
These test your ability to either complete a timed run or walk over a set distance or your ability to run or walk as far as you can in a set time. Again there are sets of normative data with which to compare and rank your performance, if you’re interested in that.
The Cooper 1.5 mile run and the Cooper 3 mile walk are good examples to use (links provide normative data). Use a track or a route that is fairly flat if running outdoors; a route that you’re familiar with. If you would prefer to use a treadmill then make sure you add a small incline (1%) to the walk or run to replicate the harder terrain and therefore larger energy requirement of an outdoor course. Time how long it takes to complete the set distance; either running (1.5miles) or walking (3miles).
Testing your muscular endurance
Your muscular endurance is the ability of your muscles to sustain periods of repeated contractions against a resistance (could be a weight or your own body weight) for an extended period of time.
For your Legs
Wall sit / Single leg wall sit
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the wall sit exercise, where you rest your back against a wall, then lower yourself into a sitting or squatting position (as if hovering above a seat). You should form right angles at the hip and knee joints. The idea is to keep yourself steady and hold the pose for as long as possible (feel the burn!). Record your time.
If you want to spice this up and make it even harder, use only one leg! This will test your endurance on each leg. You will inevitably have a leading or stronger leg; test this one first. Lower yourself into the usual wall sit position and start the timer as soon as the opposite leg leaves the floor (it needn’t be straight out in front of you, just hovering over the ground will do). Stop the timer when your foot hits the ground.
For your Core
We should all be familiar with the Plank, resting on forearms, tight legs and bum, belly button pulled in, neutral spine (no dips or humps!), not piking the bottom into the air. Now once you’re in a full plank position start the timer. Hold the plank for as long as you can. Initially aim for over a minute and then see how long you can stand the burn!
Another way to measure your core muscular endurance is by counting how many full sit ups you can perform (without having your feet held by anything or anyone) in 1 minute. Start a timer (ideally that will buzz after 1 minute is up) and begin the sit ups. Legs should be bent at a 90degree angle. Arms crossed across the body and hands placed on opposite shoulders. Whilst maintaining a neutral spine (don’t just bend your neck in towards you body, that will hurt and will damage your back) bend at the hips, contracting your stomach muscles to pull you up into a fully upright position. Gently lower yourself back towards the ground until both shoulder blades are again in contact with the floor. That is one full sit up. Carry on and do as many as you can in 1 minute!
For your upper body
If the truth be told I’m not sure that many people enjoy the push up. Well that’s me being honest. They’re not my favourite exercise in the world. However, once you’ve mastered them they are amazing for the upper body.
If you can go for the full push up on your hands and using your toes as the pivot point then great. Place your hands pointing forwards just slightly out from your shoulders. Keep your legs and bum tight and suck in your belly button. Keep your back straight and don’t let your bum poke up into a pike position or your hips drop as you lower yourself down. Your body should be perfectly straight throughout the entire move. Don’t allow your elbows to poke out to the sides when you lower your chest towards the floor and keep looking down towards the floor during the whole move (this will make sure even the top of your spine is completely neutral). See how many you can do in 1 minute.
There are a few variations to make it easier if you can’t manage the full versions, and they’re still incredibly effective. First one is to get yourself into the push up position on your toes and hands (like a plank), then lower onto your knees and cross your feet. The reason it’s a good idea to get into the plank position first is so that your knees aren’t overly bent and therefore too close to your torso. If they are, you will not be performing the push up properly and you will not feel the benefit.
An alternative adaption is to use a bench or a chair as a raised surface to push up from. The incline makes the pushing much easier. It’s up to you.
Testing your flexibility
Flexibility is a measure of the range of motion that you have around your joints. It’s important to maintain and improve your levels of flexibility as part of your exercise regime to ensure that you can perform all exercises (especially resistance exercises using weights) safely and effectively; that you are able to function well in your everyday life; your mobility is not restricted and to reduce the risk of injury.
As with all of these fitness tests, it’s important to ensure that you are warmed up well before starting the exercise, but this is especially important if you’re trying to measure how flexible you are. The warm up is vital to lubricate your joints and warm up your muscles, making you much more likely to have a greater range of movement around each of your joints. It will also prevent injury, which is very important!
Sit and reach test
You may have seen ‘Sit and Reach’ boxes lying around in gyms (or not). They are like boxes with a big ruler over one end (simplified explanation). You can easily achieve the same result using a step, or the bottom step of your stairs and a 30cm ruler. Place the ruler onto the step pointing out off the step (leave a small overhang if you think you’re pretty flexible and a larger one if you aren’t). Sit down onto the floor with your feet flat touching the side of the bottom step and the ruler hanging horizontal over the top of your legs. Reach forwards as if trying to touch your toes but aim to reach past them onto the step- without bending at your knees at any point. Don’t over stretch or risk injury. Measure the difference between the lip of the step (where your feet are) and the place on the ruler you managed to reach. If you reached beyond your feet the number is positive and if you reached a point before your feet the number is negative. Test a couple of times and record your best score.
Testing your strength and power
This test will see how high you can jump! The higher you are able to jump the more powerful your legs. Power is a combination of force and speed (remember your physics lessons?). So if you are strong and fast you are powerful (kind of). Power is something that many sports require and you will often find that sports specific exercise programmes are designed to include many moves which work on an athlete’s power. Plyometric exercises are a great example of this.
You will need to stand side on to a wall that you don’t mind wiping a little bit of chalk on. Rub some chalk on your hands (that will show up on the wall), stand straight and reach up with both hands high above your head (feet flat on the floor). Make a mark on the wall as high as you can with your hand. Start in a partially squatted position and hold for 2 seconds. Then drive up through your heels, using your whole lower body to push yourself up into a vertical jump. Reach up with your arms and make a mark at the highest point of your jump on the wall. Attempt the jump for a second or even a third time and then measure the difference between the lowest (when you were standing straight with feet in contact with the floor) and highest chalk mark.
So whether you are just curious or want to seriously set yourself some fitness goals, these tests are a great place to start. Don’t feel nervous about your results and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not as fit as you’d like to be.
Tomorrow’s a new day and the goal should be to become a fitter and healthier version of yourself! So start smashing those workouts and watch the improvements.
Comment below to share your results!