How do you rate your fitness? Take MF’s seven tests to find out how fit you are and what you need to do to improve.
By Joel Snape. Photography Pete Webb
So you think you’re fit? Or maybe you don’t. Either way, the best way to improve your performance in the gym is to take a close look at your strengths and weaknesses so you see what needs to be addressed and plan accordingly.
That’s where this fitness check-up comes in. We’ve put together a battery of tests that will allow you to analyse every aspect of your fitness, helping you to identify those areas that need improvement so you can get fitter than ever before.
HOW IT WORKS
You can do any of these tests whenever you’d like. If you’re going to do the lot, though, we’d suggest splitting them over two or three days so you aren’t worn out.
Once you’ve established where you are on the Beginner-to-Elite spectrum, our experts have given the advice you need to get to the next level. And remember, if you’re looking for well-rounded fitness, it’s much better to be Advanced at everything than Elite on the bench and a Beginner everywhere else.
The test: One-rep max
The form: No bounce-it-off-your-chest bravado here, just one quality rep with as much weight as you can manage. It’s essential to get a spotter, but after he helps you un-rack the bar he can’t touch it again until your arms are locked out at the top. Not comfortable with going as heavy as possible? Go for your three- or five-rep max and use the calculator at strstd.com to predict your max.
Why it’s important: The bench lets you shift more weight than any other upper-body move, so it will help you prepare for athletic events as well as building an impressive chest. And everyone’s going to ask what you bench anyway, so you might as well have an answer.
BEGINNER: Less than bodyweight
“If you aren’t benching your bodyweight, you can increase quickly,” says personal trainer Adam Gethin. “Do three sets of five reps with a weight you can handle comfortably and push it up by 2.5kg a week. The lower you start, the longer you can go without hitting a plateau.”
INTERMEDIATE: 1 to 1.25 x bodyweight
“You should be able to get to 1.25 of your bodyweight with the plan above. If you can’t, lock in your technique. Try to make sure your forearms are vertical when you push, tuck in your elbows and experiment with grip width to see what allows you to handle the most weight.”
ADVANCED: 1.25 to 1.5 x bodyweight
“Here’s where you need to start adding assistance moves. Two of the best are the close-grip incline press [hands 30cm apart] and the dumbbell row, which will strengthen your back and give you a more stable platform to press from, as well as keeping your shoulders healthy.”
ELITE: More than 1.5 x bodyweight
“This is pretty impressive. To hit the magic 1.5, make your warm-up flawless by doing two sets of 10 reps with just the bar to groove the move, and doing low reps for your other warm-up sets. You could try clap push-ups to get your fast-twitch fibres firing.”
The test: 500m as fast as you can
The form: A strong pull and recovery will knock seconds off your time, but it’s also crucial to set the “damper” on your rower properly. Notching it up to 10 is like hitting your lowest gear on a bike, while setting it to one won’t provide enough resistance to let you move fast. Seven or eight works best for most moderately trained men.
Why it’s important: Rowers refer to 500m chunks of effort as “pieces” and they’re a good indication of how things will go over the more gruelling 2km Olympic distance. It’s a cardio challenge that brings in your upper body as well as testing your heart.
BEGINNER: 2 minutes +
“First aim to complete 500m without stopping,” says strength coach Chet Morjaria. “Once you can do that, increase the distance you can row without stopping. Work up to 2000m, keeping a 500m ‘split’ time that isn’t too far above what you’re aiming for.”
INTERMEDIATE: 1min 45 seconds to 2 minutes
“To take your rowing to the next level, look at your technique. A rowing stroke is similar to a clean or deadlift and should be a powerful movement. In the drive phase, your legs initiate the power and your arms remain straight. Then your hip flexors and torso muscles maintain this power through the leg and hip drive. Your arms finish the stroke with an accelerating pull toward your torso that completes the transition of power from lower body through torso to upper body.”
ADVANCED: 1min 30 seconds to 1 min 45 seconds
“Rowing 500m over and over isn’t necessarily the best way to improve your time. Work shorter intervals to increase your capacity. An all-out 250m followed by a couple of minutes’ light rowing, repeated four to six times, is a good place to start.”
ELITE: Under 1 min 30 seconds
“Determined to shave an extra second from your time? Think in terms of power per stroke rather than rate. Slow it down: juice the drive part of the stroke for power, and slow your recovery. Once you’ve mastered this, increase your stroke rate and improve your time.”
The test: 1 mile (1.6km) as fast as possible
The form: It’s up to you. Free trackers, such as the Runkeeper app, will time you over a mile on the road, but alternatively you can hit the treadmill. If you pick the latter, set the incline to one percent to mimic more closely what your road-running brethren are going through.
Why it’s important: The mile has been the gold standard of middle-distance running since before John Landy laced up his shoes. It’s fast enough to test your pace and far enough to scorch your lungs.
BEGINNER: Over 9 minutes
“Run further to improve your endurance and get your body used to the mechanics of running,” says strength coach and ex-army PT Andy McKenzie. “Try two to three sessions per week with an increase of 800m each week over a period of four weeks.”
INTERMEDIATE: 7-9 minutes
“Working anaerobically helps to improve the aerobic system. Breaking the distance into 100m, 200m and 400m segments and then focusing on speed will bring your times down.”
ADVANCED: 5-7 minutes
“Get stronger in the gym. Increasing leg strength and power will improve stride length. Do cleans, single-leg squats and barbell hip drives to keep it specific to running. These will also protect you against injury.”
ELITE: Under 5 minutes
“Hill running with your hands on your head will help improve leg strength and, more importantly, your hip flexors. Concentrate on a powerful knee drive and press your elbows to the rear. It’s great for core muscles as well.”
The test: A static hold for as long as possible
The form: A proper plank is simple: toes, elbows and forearms on the floor, hands clasped together, body in a straight line. Once your hips sag, the test is over.
Why it’s important: The plank is the best all-around test of your core strength and it won’t ruin your back like sit-ups. Once you can manage two minutes, adding a weight vest or plate will let you build abs of iron.
BEGINNER: 0-30 seconds
“If you’re struggling to hold the plank at all, try some progressions,” says Morjaria. “Hold each stage for 30 seconds. Once you can do that, progress to the next stage. Stage one is starting on your knees with arms fully extended. Hold that position, keeping your core tight. Stage two is progressing to Straightening your legs, but keep your arms fully extended, still maintaining a solid core. Stage three is dropping down on your elbows into a full plank.”
INTERMEDIATE: 30 seconds to 1min 15 seconds
“To work your way up to 1min 15sec in one go, build up to a total of 90 seconds of plank in as few sets as possible. Aim to bring down this number until you can complete 1min 15sec in one set.”
ADVANCED: 1min 15 seconds to 2min 30 seconds
“Once you’re doing a couple of minutes at once, try barbell rollouts to further strengthen your core. Start with your knees on the ground and place your hands on a barbell in front of you. Slowly roll the barbell away from you, keeping your core tight. Roll out until your torso and arms are fully extended. Hold for a second, then squeeze the abs and reverse the process, bringing the barbell back to your knees.”
ELITE: Over 2min 30 seconds
“Squat, press and deadlift! Performing these core-intensive compound lifts on a regular basis with heavy weights will tax and strengthen your core. You can also try plank variations to add additional instability and rotational demands on your body. From a standard plank position lift one leg up and hold, lift one arm up and hold or lift one leg and one arm up at once.”
The test: As many as possible
The form: There are many ways to do pull-ups, but for this test you’ll be tackling them Russian special forces-style: palms facing away, straight arms at the bottom, chin over the bar at the top and absolutely no leg-swinging. Simply do as many as you can without dropping off the bar.
Why it’s important: As well as building your grip, back, shoulders and core, pull-ups are a great test of how strong you are relative to your bodyweight, and pushing your numbers up means keeping your body fat down. Nobody who can manage 20 will have a gut — guaranteed.
Can’t do a single pull-up? Don’t give up and turn to the lat pull-down just yet. “Focus on negative reps,” says Gethin. “Do two to four sets of two or three reps, jumping to the top position with your chin over the bar, then lowering yourself as slowly as possible.”
Improve your numbers by “greasing the groove”, a favourite move of Russian strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline. Put a pull-up bar somewhere easy to reach and do lots of easy sets throughout your day or evening.
As you break the dozen, try strength and conditioning expert Chad Waterbury’s high-frequency pull-up plan: one set of max reps in the morning, another in the evening, a day off, then repeat.
ELITE: Over 16
“It’s time to start adding weight,” says Gethin. “Try six reps with 30 percent of your bodyweight hanging around your waist. Once you can do this, keep increasing the number of reps on this until you reach 12. By now, your bodyweight effort should be pushing 20.”
The test: As many as possible with your own bodyweight on a barbell
The form: Stand up straight at the top and make sure your thighs are parallel to the ground at the bottom of the move. It’s fine to take a few deep breaths in the “up” position.
Why it’s important: Every man should be able to squat his own bodyweight: it will make you better at sport, life and getting off the toilet unassisted in old age. It will also release growth hormone and testosterone, helping the rest of your body to grow.
“Just getting stronger will have the greatest impact,” says McKenzie. “Measure your one-rep max [in the same way you did for the bench] and then work on a routine of three to five sets of three to five reps above 80 percent of your test results.” Add 2.5-5kg a week.
“Work on the mobility of your ankles, hips and upper back. You want to move with the body, not against it. Set aside 10 minutes of each session to work on weak areas.”
“Introduce 3-5-second isometric holds at various points of the lift as you perform each repetition. The increased time under tension and added benefits of isometric strength will provide a different and much-needed stimulus.”
ELITE: Over 30
“Do breathing squats. Go for a weight you should only be able to manage for 10 reps and aim for 20, taking three deep breaths between each rep for the first five reps, four breaths from reps six to 12 and five breaths from 13-20 reps. Do this with a partner — or a bar-catcher.”
The test: As many as possible in two minutes
The form: You’ll be doing these in the style of an army physical fitness test: straight body, arms locked at the top, chest touching the floor at the bottom. You can rest, as long as no part of your body except your hands and feet touches the floor.
Why it’s important: Hitting a half-century of push-ups will put size on your arms, blitz your core and allow you to stay in shape anywhere you go.
“If you’re under 14 reps, don’t be alarmed,” says McKenzie. “Improve your score by doing half the amount of reps you managed in the test, resting for 90 seconds and repeating for three to five sets. Do that two or three times per week and you’ll bust into the intermediate range in under a month.”
“Get more reps done by altering the effects of gravity on the body with the use of suspension straps. As you start to fatigue, simply increase the angle of your body to the floor and keep going.”
“Split your routine into a strength-based session using a weighted vest or plate, working on three to five sets of five to eight reps. The second session should focus on increasing reps using ladders: start with one push-up, then two, then three, all the way to 10.”
ELITE: Over 55
“Get explosive on the first two to four reps of every set by performing clap push-ups. Tense your core as you push hard off the floor to maintain integrity in your spine.”