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How Do You Know How Fit You Are?

Photo by Larry George II via Unsplash

How do you know if your workouts are working?  1) You have to measure something.  2) You need a benchmark, framework or context for evaluating that measurement.  

Otherwise you’re just aimlessly going through the motions.  It’s better than being sedentary, but will quickly lead to a fitness plateau.  To truly optimize your fitness regimen, periodic assessment of various fitness components is essential. Let's delve into the key systems and tests that can provide valuable insights into your fitness level. Here they are, in order of importance (for healthspan):

1. Cardiovascular Fitness (VO2 max): Your body's ability to utilize oxygen during exercise is a crucial indicator of cardiovascular health. VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption, measures the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise. A higher VO2 max signifies better cardiovascular fitness and endurance.  This is the most important for longevity and endurance athletics.  You can read more here.

2. Movement Quality: The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) evaluates fundamental movement patterns to identify asymmetries and weaknesses. It helps pinpoint areas of potential injury risk and informs corrective exercises to improve movement quality.  This requires a professional, but you can also self screen with the Koji Self Awareness screen.  Read about both in this post.

3. Strength:  Those who are into weight training know that there are innumerable aspects of strength that you could measure.  Without getting down the rabbit hole, what are some tests appropriate for both general and athletic populations?

  • Grip Strength: A strong grip is not only essential for daily activities but also correlates with overall strength. Grip strength tests involve squeezing a dynamometer as hard as possible.  This is another big one for longevity.  Read my grip strength post here.  Normative data varies by age and gender, but a 40 year old male should aim for 50 kg and a 40 year old female, 30 kg.

  • Dead Hang: Hang from a bar with straight arms for as long as possible to assess upper body and grip strength.  Shoot for at least a minute.

  • Bench Press, Squat, Leg Extension: These exercises assess strength in specific muscle groups, including upper body (bench press), lower body (squat), and quadriceps (leg extension).  These get more into the weight training arena (though a leg extension machine is approachable enough).  For a simple and functional movement that doesn’t require you to load weight on your back, see the following:

  • Goblet Squat Hold: Holding a weight in front of your chest while performing a squat assesses lower body and core strength.  See if you can hold half your body weight at the bottom of the goblet squat for 45 seconds.

  • Ankle/foot/toe strength: There is also a deep rabbit hole here, given the number of muscles involved.  Foot and toe strength are involved in our most frequent contact points with the earth and are important in preventing falls.   Two benchmarks I’ve come across are to aim for 10% of body weight exerted by the big toe flexor and to be able to move 1.5 x body weight in a single leg calf raise.  (This is hard!)  

4. Zone 2 Cardiovascular Fitness Pace (or Power for you cyclists): Zone 2 training targets a moderate intensity level where your body primarily utilizes fat for fuel. Assessing your ability to sustain exercise in this zone provides valuable insights into aerobic capacity and fat metabolism.  You can get lactate levels directly from your blood,  or target a pace that results in a) heart rate 180 minus your age, or b) perceived 6 out of 10 effort, or c) preserves your ability to have a conversation or breathe through your nose.

5. Lactate Threshold: Lactate threshold, a key concept in sports physiology, refers to the intensity of exercise at which lactate begins to accumulate in the bloodstream faster than it can be cleared. Also known as the anaerobic threshold, this point marks the transition from predominantly aerobic energy production to anaerobic metabolism. Athletes often train to improve their lactate threshold, as it correlates with endurance performance, allowing them to sustain higher intensities for longer durations before fatigue sets in. You can test this by measuring lactate in the blood, or by testing what you can sustain for about an hour.  Peloton has test rides where you test maximal power in 20 minutes and discount it by 5%.

6. Body Composition: Understanding your body composition, including muscle mass, body fat percentage, and distribution, is crucial for setting realistic fitness goals. Tools like DEXA scans, bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), and skinfold calipers can assess body composition accurately.  Aim for Fat Free Mass Index (FFMI) greater than 20 for men, greater than 18 for women.

7. Muscular Endurance: Muscular endurance measures your muscles' ability to perform repetitive contractions over time. Tests such as push-up or plank challenges evaluate endurance in specific muscle groups.  To test it, make sure the effort is continuous – no breaks.

8. Power: Power combines strength and speed to generate force quickly. Tests like vertical jump height or medicine ball throws assess explosive strength and power output.  A simple benchmark is a standing broad jump.  Can you jump 110% of your height?

9. Anaerobic Capacity: Anaerobic capacity represents the body's ability to produce energy without oxygen over short bursts of high-intensity exercise. Unlike aerobic metabolism, which relies on oxygen, anaerobic capacity taps into stored energy sources like glycogen for rapid energy production. This system is crucial for activities requiring quick, explosive movements, such as sprinting or weightlifting. Training anaerobic capacity involves exercises that push the body to its limits, improving strength, power, and speed.  I tested this by seeing how many meters I can row in a 45-second, all-out effort.

10. Speed: Top end speed is less relevant for general health and longevity but obviously incredibly important in many sports.  The 40 yard dash, 100 meter sprint and 400 meter sprint are familiar.  If you can’t get near Usain Bolt’s time (9.58 seconds for 100 m), consider assuaging your feelings with an Age Graded Percentage (AG%) calculator online.

11. Global screens.  The Fundamental Capacity Screen (FCS) is a comprehensive assessment used in sports science and physical therapy to evaluate an individual's foundational movement patterns, strength, flexibility, and mobility. By analyzing these fundamental capacities, practitioners can identify areas of weakness or imbalance that may predispose individuals to injury or limit performance. This screening process often involves a series of tests and measurements targeting key aspects of movement quality and function, such as mobility, motor control, postural control, power and energy storage, serving as a valuable tool for designing personalized training programs and rehabilitation protocols.

The physical screening test, administered by Naval Special Warfare, is one of the prerequisites to proceeding to BUD/s, one of the main hurdles of qualifying to become a Navy SEAL:

  • 500 yard swim – 10 minute rest (minimum 12:30)

  • Maximum push-ups in 2 minutes – 2 minute rest (minimum 50)

  • Maximum sit-ups in 2 minutes – 2 minute rest (minimum 50)

  • Maximum pull-ups in 2 minutes – 10 minute rest (minimum 10)

  • 1.5 mile run – done in shorts and running shoes (minimum 10:30)

By incorporating these assessments into your fitness routine, you can gain a holistic understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, tailor your workouts effectively, and track your progress over time. Remember, fitness is not a destination but a journey of continuous improvement, and these assessments serve as valuable checkpoints along the way. Unlock your fitness potential and embark on a path to a healthier, stronger you!


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