Fitness tests have been around for ages—from the laughably easy (remember third grade, when you had to loaf a mile in less than 12 minutes?) to the downright dangerous (see: the Coast Guard’s “Multi”). But in the past couple of years, these evaluators of endurance and strength have been getting increasingly hardcore: The U.S. Army, for instance, plans to retire its outdated test of pushups, situps, and long-distance running and roll out a new blistering battery of sprints, rows, and plyometrics. The Navy also announced it has refurbished its testing process. And just last year the FBI updated its physical exam for the first time in 15 years, turning it into a four-part timed test featuring a 1.5-mile run, bodyweight exercises, and sprinting.
And it got us thinking: Why should you have to enlist just to take a fitness test? After all, what better way is there to gauge your head-to-toe physical capabilities—and discover the areas you need to work on—than putting yourself through a thorough, exhausting examination?
So, with the help of several top trainers, we assembled the definitive baseline fitness test: Only if you can complete this can you really be considered “fit.”
Here’s how it works: In each of four categories—strength, flexibility, conditioning, and power—we’ve laid out one or two simple exercise challenges. (For best results, complete each category on a separate day, or at least hours enough apart that your abilities aren’t compromised.) If you pass, you’re a badass—though you’ll definitely want to check out our instructions for taking your fitness to an even higher level. If you fail, don’t sweat it: We’ll tell you what to do to get your body up to par.
Think you’ll make the grade?
Well, get a good night’s sleep, because you’re about to find out.
Photo credit: Andrew Cutraro
Fitness test category 1: Strength
Know your own strength
As any trainer will tell you, there are many different kinds of strength: explosive strength, relative strength, maximum strength, and so on. But for the purposes of this test, we’re singling out grip strength.
And that doesn’t mean just a strong handshake. The act of gripping really heavy things engages muscle systems far from your fingertips to your shoulders. “It’s one of the best predictors of total strength,” says Stefan Underwood, one of the top performance specialists at elite training center Exos, workout home to everyone from NFL stars training for the combine to Chinese athletes training for the Olympics.
Underwood knows strength firsthand, having personally worked with more than 20 first-round NFL draft picks (including current L.A. Rams running back Todd Gurley and former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney), as well as special-ops guys and NBA, NHL, and MLB stars.
Want to know how strong you are, given your relative size and body mass? Read on.
How to do it: Using either kettlebells or dumbbells, carry 75% of your body weight—half in each hand, with your arms fully extended out from your sides—and walk.
Note: Technique is crucial here. You want to go at a rhythmic, slow, controlled pace. It’s about reaching the finish line, not racing there.
“You need to have a very proud chest as you go,” says Underwood. “Remember when you were a pimply-faced kid walking down the hall in high school, and that one hot girl walked by, how you’d pump up your chest? You stand tall, you pull your shoulders down, you stand at attention—that’s how we want a farmer’s carry.”
Goal: Cover 250 feet in 90 seconds.
If you passed: Congrats! You have the baseline general strength to go and build more brute strength and work harder on your explosive power. Of course, lifting heavier things is one way to get better: slowly and intelligently progressing yourself toward fewer reps and heavier weight, swapping out your 3×10 sets for 5×5. Go get ’em. You’ll also be ready to build up muscular endurance, which is best achieved with squats. So feel free to load up 85% of your max for three sets of five reps.
But instead of racking the weights between sets, stand with them on your back for 30 seconds. It’s more “time under tension,” pushing your muscles into unfamiliar territory, recruiting the bigger muscle groups required to stay standing (legs, shoulders, core, spinal column). And when your body is gassed, add in three sets of five 30-inch box jumps—with five seconds’ rest in between each jump and 30 seconds between sets—to help develop more explosive strength.
If you failed: OK, bro, it’s time to build a proper foundation using exercises.
“It’s back to basic moves”—bench presses, pullups, squats, weighted situps—“not weird shit,” says Will Lanier of Barry’s Bootcamp in L.A. As a former Brick CrossFit trainer who can casually bust out a 56-inch box jump, he should know.
Gradually move to pullups: Do two to five each day for a week; then, four days a week, grab the gym’s pullup assist bands (no judgment here!) and do five reps with the 1⁄2-inch band, three with the 3⁄4 inch, then three with the 11⁄2 inch. “The most important parts: a full hang at the bottom and a full head over the bar at the top,” says Lanier. “You won’t get stronger till you have that final pull at the top.”
After the pullups, work in three sets of 15 weighted situps, starting at 10 pounds and slowly upping it each week.
Oh, and one surefire way to build your strength up when you’re not at the gym: Do 10 pushups every time you pee. It’s how Lanier gets his weaker clients to build general strength.
And no, not in the bathroom—find a place you can do them in the office.
Photo credit: Andrew Cutraro
Fitness Test Category 2: Flexibility
Flexibility is about more than just touching your toes. Rather, it’s the ability to control your entire range of motion, whether you’re loading a squat or holding the yoga warrior pose.
Having great flexibility is one of the most important building blocks to achieve great, well-rounded fitness. So remember: You may poke fun at your buddy who skips leg day, but you should never let a bro miss his flexibility work.
How to do it: Stand facing a wall with your toes two inches away from it, raise your arms overhead, and do an unweighted squat.
Goal: Squat without touching the wall with your hand or hands.
Active straight-leg raise
How to do it: Lie flat on your back in a doorway, positioned with the doorjamb halfway between your kneecap and hip. Pointing your toe and keeping your leg dead straight, lift your leg as high as you can.
Goal: Get your ankle through the doorway.
If you passed: “The guy who can do these easily—Bang! He knocks it out, drops ass to grass, and doesn’t touch the wall—has the requisite flexibility to train heavier,” says Underwood, so start working on Olympic lifts and doing plyometric work that will make you more explosive.
But it’s important to remember: The more you lift, the more your body craves flexibility work.
“New muscle fibers aren’t automatically as flexible,” Lanier says, so you need to maintain your baseline flexibility. “It’s up to you to make sure you maintain your bendy bobcat pretzelness while tackling heavier loads and time under tension.”
That doesn’t mean you have to go to Bikram yoga three days a week, but you should work some reverse lunges, side planks, deep and full bodyweight squats, and foam rolling into your daily routine.
It won’t take much time—seriously, no more than seven minutes—but it’ll launch you to new heights in the weight room.
If you failed: You might be the strongest dude in the gym, but without flexibility, you’re on an express train to injury town. Without proper flexibility and a full range of motion, you’re throwing your entire body—from your calves and feet to lats and lower back—out of whack.
“First step: Stop chasing performance,” says Underwood. Decrease the weight 10% on all your lifts, and focus on the mechanics of your movement, your full range of motion, and your posture in each lift.
We suggest doing 10 Cossack squats, five days a week, to build strength and mobility: Stand with your feet very wide apart; turn your left foot out so the back of the heel is on the floor and the toes are pointed up. Now squat on your right leg, keeping the right foot glued to the floor; repeat with the other leg; that’s one rep.
Keep your back flat—never let it curve at the bottom. After two weeks, add kettlebells, holding them close to your chest.
Also, do light yoga daily—forward folds, warriors, lunges, downward dogs—to stay limber.
Fitness Test Category 3: Conditioning
Climb your way to the top
You don’t have to run a marathon to prove you’ve got some kick-ass endurance. Think of conditioning as real-world functional fitness—how your body supplies energy efficiently to meet the demands of everyday activities, whether it’s playing with a nephew or just strolling through the city.
Max aerobic speed assessment
How to do it: Hit the gym and tackle LeBron James’ favorite total-body, vertical climbing machine: the VersaClimber; or visit your local football stadium and find a section with roughly 40 to 50 rows of seats.
Goal: Climb 800 feet on the Versa in under five minutes, or sprint to the top of the stadium seven times (and back down) in under five minutes.
If you passed: You’re in such good shape that the challenge now is refining the rest of your body—i.e., building explosive strength and increasing grip strength—without sacrificing your conditioning. That’s why you need to add this timed HIIT workout to your routine once a week. It will continue building muscular endurance and boosting your conditioning:
The fine-tuned HIIT workout
Do this sequence five times, as fast as you can:
– 20 kettlebell swings
– 10 burpees over bar or lateral jump over kettlebell
– 15 weighted stepups (20 inches)
If you failed: It means you’re struggling with muscular and cardiovascular fatigue, in which case bodyweight intervals are your only way to go. Do this to get yourself up to speed:
The VersaClimber is a ridiculous full-body workout for strength and conditioning.
The baseline HIIT workout
10 minutes each, as many reps as possible:
– 12 burpees
– 12 plyo box jumps (20 inches)
– 12 walking lunges
Another great method: Hit up a stairwell and hammer as hard as you can for five minutes. Then take your distance traveled and divide it by 300 seconds: Congratulations—that’s your lactate threshold. Now, be sure to work at 85-95% of that same pace during any cardio session to ensure you’re becoming a well-conditioned beast.
Photo credit: Andrew Cutraro
Fitness test category 4: Power
The best way to size yourself up against other dudes in terms of raw power is with an old track-and-field event that was so boring the Olympics retired it in 1912: the broad jump. Because, while strength is for moving weight around, power is for moving it quickly and forcefully. The broad jump, which requires elements of strength and speed and shows your ability to displace your mass against gravity, is the purest test of that.
How to do it: Stand with your toes on a line. Pick a visual in front of you and jump toward that, hammering your arms back quickly as you leap.
“Pretend you have a handful of spaghetti, and you’re throwing it at the ground as hard as you can,” says Underwood, who worked with football player Byron Jones before he set the world record in the broad jump at 12’3″ during the 2015 NFL combine.
Goal: To jump six to eight feet, measured to where the back of the heels land.
If you passed: You’re not Byron Jones just yet, but you’ve got some pretty damn good power. But now it’s time to work on bilateral strength.
Start with three sets of eight body-weight single-leg pistol squats three days a week, then gradually add weight. (Pistol squats go all the way to the bottom—your ass should hover just above the ground—but you have to keep your back straight and arms level.) Three sets of 10 single-leg deadlifts will cook your core, back, and shoulders and cement your balance.
If you failed: You need to work on hip-powered movements so your body can power off the block faster.
Try modified kettlebell swings with more weight: Hike the kettlebell behind you like a football, then stand with force, coming to a full extension of knees and hips, so the bell pops up to hip height—it’s a shorter, more explosive swing than a regular kettlebell swing, which comes up to shoulder height. Do 10 sets of 10, three days a week.
Joe Holder, a Nike trainer and performance specialist at S10 Training in New York, where he helps guys get below 10% body fat, likes shocking the nervous system after heavy lifting to improve power. “Think, going from a heavy bench press right into a medicine ball pass,” says Holder, a former college football player. “Or going from the squat right into a few high-quality squat jumps.”
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