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11 Ways to Assess Your True Fitness Level

I once dated a girl who only went to the gym once a month. She’d do the same workout — a tough, high-intensity circuit using weights, the stationary bike, the stepper, and a few other machines — every single time, and that was it.

When you asked her about it, her reasoning was that if she could do the workout, she was still fit and that was enough for her. Why go to the gym every day if she was already in shape?

While I wouldn’t recommend that methodology myself, one thing she did have right was regularly assessing her fitness level. This is something that most people – even many of the fitness buffs amongst us – don’t do, and I think that’s a real mistake.

With the Challenge [1] underway, I thought we’d explore this topic. Do you have a measuring post to gauge how fit you are? Is there a standard you aspire to reach? To surpass? To maintain?

Let’s look at several ways you can assess your true fitness level.

1. Do the Primal Blueprint Fitness assessment.

This is a simple way to check your capacity for bodyweight fitness. Do the max number of consecutive reps for each Primal Essential Movement. The number of reps you complete in each movement will determine where to begin on that movement’s progression.

If you haven’t already, sign up for the newsletter [2] and get free access to the Primal Blueprint Fitness [3] e-book.

2. Do the CrossFit baseline WOD.

For time, do:

That’s a very reasonable standard. It tests strength, strength-endurance, and the ability to endure a demanding workout. Here’s how CrossFit [4] interprets times (Male/Female):

3:45, 4:40 — Elite
4:30, 5:35 — Pro
5:15, 6:30 — Expert
6:15, 7:30 — Collegiate
7:15, 8:30 — Intermediate
8:15, 9:30 — Novice
9:15, 10:30 — Beginner
10:00, 11:00 — Cut-Off

3. Run a mile.

I talked about this extensively several months ago. The mile run [5] really is a nice barometer for overall, “real-world” endurance fitness. A mile’s about as long as you’ll have to run in an “emergency” nowadays, whether it’s back to your apartment because you forgot your phone or through city streets because it just started pouring all of a sudden. Even if you’ve just defeated the Persian army and need to warn your countrymen that the remaining fighters are heading their way with revenge on their minds, you send a text. You don’t run the 26.2 miles back to tell them in person. If anything, you might run around for a mile’s worth, searching for a signal.

In a recent study [6], men over 50 who could run the mile in 8 minutes or less had “optimal cardiovascular fitness” and a greatly reduced risk of heart disease. For women, it was 9 minutes.

Any fit person, man or woman, should aim for at least 8 minutes or less. The younger you are, the less time it should take. But the best mark of fitness is that your time improves.

4. Do the maximum aerobic function test.

For regular folks, general trainees and athletes, the mile run is a great barometer of the kind of aerobic fitness they’d need. For more serious endurance athletes, the maximum aerobic function (MAF) test is worthwhile.

Phil Maffetone came up with the MAF, and it’s pretty simple and intuitive. Best for endurance athletes, but anyone interested in their aerobic capacity (which should be everyone, probably) can benefit from taking the test.

  1. Find a fixed course (like a track) and strap on a heart rate monitor.
  2. Start slowly running until you reach 75% of your max heart rate.
  3. Do 8 laps while maintaining that heart rate. Monitor your HR and adjust your speed accordingly to keep it at 75%.
  4. Time yourself.

The MAF also works with cycling, rowing, or any other aerobic pursuit. It’s not strenuous by any means (only 75% of HR), but it is informative. Improving your time on a MAF test means you have become more efficient at low intensity and correlates strongly with an ability to race faster at higher intensities.

5. Consult Mark Rippetoe’s basic strength standards.

The standards take up several full pages, so I won’t list them here. Just take a look at the PDF [7] and see where you fall.

Rippetoe breaks up the strength standards for each lift (overhead press, bench press, squat, deadlift, power clean) into five categories:

For my money, being “intermediate” across the board is probably enough for most people. You’ll be stronger than most people you encounter and you’ll have an above average amount of lean muscle mass [8]. Reaching the intermediate level isn’t too hard, and it doesn’t put in any real danger of injuring yourself. If you go for higher levels, the risk goes up (not to say it isn’t safe).

6. Count how many calories you can burn in a minute on a stationary bike.

Sprinting is important for health and fitness [9], but not everyone is suited for flat sprints on a track. I wouldn’t exactly ask Grandpa to test his 100 meter dash time, you know?

Cycle sprints [10] are an excellent compromise (that aren’t really even a compromise). They’re hard to do and hard to mess up. As long as you get the angles right, the risk of injury is very low.

Schwinn Airdynes are excellent for this, if you can get a hold of one. A minute of all-out sprinting on one of those beasts is a humbling experience. So go do it, in other words. Can you beat 87 calories [11]?

If you’re on an Airdyne (which works your arms and legs), aim for 40-50 calories in a minute. If you’re on a standard stationary bike, aim for 25-35.

7. See how long you can tread water.

Go find a body of water, either natural or manmade, and get in the deep end. Tread water [12]. Aim for 15 minutes.

15 minutes of active, unceasing treading is fairly tiring, but it should be doable for most people with enough practice.

8. Get a movement screening.

A popular one is the Functional Movement Screening [14], or FMS, created by Gray Cook. In an FMS, a screener puts the screened through a series of bodyweight movements designed to identify mobility deficiencies. Poor ankle dorsiflexion? The FMS will find it. Bad thoracic mobility [15]? The FMS will root it out. Unweighted mobility is the foundation of all physical performance, and you’re not at your full fitness potential if there are serious movement deficiencies. You can certainly overcome poor mobility with sheer force for a short while, but it always comes back to bite you.

9. Play a pickup game.

It could be any sport [16]. Basketball, soccer, Ultimate frisbee [17], football. Just go out to the park and play a game on short notice. Play for 20, 30 minutes, and make sure you’re moving for most of it. Then, observe:

How do you feel after playing? How’d you perform? Were you sucking wind by the end, or could you go for another one? How’d you feel the next day? Sore, stiff, or raring to go? Did you enjoy yourself, or were you just trying to survive?

10. Walk for two hours without feeling it.

Walking is our birthright [18]. It’s how we get around. These hominids were made for walking [19].

You should be able to walk for two hours straight and hold a conversation.

You should be able to walk and take in the scenery.

You should be able to walk for two hours and then workout (if you wanted to).

My point is simple: a two hour walk shouldn’t feel like exercise. Walking [20] should be pleasurable and leisurely. It’s also transportation, a totally utilitarian pursuit. You shouldn’t get winded getting from here to there.

If I’m walking, I can usually do about three and a half or four miles per hour comfortably. That’s walking pretty briskly, but brisk is easy for me because I hike [21] a lot.

11. Sit on the ground and stand up using just your feet.

Several years ago, a Brazilian doctor found [22] that testing how many limbs his patients used to sit down on the ground and stand back up could predict their risk of early death. The highest possible score —attained if a person sat and stood using only their feet — was 10. For every limb, elbow, knee, hand, or side of the leg a person used to help them get down to the sitting position or stand up from it, a point was subtracted. Half a point was subtracted if a person lost balance. Each point increase was associated with a 21% lower risk of all-cause mortality in the cohort of 51-80 year-olds.

(Note: this doesn’t apply to those jerk toddlers who can easily stand up without using their hands or anything else from seemingly every position.)

How did you do? Try to get to the 9 or 10 range.

There are plenty more ways to assess your fitness, but these are eleven of the best, most comprehensive — and simplest — methods. If you perform well on all eleven, it’s safe to say you’re very fit and are certain to live forever.

Well, maybe not that last part.

So, folks, how did you do? Try at least one of the assessments that you can do immediately and report back your findings.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

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