As a runner, it’s easy to enter a training bubble: sleep, eat, run, repeat. It can be a cycle that helps you become a better runner, but it’s easy to forget—or flat-out ignore—that you should be doing other exercises to stay in the best overall shape.
This really hit home when reading The Better Man Project, the new book by Men’s Health US Editor-in-Chief Bill Phillips. It contains thousands of ways to improve your life everyday, including how to sleep soundly, how to keep your brain sharp, and, this being Men’s Health, how to improve your fitness.
Here’s a look at the 8 Tests of Overall Fitness, excerpted from The Better Man Project, along with my score after trying the self-checks. If you fall below the Men’s Health Fit Standard like I did, check out the training advice so you can get stronger over time.
CHECK 1: IS YOUR CORE WEAK?
Even if you don’t have an ounce of fat, you could be soft in the middle. This test will tell. Lie facedown on the floor and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor with your thumbs in line with the top of your forehead. Lift your elbows off the floor and position your feet the way they would be in a pushup with your ankles flexed. This is the starting position. Now, push yourself off the floor while maintaining a straight, stiff plank position from your shoulders to your heels. If your hips dip lower than your torso, your core is weak. Try the test again with your hands repositioned at chin level. If you still can’t keep your hips from sagging, you need even more core work.
The MH Fit Standard: Hold a stiff arms-extended plank for 10 seconds.
My Score: A solid 10 seconds. This didn’t shock me because I do—a few times a week—hold a normal plank for 30 to 60 seconds just for the heck of it. While this was probably the test I was least concerned about, the variation with my arms more extended gave me some pause. A good confidence booster going forward. (Though it wouldn’t last long …)
Get Fitter: Fall short? No problem. “You can more than double your score in a matter of weeks,” says Angelo Poli, owner of Whole Body Fitness in America. Alternate among these three exercises during the course of a week.
1) Three-point tennis ball toss: Hold the top position of a single-arm pushup (feet slightly beyond hip width, body straight from head to heels, weight supported on one hand) and bounce a tennis ball off a wall. Catch the ball and immediately bounce it back against the wall. Do 2 sets of 15 reps each arm.
2) Plank push/pull: Assume a plank position with a weight plate between your forearms. Lift your right arm, push the plate forward as far as possible, and then pull it back. Do 2 sets of 10 reps with each arm.
3) Swiss ball “stir the pot”: Assume a plank position with your forearms on a Swiss ball. Make small circles with your elbows, switching directions every 10 circles until you’ve done 40. That’s 1 set. Do 2.
CHECK 2: LOWER-BODY POWER
The standing broad jump is another great test. This evaluation is used by strength coaches and drill sergeants to gauge raw leg power because it requires several muscle groups throughout the body to fire at once. Stand with your toes on a line and your feet shoulder-width apart. Dip your knees, swing your arms, and jump as far as you can. Have a buddy measure the distance from the starting line to the backs of your heels.
The MH Fit Standard: 2.5 metres
My Score: 2 metres. My form was pretty good according to my witness, despite my lack of practice of jumping in any way. (Maybe those years of doing the long jump in high school more than a decade ago helped.) Though I came up a little short on the distance, I was happy I came close.
Get Fitter: “Power is a combination of strength and speed, so if you come up short, work on both,” says Tony Gentilcore. Start by doing squats and hip thrusts each week in separate workouts. During week 1, go heavy with the hip thrusts (3 to 5 sets of 5 reps using 85 percent of your 1-repetition maximum) and light with the squats (6 sets of 2 fast reps with 50 percent of your 1-rep max). The following week, flip the set-rep scheme, going heavy with squats and light with hip thrusts. Continue alternating for 4 to 6 weeks. “To build even more explosiveness, also do 3 sets of 10 kettlebell swings twice a week,” says Gentilcore.
CHECK 3: ANAEROBIC ENDURANCE
You’ll have fun with this one. Performing the squat, biceps curl, and push press exercises with dumbbells as a single compound move is an accurate measure of your anaerobic endurance, or your ability to work at near-max intensity in bursts of 20 to 60 seconds. Anaerobic endurance reflects the stamina of your fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibres, which generate energy in the absence of oxygen (i.e., when you’re sucking wind). How to do it: Use dumbbells that together total roughly 30 per cent of your body weight and hold them at your sides with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your back naturally arched, push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. As you stand up, curl the dumbbells to shoulder height using a neutral (or hammer) grip (palms facing) and then press them straight overhead, using your legs in the effort. Return to the starting position and repeat the compound move for 1 minute.
The MH Fit Standard: 20 reps in a minute
My Score: 14 reps. This started off feeling easy with a set of 20-pound dumbbells, but by the time I was 30 seconds into it I could feel my muscles wanting to take a breather. While I struggled a bit toward the end, at least my form didn’t suffer—I just slowed down. Could have tried to do 20 reps without a time limit.
Get Fitter: Perform 2 sets of the drill twice a week, resting 90 seconds between sets. If you can’t do at least 16 reps on your first set, lighten the load. “Each time, add an extra rep to your first set,” says strength and conditioning coach Chad Waterbury. “Once you reach 20 reps with the lighter weight, grab slightly heavier dumbbells and work your way up to 20 reps again.”
CHECK 4: MOBILITY
Mobility is a quality great athletes hone, but most regular guys ignore. The more mobile you are, the less likely you are to injure your joints. See how you do with the wall squat check. A lot of people fail this test because they have a rounded back or inflexible ankles. Stand facing a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes 2 inches from the baseboard and turned slightly out. Keeping your feet flat, chest up, and back naturally arched, see how far you can lower your body without touching the wall or falling backward.
The MH Fit Standard: A full squat—that is, when your hamstrings touch your calves, in control
My Score: 1 full squat. I did this in a mirror and can assure you that it wasn’t the prettiest (or fastest) squat ever, but I did maintain form and got low enough to touch my hamstrings to my calves without comically falling over. However, when I tried to go for a second one, I felt my left hamstring tighten up—and it hurt all weekend. Looks like I could still use some work.
Get Fitter: Loosen your back with self-massage. Lie on your back with a foam roller placed perpendicular to your spine just below your shoulder blades. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Support your head with your hands, and move your head, neck, and upper back forward and backward over the foam roller four to six times. To loosen tight ankles and calves, try the ankle mobility lunge. Stand in a split stance with your front foot about 6 inches from a wall. Now bend your front knee to touch the wall without letting your front heel leave the floor. Do this 8 to 10 times. Switch legs and repeat.
CHECK 5: THE BEEP TEST
Cardiovascular endurance isn’t just a sign of your 10K potential or how long you’ll last in a 48-minute game of basketball. People with solid aerobic health tend to have a longer life expectancy than those who lack it, according to a German study review. The Beep Test or 20-metre shuttle run is a classic measure of aerobic fitness. Place two cones 20 metres apart on a track or field, hit the start button on the app, and run from one cone to the other. When you hear the beep, run back. Continue until you can’t reach the opposite cone before the next beep sounds. (The time between beeps will shorten as you progress through the test.)
The MH Fit Standard: Level 12
My Score: 11.5. I’ve often heard the beep test was easy until you get to level 8 or 9. That’s very, very true. As much as I wanted to make it to 12, my legs—and lungs—just couldn’t quite get there.
Get Fitter: Repeat the beep test once a week. Just repeating the drill can help boost your peak aerobic capacity, says Alwyn Cosgrove. On two other days each week, do sprint intervals. Sprint at 85 per cent of your maximum effort for 1 minute and then rest for 2 minutes. Do that 5 to 8 times total.
CHECK 6: UPPER-BODY POWER
A powerful upper body doesn’t just look good shirtless, it also helps transfer force to the world around you. The clapping pushup—which requires explosiveness as well as strength—is an old-school move that many still consider the ultimate test of upper-body pushing power (thanks in no small part to Sly Stallone’s Rocky). Get into a pushup position, with your body straight from head to ankles. Lower yourself until your chest is 3 inches from the floor. Push yourself back up explosively so your hands leave the floor. Maintain a straight body as you clap in midair and land back in the starting position.
The MH Fit Standard: 10 clapping pushups without stopping
My Score: 1 clapping pushup. This was the embarrassing display I thought it might be. In my mind I was hoping my skinny arms could at least blast me up into the air for three decent ones. At least the gym was nearly empty and nobody saw me attempt this!
Get Fitter: Can’t clap? Add the exercise to your weekly routine but perform it with your hands elevated on an aerobics step, which reduces the load. Shoot for 3 sets of 5 reps, lowering the step as the exercise becomes easier.
CHECK 7: THE GO-MUSCLE TEST
The muscles of your posterior chain provide the power behind many of the most important skills in sports; consider them your “go” muscles. These include your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves—lots of muscles that may not be visible in the mirror but are vital to overall fitness. And no exercise hits them harder than the deadlift does. Load a barbell with the maximum amount of weight you think you can lift once, and roll the bar on the floor until it’s close to your shins. Bend at your hips and knees and grab the bar using an overhand grip that’s just beyond shoulder width. Keeping your lower back naturally arched, pull your torso back and up, squeeze your glutes, thrust your hips forward, and stand up with the barbell. Reverse the movement to lower the bar to the floor, keeping it as close to your body as possible.
The MH Fit Standard: 1.75 times your body weight
My Score: 75kg, which is 1.14 times my body weight. It’s been a while since I even thought of attempting a deadlift. Part of me was happy that a) I could deadlift a weight slightly over my 65kg and b) I didn’t hurt myself. When I did the numbers in my head and realised 1.75 times my body weight is a little over 114kg, I see there’s a lot of work I could be doing.
Get Fitter: Add the deadlift to your weekly routine using a weight that allows you to do 3 sets of 5 reps. That’s right, only 5 reps each set. “Keeping the rep count low allows you to do two things: concentrate on form and go heavy,” says Mike Robertson. When you can complete 2 extra repetitions in your last set for two consecutive workouts, move up in weight. Retest your 1-rep max every 2 to 3 months.
CHECK 8: FLEXIBILITY
The sit-and-reach check is a time-tested measure of flexibility in the lower back and hamstrings, two areas that are often super tight in men, especially those who sit in a chair at work. Tightness in these muscles is a major cause of back and knee pain. Check it out: Place a yardstick or cloth measuring tape on the floor and put a 30cm piece of masking tape across the 38cm mark. Take off your shoes and sit down with your legs out in front of you and your heels at the edge of the tape, one on each side of the yardstick. Keep both knees locked and pressed flat against the floor. (You can have a helper hold your knees down.) Now straighten your arms forward and place one palm over the back of the other hand. Bend forward, reaching as far as you can with your fingers while making sure that neither hand is reaching farther than the other. Take a few practice reaches, then hold the reach for 2 seconds while your partner records your distance.
The MH Fit Standard: 43cm
My Score: 43cm. Boom; got it. Thank you, foam-rolling-on-the-weekends for helping me finish on a higher note.
Get Fitter: It’s time to wake up your hamstrings. Do this stretch daily, recommends BJ Gaddour, International Men’s Health’s fitness director: Place your heel on a knee-high bench, a high table top or counter, or the appropriate step of a staircase and fully extend your leg. Flex your quad and push your heel down into the bench. Focus on hinging at the hips and minimizing movement at the spine to keep the stretch on the hamstrings. Oscillate in and out and move side to side to stretch all 3 compartment of the hamstring. Do it for 2-5 minutes on each leg. (View how to do it here.)