The Best Physical Fitness Tests, Part One

The Best Ways to Measure Your Fitness - Part One

So, you have been going out for jogs, hitting the gym, riding your bike to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, using a standing workstation, and you are feeling great. Your pants are fitting better than ever and you are not shy about being seen in your bathing suit. You can walk for hours without getting fatigued, you can carry on a conversation while you walk up a few flights of stairs and you don’t think twice about joining in a game of shinny with your friends. And yet, something is still missing. Something about your new fit life is eluding you.

You want to be able to measure and quantify your current fitness level and not just by looking at the number on the bathroom scale. You want something bigger. Something more meaningful.

Fitness Tests

To best determine whether you’re at the peak of your physical health, you can use any number of physical fitness tests out there. As you will find out, there are tons of different tests that check various aspects of physical well-being. There are tests that focus on gauging your strength, measuring your stamina, and quantifying your flexibility. There are tests that focus on one particular physical trait, a combination of two, three or ten, and even some tests that strive to measure your overall physical fitness.

Before we get into some of the most popular (and interesting) tests that I could find publicly available, let’s talk about what makes a test, any test, worthwhile.

Validity and Reliability

Consideration must be given not only to the results of the tests but also to the rigor of the testing criteria. The word “rigor” refers to the extent to which the testing criteria works to enhance the quality of the tests. In quantitative research, this is achieved through measurement of validity and reliability. In order for test data to be of value and of use, they must contain both.

  1. Validity: does the test measure what it is supposed to? For example, timing a long endurance run workout would not be a valid measure of explosive strength but it would be a valid way to measure aerobic fitness. For our purposes, this is borderline common sense and should not cause us much trouble.
  2. Reliability: is the test consistent or repeatable? If no variables are changed (aside from your level of fitness), a reliable test that is repeated over and over again should not yield different results. For our purposes, this is a tough one. Wind, heat, cold, hydration status, recovery state, illness and even lack of sleep can influence the reliability of our tests. But we are not trying to land a bike on the moon, so we’ll just have to do our best to control the variables we can.

So with that in mind, let’s look at physical fitness tests that some professions, physicians, schools, sports teams and researchers have concocted to help put some meaning to all this fitness mayhem that we hold so dear.

Types of Fitness Tests (Part One)

  1. The Canadian Forces EXPRES Test
  2. The Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training certification
  3. The Bruce Test
  4. The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test
  5. Navy SEALs Fitness Test
  6. Seattle Fire Department’s Candidate Physical Ability Test

Since I am Canadian, let’s start in the Great White North.

1. The Canadian Forces EXPRES Test

There are five “military emergency tasks” that form the basis of the Canadian Force’s physical fitness evaluation. They are:

  1. Entrenchment dig (digging a personal trench to protect oneself against enemy fire)
  2. Land evacuation (carrying one end of a stretcher bearing a casualty)
  3. Low/high crawl (moving in a defensive way in front of enemy fire)
  4. Sea evacuation (evacuating a casualty from a ship during a fire or other emergency)
  5. Sandbag carry (in the course of erecting a barricade against a flood or other natural event)

Given the logistics of using these five common tasks as an annual evaluation for all Canadian Forces personnel, the CF EXPRES test measures and evaluates using the following activities:

  • Aerobic Capacity by using a 20-meter shuttle run (running back and forth between two points)
  • Muscular Strength by using a handgrip test
  • Abdominal Muscular Endurance by counting the amount of sit-ups you can do (with perfect form and no rests)
  • Upper-body Muscular Endurance by counting the number of push-ups you can do (again with perfect form and no resting)

That one is pretty specific to the tasks that are asked of a Canadian Forces members but not completely unrelatable to us general public folks. At its core, it is pretty widely functional (by that I mean useful in real life) and we would all be safer and more self-sufficient if we could pass this test, so I won’t go picking what I perceive as holes in it. Instead, let’s look at another one.

2. The Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training certification:

To pass this certification, a person must be able to:

  1. Run 1.5 miles in 15:37 (or less)
  2. Do 16 consecutive push-ups with no rest
  3. Jump 15 inches vertically
  4. Do 25 sit-ups in one minute
  5. Run 300 meters in 70 seconds

Now, I like this one even more than the first one because it includes a vertical jump test (which can quantify explosive strength) and it incorporates both a distance run and a sprint (which measures both aerobic and anaerobic fitness) but I can’t help but notice that it lacks a grip strength test and, more specifically, some pull-ups.

3. The Bruce Test

This test is quite different than the first two because it was specifically designed to evaluate cardiovascular performance. The Bruce Test is also often known as the clinical treadmill stress test which was traditionally used to diagnose patients with suspected heart diseases because the results could point to coronary problems. Today, this physical fitness test is also used to measure VO2 Max, or maximum oxygen intake, among athletes.

The end of the VO2 Max test is usually signified by the athlete desperately grabbing the guardrails to stop from falling face-first into the equipment.

You begin on the treadmill at a manageable pace and incline. At certain intervals, both the incline and treadmill speed is increased and increased and increased until your threshold is reached. The end of the test is usually signified by the athlete desperately grabbing the guard rails to stop from falling face-first into the equipment.

VO2 max is calculated by measuring the amount of oxygen consumption per minute during the exercise protocol. Oxygen consumption will rise linearly up until a certain point when the oxygen consumption plateaus. This usually happens when the exercise intensity increases beyond threshold and the CO2 and lactic acid rise beyond the body’s ability to clear it faster than it is manufacturing it. This number, when the oxygen consumption has reached a maximum, is called the VO2 max.

The VO2 max can be used as a gauge of general cardiovascular health and also to monitor progression of fitness with various types of training. It can also be useful to identify the calories burned during different levels of work outs by linking the results to the athlete’s heart rate.

The problem is that you generally need to work with trainers skilled in exercise physiology to use the information effectively to build nutrition and training protocols. Plus, this is not a test you want to partake in (more than once) unless you are getting paid to do it or you are some kind of masochist.

4. The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test

In this test, they use a confusingly complicated equation to determine your fitness. It makes sense once you have completed it but at first glance it seems overly complex.

  • Men receive five points for every pull-up, one point for every crunch, and one point is deducted from 100 for every ten seconds slower than 18 minutes they take on the three mile run.
  • Women receive 1.5 points for every second on the flexed arm hang (maximum 70 seconds), while the scoring is the same for crunches and the three mile run (although they get 21 minutes for the run).

To earn a perfect PFT score of 300, men must do 20 consecutive pull-ups, 100 crunches in less than two minutes, and complete the three mile run in at least 18 minutes. For the women, it’s 70 seconds on the flexed arm hang, 100 crunches, and 21 minutes for the run.

While I enjoy the math of this test and agree that it hits three major components of fitness, I can’t help but feel that it is too simple for our needs. So let’s move to some true heroes.

5. Navy SEALs fitness test

Ah, Navy SEALs. They are the toughest of the tough. The fittest of the fit. Surely they have a good test?

Before I jump into the description, let me point out that the numbers I am going to list are the absolute minimums that are absolutely meant to be exceeded. I will also list what a more competitive number would be. A prospective SEAL who simply hits the minimums will have technically passed the test but is unlikely to continue.

The bare minimum criteria is:

  • 500 meter swim using breast stroke or Combat sidestroke (which is a modified version of freestyle) in 12:30. A competitive time would be under 10:30.
  • 42 push-ups in two minutes. A competitive count would be more like 79 push-ups.
  • 50 sit-ups in two minutes. A competitive count would be at least 79.
  • 6 consecutive “dead hang” pull-ups (your body should not move except for the elbows and shoulders). A competitive count would be at least 11.
  • 1.5 mile run in “boots and trousers” in under 11:30. A competitive time would be under 10:20.

To make this test even more impressive, once you pass this test, there is an additional 27-week long training course that not many people survive… I mean pass.

6. Seattle Fire Department’s Candidate Physical Ability Test

This one is impressive and a little nutty but what would you expect from Firefighters? These folks need to be ready for pretty much anything! A burning building, a natural disaster, a massive car accident, a raging inferno, and of course a cat in a tree. You have to be fit for all that, right?

It is important to know that you must wear long pants, a safety helmet, gloves, and a 50 pound weighted vest during this test.

Before I start listing the activities, it is important to know that you must wear long pants, a safety helmet, gloves, and a 50-pound weighted vest while completing the following:

  • Stair climb. While carrying two additional 12.5 pound shoulder weights, candidates must climb a stairmaster at level three (50 steps per minute) for 20 seconds, then three minutes at level four (60 steps per minute).
  • Hose drag. With a 1.5-inch nozzle over their shoulder, they must drag a 200-foot hose for 75 feet, make a 90-degree turn and pull the hose 25 more feet; then, reel the hose in hand-over-hand for 50 feet.
  • Equipment carry. They must carry two heavy power saws for 75 feet to a marker and back.
  • Ladder raise (and extension). They must raise a 24-foot aluminum extension ladder from flat on the ground, then extend the 24-foot ladder hand over hand, and then lower it again (in a controlled motion).
  • Forcible entry. They must strike the “Forcible Entry Cumulative Force Measure Device” (which looks like the sledgehammer game at a carnival) with a horizontal swing of a ten pound sledgehammer without rest for several minutes.
  • Search. Crawl blindfolded through a tunnel maze and maneuver around, under, and over various obstacles to get to the end.
  • Rescue. Pull a 165-pound dummy for 35 feet, then turn around and return to the starting position, as quickly as possible.
  • Ceiling breach and pull. Using a six-foot pole they must raise a 60-pound section of ceiling three times, then hook the pole to a weighted ceiling resistance device and pull down five times. And do it again—four more times through!

Yes, these activities at first glance are very specific to firefighting but what I like about this test is that this type of fitness is extremely functional for anyone. If you go back to the Get-Fit Guy episode about What the Word Fitness Really Means, these are activities that would fit many of the examples I listed there. (Yes, even the zombie apocalypse.) I think we have a new front-runner, sorry SEALs.

Is There More?

After those last two, you may not think we need to go any further. But I am, as we say in the fitness industry, just getting warmed up! So make sure you tune in next week for Part Two of The Best Ways to Measure Your Fitness.

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