The Best Ways to Measure Your Fitness, Part Two

Best Ways To Measure Fitness

In part one we discovered that occasionally we fit-folks need more than a bathroom scale to show us where we are at in our athletic endeavors, and that often means we need to do some sort of fitness test. We also looked at what makes a test useful, valid, and reliable while we examined several fitness tests ranging from the Canadian Forces, to Navy SEALS, to a lab VO2 max test, and the grueling Seattle Fire Department’s Candidate Physical Ability Test.

In part two, I am going to continue the examination of a few other fitness tests and reveal what I think is the best and most useful test for those of us who are interested in being awesome in all areas of life.

Let’s dive back in to the examination with a simple one.

The Vertical Jump Test

This test is used specifically to determine leg muscle strength and is another test that you can easily do at home. This test is sometimes called the Vertical Leap or the Sargent Jump (named after the physical educator, Dudley Sargent).

To perform the test, you attempt to reach the highest point on a wall by jumping straight up in the air with your arm reaching over your head. That is all. You can have a few tries, and either take an average of the tries or choose the highest jump. It is up to you. Once you can touch the ceiling, I guess you have to…move to a bigger house? I don’t know. I’m a white guy and everyone knows that we can’t jump.

Now, I include these next two with a heavy caveat. Obviously anyone trying out for the NFL or NBA has to be scouted for very specific gifts and abilities in each sport before they’d even be asked to do the fitness tests. So, take this with a bucket of Gatorade.

NFL Football Fitness Test

NFL football players must complete:

  • 40-yard dash, for time (which means they time how fast you complete it)
  • 20-yard short shuttle run (twice), again for time
  • Vertical jump (just like the Sargent Jump)
  • 225 lb bench press, maximum reps (meaning that they count how many you can do before failure)

And, of course, be really good at football.

NBA Basketball Fitness Test

NBA basketball players must complete:

  • No step vertical jump (jump as high as you can from standing still)
  • Maximum vertical jump (step allowed)
  • 185 lb bench press, maximum reps (again they measure how many you can do before your arms give out and your eyes bulge)
  • 3/4 court sprint

And also be very good at basketball.

The Harvard Step Test

Yes, we are going from the physically elite to the scholarly elite.

Like the Bruce test (from part one), this is also a test for cardiovascular function and it is pretty darn simple. All that is required is a 12- to 20-inch high bench or box that will bear your weight, a metronome, and a stopwatch (or an app that functions like a stopwatch).

The person being tested simply steps up and down on the platform at a steady pace for five minutes. The rate of 30 steps per minute must be maintained for five minutes (or until exhaustion). To ensure the subject is stepping at 30 steps per minute, the subject must step in sync with the metronome.

Then, after the five minutes is over, the subject immediately sits down on completion of the test, and the heartbeats are counted for 1 to 1.5, 2 to 2.5, and 3 to 3.5 minutes.

The score is determined using a fancy equation of 100 x test duration in seconds, divided by 2 x sum of heart beats in the recovery periods. Here is one example, if the total test time was 300 seconds (the entire 5 minutes), and the number of heart beats between 1-1.5 minutes was 90, between 2-2.5 it was 80 and between 3-3.5 it was 70, then the score would be: (100 x 300) / (240 x 2) = 62.5. Which would give you a “below average” rating on this test.

  • Rating
  • Excellent
    > 96
  • Good
    83 – 96
  • Average
    68 – 82
  • Below Average
    54 – 67
  • Poor
    < 54

Obviously this is great for measuring cardiovascular conditioning (and perhaps one’s ability to do something really dull for five minutes) and it should be noted that correlation of this test to a real VO2max test has been reported as between 0.6 to 0.8 in studies.

CrossFit baseline WOD

When I first started my CrossFit adventure, I was asked by the instructor to set a baseline. This is often used to judge your progress and to assign you to a similar group or perhaps even to help you choose a modified version of the WOD (Workout of the Day). Many CrossFitters have their baseline numbers memorized and are happy to blurt out how far they have come “since those days.” I may seem like I am mocking them but I actually think this is an excellent idea. We could all do with a little more quantification in our workout strategies.

How do you set a CrossFit baseline? For time, do:

  • 500-meter row (on a rowing machine)
  • 40 bodyweight squats — full depth (hip crease below knee)
  • 30 sit-ups — start with shoulders touching the ground and end sitting straight up
  • 20 pushups — chest to floor to fully extended arms
  • 10 pull-ups — chin above bar to full arm extension

Here’s how CrossFit 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

I really like this one. Not just because it is a great way to measure your progress but because it tests a variety of movements and does the due diligence of stipulating good form in the criteria.

Maximum Aerobic Function Test (MAF)

A fellow named Dr. Phil Maffetone came up with the MAF Formula and the MAF Test, and it’s pretty simple.

  • Find a fixed course (a track or a measured path is ideal) and put on your heart rate monitor
  • Start jogging or running until you reach 75% of your max heart rate (which Dr. Maffetone calculates as: 180, minus your age)
  • Run 3 miles while maintaining that heart rate. Monitor your HR and adjust your speed accordingly to keep it at 75% (for a 30-year-old that would be ~150 BPM)
  • The time it takes you to run each mile is your MAF number to beat

Improving your time on a MAF Test indicates that you are becoming efficient at a low intensity which often correlates with the ability to race faster at higher intensities.

During any MAF Test, your times should always get slower. The first mile should always be the fastest, and the last should be the slowest. If that’s not the case, it means that you probably didn’t warm up thoroughly.

Performing the MAF Test on a bike or in a pool is also possible. For the bike, pick a course that initially takes about 30 minutes to complete. Following a warm-up, ride at your maximum aerobic heart rate (again 180 minus your age), and record exactly how long it takes to ride the test course.

Improving your time on a MAF Test indicates that you are becoming efficient at a low (aerobic) intensity which often correlates with the ability to race faster at higher intensities.

You can perform the MAF Test regularly throughout the year, and chart your results. Dr. Maffetone recommends doing the test every month. No sooner, or you run the risk of becoming obsessed.

Sitting-Rising Test

This one is strange but also fascinating. Stick with me here!

In a study published in the European Journal of Cardiology, Dr. Claudio Gil Araujo had more than 2,000 patients between the ages of 51 to 80 take the Sitting-Rising Test. Dr. Claudio found that people who scored fewer than eight points on the test were twice as likely to die within the next six years compared with those who scored higher; those who scored three or fewer points were more than five times as likely to die within the same period compared with those who scored more than eight points.

To perform this test, just simply sit down on the floor and then get up. The catch? You must use as little assistance from your hands, knees, or other body parts as possible.

For each body part that gets involved in the process, you lose one point from a possible score of 10. If you put one hand on the floor for support to sit down, then use a knee and a hand to help you get up, you get docked three points for a score of 7.

For each unit increase in SRT score, participants gained a 21 percent improvement in survival. Specifically:

  • Those who scored 0-3 were 6.5 times more likely to die during the 6-year-long study than those who scored 8-10
  • Those who scored 3.5 to 5.5 were 3.8 times more likely to die
  • Those who scored 6 to 7.5 were 1.8 times more likely to die

My Own Test?

As I was researching all this, I got to thinking that I just might need to create my own Get-Fit Guy Fitness Test that meets all the criteria that I think are important. Then I remembered that my friend, former boss, and mentor Mark Sisson had created a great one that I really like and—not being someone who likes to completely reinvent the wheel—this is it, with my own additions and modifications. We’ll call it an unsanctioned collaboration.

The Primal-Fit Guy Fitness Challenge

Grab a stopwatch and load this webpage up in a browser on your phone (or print it off) so you can easily see the order and number of reps for each exercise. The numbers at the beginning of each exercise are the number of reps you should do, in order from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced. If you are unsure, I would start with intermediate and see how you do.

Start your watch and dive into the following sequence, with no breaks between exercises:

  • Push Ups: 10, 20, or 30. Be sure your body is in a straight line plank position at all times. Lower your chest all the way to the ground for each rep.
  • Squat Jumps: 20, 30, or 40 meters. Take off and land with both feet together. Strive for both height and length. Make sure you land in balance on the balls of your feet to prevent jarring your back. It is ok to swing your arms on takeoff to create momentum.
  • Walking Lunges: 20, 30, or 40 meters. Take slow, exaggerated steps where your rear knee lowers almost to the ground on each step. Your front knee must bend to form at least a 90-degree angle between upper and lower leg. Pump your arms on each step in an exaggerated manner to help maintain balance.
  • Mountain Climbers: 10, 20, or 30. Assume plank push up position. Keeping your arms locked, drive right knee forward to touch right elbow, then return leg quickly to plank position. Repeat with left knee to left elbow. Allow head to rock forward slightly to compress your abdominals on each rep. Complete right and left leg cycle equals one climb. Advanced users can dip down (like a push up) while driving leg forward.
  • Bench Dips: 20, 40, or 60. Standing in front of bench (facing away from it), reach behind with straight arms and grasp front edge of bench. Dip down, bending elbows to 90 degrees, dropping your butt in front of, and below, the bench. Then, return to extended arms position. Relax your feet and legs and let them go along for the ride, making sure that your arms apply all the force.
  • Sprint Out & Bear Crawl Back: Take two round-trips out to and back from your landmark at 20, 30, or 40 meters for a total of four lengths. Sprint one direction, then bear crawl to return. Keeping your back straight with butt only slightly raised, proceed with only your hands and toes touching the ground. When you reach the start/finish line, sprint out again to your landmark and crawl back to the start/finish line.
  • Pull-ups: 3, 7, or 12. Your choice of overhand, underhand, or a neutral grip. Come to a full extension at the bottom of every rep and make sure your chin goes above the bar at the top.
  • Chair squats: 20, 40, or 60. Standing in front of bench, sit down until butt barely touches the bench, then immediately stand up. Repeat movement and accumulate your total as fast as possible. Pump arms on each rep for momentum.
  • Burpees: 15, 30, or 45. Begin at the bottom of the burpee, with your chest touching the ground and your body and legs straight and parallel to the ground. At the top of the burpee, your hips fully extend position with your body and legs straight and perpendicular to the ground. To finish the burpee, your feet must leave the ground with your hands reaching in the air (like you just don’t care).
  • Full Sprint: 20, 30 or 40 meters. Run hard! I know you are tired but this is the last one. Give’r!
  • Stop the timer and write down your time. This is now your number to beat.

I feel good about this one. I have nothing more to add to that, at this time. In terms of measuring what I would consider “fit” (again see the article on What Does The Word Fitness Really Mean) this test pretty much has it covered. Plus it is something you can do on your own, for free, whenever you like and it totally counts as your workout of the day.


Please note: before you do any of these tests, make sure you take a good rest-and-recovery day the day before. Also, try to do subsequent tests under the same conditions (or as close as possible). This means you should make notes on the weather, your diet, and hydration leading up to test day and perhaps even how well you slept so it is easier to recreate and be consistent. Otherwise, you will not get a valid or reliable result.

Having this insight into your own fitness level can help you avoid injury from the good old “too much, too soon” situation.

Why Do This?

First, having an initial testing session when you start a new program can give you an idea of where your fitness level is at, so future testing can be compared to this and changes can be quantified. Second, as I mentioned with the CrossFit test, a baseline can be especially important if you are embarking on a new training regimen. Having this insight into your own fitness level can help you avoid injury from the good old “too much, too soon” situation.

For added fun and excitement and data, you can repeat the tests at regular intervals, to get a better idea of how effective your training program really is. The time between tests will depend on which test you choose, your availability, and of course for some of these tests, the cost involved (a VO2 Max test in a lab can easily cost $200 a pop). Depending on these factors, the period between tests may range from two weeks to six months. Keep in mind that it usually takes a minimum of four to six weeks to see a measurable change in any aspect of fitness.

One of the best parts of regular testing like this is the incentive and motivation to improve as you strive for a better test score. Knowing that you will be tested again can be a huge motivating factor. Especially on those days when you really would rather stay in bed than hit the hills.