Ask 10 experts for their definition of fitness, and you’ll hear 10 different answers. That’s because how you define the word depends on the type of performance you expect. Some athletes need to develop a particular type of fitness over all others—powerlifters at one extreme, marathoners at another—but most of us are at our best when we achieve balanced fitness. In other words, we’re good at everything a healthy, active man needs to be able to do.
On these points the experts agree: You need core stability. You need lower-body strength and power to run, jump, and lift heavy objects off the ground. You need torso strength to lift your own body weight in repeated challenges. And you need enough endurance to run a mile without stopping for defibrillation.
That’s why we asked our experts to create seven fitness tests that will help you assess the shape you’re in. Start with the three challenges below, which measure core and upper-body strength—areas guys generally care about most. (You can see all 7 fitness tests in Are You MH Fit?) But don’t just do these exercises once; make them part of your regular workout and you’ll quickly broaden your shoulders, build your biceps, and chisel your torso. And become as fit as you’ve ever been.
And don’t aim for average. Keep working at these exercises until you’re not just fit, but Men’s Health Fit. Let the games begin.
Fitness Test #1: Core Stability
Fitness begins in the middle of your body. That’s also where it ends, if your core isn’t strong and stable. Not only do the muscles in your torso defend your spine against unwanted movements—the twists and jolts that produce injuries—but they also enable the movements you do want. They’re the linchpins that allow coordinated actions of your upper- and lower-body muscles.
So we’ll start with the plank, a fundamental test of core stability and endurance. The average guy should be able to hold a basic plank for 60 seconds, says strength coach Nick Tumminello. If you aspire to be Men’s Health Fit, you should be able to do a more challenging version for the same amount of time.
You’ll need something long, solid, light, and straight, like a broom handle or dowel. Assume a basic plank position, with your weight resting on your forearms and toes. Your body should form a straight line from neck to ankles. You want your feet hip-width apart and your elbows directly below your shoulders.
Have a friend set the dowel along your back. It should make contact at three points: the back of your head, between your shoulder blades, and your tailbone. Hold that position. Stop if your body loses contact with the dowel at one of these three points.
If you can hold your position for 60 seconds, stop and rest for two minutes. Then do the plank with your feet on a bench. (You won’t be able to use the dowel, because it will slide off.)
Nailed it? Rest two minutes and try this version: With your feet back on the floor, move your arms forward so your elbows are beneath your eyes instead of your shoulders. If you can hold this one for 60 seconds, congratulations: You’re Men’s Health Fit.
Planks are a big part of the 2012 Spartacus Workout, which readers are calling their favorite workout ever. The best part is its simplicity—all you need are dumbbells, a stopwatch, and some serious grit. Are you tough enough to try it?
Below average: You can’t hold a basic plank 60 seconds
Average: You go 60 seconds
Above average: You can hold a plank 60 seconds with your feet elevated on a bench
Men’s Health Fit: You can hold a plank with your arms extended for 60 seconds
Fitness Test #2: Pushups
The bench press is the best size- and strength-building exercise for your chest. And yet the lowly ground-based pushup actually works more muscles, even if it doesn’t allow you to hit certain ones with maximum intensity.
Like the bench press, the pushup works your chest, shoulders, and triceps to exhaustion. It’s also a core exercise, forcing muscles in your abdomen, hips, and lower back to work hard to keep your spine in a safe position. But the biggest benefit of the pushup may be the way it forces the web of muscles surrounding your shoulder blades to man up and support your shoulder joints, which can become dysfunctional on a steady diet of bench presses.
This test, courtesy of Martin Rooney, one of the world’s top strength and conditioning coaches, may be humbling for you, particularly if you’re at your best with your back on a bench and a barbell in your hands. Assume a pushup position with your hands directly below your shoulders, your feet hip-width apart, your weight resting on your hands and toes, and your body in a straight line from neck to ankles.
Lower your body until your chest is about an inch above the floor, pause for 1 second (this is essential), and then return to the starting position. Complete as many consecutive pushups as you can while maintaining strict form.
Below average: Fewer than 15 pushups
Average: 16 to 29 pushups
Above average: 30 to 44 pushups
Men’s Health Fit: 45+ pushups
Fitness Test #3: Chinups
Just as the bench press has replaced the pushup in many exercise programs, so has the lat pulldown replaced the chinup. And that’s a shame. Both exercises hit the featured muscles in the upper and middle back—the lats, lower trapezius, and rear deltoids—but the chinup goes lower and deeper. Because you’re hanging from a bar rather than sitting on a padded seat, you force muscles in your middle back to work with the muscles in your hips and lower back to keep your spine in a safe position.
“Chinups are a great test of upper-body strength and endurance, core stability, and spinal stabilization,” says Men’s Health advisor Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs. Pulldowns are certainly easier, but as with so many things in life, limited effort produces limited rewards.
Grab a chinup bar using a shoulder-width, underhand grip. Hang at arm’s length. Pull your chest up to the bar, pause for 1 second, and then slowly lower your body back to the starting position and repeat. A repetition counts only if you start from a dead hang with your arms straight.
Below average: Fewer than 3 chinups
Average: 3 to 7 chinups
Above average: 8 to 10 chinups
Men’s Health Fit: More than 10 chinups
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