Updated: Feb 23
In this article we will discuss the importance of fitness testing, how to prepare a fitness test and we'll look at a range of tests that you can try.
“Unless you test yourself, you stagnate.”
Mark Allen – winner of six ironman titles
Before we can improve our fitness we must first know how fit we are. That sentence is as tautological as they come but how many people do you know who test themselves on a regular basis? Personally I don’t know any.
The general absence of fitness testing amongst exercise enthusiasts probably accounts for why so few trainers push themselves beyond their current level. Though this is of no surprise because we only become aware of our fitness levels through testing.
A fitness test provides us with an unbiased insight into our current level of physicality. Depending on the test selected we can gather detailed, accurate and near instant information regarding our strength, muscular endurance and/or cardiovascular capacity.
By shedding light on our strengths and weaknesses, by exposing the chinks in our armour, we are able to begin the process of rectifying fitness imbalances whilst striving towards augmented physicality.
This can provide us with a goal and an area of focus. Exercising without these two things – a goal and area of focus – is the near equivalent of setting sail without a destination. Consequently most trainers are adrift, floating aimlessly.
Fitness testing gives us a starting point. It says ‘You are here!’ How important those three words are cannot be understated. After all, if we do not know where we are, then knowing where we are going and if we are making progress is impossible. (Excuse that cliché.)
Once we have a start point we can chart out a destination which provides us with a goal to aim for and imbues our training with a sense of purpose.
Benefits of fitness testing
It can prevent physical stagnation as we have a goal to work towards.
It imbues our training with a sense of purpose.
Testing can reignite dwindling motivation.
It can encourage us to push beyond perceived physical limits.
It can bring structure to our training regime.
May identify physical weaknesses that can be corrected through the modifications of training practices.
May provide a means of monitoring training effectiveness and progress.
What you will get from this article
The aim of this article is to provide you with a range of fitness tests to try. In addition, I have outlined the procedure that should be implemented prior to conducting a fitness test. Why?
By adopting a laissze-faire attitude towards testing – say the distance or time is inaccurate, or the conditions under which the test was conducted made it unreproducible – our results become increasingly unreliable.
Unreliable results are almost as unhelpful as no results at all. In fact, they are arguably worse because they could well lead us down a false path where we believe we have done better than we would have had we taken the time to ensure testing consistency. The long and short of what I’m trying to say is, if we’re going to invest time into testing our fitness we might as well strive to be as accurate as possible.
Each test comes accompanied (where applicable) with a normative data set. This is important because, if we have no information relating to previous performances of the test, we have no measure against which to compare our attainment. Thus we are clueless as to whether we’ve done well (or not).
However, in saying that, the normative data can be dismissed and you can use the tests merely as a means of monitoring personal progression. It is absolutely fine to adopt this approach and there is no shame in it.
So when conducting the 2000m ergo row test, for example, you could have a bash at the distance and record your time with the view of improving it a month later. You could happily do this in complete ignorance of normative date because you will still know if you have made physical progress after re-testing.
Furthermore, due to the glaringly obvious fact that most all recognised fitness tests provide the trainer with an extremely parochial insight into their physicality, you can design your own broader test. Though this comes with the limitation of an absence of normative data (not to mention the near impossibility of maintaining reliability), it will, like the example above, inform you of fitness gains made.
Think VRR when fitness testing
Before we take a look at the fitness tests I shall firstly outline a number of important factors that should be considered prior to conducting any test. As I mentioned above, if we are sloppy in our testing the outcome measures – the results – will be inaccurate. Inaccuracies not only mislead but they also invalidate future re-test outcomes.
So when we test we must do it right. The factors that ought to be considered prior to conducting a fitness test are:
Before undertaking a fitness test you first want to make sure that it is fit for purpose. ‘The validity of a test indicates the extent to which a test measures what it sets out to measure,’ (Watson 1995). So, before busting a gut over a 1.5 mile run, or inducing cardiac arrest on the 2000m ergo row, you must ask yourself: is this test going to provide me with the fitness measure I am seeking?
However, I may have jumped the gun here. Before we determine if a test adheres to the stipulations imposed by the concept of validity, we need to decide which component of fitness we wish to measure. The components of fitness are:
7: Coordination (skill-based measure)
Once you have decided which component of fitness you wish to test, you would then select the appropriate fitness test.
The relevancy of a fitness test can only be determined if the information it provides is of benefit. You could ask yourself: how will conducting this test support me in my pursuit of improved physicality? Really only you can answer that question.
However, if you are not training for a specific sport or discipline, such as a running event or triathlon competition, but are just interested in gaining an insight into your general fitness, then testing cardiovascular performance is the best place to start.
A purist might criticise any attempt to prioritise in order of importance the components of fitness. And even though they all have their place and serve a particular purpose, I doubt few would or could quibble with the contention that cardiovascular is a more insightful fitness measure than is, say, strength or flexibility.
I’ve arrived at this conclusion because cardiovascular tests provide us with an indication of the relative capacity of our heart, vascular and respiratory systems. Moreover, by pursuing cardiovascular fitness we will engage in activities which are synonymous with good health, reduced body fat and enhanced longevity. The same cannot be said for strength training and/or flexibility.
Thus, if you plan to include more testing into your training regime, I advise prioritising cardio tests. Better still, mix and match.
Before we conduct a fitness test we must ask ourselves: is this reproducible? Why should this question not only be asked but answered in the affirmative? For the simple reason that the results from the fitness tests are only of use if we can compare them against future results.
If the test cannot be reproduced – perhaps because of how or when or where it was performed – the results will be invalidated.
Furthermore, an unreliable or unreproducible test will almost certainly provide you with unreliable or unreproducible results. And such results are best off in the bin as they can be misleading.
I’m reminded of an incident a good many years back when I was discussing ergo row performances with an acquaintance – as you do. He goaded me into divulging my current 2000m PB (whenever someone does such a thing it’s usually a primer for them either to display their perceived physical superiority, usually by submitting a better time, or as a means of comparison – in this case it was the former).
My ego got the better of me and I promptly supplied my current 2000m ergo row PB. He almost immediately shattered it by stating that he could sustain a 1:13/500 average over the same distance. I fought back the impulse to laugh hysterically, and not for the fact that his physicality more closely suited that of a pub darts player, but because a 1:13/500 average translates to a sub 5 minute 2000m row. At his best the multi Olympic champion and Man Mountain Matthew Pinsent could pull 5:45.
I asked this acquaintance of mine if he was quite sure about this phenomenal time. He asserted most emphatically that he could row 2k at 1:13/500. I asked him how he could be so sure. He told me that that’s what his rower had recorded. I questioned the accuracy of his rower. He staunchly maintained that his rower was the most accurate and reliable rower in existence.
In the end Ieft him to his delusion – and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his rower was obviously faulty. The moral: make sure that the equipment used in a test is reliable.
My anecdote was supposed to illustrate the importance of ensuring that a fitness test satisfies VRR – that it is valid, relevant and reliable/reproducible. If it doesn’t we run the risk of wasting our time and deluding ourselves in the process.
Below I have created an 8 step procedure that you can implement prior to engaging in a fitness test. Though it is true that no procedure, irrespective of how robust and carefully implemented it is, can completely guarantee absolute testing reliability. But it will help to minimise inaccuracies.
Step 1: Decide which component of fitness you wish to test and know why you want to test that particular component.
Step 2: Select the appropriate test (see examples below).
Step 3: Determine when and where you plan to conduct the test (it is wise to make notes of these details so that you can recreate the conditions come day of the retest).
Step 4: If equipment is to be used – such as running machine, rower, bike – ensure that it is accurately calibrated and that the distance is displayed in the appropriate metric (I only say this because I once organised a group fitness test on indoor stationary bikes half of which were in miles and half in kilometres; I only realised this partway through the test when there were huge distance disparities between the participants – as they say, live and learn!).
Step 5: Ensure that the equipment used will be available come retest.
Step 6: Know your plan of attack prior to attempting the fitness test (what I mean by this is: what strategy of approach will you use? For example, over the 1.5 mile run, which is a standard military cardiovascular test, I have tried numerous strategies over the years in a bid to better my PB. These strategies include: starting slow and building pace over the distance; maintaining a high pace throughout; starting fast, falling below pace to raise it again over the remaining half mile). Once you have decided on a plan of attack, make a note of it and be sure to apply it during the retest.
Step 7: Make notes of your pre-test routine; how long before conducting the test did you eat? How were you feeling for the test? What did you do during the hour prior to the test? What warm-up did you complete?
Step 8: Once you have completed the test make notes of your performance; ask yourself: how did it go? Did I perform well? If yes why, if no why; could I have worked at a higher intensity? Did anything of note happen that impeded my performance?
Different Types of Tests
So far I have been discussing testing in relation to physical fitness. However, this is only one side of the coin. Though they are sometimes lumped under the all-encompassing banner ‘Fitness Tests’, which I believe is a mistake as it is misleading, many tests do not measure our physicality.
For example, the blood pressure test, even if the subject scored well, would not provide any indication of their performance in a cardiovascular test. And that subject who scored well might perform disastrously over the 1.5 mile run.
This is because blood pressure is a health related test designed to provide us with an insight into our physiology not physicality.
Below I have separated health related and fitness related tests. Each one is accompanied with a brief description and, where applicable, normative data. (Please note: if you wish to conduct a health related test, but do not have the appropriate equipment, consider soliciting the services of your GP. Alternatively, if you are paying a gym membership, ask a member of the team if they can run the test.)
Health related tests
Blood pressure is a term used to describe the strength with which your blood pushes on the sides of your arteries as the heart contracts. High blood pressure (hypertension) is a physiological state where unnecessary strain is put on your arteries and other organs. Hypertension is an indicator of the increased risk of severe health problems: heart attack and stroke. A blood pressure test measures blood pressure thus informing you if you are in a hypertensive state (use a blood pressure chart for scores).
The BMI is a value derived from a person’s height and weight. Though the test is generic in scope it is easy to perform and provides an untrained individual with an insight into how they measure up against the National Institute of Health’s weight categorisation system. Calculate your BMI.
The bioelectrical impedance analysis is a commonly used method of estimating a person’s body composition, in particular their fat and muscle mass ratios. The machine works by emitting a weak electrical current which passes through the body. The voltage of the current is measured and used to calculate body composition.
Girth measurements are used as body composition indicators. The readings can either be compared against normative data or used to as a means of measuring weight loss (or gain) during health and exercise programmes. Though considered intrusive the girt measurement test is easy to conduct and it provides instant and reliable feedback. Also the equipment need is both inexpensive and easy to procure.
Resting heart rate measures the number of contractions that a heart beats in one minute. The rate varies from person to person but a high resting heart rate is typically associated with poor cardiovascular performance. A heart rate monitor provides instant feedback with regards to the number of contractions the heart performs per minute.
Prior to conducting a test, and assuming you have followed VRR as best as you possibly can do, you must consider warming-up. A warm-up is of paramount importance irrespective of whether you are taking part in an exercise session or pitting yourself against a test.
Warming up not only improves our physical performance but it also reduces our chances of injury. For more on the benefits of this crucial component of exercise follow the link.
Cardiovascular fitness is an expression of the volume of blood the heart and blood vessels can pump around the body every minute. That volume - or quantity - is called the cardiac output. And the greater the cardiac output the more oxygenated blood is circulated around the body - thus feeding working muscles with a greater supply of energy.
A number of factors can influence an individual's cardiac output - such as their age, lifestyle and/or genetic heritage. But although these factors can be limiting, regular exercise and a healthy diet can play significant roll in increasing cardiac output and improving one's cardiovascular performance.
The 2k ergo row is the be all and end all of fitness tests. I say this because rowing recruits the two major muscle groups – legs and back – including most all other muscles in-between. Consequently, to keep so many muscles fuelled, the heart and lungs are required to work overtime.
What constitutes as a respectable 2k time? An Olympic rower will comfortably go sub-six minutes (1:30/500) – the world record stands at 5:35 which is an average of 1:23.5/500 (utterly insane). However, we must bear in mind that, like boxing, rowers are divided into weight categories. Heavyweights will pull the big sub-sixes whereas elite rowers from lighter weight categories aim for under 6:30. Really, for non-elite rowers, a time under or around 8 minutes is worthy of recognition.
As with any test there are multiple strategic methods of approach. Having tried numerous methods over the years, in my bid to go sub 6:30, I have found the four phase method to be the most effective.
Four phase method
The 2k distance is split into 4 X 500m blocks. We initiate the first 500 with 5 Herculean pulls bringing the pace at least 15 seconds below the target.
After those 5 big pulls we gradually ‘dial in’ to (or very near to) our target pace. By the time we are on pace the first phase will have concluded.
Between phases 2 and 3 we strive to maintain a consistent pace at or close to target. As we exit the 3rd phase we will be entering the final 500m.
Over the final 500 – which can be further broken down into 2 X 250m – we aim to hold pace until that moment when we initiate the sprint.
Other rowing tests
The following tests range from intermediate to full marathon distance. Rows of these lengths are approached quite differently to the 2k ergo. The pace must remain consistent and comfortably within the aerobic threshold.
Next to each of the four distances I have included current best times.
10,000m (31min 05)
21,090 (half marathon) (1hr 07min)
44,195 (full marathon) (2hrs 21min)
The 1.5 mile run is the cardiovascular test of choice throughout the British military. Though the attainment times vary across the different services, the objective remains the same: cover the distance as quickly as your physicality permits.
Of all the running tests the 1.5 mile is probably the trickiest. It sits in this physiological grey area between the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Consequently, if you start too fast you’ll quickly fill with led-like lactate before you round the first corner. But by erring on the side of caution, and maintaining a methodical pace, your time will only ever be substandard.
Thus for the 1.5 mile strategy is everything.
To achieve the best possible personal time on this fitness test you must remain as close as you dare to your aerobic threshold (85% of maximum heart rate - ±5%). From the first to the final metre the pace should be one which we feel uneasy about: I’m not sure if I can sustain this for the duration – is the recurring thought we must prove one way or another.
A respectable time for the 1.5 mile would be 10 minutes or under. Sub 8 minutes is excellent and sub 7:30 is exceptional. (These times are based against military attainment: elite fighting units, such as the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment, requires a prospective recruit to cover the distance in 9:20.)
When considering times for certain running distances – 5k, 10k, half/full marathon – it is perhaps best to focus our attention more on pacing. A 6 minute mile pace is to runners what a 20mph/average is to cyclists. That is, a coveted benchmark which indicates superior athletic performance. The further away from this benchmark pace – 6 minute mile – the slower your time in whichever distance you are testing yourself over.
10 mile time trial
The 10 mile time trial is ubiquitously used as a means of measuring a cyclist’s cardiovascular capacity and power outputs. It is to cyclists what the 1.5 is to runners – to wit a challenging high-intensity short distance test that hurts from the first metre to the very last.
For the duration of the distance the cyclist, if he or she harbours any real hope of achieving a good time, must maintain an aerobic output perilously close to the upper maximum; a watt or two away from triggering the anaerobic energy system.
It’s for this reason why a thorough warm-up is an essential and indispensable preparatory prerequisite of this test.
Before we willingly subject ourselves to between 25 and 35 minutes of physical agony we need to ensure that our physiological systems have made acquaintance with the anaerobic threshold – just a handshake will do it.
The best method of approach for the 10 mile time trial is really quite simple. Once sufficiently warmed up we would from the start line get up to pace before covering the first 100 metres. From here on out our objective is to hold this pace for as long as physically possible. It is only over the final mile when we would consider increasing the pace, perhaps sprinting for the line if the legs haven’t melted to jelly.
If you fancy having a bash at this test the current world record for the 10 mile time trial stands at 16:35 – which is a little shy of 40 miles per hour!
A trainer who is said to have good muscular endurance is one who can exert force against a resistance for extended periods of time. In a single exposure (or set) he or she performs multiple repetitions of an exercise – such as press-ups or pull-ups – without rest or pause.
It is not uncommon for people to confuse muscular endurance with strength. This is not surprising when we take into consideration that one trainer could perform an exercise with ease whereas another might struggle to perform the same exercise for a single rep.
I’ve always found this to be case with pull-ups. Having helped prepare young people physically for military service, which requires that the prospective recruit comfortably perform multiple ‘heaves’, I’ve often found myself shocked at the tremendous disparity in abilities. What can be for some students a relatively easy exercise can be for others an almost insurmountable Herculean labour.
The reason why I mention this is because it is the trainer’s physicality that ultimately determines if a resistance exercise is either muscular endurance or strength.
However, so as to set the two apart, I have identified a number of characteristics that are synonymous with muscular endurance training.
High repetitions that exceed 12
The resistance is light – either a percentage of body weight or 1rep max
The period of time the exercise spans should range from 30 seconds to 1 minute (but could easily exceed this upper limit)
The repetitions are performed in a smooth unbroken continuous movement with no noticeable breaks or pauses
Press-ups in 2mins
The 2 minute press-up test is used throughout the British military to assess a recruit’s muscular endurance. In one long line recruits will be ordered to adopt the press-up position whilst a partner lies on the floor at their front, arm stretched out and hand clenched into a fist directly under their chest.
On command of the Physical Training Instructor (PTI) the recruit will be given the order to perform as many press-ups as possible in 120 seconds. The partner, who looks away, only counts a repetition when they feel the chest of the recruit performing the press-ups make contact with their fist.
Though this method is not in the least scientific and transgresses VRR, it does provide PTIs with an insight into a recruit’s muscular endurance capacity. Furthermore, it is an indicator of prior practice – if a recruit can only perform, say, 10 repetitions, then they obviously haven’t adequately prepared for the rigours of military basic training – and establishes a physical start point from which to chart progression.
If you decide to use the 2 minute press-up test as means of measuring muscular endurance, there are a number of points you ought to take into consideration.
1: Solicit the services of a second party to monitor a) the quality of your repetitions and b) the number of repetitions performed. (Prior to starting the test it is best to first agree on what constitutes as a quality repetition – and ensure that you can use the same person come retest.)
2: For pacing purposes ask the second party to inform you when every 30 seconds elapses.
3: Prior to conducting the test decide your plan of approach. If you rarely perform press-ups I advise sticking to reps of 2 or 5. This will prevent you from filling with lactate early on.
4: Hand positioning: the hands should be positioned in line with the chest and slightly wider than shoulder width.
5: Position a soft object of about 4” in height directly under your chest. For a repetition to constitute as such you must make contact with the object. It goes without saying that the same object should be used when you retest.
To achieve a good score on the 2 minute press-up test you should aim to exceed 50 full repetitions. The elite military units – Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment – require that the prospective recruit achieve 55 or more.