The Power of Fitness Testing

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.

two men running beside each other in the Hawaiian Ironman race

“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.

multiple men cycling in a team time trial

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.

a woman being timed whilst she performs press-ups with dumbbells

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:


1: Validity

2: Relevance

3: Reliability


Validity

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:


1: Muscular endurance
2: Muscular strength
3: Cardiovascular
4: Power
5: Speed
6: Agility
7: Coordination (skill-based measure)
8: Body composition (health measure)


Once you have decided which component of fitness you wish to test, you would then select the appropriate fitness test.


Relevance

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.



Why?


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.

a woman running beside the sea in the sun

Reliability

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.


Testing Procedure

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?

a man on the start line ready to sprint