How Fit Are You Really?
You may be able to bust out burpees all day every day, but spoiler alert: That doesn’t mean you’re in great shape. Yes, burpees are a great total-body exercise (one that you definitely shouldn’t stop doing). But there’s a lot more to evaluate when it comes to your overall level of fitness. Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, says it’s important to test your hip mobility, lateral strength, and flexibility too, as being strong in each area will help keep you injury-free. Perform these five moves before your next workout to see just how fit you are—and where there may be room for improvement.
Seated to Standing
The act of moving from a seated to standing position sounds like an easy one, but McCall says there’s a lot that goes into it—and not everyone is successful. Start by sitting on the floor Indian-style. From there, try to stand up completely without using your hands or placing them on the floor. “It’s an indicator of your overall balance, coordination, and strength,” says McCall. “It tests your hips when you lift your body up off the floor for the actual movement, your core muscle keeps your spine stable, and your abdominals engage when you don’t use your hands.”
If you need a helping hand, McCall says it’s an exercise that should become a regular part of your warm-up or cool-down until you can perform the move multiple times without using your hands. You could also add a yoga class to your weekly routine, as the flexibility and strength developed in the practice often focus on the same muscle groups as this test and can help you see improvement.
“Being able to do an overhead squat, or a squat with your arms raised over your head, tests the stability and mobility relationships in your body,” explains McCall. “Your ankles and hips are designed to be mobile, your lumbar spine is supposed to be stable, and your shoulders should have stability and mobility.” So, while watching your form in a mirror, lower into a squat while keeping your spine straight and arms lifted overhead. If you’re able to get your thighs parallel to the ground, as if you were sitting back in a chair, McCall says you’re in great shape. But if your knees hurt, you can’t keep your arms overhead, or it’s difficult to sink your hips down for 3 to 5 reps, then your overall mobility and flexibility need improvement. “Start holding a dowel rod or broomstick overhead while you squat to help you work on it,” he says. “Holding something overhead gives your arms something to focus on and allows your hips to sink a little lower.”
Front planks may get all the attention, but McCall says being able to balance on your elbow in a side plank tests your lateral strength and hip stability, which is super important for keeping your knees protected. (Side note: McCall says runners often experience knee pain due to a weakness in the lateral hips.) Start on your right side and, balancing on your right forearm and foot, engage your core and obliques to lift your hips off the ground and time how long you can comfortably hold it for. Comfortably is the key word—McCall says if you can’t relax into the position for 30 to 45 seconds, and find yourself quivering long before that, then it’s an area to improve upon.
Don’t forget to switch sides and test your left side plank as well—McCall says you should be able to hold the position for about the same amount of time as you can your right. Otherwise, it’s an indicator of an imbalance, which puts you at a greater risk of injury.
They’re a staple in most fitness classes for a reason—performing one with proper form is an indicator of overall total-body strength. “You want to be able to do a push-up so your hips and shoulders rise at the same time and everything is moving up and down in a straight line,” says McCall. If your butt sticks in the air or your hips stay on the ground while your shoulders rise, that can indicate weakness in your core and spine. For your assessment, try to perform three to four full-body push-ups (so no dropping to your knees for the test), with your elbows pointing back as if they were positioned at 4 or 8 on a clock. “If they’re positioned at 3 or 9, which is too far out, you’re putting a lot of strain on the rotator cuff,” explains McCall. “If your hands are too close together, as if you were performing a chaturanga, that’s placing more force on your triceps and you don’t really use your chest and shoulder muscles. Keeping them at 4 and 8 puts the shoulder joint in a more neutral position so all the muscles that stabilize it are able to work more effectively.”
Then, keep an eye on your form—if a broom were placed on your back while you completed each rep, would it roll off? “If so, start adding in push-ups—modified ones are okay as you work on improving–or standing chest presses.”
For this test, McCall wants you to evaluate your range of motion. “Put yourself on a straight line with one foot about 2 feet in front of the other, then lower into a lunge so your back knee comes toward the front ankle,” says McCall. “If you can do 3 to 5 reps and maintain a tall spine, switch and see if you can do the same on the other.” Most of us have one side that’s stronger than the other, and the weaker side tends to force your body into a corkscrewing motion—making you feel like you’re losing balance—as you lower down. McCall says that’s because your hip isn’t going for the desired mobility. To work on it, he suggests adding Bulgarian split squats to your routine a few times a week. “It’s a really good exercise because you use your hamstrings and adductors together to extend and sink lower into the front hip, rather than just the glute to control movement,” he says. Plus, it’s an easy move to do at home—all you need is a couch or chair.