An important initial step to beginning an personal exercise program is to establish where you are. This can be done via assessment tests to measure your components of physical fitness (body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardio respiratory fitness, flexibility). The test results give you numbers that you can improve on and a way to compare yourself to healthy norms for your age group. They give you (or your trainer) direction for designing your workout. Plus, down the road, how will you know if you improved if there is no baseline?
Here are common, widely accepted tests… (Note: I don’t discuss FMS, strength tests, or more science-y tests here. Maybe in another post.)
A lot of health goals center around losing weight or gaining muscle, so this is one is a priority for most people. Height and weight are given on simple scales. You can calculate your BMI (kg/m^2) if you want to look yourself up on a chart, but it’s severely limited and it’s not an actual measure of body composition. I wouldn’t get caught up in your BMI number.
The easiest (but not best!) way to get body fat is to use Bioelectrical Impedence. One just stands barefoot on a metal scale or hold a device that shoots an unfelt electrical current through the body. Depending on how “impeded” the current was, it gives you a body fat percentage. It’s great because you just stand there and the machine does it all for you! Unfortunately, this method is not that accurate and can fluctuate greatly during the day based on hydration and other things.
A skinfold caliper is probably the best option, being cheap and fairly accurate (depending on who is measuring you). A caliper is just a device to measure pinched fat in specific areas of the body. The trainer records the numbers and logs it into a formula (usually digitally!) and from that a body fat percentage is given. There is still margin for error, but it’s pretty good test if you’re comfortable getting your fat pinched.
If you’re trying to gain muscle or increase in size, measuring the girth of your chest/abdomen/waist/arm/thigh might also be appropriate. All you do is run a tape measure around you and save the numbers to compare against later. (This doesn’t measure actual body composition though.)
Heart rate is a easy and fantastic way to measure the intensity of anything. The lower your HR, the less intense the activity is for you.
Cardiovascular fitness is easily measured by taking someone’s HR following a 3-minute step test. Exactly as it sounds, for 3 minutes the participant has to step up-up-down-down on a riser at a tempo of 96 (males) or 88 bpm (females). For a full minute after, the trainer counts your heartbeats and that number can give you some valuable info. If it’s high, it took a lot of effort to step. A good goal is to have a lower HR the next time you do a step test, as it means you’ve improved your cardio efficiency.
Or, see how long it takes you to comfortable walk/run a mile and a half. This is subjective to the subject’s perceived exertion, but like HR a lower number is better.
Muscular endurance tests are localized, and basically counts how many reps of a certain exercise you can do.
Common exercises are a curl-up test, which is done up-down at 50bpm. A rep is measured by how far your hand travels across the mat (using tape markers).
The push-up test counts how many push-ups (or modified push-ups on the knees) you can do in good form. There is also the pull-up test, but if one can’t do a pull-up there is also the flexed-arm hang. Unlike reps, this is measured with time: for how many seconds can you hold yourself up?
Another endurance test measured in seconds is the plank test. As it sounds, for how many seconds can you hold a plank?
Sit and reach is the most common test for flexibility. Unfortunately, it only measure flexibility at one joint so I think it’s not a useful measure of flexibility. Except how far can you reach to touch your toes?
Still, it’d be nice to see how far you’ve progressed, especially if you’re adopting a stretching program.
I’m already a certified personal trainer (ACE), but As part of my job training to work at my university’s gym, I have to do a full assessment on my mentor. Luckily, other personal trainers at the gym are letting me practice on them, so writing this post helps me to study for surprise questions!