I’ve been asked on multiple occasions over the years what I consider the be a good measuring stick when it comes to fitness, and just about every time, I respond with the same canned answer: fitness is a personal journey, and I’m not here to tell you how to pursue it. I really do mean that, we’re all here for our own reasons and have our own goals… but if you get a little more specific with your question, I tend to get a little more particular with my answers. If your fitness goals happen to coincide with mine, for instance… I’ve even been known to get downright picky.
I’ll be the first to admit that, just because I believe something is important, it doesn’t make it so – but I’ve lived through a broad and varied trouble making career, and found myself relying on my physical condition in a number of different sorts of circumstances. Anecdotal as my data sets may be, I’ve come to trust my assessment of what I’m currently capable of, what I need to be capable of, and what I have to do to get there. When I was fighting, it was muscular endurance and low weight. When I was playing football, it was grip strength, explosive power, and I could weigh all I wanted. As a rugby player, endurance is the name of the game, but explosive impact gets the crowd going, and when it comes to long hikes through the wilderness carrying a pack, lower extremity stabilizing muscles, endurance, and the ability to channel a pack mule all come in handy. No single regimen makes you ready for all of those challenges, no single fitness metric can assess your preparedness, and no internet writer like me can claim to have unlocked the secret to becoming the most well rounded athlete on the planet. What I can do, however, is offer you a baseline I think is important to start from.
When I say cardio, most people immediately imagine long, slow jaunts on a treadmill, and it can be that – but doesn’t have to be. What most runners won’t tell you is that a brisk walk will burn calories just about as well as a jog, so from a weight loss perspective, spandex pants aren’t a requirement. The real benefit of jogging and similar exercises is the workout it provides your lungs and heart – but if you’ve been out of the fitness game for a while, a hearty walk can provide that too.
My bare minimum requirements from a cardio front is simple: you need to be able to walk three miles at a good clip without taking a break. It sounds simple, but if you’ve been leading a sedentary life for a while, it’ll be surprisingly tough. That metric isn’t just for your cardiovascular system though; knees, shins, ankles, and feet all need to be conditioned to long duration output, otherwise you’ll find yourself sore and immobile if you ever need to rely on your feet in a survival situation. If you aren’t at the three mile mark yet, start with one, or a half, and build upon it daily.
Upper body strength
I’m a weight lifter by trade. Whether I was playing football, cage fighting, or preparing for my next PFT in the Marine Corps, weights have always played an important role in my fitness game for one reason and one reason only: it’s what I like to do. Being a big lug isn’t always beneficial, of course. in the Corps, I literally never passed a single weigh in after boot camp with the scale alone. I’d have to subject myself to body-fat measurement to prove that I was within Marine Corps standards… Of course, I was in my twenties and working out for hours a day, I didn’t have much in the way of body fat, but rules are rules, and I still had to have the obese civilian lady in the S1 wrap her big floppy arms around my waist and neck to confirm mathematically that I wasn’t a fat ass like her.
The thing is, though, you don’t have to bench press 350 pounds to be in good shape. In fact, I’d argue that most people that can (myself included) are able to do so at the detriment of other categories of fitness that aren’t as important to them. I’m a slower runner because I’m a bigger guy. It’s the trade off I’ve chosen to make, but not necessarily the right one for everybody. Just like a fire team has a saw gunner and a rifleman, there are times when being able to punch through walls is important… but there are times when just being able to get around them quickly is more valuable. That’s why I gauge upper body strength performance on the individual’s body weight, rather than by the sheer numbers you can put up.
As a bare minimum, you should be able to bench press your own body weight one time. Marine Corps bare minimums for pulls up is three, and I’ve seen some awfully schlubby human beings pull that off, so three is my minimum too (chin ups are acceptable) and 25 push ups without stopping is just enough to keep me from calling you names for the rest of our workout.
Lower Body Strength
Again, lower body strength is one of those places where you can get into a big-weight pissing contest that lose sight of the individual in favor of stats. If you weigh four hundred pounds and can squat three hundred, I’m not nearly as impressed with your athleticism than I am with a 130 pound woman that can squat the same. Just like with upper body strength, your body weight matters.
Like the bench press, you should be able to comfortably throw your own body weight on a bar and execute at least one good squat, but because we rely on our legs to get us where we’re going, my rule of thumb involves less weight and more muscular endurance when it comes to your southern hemisphere. You should be able to execute between 20 and 40 body weight air-squats without stopping before I let you join me in my basement for some hazing. Likewise with lunges, and finally, box jumps. A one foot box jump is not very high, but requires balance and stability. It’s a good introduction to plyometrics, and I’ll mandate that you can do 20 before we go any further.
Although I worked for a time as a personal trainer, I only train one person nowadays. She’s a local a girl that had something awful happen to her and was introduced to me through a mutual friend. She wanted to learn to protect herself, but what she really needed was some practice in self confidence… and she wasn’t able to meet a single one of the criteria I set forth above when we got started. You might find yourself in that position too – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just like with her, it just means you have your first goal laid out for you. I recently had to invest in better pads, because, at less than a hundred pounds, she recently kneed me so hard in the sternum I had to take a break… so trust me, it won’t take long to toughen up.
There are countless other elements to gauging one’s fitness levels. Core strength is paramount to any athlete, isometrics might matter to you more than explosive power, I could go on. These standards have suited me well, but that doesn’t’ make the list exhaustive or right for everyone. I do, however, guarantee that meeting the minimum requirements I set out will help to ensure you’re capable of handling many of the tough situations that arise in our daily lives, whether it’s walking to a gas station from a broken down car or carrying in all the groceries in one trip (because I’ll be damned if I’m taking two).
Minimum requirements, of course, are met to be exceeded, so even if you’re already there, I expect to see you on the black top.
For reference, here are those requirements again. At a minimum, you should be able to:
–Walk three miles at a good clip without taking a break
-Bench press your own body weight one time
-Do 3 pull ups
-Do 25 push ups without taking a break
-Squat your body weight at least once
-Do 20-40 air squats without a break
-Do 20 body weight lunges without a break
-Do 20 one-foot box jumps
Images courtesy of the author