How to test and measure fitness

Emma White - Certified Personal Trainer | 05 Sep, 2022

We often talk about wanting to improve our fitness levels through regular exercise – but what exactly is 'fitness'? And how can we measure our fitness to know that we're improving?

The term 'fitness' essentially relates to a person's ability to 'meet the demands of their environment'. This makes it a relatively dynamic thing, since our environment can change continually depending on the demands we put on ourselves. If you start doing more regular exercise for example, your body must adapt to be able to cope with this demand, which requires your fitness to improve.

Fitness is also not simply someone's ability to run for a long time – it is broken down into several components. While one person may be aerobically fit, another may have better muscular fitness. Abilities like flexibility, agility, stability and power are all measures of overall fitness.

Measuring fitness

It's useful to measure our fitness, so we have a point of reference to know if we're improving it with training. This can be as simple as seeing how fast you can run 1 mile for example, and then testing this again a few weeks later.

There are also a number of standard tests for measuring different elements of fitness, to give us a steer on the level we're currently at. These range from measuring cardiovascular fitness, to assessing our flexibility.

Here are some examples of tests that are easy to perform as they require minimal equipment, or simple gym equipment. There are various other tests, but some can be more complicated or require specific devices that may not be easy to come by.

cardio fitness

Tests for cardio fitness

Our cardio fitness is essentially a measure of how efficiently our body can take in and use oxygen – you may have heard it referred to as VO2 max. Usually the higher your VO2 max, the longer you will be able to carry out cardiovascular exercise such as running for, or the higher intensity you can work at.

To officially assess VO2 max requires a laboratory with all the correct equipment – but since most people don't have access to that on a day-to-day basis, more practical tests have been designed. These tests are ones you can perform with no equipment, or on a treadmill for example. While not 100% accurate, they can give you a useful guide to what level your cardio fitness is at.

NB: Before performing any fitness test, ensure you carry out a 10 minute low-intensity warm-up first.

Rockport walking test – A simple test to help establish the VO2 max of untrained individuals. It requires walking 1 mile as fast as you can either outdoors or on a treadmill. You'll also need to wear a heart rate monitor, or a fitness tracker that can track your heart rate.

  • If performing the test outside, set out some distance markers on flat ground track or around a park. Ensure you've warmed up, then walk at a brisk pace to try and complete the mile as fast as you can.
  • If performing on a treadmill, warm up at walking pace, then increase to a brisk pace you can sustain. Aim to complete a mile (1.6km) as fast as you can.

At the end of the mile, record the total time taken and your heart rate at the end of the activity. Then input this information, along with your age and weight into the formula below to estimate VO2 max. Where gender is mentioned, apply 1 for males and 0 for females.

VO2 max = 132.853 – (0.0769 × Weight in lbs) – (0.3877 × Age) + (6.315 × Gender) – (3.2649 × Time in minutes) – (0.1565 × Heart rate)

The Cooper 12 minute run test – This test is good for well-trained people as it requires running outdoors or on a treadmill for 12 minutes. The aim is to cover the most distance you can in 12 minutes.

  • If doing the test outside, set out distance markers or perform it on a running track if possible – so the distance is easy to measure. Simply set a timer for 12 minutes and aim to cover as much distance as you can in that time. Walking is OK, but ideally participants should aim to push themselves as hard as they can.
  • If performing the test on a treadmill, set the incline to 1% to help simulate running outdoors. Begin running at a pace you believe you can sustain for 12 minutes, your aim being to run as far as you can. Adjust your speed if necessary.

There aren't any clearly defined official VO2 max ratings, however the figures below give a useful guide to what is considered good for different age groups and genders.

Typical male VO2 max levels in ml/kg.min

Rating 20-29yrs 30-39yrs 40-49yrs 50-59yrs 60+
Excellent >55 >52 >50.5 >49 >44
Good 45-54 44-51 42-50 39-48 36-43
Average 42-44 41-43 39.5-41 36-38 33-35
Below average 36-41 34-40 32-39 31-35 28-32
Poor <35 <33 <31.5 <30 <27

Typical female VO2 max levels in ml/kg.min

Rating 20-29yrs 30-39yrs 40-49yrs 50-59yrs 60+
Excellent >49 >45 >42 >37.5 >34.5
Good 39-48 36-44 34-41 31-37 28-34
Average 36-38 33-35 31-33 28-30 25-27
Below average 29-35 27-32 26-30 23-27 21-24
Poor <28 <26 <25 <22 <20

muscular fitness

Tests of muscular fitness

This is all about our ability to exert force with our muscles – the more force exerted, the better your muscular fitness. That said, muscular fitness can relate to strength, power and endurance, so it isn't all about maximum force. Someone's ability to continue to use their muscles under force for an extended length of time would show good muscular endurance, which is also important.

Muscular strength is important for maintaining stability and strength throughout life, which can help to prevent injury and joint problems, and maintain good posture.

The following tests will allow you to assess your current muscular strength so you have a useful benchmark going forward. While the results can't be applied to a generalised set of results like a measure of VO2 max – they're useful for you as an individual to monitor progression.

8-12 rep max – most people when using weights will work within a 8-12 repetitions range. This is because it's a good range for developing strength, building muscle and improving muscular endurance. This test helps you to establish your best weight for this reps range, so you can ensure your training is as effective as possible.

  • Choose your exercise, e.g. dumbbell bicep curl.
  • Select the weight you feel is appropriate to fatigue you at 12 reps.
  • Perform the exercise, ensuring correct technique throughout.
  • For a less trained person, if you reach 12 reps and your muscles felt fatigued – this weight is enough.
  • For a trained individual, if you reach 12 reps and feel you could do more reps – you'll need to up the weight. The idea is to be able to just perform 12, but not 13 reps.
  • This will be the appropriate weight for you to complete 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, to ensure progression over time. It's possible your reps may reduce per set to be closer to 8 total by the 3rd set. You can then repeat this test every few weeks to see how your strength is developing.

Push-up test – this test specifically assesses the strength and endurance of the arms and chest muscles. The goal is simply to perform as many push-ups as you can in one minute.

  • Males should perform the test, by using their toes as the pivot point. Hands should be shoulder-width apart, body straight and toes tucked under. Start with your chest on the ground, then push-up so you’re in a high plank position with a straight line from head to toe. Bend your elbows 90 degrees to lower your chest towards the floor, but don't touch the floor with your chest, then push back up. That's one rep.
  • Females should perform the test on their knees, if comparing results to relative norms. Hands shoulder-width apart, knees on the floor and a straight line from head to knees. Start as above with chest on the ground, push-up to the start position with straight arms and then bend arms 90 degrees to lower chest towards the floor. Repeat as many times as you can in one minute.

Male result norms – push-ups

Rating 20-29yrs 30-39yrs 40-49yrs 50-59yrs 60+
Excellent >41 >32 >25 >24 >24
Good 28-40 22-31 17-24 12-23 11-23
Average 21-27 16-21 12-16 9-11 7-10
Below average 12-20 9-15 6-11 5-8 3-6
Poor <11 <8 <5 <4 <2

Female result norms – push-ups

Rating 20-29yrs 30-39yrs 40-49yrs 50-59yrs 60+
Excellent >32 >31 >28 >25 >23
Good 21-31 18-30 15-27 11-24 11-22
Average 14-20 12-17 10-14 5-10 4-10
Below average 6-13 5-11 3-9 2-4 2-3
Poor <5 <4 <2 <1 <1


Tests of flexibility

Flexibility is something that can get overlooked by people, but it is a very important component of overall fitness. Flexibility is our ability to move a joint through it's complete range of motion. This is important for everyday movement and avoiding injury during certain activities.

Sit and reach test – this is the most common test for assessing flexibility. It assesses lower back and hamstring flexibility. Tightness in these areas can put us at risk of injury and aches and pains.

  • It's very important to warm up prior to this test, to ensure your muscles are warm and as flexible as possible.
  • Complete a few practice stretches by standing tall with feet together, then gently reaching down towards your toes.
  • When ready, remove your shoes and sit with your legs straight and feet pressed flat against a box, which is about level in height with your abdomen.
  • Slowly reach forward with your arms and aim to reach as far as you can on the box. Make sure you move slowly and don't jerk yourself forward.
  • Ideally, you'll need a partner to mark out where you reach on the box.
  • Repeat 3 times and take the best of the 3 scores.
  • Measure from the edge of the box where your toes are to where you reached to.

Male result norms in inches – sit and reach

Rating 20-29yrs 30-39yrs 40-49yrs 50-59yrs 60+
Excellent >14 >12 >9 >9 >7
Good 8–13 7–11 3–8 2–8 (-1)–6
Average 4–7 2–6 (-2)–2 (-2)-1 (-6)–(-2)
Below average (-1)–3 (-3)–1 (-8)–(-3) (-10)–(-3) (-11)–(-7)
Poor <-2 <-4 <-9 <-11 <-12

Female result norms in inches – sit and reach

Rating 20-29yrs 30-39yrs 40-49yrs 50-59yrs 60+
Excellent >15 >15 >13 >12 >9
Good 11-14 10-14 8-11 7-12 5-8
Average 7-10 6-9 4-7 4-6 1-4
Below average 2-6 1-5 (-1)–3 (-1)–3 (-3)–0
Poor <1 <0 <-2 <-2 <-4

Tracking progress

Once you have completed tests to assess your fitness for various activities, it's recommended to repeat these tests every 4-6 weeks to see how you're progressing. This will allow you to identify improvements in your fitness and to modify your workouts going forward to ensure continued progression.

When it comes to fitness, the old 'use it or lose it' phrase has never been more true. We have to keep exercising and also keep progressing our exercise in order to see continued change over time.

Emma White (Certified Personal Trainer) has always loved fitness. She's passionate about the many benefits of regular exercise, particularly the positive impact on mental health and overall quality of life, as well as how it provides the key to successful weight management.

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