Fitness Standards For Regular Folks

When people first begin the journey toward improved fitness and overall health, I find that they often don’t have a specific path toward a clearly defined goal.  This is perfectly understandable.  If a person has never really tested the capacity of their own body, fine details can seem pretty elusive.  Generally the goals entail “looking better,” or “losing weight.”  Along that road, some sort of exercise will be involved.  With that in mind, it is helpful to establish progress along an exercise continuum.

First and foremost, I am a proponent of finding something that a person is willing to do consistently.  If all someone ever wants to do is hop on an elliptical machine, that’s terrific.  Does it ignore a genuine need for strength training?  Yes.  Does it forgo the benefits of mobility work?  Yes.  Is it better than sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours, sitting in a car for 1 hour, and then sitting on the couch for 3 hours?  Emphatically, yes.  We could all be doing more, but simply doing something is a great place to start.

If a person is new to the idea of a dedicated fitness program, they might start with a simple Google search.  This can quickly devolve into a rabbit hole of overwhelming frustration.  I often run across strength training forums where I commonly see the standard, “Good strength goals for men are a 300 bench, 400 squat, and 500 deadlift.”  For the average person just starting out, this isn’t realistic, and it can be downright discouraging.  Most people can’t squat properly with any weight at all.  I personally know only 5 people on a first-name basis who can deadlift over 400 lbs, and 3 of us are fitness trainers.  Few people are doing any deadlifting at the family gym I attend.  Obviously the average powerlifter is going to hit those numbers, but powerlifters are not the intended audience of this post.

There are some terrific sites with fitness standards out there.  I personally test myself against a lot of the Crossfit standards, even though I’m not a Crossfitter.  But for the average person with little exercise knowledge, who is just looking for a basic template of realistic goals, the Crossfit standards can seem a bit esoteric and daunting.  So…if you are new to all of this, and have managed to train past the window between a New Year’s resolution and Valentine’s Day, here are some well-rounded, medium term goals that can help build a foundation toward any higher level fitness achievement.

— Finish a 5k without walking.  Barely jogging is acceptable.

— Pushups (chin to floor, perfectly planked):  Men, over 20.  Women, over 5.

— Inverted row from floor (legs straight, perfect plank):  Men, over 10.  Women, over 3.

— Front Plank (flat as a board):  90 seconds

— Bodyweight squats (below parallel):  75

— Single Leg Hip Bridge (full extension, controlled pace):  25 per leg

There will be any number of varying reactions to these standards:  “That’s weak sauce, bro,” or “Pushups are impossible!”  It is of the utmost importance to note that these standards are not going to break any fitness records — that isn’t the point.  Second, most people that I start with have severe strength imbalances:  35 perfect pushups on day one, but can’t do one squat to parallel without rounding the back and coming up on the toes.  I have also come to recognize that genetic factors for women can be all over the map in terms of upper body strength.  Petite women with shorter appendages usually have no trouble hitting 20 or more pushups in a fairly short amount of time.  Tall women with longer arms may struggle for a year just to get one good pushup.

The larger point that I want to make is that it is important to work on our weaknesses.  If you can sprint a 5k, but can’t hold a plank for 30 seconds, less time on the treadmill and more time on the floor can really benefit you long-term.  I’m a perfect example of this.  Lifting heavy things has always come pretty naturally for me.  But until I started running in my 30s, I couldn’t jog one mile without resting along the way, and it would take me hours to recover (chain-smoking didn’t help).  As I became more dedicated to martial arts training, my early progress was slowed by the fact that I simply had no stamina whatsoever.  When I switched my focus from something I could already do well, to something that had always been a struggle, it changed everything.

Not every man will be able to bench press 300 lbs.  Not every woman will be able to run a marathon.  But, over time, you should acquire enough strength and stamina to increase the odds of saving your own life in an emergency.  I have mentioned similar scenarios in previous blog posts, but I think it is important to reiterate them:

— Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception.  Are you fit enough to walk several miles back to civilization, possibly carrying a small child?  If you can jog an entire 5k, your odds are better.

— An overloaded bookshelf falls on top of you.  Can you use your arms and hips to get yourself free?  If you can do 5 good pushups, and 25 single leg bridges, your odds are better.

— A loose dog is coming after you.  Can you climb over a fence to safety?  If you can do 3 horizontal inverted rows, your odds are better.

Physical strength won’t save us in every emergency.  Surviving a plane crash or chemical plant explosion will mostly come down to severity and luck, but these things are exceedingly rare.  Most of us have experienced, or personally know someone who has experienced, something similar to one of the 3 scenarios I described above.  For people who spend time on the most basic levels of general fitness, hiking 5 miles to a gas station in the desert will feel like a challenging workout.  For people who don’t, it can become a life or death situation.

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Can You Squat Like This?

This is my client Robert.  He is 57 years old and suffers from a degenerative disc condition that wreaks havoc on his vertebrae.  Still, he is able to sit on his calves with a straight back, while keeping his weight on his heels.  Why does this matter?  Bill Burr does a hilarious bit about this in his special “Let It Go.”  You can YouTube “Old Man Face” and it comes up.

But in all seriousness, being able to squat and hinge the hips are two markers that will determine how the second half of your life will go.  If you are already starting to brace your legs with your hands to get up from a couch, your hips aren’t hinging properly.  If you bend over to pick up groceries with straight legs and a curved back, you are losing the ability to squat and hinge together.  It is just a matter of time before you either A) Can’t get up from a seated position on your own, or B) herniate a disc and end up in the ER.

If you are on the precipice of having difficulty doing either of these two basic movements, ask a fitness trainer or physical therapist to help you get back on track.  Your quality of life depends on it.