Thursday, April 14, 2011

7 Ultimate Fitness Tests for Women

Take each of these tests to gauge your performance level. If you fall short in any area, follow our tips to boost your abilities, then retake the test in three to four weeks to track your progress.


Upper-Body Strength


Many women focus only on their biceps and triceps (we get it, who doesn't want arms like Michelle Obama's?). Problem is, they're ignoring key muscles in the chest, shoulders, and upper back that build strength, streamline posture, and prevent injuries, says Rachel Cosgrove, Women's Health fitness advisor and half of the husband-and-wife duo that owns Results Fitness in Newhall, California. Rowing movements—like the ones in this test—are an excellent measure of upper-body strength because they target all the muscles and use your body weight as resistance.


The Test: Three-Rep Inverted Row
Think of this exercise as an upside-down pushup: Lie faceup on the floor with your shoulders directly underneath a secure barbell. The bar should be high enough that when you grab it your back is not resting on the ground. Hold the bar with an overhand grip, hands wider than shoulder width.

Rep one: Bend your knees 90 degrees, feet flat on the floor, lift your hips to form a straight line from shoulders to knees, then pull your body to the bar. If you can touch your chest to the bar, move on to rep two.

Rep two: Extend your legs so your body is in a straight line. Repeat the movement from the first rep by pulling your body to the bar. If you can touch the bar with your chest, move on to rep three.

Rep three: Place your feet on an exercise bench so your legs are in line with your shoulders. Perform the same movement as the first two reps, pulling your body to the bar while maintaining a straight line.


Measure Up
Excellent If you can complete all three reps with proper form
Good If you can complete one or two reps with proper form
Below Average If you cannot complete one rep with proper form

Get Stronger
Add this upper-body combo from Cosgrove to your routine two or three times a week: Do as many reps of the modified inverted row (rep one) as you can, then do as many pushups as you can. Rest for 60 to 90 seconds, then repeat for a total of two or three sets. Aim for more reps each workout.



Endurance

"Being able to run miles a day is a good measure of cardio endurance, but it's not the best measure of muscle endurance," says fitness expert Robert Dos Remedios, author of Cardio Strength Training. That's because running for distance primarily challenges your heart and lungs, not your legs. (Yes, your legs may feel tired, but your muscles aren't actually exhausted.) When you focus on muscular endurance—your ability to sustain resistance over time—you gain the strength to power through longer, more intense workouts, says Dos Remedios. The following test challenges both aspects, showing you how long your lungs and muscles can last before calling it quits.

The Test: Leg Matrix
Do all four moves back-to-back without rest. If you stop or can't do the move with proper form, that's the end of the test. Track your success through reps: On your first try, do 10 reps of each move. Wait two days, then repeat with 15 reps. Then test two days later with 24 reps.

Squat: Stand with feet hip-width apart, hands behind your head (a), and lower until your thighs are parallel to the ground (b). Push through your heels to return to standing.

Lunge: Stand with hands behind head (a), then step forward with your left foot and lower until your right knee almost touches the floor (b). Return to start; repeat on the other side.

Squat jump: Lower into a squat as described to the left (a), then jump off the ground as high as you can (b). Land softly, and immediately lower into another squat and repeat.

Split jump: Lower into the lunge described to the left (a). Jump as high as you can and switch legs in the air (b). Land softly, then lower into your next rep on the opposite side (c).

Measure Up
Excellent Can complete 24 reps of each move with proper form without stopping
Good Can complete 10 or 15 reps of each move with proper form without stopping
Below Average Cannot do 10 reps of each move with proper form without stopping

Amp Your Endurance
Boost both your aerobic and muscular endurance by adding intervals—high-intensity work followed by low-intensity recovery—into your strength training. You'll torch more calories in less time and train your body to push harder for longer. Try this three-week plan from Dos Remedios: During week one, do each of your strength exercises for 20 seconds, then rest for 40 seconds. In week two, work for 30 seconds and rest for 30 seconds. For week three, follow a 40-second work and 20-second rest interval.

Agility


Whether you're dodging people in a crowded airport or sidestepping a sidewalk puddle, your split-second actions (and reactions) are considered by some to be the epitome of fitness. "Agility is the culmination of all your basic biomotor abilities—coordination, speed, balance, power, and conditioning—working together to respond quickly in any situation," says Craig Friedman, director of the performance innovation team at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix.

The Test: Four-Point Touch
Place four markers in a square, five yards apart. Stand in the middle with your knees and hips bent (a), and set a timer to 15 seconds. Move as fast as you can to the front left marker and touch it with your left hand (b). Return to the center, then repeat to the front right marker. Continue this pattern, moving clockwise, trying to touch as many as possible in 15 seconds.

Measure Up
Excellent If you touch nine or more markers
Good If you touch six to eight markers
Below Average If you touch fewer than six markers

Add Pep to Your Step
Incorporating plyometrics—like power skips—into your workout can boost agility, reports a new study. Add two sets of 10 reps to your routine three times a week: Skip as high as you can by raising your right knee to hip height and keeping your left leg straight. Land on the ball of your left foot, and repeat, alternating legs.

Balance

Thank your body's self-awareness next time you save yourself from a spill in your fou-rinch pumps: Nerve endings in your tendons and muscles sense the subtle changes in your body position, says fitness expert Todd Durkin, author of The IMPACT! Body Plan and owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. That unconscious info, combined with (and enhanced by) your coordination and strength, is used by your motor system to rule how well you stay on your feet.

The Test: Single-Leg Balance and Touch
Test each leg separately. Stand on your right leg, knee slightly bent (a), and bend down to touch your toes with your left hand, keeping your back flat and raising your left leg behind you (b). Return to the starting position without putting your left foot down. Repeat as many times as possible in 60 seconds.

Measure Up
Excellent If you touch 21 times or more
Good If you touch 10 to 20 times
Below Average If you touch fewer than 10 times

Boost Your Balance
Anchor your roots with this modified tree pose: Standing on your right leg, place your left foot on your right inner thigh, left knee turned out. Close your eyes and extend your arms overhead. Hold for 20 seconds, then return to start. Repeat on the opposite side. Your goal: Minimize the number of breaks in form, like moving your hands or opening your eyes.


Lower-Body Strength


The leg and butt muscles are loaded with strength and calorie-burning potential, but many women don't utilize them. This lower-body power problem is twofold, says Alwyn Cosgrove, Men's Health fitness advisor and the other half of the husband-and-wife team that owns Results Fitness. First, most women let their quads do more work than their hamstrings (a muscle imbalance that decreases overall strength and increases risk of knee injury), and second, one leg usually outmuscles the other (which can lead to hip and back problems). This test will reveal any discrepancy.

The Test: Three-Rep Single-Leg Squat

Test each leg separately. Starting with rep one, perform the exercise as instructed with proper form. Complete it successfully, and continue to the next rep. When you can't complete a rep with correct form, that's the end of the test.

Rep one: Place a bench about a foot behind you and stand on your left leg; lift your right leg and both arms in front of you (a). Bend your left knee and lower until you are sitting on the bench (b). Pause, then drive back up to the starting position.

Rep two: Get into the starting position from rep one (a) and lower yourself until you are almost sitting on the bench (b). Graze the bench and drive right back up without touching the bench.

Rep three:
Stand on the bench and balance on your left leg with your right foot off the bench, arms straight in front of you (a). Bend your left knee and sit back as far as you can into a squat (b), while still being able to drive back up to the starting position.

Measure Up
Excellent If you can complete all three reps with proper form
Good If you can complete reps one and two with proper form, but not rep three
Below Average If you cannot complete rep one with proper form

Even the Score
It's not uncommon for each leg to score differently, says Cosgrove. The fix: Add the single-leg squat to your routine two or three times a week. Select the rep you did with your weaker leg (or rep one, if you couldn't do any). Starting with that leg, repeat the move as many times as you can, then do the same amount with the stronger leg. Rest for 60 seconds, then repeat for a total of two sets. After three weeks, retake the test and see where you stand.

Flexibility


Touching your toes comes in handy during a yoga session, but research suggests that there's a tipping point to how much flexibility is actually beneficial. When your tendons and ligaments are too loose, the joints may not be fully protected, upping your risk of injury, says Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Boston. This test focuses on your hip flexors, a commonly stiff (yet frequently ignored) spot for women: Tightness here signals a host of muscular imbalances in the hips, glutes, and hamstrings that can lead to muscle strains and lower-back pain.

The Test: Thomas Test
Test each leg separately. Lie on a bench, knees at your chest (a). Hold one knee with both hands as you extend your other leg, relax your hip, and lower as far as possible while keeping the leg straight (b).

Measure Up
Excellent If your extended leg drops below your hips
Good If your extended leg is parallel to your hips
Below Average If your extended leg is above parallel to your hips

Flex Even Farther
Tight hip flexors? Blame weak glutes. Strengthen them by doing this move three times a week: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Pull your right knee to your chest with both hands, then lift your hips by pushing down into your left heel. Hold for six seconds, then return to start. Do six, then repeat on the other side.


Core Stability


Just because you bang out 50 crunches a day doesn't mean your abs are as strong as they should be: "The role of the entire core is to stabilize the spine while your arms and legs move," says celebrity trainer Valerie Waters, who has sculpted the bodies of A-listers such as Jennifer Garner and Kate Beckinsale. "Crunches flex your spine instead." Here's a better way to measure core strength.

The Test: Walk Outs
Get onto your hands and knees, palms flat on the floor, knees bent 90 degrees, and back flat (a). Slowly walk your hands away from your body, keeping your arms straight and your core and glutes engaged (b). Extend as far as you can, hold for 20 seconds, then slowly walk your hands back to the starting position, maintaining proper form and control. If you fall, drop your hips, or lose form at any point, retry the test.

Measure Up
Excellent If your thighs are nearly parallel to the ground
Good If your thighs are less than 45 degrees to the ground
Below Average If your thighs are more than 45 degrees to the ground and/or you're unable to hold the position for 20 seconds

Make Over Your Middle

If you fall below average, focus on doing a plank until you can hold it for 30 seconds: Get into a modified pushup position with your forearms on the floor and your legs extended straight behind you. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your feet. Engage your core and glutes and hold this pose. Or balance on something unstable—a stability ball, a BOSU trainer, a Valslide—during any exercise. Your core will have to work even harder to keep you steady.

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