The word “fit” is thrown around a lot. We sign up to a new gym or kick off a new running routine to “work on our fitness,” but if you’re a regular old person with no real expertise in the world of health, how do you know when you’ve reached the goal?
In addition to physical results, which are fun but not the point, there are loads of different measurements of fitness to consider and as a person trying to get her fitness in check, I’m interested in knowing which ones work best.
So, I chatted with a few experts in the field over email: Jono Castano, a fitness trainer and founder of ACERO gym in Sydney, Australian Institute of Fitness Master Trainer, Brodie Hicks and Jeremy Tunkunas, the director of Body Fit Training Town Hall. Here’s what they had to say.
First, what does “fit” mean – really?
Both Castano and Hicks agreed that the term “fit” itself is a little complicated. That there’s no real way to give a solid, singular answer on what it is.
“The term ‘fit’ can be quite ambiguous as it often means different things to different people,” Hicks shared. It can be applied to everything from cardiovascular fitness to flexibility, and everything in between. And while each type of fitness is certainly valid, he explained, this makes the definition of the word “a little non-specific”.
“Being ‘fit’ definitely has a different meaning depending on who you talk to. To most of my clients, being fit is a destination, but to me the definition of ‘fit’ is more the journey. Being fit is being able to commit to living a healthier lifestyle which includes exercise and a balanced diet,” he said.
Tunkunas explained that while everybody (and every body) is different, there are a few elements that make up physical fitness, in his view. Over email, he shared that:
“The human body consists of many different systems which together create your (bio) functionality and determine your physical, cognitive, and mental health.
“Being fit (er) would mean a good level of all these pieces. Luckily, seeking to improve the one (physical) will often imminently improve the others, and therefore [will] be a good place to start!”
Improvements to fitness, however, are a little easier to recognise
How we define “fit” may not be particularly clear-cut, sure. But measuring progress? There are loads of ways to do that.
At the simplest level, Castano suggested “taking note of what you did in the same workout last time. To progress, you could be adding extra weight, reps, time or distance”.
Tunkunas holds a similar view. Though he doesn’t think having specific numbered targets is necessary, he does suggest taking a look at figures like your heart rate, body composition scan, or even training and food diaries, and building “a goal to increase [or improve] from there”.
As an example, for cardio fitness, “doing a v02 max test, or testing some intervals for lactic acid threshold data would be great to accumulate and improve on,” he said.
Hicks shared that he has five measurement tools that he uses to test clients on different kinds of fitness.
Number one is lower body strength testing where he asks clients to lift their maximum weight for one, three and five reps. “The fewer the reps, the heavier the weight [and] the more experienced you should be,” he said.
“Lower body strength transcends so many other facets of ‘fitness’ (including cardiovascular fitness), so even if your primary goal is cardio related, lower body strength should be an area of priority.”
This can be tested using barbell back squats or barbell deadlifts, but leg presses, rack/block deadlifts, hip thrusts and lunges are also options.
Upper body strength testing is next, following the same rules as the lower body. Here, he suggested barbell bench presses and pull up tests along with shoulder presses, bent-over rows, seated rows and lat pull-downs as options.
Third on the list is aerobic capacity testing. Hicks explained that he usually opts for a two-kilometre time trial here.
“…they provide not only a reading on cardiovascular fitness through heart rate response and time to complete the distance, but also an individual’s ‘maximal aerobic speed’ (MAS). Maximal aerobic speed can be a useful exercise prescription technique for aerobic training to ensure you’re hitting some key markers.”
Next, he’ll test for anaerobic endurance which is “all about shorter lengths and distances”. In this area, Hicks goes for a 500m row test which asks clients to “go hard and fast to see how quickly you can row 500m”.
“Our anaerobic system provides us with energy for very high to maximal intensity efforts lasting up to 3 minutes max,” he explained.
The last measurement is flexibility testing. “Whilst not typically thought of when it comes to fitness testing, flexibility is an important aspect of overall fitness,” Hicks shared.
“A reduction in injury rates, as well as improvement in performance, have both been shown to result from increased flexibility,” he said.
An added extra would be using photos to compare physical changes as you go along, Castano suggested.
“…it really shows the progression and transformation, not just in their body but also their face and confidence.”
What kind of goals should we be aiming for?
Sorry, folks. But the answer here is not going to be a straight figure.
Though Castano did say he keeps a close eye on heart rate during training – “I always like to keep heart rates above 130bpm to ensure they [clients] are pushing themselves in the workout” – the goal is to only really measure against yourself.
The secret, Castano added, is to find a realistic workout schedule using exercises that “make you feel good”. He also shared that goals make all the difference.
“You may have an overall fitness goal but make sure to have smaller goals along the way, so it keeps you motivated,” he said.
In Tunkunas’ opinion, the most important elements in a consistent workout routine are “keeping yourself accountable by booking [in] your sessions;” boosting motivation by creating a community around your fitness journey; using health professionals to ensure technique is on point and injuries are avoided, and lastly, “making your exercise convenient for you”.
And if you’re keen on building fitness, the trainers stressed that variety is the spice of… your workout plan.
Hicks shared his “general rule of thumb” here which is, for strength fitness goals, adopt a 60 per cent strength focus and 40 per cent cardio focus and for cardio fitness goals, invert that split.
Oh, and don’t forget, “flexibility training should be completed in and around these primary sessions”.
Now, who’s ready for a workout?
This article has been updated since its original publishing.