Expert Answers: Assessing Baseline Fitness Level

Baseline Fitness

New to exercising? Before you begin, our expert recommends these tests to assess where you are now.

Many beginners ask about fitness assessments right away, but experts suggest that the first concern should be gauging how well they move.

Movement affects your form no matter which activity you choose, whether it’s strength, cardio, or stretching. By focusing on how you move from the beginning, you can identify weaknesses, measure progress in a reliable way, and ultimately avoid injury.

“Once people learn how to move, they tend to make huge strides very quickly,” says Ashley Crosby, MS, CSCS, a strength-and-conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Jupiter, Fla.

Crosby recommends the tests below to assess where you are now. Repeat on a monthly basis to see how you’re progressing. Ask a workout buddy to take a video of you doing the moves (or use a personalized feedback app, such as Coach’s Eye) for a visual record of your form and mobility.

Overhead Squat

This is a great way to gauge how parts of your body move together.

overhead-squatIllustrations by Colin Hayes
How to Do It: With or without a weight, lift your arms overhead, engage your core, and lower into a squat. Keep your arms overhead (in line with your upper body), chest up, feet flat on the floor, and spine in a neutral position while lowering your hips just past parallel.

Assess It: If your chest drops, it may signal a weak core. If you can’t keep your arms overhead and in line with your torso, it could mean limited shoulder mobility. If your heels lift, ankle mobility is the culprit. If your knees collapse, hip strength is an issue. (For moves targeting each of these key areas, go to ELmag.com/move.)

Lat Length

Tight latissimi dorsi (the winglike muscles that run down the sides of your back) can impede your ability to do overhead movements.

lat-lengthIllustrations by Colin Hayes
How to Do It: From a seated position against a wall, keep your head against it and pin a spoon or butter knife against the wall with your lower back. Reach your arms in front of you and try to raise them all the way up to the wall behind you without losing control of the utensil.

Assess It: If you can’t extend your arms while stabilizing your core and lower back, tight lats are likely to blame. Try stretching out those muscles, or use a foam roller to gently loosen them. (For a lat-focused foam-rolling move, check out “Expert Answers: Upper-Body Foam Rolling“.)

Pelvic Tilt

This test assesses how well you can move your hips independent of the rest of your body, which affects how you’re able to perform basic exercises.

pelvic-tiltIllustrations by Colin Hayes
How to Do It: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Bend your knees and hinge your hips to drop into a quarter-squat position. Cross your hands over your chest. Alternate tilting your hips forward and backward without moving through your knees or upper back, and without lifting your heels off the floor.

Assess It: Once you hit the end of your range of motion, note it and don’t force past it. Side-to-side and front-to-back tilts as well as hip circles can help improve mobility over time. Activities such as Hula-Hoop, salsa, and belly dancing can also support a healthy pelvic tilt.

Glute Bridge With Leg Extension

When other muscle groups — such as the lower back — kick in to compensate for lack of glue strength, pain and injury are often the result.

leg-extensionIllustrations by Colin Hayes
How to Do It: Lie on your back with your knees bent. Squeeze your glutes and push into the floor with your heels to lift your hips. With your hips off the floor, extend your left leg out straight. The goal is to keep your hips square and in line with each other. Repeat on both sides.

Assess It: If your hips drop when you extend either leg, weak gluten are likely the cause. This test can also reveal an imbalance: If your right hips drops, the culprit is a weak left glute, and vice versa. (For gluts-strengthening moves, visit “Build a Strong Butt“.)

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Lauren Bedosky is a Minnesota-based health-and-fitness writer.

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