“Granted, Joyner and other experts I heard from estimated that the number of Americans who can do a single push-up is likely only about 20 or 30 percent. But that’s an issue of practice more than destiny. ‘Most people could get to the point of doing 30 or 40—unless they have a shoulder problem or are really obese,’ Joyner says.
Doing things that produce tangible, short-term results can lead to a domino effect of health behaviors. “If someone reads this article and starts doing push-ups, it would be a statement about their general conscientiousness and motivation,” says Joyner, “and that speaks to so many other health behaviors. People who follow guidelines, eat well, get their kids vaccinated—they tend to engage in other healthy behaviors.”—James Hamblin, “The Power of One Push-Up.” The Atlantic. June 27, 2019.
The article fails to provide any guidelines that could help produce “tanglible, short-term results.” I’ve trained to run marathons, weight-lifted using the principles of Starting Strength, documented an experimental program of burpees for this blog, tried the Bodyweight Fitness app and so forth, all of which can be useful strategies to becoming more fit.
But, what does more fit mean? It’s useful to have a physical fitness standard to measure our current fitness level against over time. This is why militaries use physical fitness tests, like The United States Army Physical Fitness Test, to evaluate soldiers over time and against each other. These tests can also be a useful starting point for assessing our physical fitness as well.
Note: If you have never participated in any kind of exercise program before or if this seems excessive, you might consider trying the exercise program for people that hate the idea of exercising mentioned in the Hacker’s Diet as an alternative approach.
A 45 Minute Physical Fitness Test
- Push-ups: 25 – 50 / 2 minutes, then 2 minutes rest
- Sit-ups: 25 – 60 / 2 minutes, then 10 minutes rest
- Run: 2 miles – 5K / <20 minutes, then 9 minute recovery
A baseline level of fitness that most people should be able to reach is 25 push-ups, 25 sit-ups and be able to run 2 miles in 20 minutes. A good fitness level would be above 50 pushups, 60 sit-ups and a 5K in less than 20 minutes. If you want to go further, you could look at the Ranger Physical Fitness Test, specifically adding pull-ups and running 5 miles in 40 minutes.
Since sit-ups put a significant strain on the lower-back, it might make sense to substitute leg lifts or hanging knee raises for sit-ups and half the number of repetitions.
For weights, Rippetoe’s Starting Strength standards is another useful reference. It is worth noting that Categories I-V used to be labelled: Untrained, Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Elite. For most people, Category II (Novice) is a good minimum strength level to test for and work towards if you do not meet it and have not lifted weights before. For those with weight-lifting experience, Category III (Intermediate) is a good maintenance goal of a program. If you are above these levels, congratulations. Your physical fitness level is in the upper 1% of the population.
If you want a rough guide without consulting the Starting Strength standards above, a good single-rep goal to work towards for men:
- Press: your weight * 75%
- Bench press: your weight
- Squat: your weight * 1.5
- Deadlift: your weight * 2
If we do a monthly check-in with these standards in mind, it should be possible to put together an exercise program using the exercises in the Army Physical Readiness Training Handbook, Starting Strength, the Bodyweight Fitness app, Run Faster From the 5K to the Marathon, or another resource that matches your fitness goals and then check your progress with this test over time.
How fit are you compared to your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s or 60s? You won’t know unless you consistently check against a specific benchmark.