Moves You Should Do

This article was originally published in The Raider Patch: Magazine of the U.S. Marine Raider Association

Investment mogul Warren Buffett has said his financial success is a product of a long life and a high rate of return. Applying this wisdom to success in health and fitness, “don’t die,” would be incomplete advice. We need to train the qualities of longevity to thrive for the years we’ve been given. 

Your numbers in the gym will eventually decline, and your numbers on the bathroom scale will fight you to climb. So how can you stay at the top of your game, or at least in the rankings? Know your numbers. The battery of tests below can show you where you stack up with your current physical abilities and how you change over time. You can later use these data points to troubleshoot your workouts if expectations start falling out of sync with the reality of your efforts. 

Though individual differences matter and may reflect different scores than the examples below, each test has a scientific correlation with longevity and should provide some level of feedback for your abilities. Use good judgment if you’re currently injured, and talk to a health professional if you think you might hurt yourself before doing any of these tests!

While some people are great deadlifters and others can bench press for days, grip strength remains a robust measure of overall body strength. I learned this through experience working with assessment and selection at MARSOC. Though the deadlift test gave us a great snapshot of strength, a lack of specific training with barbells in some selectees would limit their early performance metrics. I observed that grip strength, aka “farmer’s strength,” was always highly associated with performance in other tasks, such as carrying heavy objects for distance, transferring loads from one height to another, or crushing pull-ups. After getting comfortable with the deadlifting technique, many of these Marines later put up big max deadlift numbers. 

In addition to near-term fitness benefits, people who maintain their grip strength stay healthier longer – retaining more muscle, maintaining immune system function, and reducing the risk of several chronic diseases. In essence, a more substantial grip helps you age more slowly. You can test your grip strength using a hand-held dynamometer device and compare it to age and gender-related standard scores. Average scores for men land around 100 lbs and for women around 65 lbs (dominant hand). Grip strength for your non-dominant hand should be no less than 90% of your dominant score.   

You can also perform a grip test using your trusty pull-up bar. Grab the bar with thumbs wrapped around (no ‘false’ grip) and hang out there for as long as possible. Consider 60 seconds or more a good target for men and 30 seconds for women. 

Flexibility describes the pliability of your muscles and the lubrication of your joints. Its real-world utility, though, allows for variety and responsiveness of body movement – especially when motion happens unexpectedly. Flexibility ultimately helps prevent slips, trips, and falls that can land you in a hospital bed (or worse, dead!). My recent work with aviation has made me understand how much damage an unexpected slip and fall from a helicopter (or a deck, ledge, or rocky trail) can do to the body.  

Test your functional flexibility with a simple ground-to-stand maneuver. Get your butt on the floor and then get off of it without using your hands to help you. Some people accomplish this by cross-crossing their feet at the ankles and then pushing straight up through the soles of their feet. Bonus points to you if you can stand with feet crossed left-over-right and right-over-left. 

Your ability to balance is akin to flexibility to keep you on your feet. Balance is the skill of brain–body coordination that maintains awareness and position of your body in space. Simply put, you risk dropping your brain with every step if you can’t stay upright over one tiny foot. While on opposite sides of the fight, both Mr. Miyagi and Mr. Silver (remember the Karate Kid franchise?) agreed that balance was important: 

Silver: A man can’t stand, he can’t fight.

Miyagi: Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.

A minimum balance standard is standing on one shoeless foot with your eyes closed for at least 10 seconds. Reset and repeat on the other leg. Your legs should not touch each other, your arms should fall away from your body, and you should not lose contact with any edge of your foot on the ground. Optimally, you could hold for another 10 seconds with your toes lifted from the ground. Toes are for terrain; since you’re testing balance on a flat surface, your toes shouldn’t be required to do work! Tip: gain your balance first with your eyes open, then close your eyes and start counting. 

Core stability refers to the ability of your core muscles to work together to maintain proper alignment and control of your spine and pelvis. It provides the solid foundation your body needs to produce force, resist motion, and prevent accelerated wear and tear to your spine. While abdominal strength is often used interchangeably for core stability, the abdominals are just the front of your core “cylinder” that braces you to maintain pressure and support your vital organs. 

Try this: Calculate 75% of your current body weight and find dumbbells or sandbags with handles that allow you to carry half of the weight like a suitcase in each hand. Perform a farmer’s carry with the load by walking in a figure-8 pattern around two cones placed 25 yards apart. You should be able to walk at an even pace for 90 seconds without stopping, losing any height, or adjusting your hands after the initial grip. Notice how grip strength reappears in this test – grip strength and core stability often intertwine in keeping the body protected.  

Endurance, stamina, and swift recovery all require aerobic capacity – your body’s ability to use oxygen during high-intensity exercise. VO2 max is a key metric of aerobic capacity, but testing can be hard to get. A standard test requires you to have a laboratory setup and wear specialized equipment that measures oxygen status as you run on a treadmill. VO2 max measures are age and gender-specific, and tables can be found from sources such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). For example, a “good” VO2 max value for men in their 30s and 40s is in the range of 45-50 mg oxygen/kg body weight/minute and 38-41 mg/kg/min for women. 

Fortunately, you can get a fair estimate of your VO2 max with the Cooper 12-Minute Run test. The test was developed in the 1960s to estimate VO2 max in military recruits who were feared not as fit as their Cold War Soviet counterparts. The Cooper test only requires measuring your time and distance while running as fast as you can on a flat surface for 12 minutes. Formerly done by calculating the laps run on a standard running track, modern fitness trackers and smartphone apps make solo testing easy. Online calculators like the one found here will convert your run distance to a VO2 max value A “good” Cooper test using the values and ages above would be 1.6 miles for men and 1.4 miles for women. 

  1. 1. Hang from a bar as long as you can, then
  2. 2. Get down on your butt and get off it – no hands. 
  3. 3. Stand on one leg, close your eyes, don’t fall over, 
  4. 4. Carry three-fourths of your weight, then recover!
  5. 5. Take another long break, and when you feel ready, 
  6. 6. Run as fast as you can for 12 minutes, steady.

Give it a try! Journal your results and test yourself again this time next year. You may be surprised that you’re lasting well beyond your expiration date. And if not? You’ll know what to target to tune up your weak links. Good luck!

Wang Y, et al. Hand-Grip Strength: Normative Reference Values and Equations for Individuals 18 to 85 Years of Age Residing in the United States. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. 2018

Brito L, et al. Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 2014. 

Araujo C et al. Successful 10-second one-legged stance performance predicts survival in middle-aged and older adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2022.  

McGill S et al. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009. 

Fitness categories for maximal aerobic power for men and women by age. ACSM’s Health-Related Physical Fitness Assessment Manual, 5th ed. 2017.

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