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Background

Last August, I started a project to get back into shape after a decade of inactivity. I chose to tackle endurance and cardiovascular fitness first, and to that end followed the Couch to 5k program. This worked well. In 6 months of training I've progressed from being able to jog for one minute to being able to run at 9km/hour for 90 minutes continuously.

One thing I liked about running is the ease with which you can record and measure your progress. I found it motivating to be able to easily and accurately compare my performance to my earlier performances. With running, this is easy: time and distance are both simple to measure.

What is the best way to measure strength?

Being satisfied with my endurance, it's now time for me to focus on improving my strength. (I'll keep running now and then, but only aim to maintain the current performance, not to improve it further.) So how do I measure my strength? Ideally, the measurement should have the following properties:

  • It shouldn't require special equipment.
  • It should be doable anywhere.
  • It shouldn't take more than 15 minutes.
  • The results should be one or more concrete numbers.
  • The numbers should give a fair overview over most major muscle-groups.

Body-weight exercises seem to fit the bill nicely. Here's my current idea. I'm looking for critique and suggestions for improving this list:

  • Do push-ups for 3 minutes. Record the number.
  • Do a plank for as long as possible. Record the seconds.
  • Do pull-ups until muscle-failure. Record the number.

What is the best test of leg strength? What changes, if any, should I make to this list?

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Your question is slightly flawed - one major characteristic of being strong is being able to apply force to an external load (pushing stuff, pulling stuff, carrying stuff). That would imply some kind of equipment. :) –  DavidR Jan 21 '13 at 14:03
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@Informaficker Strength is well-defined; the question is asking for the ideal measurement of it, which is not problematically subjective. –  Dave Liepmann Jan 21 '13 at 15:26
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@Informaficker Not sure why you ask, but yes, 20 push-ups requires a minor amount more strength and a significant amount more strength-endurance. As I understand it, maximum-repetitions tests evaluate muscle-endurance more than strength. –  Dave Liepmann Jan 21 '13 at 15:49
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@Kate not necessarily, if you are not able to do one push up you could do inclined push ups and decrease the angle. The lower the angle, the more strength you have, but this only works up until you can do one normal push up. (and assumes you keep your weight) –  Baarn Jan 21 '13 at 16:02
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Once you are strong, measurements of strength require equipment. –  Kate Jan 21 '13 at 16:15
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1 Answer

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Max push-ups, Max plank, Max pull-ups

The no-equipment requirement is forcing the measurements towards strength-endurance tasks instead of true strength. Push-ups require some strength as a prerequisite, and strength definitely affects ones ability to do more push-ups in a limited amount of time, but a maximum number of push-ups is a test of strength, strength-endurance and conditioning, not just strength. The same applies to the plank, and to pull-ups to a lesser degree. As supporting evidence, consider that Dr. Kilgore has muscle-endurance standards, which happen to test the maximum number of push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups a person can perform in one set, defined as "not more than approximately 5 seconds pause between reps".

The no-equipment clause is an external constraint that does not assist us in testing pure strength. The only way to get closer to testing strength with bodyweight exercise is to demonstrate gymnastic skills, which of course have elements of balance and learned skill instead of just strength. These strength-dependent skills include the front and back lever, press to handstand, muscle-ups, and others that require rings or other equipment.

The pull-ups could be simply and dramatically improved by making them a one-repetition-maximum weighted pull-up test, out of three attempts. This would require weight plates and a dip/pull-up belt. The other tests do not seem to be closely correlated with strength.

Existing tests of strength

Pure strength is best tested with barbells or machines, as is done in powerlifting competition and scientific studies.

The sport of powerlifting would more accurately be called strengthlifting. It tests strength with one-repetition maximum lifts in the squat, deadlift, and bench press. The person being tested gets three attempts at each. Knowing how much weight a person can pick up off the floor, or push off their chest, or stand up from under, is an excellent survey of their whole-body strength. This takes much longer than fifteen minutes--perhaps an hour or two--and requires access to a barbell, plates, and squat or power rack, as well as someone with basic knowledge of the lifts to verify that each one is performed correctly.

This idea could be extended to any lift. The squat/bench/deadlift is well balanced for overall strength--though it omits a pulling motion--but a one-repetition maximum in many lifts can test strength. I track my maximums in overhead presses, farmer's walks (which involve some conditioning), power cleans (which, being a fast lift, is more a test of power (speed-strength) than pure strength), Romanian deadlifts, push-press, and so on. Strength standards for common lifts can be found at exrx.net, as well as from Lon Kilgore and elsewhere.

Many scientists use one-repetition maximum exertions on leg press or leg extension machines, or test maximum grip strength. In untrained persons, these can be used as rough analogues of overall strength. Sometimes bench press or squats are used, similar to powerlifting.

Feats of Strength

One awesome but subjective way of measuring strength is the completion of diagnostic tasks that are impressive. These are related to strength but often involved a degree of other attributes such as balance. On my list:

  • Muscle-ups
  • One-leg squat (pistol)
  • One-arm push-up
  • Handstand push-up

...and many, many more. The test is simply, "can you do it at all?" for any of the items on the list. In his CrossFit gym, Dave Werner uses a similar set of Athletic Skill Level tests (PDF) which includes non-strength attributes.

Starting a strength-measurement regimen

Since you are just starting out with measuring your strength, I would recommend the following:

  1. Make sure you are able to perform basic bodyweight strength exercises. Being able to do a few dozen push-ups, even more air squats, ten dips, and a handful of pull-ups are fair prerequisites for barbell resistance training. Record the number of sets and repetitions you do, and approximate rest periods.
  2. Find an appropriate novice strength training program. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore is an excellent kicking-off point for barbell training. The wiki provides the bare minimum to understand the program, but the book is a superior choice. It teaches you the fundamental lifts (squat, deadlift, overhead and bench press, power clean) in unparalleled detail, provides a lifting philosophy, and outlines a program. Other resources like StrongLifts are okay as well.
  3. Track your progression in these basic strength movements over time. In each workout you'll prove your squat and other lifts for a five-repetition-maximum. After several months it may be appropriate to test your 1RM, which you can then return to every year or so.
  4. Remember that while cardiovascular health is challenged by resistance exercise, metabolic conditioning is a short-lived attribute. It would be quite reasonable to keep running or other conditioning work--sprints, sled drags, hill runs, swimming, rowing--in your program in order to maintain this aspect of your fitness.
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You covered everything! Nice –  masonk Jan 21 '13 at 16:11
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If you don't count barbells as "special equipment", then that makes the question much easier to answer. –  Kate Jan 21 '13 at 16:19
    
Thanks ! The point of the "no equipemnt" thing is that I don't have any - and don't have easy access to any gyms, except for $XX/month training-studios. I get the point that more reps measures endurance more than max strength, I guess that's okay for now. (I'm thinking someone who can do 100 pushups will also -tend- to be stronger than someone who can only do one, even if that's not what's measured) –  Agrajag Jan 25 '13 at 18:49
    
@Agrajag That's totally understandable. I would look into finding dumbbells or a barbell after a little bodyweight work, though--it's really a dramatic difference in my experience. –  Dave Liepmann Jan 25 '13 at 18:56
    
@DaveLiepmann Thing is, to test max strength, you'd need a barbell and an assortment of weights, a bench, a squat-rack and a spotter, also a suitable room for all this. I've got none of it so that's a bit of a tall order. –  Agrajag Jan 26 '13 at 14:49
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