By Michael Krueger
I rarely, if ever, do strength or endurance tests on my clients. I only do body composition tests if they are requested. I don’t think that for most trainees they are meaningful or appropriate. I do occasionally offer testing for select clients I think would benefit from the information.
The majority of people who exercise don’t keep track of their workouts or give too much thought about their progress. I know exactly what my clients do but only when they are training with me. How they exercise the rest of their week is told to me anecdotally if at all.
So, let’s talk a bit about testing.
Right up front, I’ll tell you that I do various regular tests on myself. I do strength, in the guise of a sub max bench press. I do body composition using both bio-impedance and a caliper pinch tests. Lastly, I monitor my cardiovascular fitness via various Concept 2 rows from 100 meters and one minute through 500, 1,000, and 2,000 meters.
I said that I don’t test my clients, and that’s true—but I am not my client. I know what keeps me on track and what derails me. I need to know whether my training is progressing in a way that is taking me closer to my goals. I also have intimate knowledge of my workout intensity and consistency, which is something that is absolutely necessary to determine the direction of my training. Testing gives me the kind of information I desire.
I try not to compare my performance with any norms, but that’s hard to do. I can tell you my current rowing rank in the world, United States, and Wisconsin for all ages and my current age group. I don’t obsess about them (though my wife may disagree), but I want to know how I’m doing compared to my peers. I also know how my bench press compares, not that it really means much.
I check these things because I want to know if the work I’m doing is effective. I train at home and have very little interaction with others who work out, short of my clients. I don’t know anyone else who rows like I do, and according to the Concept 2 state rankings, there is a good reason for that: There isn’t anyone local who logs in. That’s why I test. I want to know if I’m on track and where I rank for a male my age. It’s motivating and important to me.
So, this morning as I headed to the basement, I was psyching myself up for test day. I don’t really like to do the tests because while they are maximum efforts, they are short workouts, and I prefer to do what I would do on a normal Thursday rather than break my routine.
Today was the one-minute row, the bench press, and the 100-meter row, in that order. I do a warm-up on the rower and then on the bench press. That takes about ten minutes, and then I check my pulse. If it’s 80 BPM or less, I start the tests.
My one-minute row was disappointing, coming in 7 meters short of the last time and 15 meters short of my all-time personal best set on May 4, 2018, and tied on August 8, 2018. To put those seven meters in perspective, I get about eight meters per stroke, so it was less than one pull. My bench press was a wash, tying my last performance. In some ways I prefer to do worse than the simply stay the same. Finally, my 100 meters was a bright spot, having improved two tenths of a second over my last performance but still 3 tenths off my personal record from August 8, 2018.
As you can see from the above data, I keep really good records. But, good data isn’t good for much unless you learn from it. I spent some time analyzing the numbers and comparing and contrasting them to the workouts I had done leading up to the tests on May 4 and August 8 of last year. I was very curious as to why I did so well on August 8. The answer wasn’t surprising. It boiled down to volume, intensity, and consistency.
Now, I’m normally very consistent, and I put everything I’ve got into my workouts. What I saw though was that over the past year I missed two additional workouts because of vacations compared to previous years and changed my workout three times. Prior to August 2018, I had missed only two scheduled workouts and leading up to today it was twice that number. I had made no changes to the workout in that entire year.
In contrast, this past year I have made substantial changes on three different occasions. I’m doing more high-intensity intervals but fewer lower-intensity workouts in excess of 1000 meters. The results bear that out as well. I improved on the 100 meters, which takes less than 18 seconds, but fell short on the full-minute sprint. That indicates that my overall endurance is off a little. That doesn’t mean that my cardiovascular fitness has fallen, but you get what you train for, and I haven’t been training for anything even remotely long. I’m not looking forward to the next round of tests that will include the 500, 1,000, and 2,000 meters. I hurt just thinking about it.
As for the bench press test, the data showed some of the same issues. The vacations affected my overall strength as well. Now to be honest, how much difference the extra time off really made is questionable. What it does do is mess with my head. When I come back and slide into my normal routine, it takes three or four workouts to get back in the groove. The real difference I noticed was that I was doing much higher reps at lower weight. The intensity was still there; I noticed that I had a few more “failure” sets than I normally did, but the actual training weight was less.
This took a little more work to figure out. My one-rep maximum is down 25 pounds from my personal record. That record is now more than five years old, and it took years of pushing and cycling to get it. I’m at an age now where that record may well be something I will never break. I also noticed a reference to a sore elbow around the time of that personal record. It didn’t affect my training except that once I got the PR, I reverted to high rep lower weight training.
I have not had an injury that’s interfered with my training in a long time. As I looked back over at least the past two years, I also noticed a definite lack of high weight/low rep work. Whether this change has anything to do with training injury free isn’t something I can easily quantify. I have missed only a handful of workouts in the past 20 years, so I don’t have a lot of data to work with.
The best I can figure on the bench press is that I’m just not used to lifting heavy, and that mostly affects my head rather than my body. I have stayed at my current measured strength level since I got my PR all those years ago. I’m comfortable with where I am (the 98th percentile for my age), and I’m not sure I want to press my luck by working back into heavy low rep work … but you never can tell.
What Does It Mean?
What all this testing data and analytical work means to me is that I’m doing fine. I’m still chasing my goals and occasionally catching them. My aging isn’t something I can do anything about, so I mostly ignore it.
I’ll keep on testing because I enjoy it. I like the work leading up to it, and I like the incredible stress and effort involved in doing a maximum test. Most people want nothing to do with working that hard, and I can completely understand. For those of us who like it, it’s simply something that we can’t imagine training without.
So, next time you are wondering if your training is effective, consider doing a little testing to see where you are in contrast to where you’ve come from. You might find the information to be useful…
…and the benefits immeasurable.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.