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This article is the first in a three-part series exploring the methods and benefits of fitness testing. Fitness testing is an ideal place to begin or revise your fitness program: With personalized results in hand, you can set a strategic course to fitness success and ensure maximum results with a minimum of wasted time and effort.

But what evaluations do you need, and how can the average person put his or her results to best use? To get answers, we asked three individuals to complete a series of basic fitness tests – for strength, cardio and flexibility – and to share their results with us.

Each person worked one-on-one with personal trainer Derk Voskuil at the Life Time Fitness club in Chanhassen, Minn., to complete the testing procedures, interpret their results and obtain personal-training recommendations.

In this issue, we report on strength testing, with special focus on Todd Carstensen, because his fitness goals are most dependent on his ability to build strength. In May and June, we’ll cover cardio and flexibility testing – two more of the several types of assessments available through many health clubs, training centers and sports clinics. In the May issue, we’ll highlight Melissa Gonzalez’s cardio results, and in the June issue, we’ll hone in on what John Tanner learned about his flexibility.

Throughout the series, we’ll share details about each participant’s experience, including their takeaway lessons and the insights they gained into the state of their own fitness. To find out more about the availability of fitness testing at your club, inquire at its fitness or personal training services department. –Eds.

Meet the Participants

To get a sense of how folks from diverse fitness backgrounds with different fitness goals might apply fitness-testing results to their advantage, we asked Life Time Fitness personal trainer Derk Voskuil to work with the following three individuals as they progressed through a series of evaluations in the areas of strength, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility.

Todd Carstensen, 38: General contractor
FITNESS OBJECTIVES: To build up enough bulk and strength to resume playing the recreational hockey he loved in college but then abandoned because of back pain.

Melissa Gonzalez, 37: Compliance analyst for insurance company, mother of two
FITNESS OBJECTIVES: To slim down and increase her energy so she can spend more time playing with her kids.

John Tanner, 52: Manager of IT consultants
FITNESS OBJECTIVES: To maintain his fitness level, improve flexibility and reduce his susceptibility to heart disease, which runs in his family.

Derk Voskuil: Personal Trainer, Life Time Fitness
Voskuil is a CPT with nine years of experience in the field. He specializes in the science of metabolic training and holds a degree in exercise science with an emphasis in strength conditioning from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Strength testing can establish a starting point for weight training and identify weaknesses that may be causing you other problems (a weak core, for example, could be a culprit in everyday back pain). Testing may also reveal surprising strengths, opening the door to new training possibilities. Whatever your fitness priorities, incorporating the results of your strength tests into your workout routine can help you achieve your training objectives in the safest, most efficient way possible.

Strength-Testing Outcomes

Todd Carstensen

Body Specs: 6 feet 1 inch, 190 pounds
Goal: To bring his fitness – and his hockey-playing capacity – back to his college-era levels.
Obstacle: Back pain and years of taking it too easy at the gym.
Fitness Background: Carstensen has been bothered by back pain since age 18, when he learned he had bulging discs. He longs to play recreational hockey like he did in college and also wishes he could haul lumber and shingles with more ease at his job. For almost a decade, Carstensen’s workouts have consisted mainly of stretching in the hot tub or sauna to relieve pain.

Bench Press: Carstensen built up to one repetition of 205 pounds. “Todd hasn’t lost a whole lot of strength, and he’s still fairly young. He’s got a lot of potential,” Voskuil says. “In the strength- development phase, he should start off with a set of 16 at 60 percent of his maximum, then a set of 12 at 70 percent, a set of eight at 75 percent and so on until he gets to a set of two at 90 to 95 percent. But as an athlete, it’s not whether he can bench 200 pounds – it’s how well he can apply it to his sport.”
Leg Press: He built up to one rep of 720 pounds. Because of Carstensen’s back problems, he must learn to isolate his leg muscles during leg presses and squats. “Hockey players’ leg and core strength need to be strong and stable, and they must work well together so the upper body can perform at its potential,” Voskuil says.
Core Strength: He scored 2.5 out of 5 (see “Testing Methods” sidebar). “I’d like to see him at a 4,” Voskuil says, adding that a top score of 5 is usually seen in gymnasts and martial arts experts (with proper training, however, many people can achieve a 5). Building core strength will give Carstensen strength for skating and help alleviate his back pain.

Trainer Recommendations: Given Carstensen’s goal (to join a recreational hockey league in a year) and his history of back problems, Voskuil recommends that Carstensen focus on core strength for the first phase of the strength program.

Using a library of 40 or so abdominal exercises that Voskuil will provide, Carstensen can combine five or six different exercises a day for dozens of variations. He’ll gradually progress to lunges and squats using a stability ball, adding more sport-specific moves.

Takeaway Wisdom: The test results lifted Carstensen’s spirits, he says, and will help him focus his workouts. “I learned how to do exercises that will help my back,” he says, acknowledging that in the past he’s avoided working out for fear of further injuring his spine. Carstensen is also considering a one-on-one training program to maximize his potential on the ice.

Melissa Gonzalez

Body Specs: 5 feet 7 inches, 195 pounds
Goal: To lose weight and increase energy so she can enjoy active time with her kids.
Obstacle: Finding time. Gonzalez works from home, but travels a lot and doesn’t schedule fitness time into her week.

Fitness Background: Gonzalez is a working mom who wants to run and play with her 3- and 6-year-old sons. She also needs to be able to perform daily household tasks without back pain. She knows that improving her fitness level is important, but she’s been unable to stick with previous attempts to work in regular walks and aerobics classes for more than a week or two.

Bench Press: Gonzalez built up to one repetition of 40 pounds on a machine.
Leg Press: She built up to one repetition of 150 pounds.
Core Strength: She scored 2 out of 5.

Trainer Recommendations:“Melissa needs to build muscle to boost metabolism and increase endurance, so she’s more capable of everyday activities,” Voskuil says. He recommends she focus initially on stabilization and balance through core training. She can then add strength-building movements with body-weight exercises, stability balls, bands and selected resistance machines. As her strength and general conditioning improve, she can incorporate cable-based machines and free weights that activate the smaller “stabilizing” and “synergistic” muscles, acclimating them to a higher level of fitness and larger levels of resistance. This gradual evolution, says Voskuil, will help Gonzalez to develop a well-balanced increase in strength and stability in all of her muscles while also helping her develop a variety of efficient, functional fitness skills she can use for a lifetime.

Takeaway Wisdom:“Now I know what not to waste time on,” Gonzalez says. “When I exercise, I want it to be effective. I’ll begin with core strength, and I’ll work my way out from there.” Gonzalez is also planning to visit a nutritionist and attend seminars on metabolism and heart-rate training.

John Tanner

Body Specs: 6 feet 1 inch, 220 pounds
Goal: To maintain a feel-good level of fitness and flexibility, and to ward off potential heart problems.
Obstacle: Fitting fitness into a busy schedule.
Fitness Background: Tanner knows focusing on fitness will help him stay active as he ages, but to date, he hasn’t developed a fitness strategy. His training schedule is erratic, with cardio sessions that don’t challenge his heart rate, and weight-training sessions that leave him exhausted.

Bench Press: Tanner built up to one repetition of 155 pounds.
Leg Press:He built up to one repetition of 300 pounds.
Core Strength: He scored 2.5 of 5.

Trainer Recommendations:“John is in pretty decent shape,” Voskuil says. “But he needs to build strength now if he wants to maintain his fitness as he ages.” A good strength routine using full joint-range movements will help combat loss of muscle mass, he notes, which can amount to as much as a pound per year starting at age 50. Building a healthy core will lessen muscle degeneration while helping prevent injury and promoting good balance. Voskuil recommended a program involving weight bands, stability balls and cable machines that will add new, challenging components to Tanner’s fitness routine and help him enjoy a high activity level for decades to come.

Takeaway Wisdom: “I actually tested better than I thought I would,” Tanner says. “And now that I know where I stand, I’ll use a heart-rate monitor to help me gauge my strength-training workouts – and feel energized, instead of exhausted, following a workout.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred runs and writes in Minneapolis. The May issue of EL will feature her coverage of the cardio tests completed by the same three people featured in this article.

Testing Methods

To evaluate overall strength, personal trainer Derk Voskuil gave each participant three tests: a bench press to assess the upper body, a leg press to evaluate major muscles in the lower body and a core fitness exam. (Fees for these tests are based on individual trainers’ hourly rates, which vary. At Life Time Fitness, where testing for this article was completed, fees for similar testing typically range from $59 to $99.)

Dozens of tests can assess strength, so trainers may vary tests based on your fitness goals, and your experience and comfort level with various equipment. Voskuil chose the bench press and leg press, and adjusted the apparatus (free weights or machine) based on each participant’s needs.

To test the body’s central source of support – the core – Voskuil used the Souron method, which was developed to give physical therapists an accurate measure of the strength and stabilization of the transverse abdominus, the innermost abdominal muscle. The test includes five basic moves performed lying on the floor with knees bent and feet flat. With his hand beneath the participant’s low back, Voskuil felt for movement in the muscles of the lumbar curve, which indicates instability, and then he determined a score of 1 to 5 based on the movement.

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