I was never much of an athletic kid growing up. I played baseball (poorly) in 5th grade, but other than that, I wasn’t much of a team sports type of guy. When I first worked out with weights, I was extremely weak. I started out very late in the Iron Game at age 22 after college. When I first started the bench press, I was actually struggling with 90 pounds.
My friend remembers this and always bring this up to put me in my place, even though he doesn’t work out anymore and I’m the one who works out regularly.
The bottom line is that everybody has to start from somewhere. Nobody cares what you were. They can only see what you are and what you do now. Everybody starts with a baseline, and how far you progress from this baseline is up to you.
When I look at the fitness levels of clients, I take a look at their performance in some very basic exercises. In the old days, these were exercises that everybody was required to perform in PE class. A number of things happened over the years and eventually the average American forgot how to do these exercises. Kids were gettting fatter from the greater availability of junk food and processed carbs, so they weren’t able to perform simple exercises like pushups. People struggle now just to do a plank.
The following are exercises that I use to assess a client’s baseline level of exercise fitness:
Level One: Bodyweight Squats
People have this belief that you should not squat with your thighs past parallel, since it is dangerous to the knees. This is a bunch of croc. The reason people in our society can’t squat past parallel without feeling some sort of strain is that in modern society chairs, couches and park benches are plentiful. We’re squatting all the time, but since we sit in chairs, we only squat halfway. Why would God build us with knees that allow us to squat all the way down if it was dangerous?
If you look at other societies, you’ll find people who squat in the bottom position all the time and they have no problem with their knees. If anything, they’re stronger because they’re exercising that bottom range of motion all the time. People in our society get injured when they squat all the way down, because they haven’t been exercising that bottom range of motion in the first place.
The comforts of modern society have made us weak in this particular exercise. I was conducting a defensive tactics class one time, and as a warm-up, I had my students do bodyweight squats. Some squatted all the way down, most squatted halfway. But there was this one officer who was squatting haflway, and he was getting winded. I couldn’t believe how crappy his conditioning was that he was getting winded in the middle of a set of bodyweight squats. Physique-wise he looked fit, but he was not used to the movement of getting up and down.
To me, this is the most basic level of exercise fitness, the bodyweight squat. Being able to get up off the ground is crucial to survival.
Level Two: Pushups
It is really quite sad that the average person has a hard time doing pushups. I usually see people doing half pushups, because they’re focused on achieving a high number of reps. The quality of reps is much more important than the quantity of reps. Focus on quality pushups (body straight, all the way down) and the quantity will follow.
Level Three: Dips
Think of dips as pushups without the help of your legs. Your nervous system is meant to move your entire body, whether by running, pulling or pushing. I consider dips easier than pull-ups or chin-ups, so this exercise indicates an intermediate level of fitness between pushups and pull-ups.
If you cannot dip all the way, then work on increasing your range of motion. Again, quality of reps is more important than quantity.
Level Four: Pull-ups and Chin-ups
If you can do a chin-up or pull-up of any form, then consider yourself above average. In the old days everybody was required to do pull-ups in PE class. Nowadays I find that the vast majority of people cannot do a pull-up, or if they do get their chin over the bar, then they’re kipping or using half reps. If someone can do full range pull-ups, then they seem to average at 3-5 reps.
Most people are not gymnasts or athletes, so this is not surprising. Gymnasts and other athletes have had years of training, so their nervous systems have a head start over most people. But a pull-up or chin-up is still an attainable goal for an average person. It’s just one that you have to put a lot of time and effort in your training.