Healing through flexibility

In the final post of our assessment series, we will describe how to assess your flexibility. When most people think of fitness, they think of training their cardiovascular system and muscular strength, but they often forget about the importance of improving flexibility and mobility.

Flexibility training helps to decrease the chance of muscle imbalances, joint dysfunctions and overuse injuries. It should be a key component of all training programs. There are a number of tests you can perform to measure your upper and lower body flexibility.

Sit and Reach Test:
The sit and reach test measures the flexibility of the lower back and hamstring muscles.  This test is perhaps the most important flexibility test, as tightness in the lower back and hamstrings can help determine a person’s risk for future muscle pain and injury.

To perform this test, remove your shoes and sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Place the soles of your feet flat against a box with a height of about 30 centimetres. Your knees should be locked and pressed down into the floor. With your palms facing downwards and your hands on top of each other, reach forwards as far as possible. Hold the final position for one to two seconds while an assistant measures the distance to your toes (a negative measurement) or past your toes (a positive measurement). Use the best score of three attempts.

The score is recorded to the nearest centimetre as the distance reached by the hand. The table below assumes the level of the feet is the zero mark.

  Men (cm) Women (cm)
Excellent >17 >21
Good 6 to 16 11 to 20
Average 0 to 5 1 to 10
Fair -8 to -1 -7 to 0
Poor <-9 <-8

Shoulder Flexibility Test:
This test measures the flexibility of the shoulder joint, which is important for injury prevention in every day life as well as sports such as swimming and tennis. To perform the test, you will need either a towel or a stick. Hold the towel/stick with both hands wide apart and palms facing downwards. Lift the towel/stick over your head and behind your back, keeping the tension on the object throughout.

Continue repeating the test, moving the hands closer and closer together each time until the movement can no longer be completed. Measure the distance between your hands for your final successful attempt, and aim to reduce the measurement over time.

Scratch Test:
This test measures the shoulder joint’s range of motion.  To perform the assessment, stand with one hand behind the head and over the shoulder. Reach that hand as far down the middle of your back as possible, with your fingers pointing downwards. With the other hand, reach behind your back with your palm facing upward and reach upwards as far as possible attempting to touch or overlap the fingers of both hands.

If your fingers overlap, you have excellent shoulder flexibility. If your fingers can touch, that is considered ‘good’. An ‘average’ score is when your fingers are less than five centimetres apart, and anything more than that is considered poor.

To improve your flexibility, you must regularly stretch all the major muscle groups. Consider those muscles which are constantly in a shortened stage because of our lifestyles – a common example is the hip flexors, which are contracted when we sit for prolonged periods each day. Because the muscle is consistently short and moves in a pattern different from its intended function, inelastic connective tissue will form along this altered pattern and reduce the ability of the muscle to extend and move in its proper manner. Flexibility training is therefore essential to restore the normal extensibility of the muscle.

Posture is also an important part of movement and flexibility. Proper postural alignment allows optimum neuromuscular efficiency, which allows you to increase your strength and cardiovascular fitness.  Without this proper postural alignment, your body will begin to degenerate as muscular imbalances present themselves.

Muscular imbalances can be caused by a number of factors including postural stress, emotional duress, repetitive movement, cumulative trauma, poor training technique, lack of core strength and lack of neuromuscular control.

By ensuring each exercise session works on mobility at the start of the workout through dynamic stretches, and flexibility at the end of the session with static stretches, you will minimise the number of muscular imbalances and general tightness you suffer from.

Measuring your strength

Following on from our last post about testing your cardiovascular fitness, this article will enable you to determine your absolute strength. The best way to measure your maximal strength is through one rep max (1RM) testing, which is a measurement of the maximal weight that can be lifted once without failure or injury. Your 1RM is typically measured with compound exercises that target the major muscle groups including the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press.

To perform a 1RM test, it is important to avoid fatiguing the muscles beforehand. After a thorough warm up, you will need to select a weight as close as possible to what you think your maximum would be. Rest for three to four minutes before increasing the weight slightly and trying the lift again. The test is repeated until you can no longer perform a full repetition with good form. It is advisable to use a spotter when performing this test.

However, only advanced weight lifters should perform a 1RM test. Lifting a maximal load is extremely taxing on the body, and it is imperative that one learns and practices correct form before attempting this type of lift. Injuries can easily occur if you overestimate your ability and attempt to lift too great of a load.

Therefore, those with less experience with weight lifting should estimate their 1RM by using a lighter load for a higher number of repetitions to fatigue. Select a weight and lift it for as many times as possible with good form and steady pace.

As a guide, you can typically perform 10 reps at 75 per cent of your maximal load. For example, if your 1RM is 40 kilograms, you should be able to perform 10 reps to fatigue with 30 kilograms. This would be referred to as your ’10 repetition maximum’.

Use the following formula to determine your 1RM, where ‘weight’ is the amount you lifted:

1RM = (Weight x 0.0333 x Reps) + Weight

For example, John can squat 100 kilograms for eight repetitions.
John’s 1RM = (100 x 0.0333 x 8) + 100 = 126.64
Estimated squat 1RM of 126.64 kilograms.

The above calculation is only an estimate. The true amount can vary significantly depending on the individual’s weight training experience and muscular mass. For example, those with little strength training experience may find their actual 1RM is lower because their nervous system is unable to handle the stress of a high weight.

There are a number of benefits of knowing your one rep max. Firstly, it gives you an idea of what weight you can safely lift so as to avoid injury when exercising. Secondly, it allows you to target specific weights as a percentage of your 1RM. For example, training for strength typically involves working at 85-90 per cent of your 1RM, hypertrophy training is generally based around 80 per cent of your 1RM, while training for fat loss or muscle endurance usually involves lifting 70 per cent or less or your 1RM.

Finally, knowing your one rep max provides a measure of progress. As your strength develops, it is important to repeat either a one rep max test or an estimated one rep max test at regular intervals to monitor improvements in your strength.

There is not a standard measure to compare yourself to when it comes to beginners. In the beginning, you will be competing against yourself and trying to better your own scores. For the more seasoned weight lifter, exrx.net provides a more advanced set of guidelines to judge yourself against. This link will enable you to determine whether you are at a novice, intermediate, advanced or elite level across five lifts: the overhead press, bench press, squat, deadlift and clean.

Testing your cardiovascular health

The following post is the first of a three part series which will enable you to test your cardiovascular fitness, maximal strength and flexibility. Whether you are a beginner who needs a starting point for reference, or a more advanced exerciser looking to improve your averages, these articles will explain exactly how to measure your overall fitness levels.

Firstly, this post will cover how to measure your cardiovascular fitness by testing your VO² max. Cardiorespiratory fitness is defined as the ability to perform compound exercises using large muscle groups for prolonged periods, at a moderate to high intensity.

VO² max is considered the most valid measure of cardiorespiratory fitness. It measures the capacity of the heart, lungs and blood to transport oxygen to the working muscles, as well as how well the muscles utilise oxygen during exercise.

There are a number of tests that you can perform to test the health of your heart with very little equipment other than a stopwatch. Considering that your VO² max is your body’s maximal ability to utilise oxygen to perform work, it is very difficult – and unsafe – to reach that level. The following are therefore sub-maximal tests suitable for all levels.

The Step Test: You will need a step with a height of 12 to 18 inches. Step up and down on the step, one foot after the other, for three consecutive minutes. Set a metronome to 96 beats per minute, allowing you to complete 24 steps per minute (you can access a free metronome at http://www.metronomeonline.com/ ). Once three minutes have passed, sit down and immediately take your pulse for the next 60 seconds to monitor recovery. The faster your recovery time, the stronger and fitter your heart is. Use the following tables from the YMCA to judge your score:

Men, based on age:

  18-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+
Excellent 50-76 51-76 49-76 56-82 60-77 59-81
Good 79-84 79-85 80-88 87-93 86-94 87-92
Above average 88-93 88-94 88-92 95-101 97-100 94-102
Average 95-100 96-102 100-105 103-111 103-109 104-110
Below average 102-107 104-110 108-113 113-119 111-117 114-118
Poor 111-119 108-113 116-124 121-126 119-128 121-126
Very poor 124-157 116-124 130-163 131-159 131-154 130-151

Women, based on age:

  18-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+
Excellent 52-81 58-80 51-84 63-91 60-92 70-92
Good 85-93 85-92 89-96 95-101 97-103 96-101
Above average 96-102 95-101 100-104 104-110 106-111 104-111
Average 104-110 104-110 107-112 113-118 113-118 116-121
Below average 113-120 113-119 115-120 120-124 119-127 123-126
Poor 122-131 122-129 124-132 126-132 129-135 128-133
Very poor 135-169 134-171 137-171 137-171 141-174 135-155

The Rockport Walk Test: This test is most suitable for beginners who are unable to jog or run. After a short warm up, walk one mile as fast as possible on a treadmill or flat terrain. Measure your heart rate as soon as the mile is complete, and compare it to the standard chart below. You can then calculate your VO₂ max by using the following formula:

VO₂ Max = 132.853 – 0.0769W – 0.3877A + 6.315G – 3.2649T – 0.1565H

In the formula, W represents weight in pounds,  A is your age your age in years, G is 0 for females and 1 for males, T is your time in minutes and H is your heart rate in beats per minute.

For example, Annie – who is 30 years old and weighs 160 pounds – completes the mile in 13 minutes and 5 seconds at a heart rate of 85 beats per minute. The calculation is as follows:

Annie’s V0₂ max = 132.853 – (0.0769×160) – (0.3877 x 30) + (6.315 x 0) – (3.2649xMINUTES) – (0.1565 x 85) = 95.3434 ml/kg/min

The Astrand Treadmill Test: You will run as long as you possibly can on a treadmill while increasing the incline. First warm up for 10 minutes with a brisk-paced walk, and then set the treadmill to a speed of 5 miles (8km) per hour at a 0% incline. After three minutes, increase the incline to 2.5%. Every two minutes thereafter increase the incline by 2.5% until you can no longer perform the test. You can then calculate your VO₂ max as follow, where time is in minutes:

V0₂ max = (Time x 1.444) + 14.99

For example, John had to stop the test after 13 minutes and 15 seconds.

John’s V0₂ max = (13.25 x 1.444) + 14.99 = 34.123mls/kg/min

The Cooper Test: After warming up for five to 10 minutes, you must run, jog or walk as far as you can in 12 minutes. This is more of an advanced test for experienced exercisers.

Use the following table, based on age and metres, to measure your VO₂ max. The figures are for males – female distances are approximately 10 per cent less:

  <30 30-39 40-49 >50
Poor 1600 1500 1400 1300
Average 2000 1900 1700 1600
Very good 2400 2100 2100 2000
Excellent 2800 2500 2500 2400

Please note that you should warm up with some brisk walking and gentle stretching for five to 10 minutes before attempting any of these tests.

To improve your fitness, start by walking on a flat terrain and work your way up to incline walking or jogging. Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day. Once a month repeat the test to see if your results have improved.