What does 'being fit' even mean?
I've always been fit since I was a kid, it's a big part of who I am. My parents were fit, my siblings were fit, most of what I did in my daily life as a kid made me fit. Back then I could run all day until my legs were jelly, yet still want to play soccer in the backyard. But I couldn't really push anyone around, I wasn't particularly strong and got injured easily. Basically I was a twig.
Well, up until about two years ago when I really got into my resistance training journey and gained some weight. With a little more strength on my side, I can move heavy objects around easier and don't get pushed over by a strong breeze. But because of Reasons™ I have significantly reduced the amount I play soccer and move around. So now, I can only run as much as the next guy before thinking about getting home to introduce the couch to my butt. Was I fit as a kid, or am I fitter now that there are some muscles on my bones? How do we actually define what 'being fit' is?
These Olympic athletes were all top of their sport, but notice their different body shapes and sizes. Which athlete do you think is the fittest? Image from Athlete by Howard Schatz
Being fit is not just about having a six-pack or being able to run a marathon in less than two hours. There are multiple components to the whole fitness thing. Knowing these different aspects to fitness can help guide your training and ensure you're targeting all areas to become the fittest you can be. There are 11 different components to consider in fitness. The first five are health related components, while the remaining six are skill related.
Health related components
While how much I can run and how much I can lift are important measurements of fitness, they only provide a single perspective on a much bigger topic. These components are the main measurements used to determine how healthy someone is in terms of fitness.
Strength is: How much total force you can produce from a single contraction. Muscular strength is tested by: A 1 repetition maximum (1RM) test involving building up to the heaviest weight with which you can successfully perform the chosen movement (under supervision). Using different rep ranges in a similar test (3RM, 5RM, 10RM) can give an estimation without putting the same amount of stress on the body as the 1RM test at the cost of accuracy. Common exercises used for this test are the bench press, squat and deadlift
Train this by: Lifting heavy weights for 1-6 reps, 2-5 times per week
Flexibility is: The ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion (ROM)
Flexibility is tested by: Using a goniometer to measure joint angles at maximum ROM in certain positions. Flexibility can be measured indirectly by testing how close a body part can get to an external object. Examples of this include the sit and reach test or the back scratch test.
Train this by: performing static stretches on the desired muscles for 2 sets of 30 second holds per day, 2-5 days per week.
(also called V02 MAX, Maximal aerobic power or Maximal Oxygen Uptake)
Cardiovascular Endurance is: how well the body intakes, transports and utilises oxygen in the body. This includes functionality at the heart, lungs, blood vessels and muscles.
Cardiovascular endurance is tested by: a V02 MAX test where oxygen is measured using a mouth piece while working up to maximum capacity. This can be prescribed via multiple methods such as using an exercise bike or a treadmill depending on which is most relevant. Athletes at higher levels will sometimes undergo a submaximal VO2 test to estimate cardiovascular endurance without the effort and fatigue associated with pushing to failure. This can also be tested using minimal equipment by performing a step up test, a 12 minute run or everyone's favourite PE class from school - the beep test!
Train this by: continuously working anything that makes you run out of breath (think: walking, running, riding a bike, swimming) for 20 minutes or more, 2-5 times per week.
Muscular Endurance (Also called Anaerobic capacity)
Muscular Endurance is: The ability of the muscle to repeatedly contract over a period of time. This component is different within subjects depending on the body part e.g. your legs can have high muscular endurance, while your arms have low muscular endurance. This is a foundational component of resistance training and a huge contributor to poor muscle function which can then lead to pain - if a physio tells you your muscle is "not strong enough", this is the first thing you should train.
Muscular endurance is tested by: Since there are so many different areas to test, there are many different protocols which can be used. An example is the McGill core endurance test which tests the function of the trunk by timing how long you can hold certain strenuous positions. Other common tests include the wall-sit test, maximal push up test, maximal sit up test and the plank test. These tests burn!
Train this by: Performing high reps with a moderate-low weight, anywhere from 15+ reps, 2-5 days per week. Just make sure you go to near failure to make sure you're working hard enough.
Body Composition is: The ratio of lean mass (muscle and bone) to fat mass.
Body Composition is measured by: skin-fold assessments, DEXA scans, underwater weighing or bio-electrical impedance tests among others. These vary in accessibility; for example bio-electrical impedance tests can be done using relatively inexpensive equipment at home, whereas DEXA scans are expensive and require very specific machinery.
Despite popular belief, Body Composition is not measured by your weight. Muscle mass can obscure changes in fat mass when only looking at your total kgs, so weight is not a good measure of fitness. BMI uses weight and height to estimate body composition but is also not a very accurate guide, don't base your success or failure entirely off the scales. Conversely, measuring the circumference of your waist can be used as a measurement of health, as it has been consistently linked with cardiovascular problems.
Train this by: following the other health related components of fitness and eating well. Exercise will only contribute about 40% of the total work here, the rest comes from what you put in your belly. When I say eat well I mean eat more veggies and less processed foods - it's not complicated, though it can be difficult for most of us. See a dietician if you need specific advice tailored to you.
Skill Related Components
These components contribute to your ability to participate in sports and activities. People who have a high level of skill-related fitness are more likely to be physically active than those who have a low level of skill-related fitness.
Speed is: the ability to move a body part from point A to point B in the least amount of time.
Speed is tested by: 40m sprint, 100m sprint.
Train this by: Short, rapid sprints with plenty of rest in between (~3 mins rest). Building muscular power will also help with speed.
Power is: the ability to produce force in a short period of time. Power is calculated by: total work divided by time (where total work = weight x distance). Power is a combination of muscular strength and speed.
Power is tested by: measuring the force and time taken on a certain movement, often a bench press or a leg press, using high tech sport-science gadgets (called a linear positional transducer). You can test it now by seeing how high you can jump from a stationary starting point to find your lower body power or how far you can throw a weighted medicine ball from a seated position to test your upper body power. Train this by: lifting about 60% of your 1RM as fast you can for 3-5 reps, 2-3 days per week. Make sure you get plenty of rest between sets on this one.
Agility is: The ability to rapidly and accurately change the position of your body. This is very important in sports to be able to change the direction you are running in.
Agility is tested by: Agility tests set up with cones which you then run around as fast as possible. Australian football created their own agility test called the AFL agility test. Another well known example is the Illinois agility test. Train this by: practicing sharp, rapid turns while running. Do this both planned, by turning at set points like cones, and unplanned, by reacting to a directional call.
Balance is: The ability to hold your torso upright while standing or moving. This is important in a lot of our daily movements but especially so in certain activities like surfing or skating. Balance has also been highly linked with risk of falls in older adults so is important to train to improve their quality of life.
Balance is tested by: The simplest test is to stand on one leg. If you make it to 30 seconds without touching the ground, start again with your eyes closed. There are plenty of balance tests aimed at older adults due to the importance of training this component of fitness in this population, an example of this is the berg balance scale.
Train this by: Following a progressive balance program. Here is an awesome flyer made by the Western Australian government to follow: Build Your Balance. Despite being designed for older adults the later progressions will be quite difficult even for most younger people. If you enjoy more of a challenge to your balance, yoga also incorporates a lot of balance training into its practice or try balancing on unstable surfaces like a balance beam.
Coordination is: The ability to integrate information from the eyes, hands and feet into movement smoothly and efficiently.
Coordination is tested by: Think of what the cops do on the TV when they pull over a drunk driver: touch your finger to your nose while reciting the alphabet or walking in a straight line. Alcohol inhibits your coordination so that's what the cops are testing for. Otherwise remember as a kid when you tried to pat your head with one hand and rub your belly in a circle with your other hand? All good tests of coordination.
Train this by: Throwing a tennis ball against a wall and catching it. Sounds easy? Now do it with one arm, now with one leg and finally with your eyes closed. Coordination can be trained using simple hand-eye coordination drills such as this one.
Reaction time is: The amount of time it takes to start a movement in response to a stimulus.
Reaction time is tested by: A simple one is the ruler reaction test, one person holds a ruler above another person's fingers, drops it without warning and the distance it fell before being caught can be measured to find the reaction time. Train this by: For ball sports, drills where you need to quickly react to a teammate's call will help train the reaction time for that specific movement. For a more general approach, there are products you can buy which are essentially light up buttons you can react to. Alternatively, if you're on your computer now, you can play the fighter pilot reaction speed challenge, A simply addicting game of avoiding the blue blocks as a red block. My record is 17 seconds :)
Fitness is a multi-faceted concept which is hard to compare from one person to the next, think of athletes at the Olympics, how would a shot putter compare to a gymnast or a swimmer or a high jumper? Each sport requires specific demands on the fitness of the athletes, and this unique mix of components is what makes each sport unique. So I wasn't fitter as a kid running around all day than I am now that I have a bit more strength, and vice versa, but my strengths (pardon the pun) have definitely changed. Where, as a kid I used to have a good level of cardiovascular endurance and a lackluster level of strength, I now have a good level of strength and a (very unenviable) lackluster level of cardiovascular endurance. Neither is particularly worse, both have their strengths and ideally, I could build up a good level of both.
Now that you understand the different components of fitness, you can have a greater understanding of your own standings on each of these 11 components. You should use this understanding to guide your training to highlight your strengths and improve upon your weaknesses. If you are training for athletic performance, you should keep in mind the six skill related measures of fitness. If you are training for health, the five health related measures of fitness should be your focus (although feel free to keep playing that fighter pilot challenge, remember any improvement to any of these components of fitness is a good thing!)
If you have any questions or if you beat my 17 second record please let me know.
As always, Happy lifting!