Test your strength with W's fit challenge

Pull-ups, sit-ups, V-sit-and-reach, the dreaded mile -- just reading those words should bring back memories of the annual school-wide President's Physical Fitness Challenge. We're guessing you were one of the kids who embraced it rather than one of those who wanted to run -- and hide! But what have you done to truly gauge your fitness lately?

We checked out the 2011 version of the Presidential Challenge -- there's even one specifically for adults -- but decided it's not quite hard-core enough for the active W reader. So we, the eager birds that we are, teamed up with a variety of experts to come up with similar but more athlete-minded tests to measure cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, explosive power and flexibility.

Why should you care now, when you're not being hounded by a whistle-blowing P.E. teacher? Well, because fitness experts believe that testing should continue throughout adulthood. "Periodic assessments help ensure that the training you're doing is in line with your goals," said Jessica Matthews, M.S., the certification director for the American Council on Exercise. "Assessments are also important for people who are preparing for specific athletic events, because they let you know if your training is helping you maximize your performance."

All right! Time to get out that clipboard and try the W challenge. You can look for a new test every Friday for the next four weeks. Up first: Cardio. Good luck, ladies.

Test 1: Cardio

In trainerspeak: Submaximal Talk Test for Ventilatory Threshold 1 (VT1) to assess cardiorespiratory fitness.

Why do it: You probably already have a cardio program in place, whether it's running, cycling or swimming. This test will tell you just how effective -- or,gulp, not -- your program is. As Matthews explained, the test for VT1 offers heart-rate data based on individual metabolic responses to aerobic exercise (as opposed to other cardiorespiratory tests that are based on percentage of an estimated maximum heart rate correlated to age). "The feedback comes a few weeks down the road, when you repeat the test and see the changes in your heart rate," she said.

Equipment needed: treadmill, cycle ergometer, arm ergometer or elliptical trainer; heart-rate monitor; and stopwatch. The test will take approximately 8 to 16 minutes, depending on your fitness levels.

How to do it:

1. Measure your pre-exercise heart rate using a standard heart-rate monitor; write it down. Warm up for 3 to 5 minutes, working at a rate of perceived exertion of about 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 (i.e., you should have no problem carrying on a conversation).

2. Begin test by increasing your effort by a small increment -- on a treadmill, increase speed by 0.5 mph or grade by 1 percent; on a bike, ergometer or elliptical, increase one or two levels. Maintain effort for 30 to 60 seconds or until you reach a steady-state heart rate.

3. Record your heart rate, and continue working as you recite the Pledge of Allegiance for 20 seconds. The recitation must be continuous. After completing the pledge, determine if it was easy, uncomfortable-to-challenging or difficult to do. If it was easy or beginning to become uncomfortable-to-challenging, progress to the next stage. If if was already uncomfortable-to-challenging or difficult, this is your VT1 heart rate. Record your heart rate, skip Step 4 and begin cooldown/Step 5. Otherwise:

4. Continue to increase the exercise intensity incrementally, achieving a steady-state heart rate at each level before conducting the talk test. Repeat until continuous talking/reciting is no longer uncomfortable-to-challenging, and is verging on being difficult (only short sentences can be spoken between breaths, and words are forced out rapidly). This is your VT1 heart rate -- write it down. Begin cooldown.

5. Finish the test with a 3-to-5-minute cooldown, again working at a rate of perceived exertion of about 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 10.

6. Reassessment. For three or four weeks, focus on interval training three times a week for at least 30 minutes. Alternate between working in your "Zone 1," which lies just below your VT1 (this is your active recovery zone), and "Zone 2" (work zone), which lies just above it. For the first two weeks, after a 5-minute warm-up, start a 1:2 work-to-active-recovery ratio for 20 minutes. Cool down for 5 minutes. During Week 3, move to a 1:1 ratio. Ideally, each week you will also increase the workout duration by 10 percent. Then conduct a follow-up assessment (on the same piece of equipment that you used for your initial test) to determine whether you've improved. If your VT1 heart rate does not show significant change -- less than five beats per minute improvement -- repeat the same training cycle and test again.

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