PrimalPerformance

Human Nature Running Wild

Part 3. (MDA)

Modern Fitness Standards: How Do You Measure Up?

 

2002021189 c5a62eab20(This is the third part of a four part series on fitness. Part 1: What Does it Mean to Be Fit?, Part 2: Could You Save Your Own Life?)

Organizations whose members are expected to engage in physical activity as an essential aspect of affiliation – the various branches of the military, law enforcement agencies, fitness methodologies like CrossFit – necessarily impose standardized fitness benchmarks, minimum requirements which every prospective member must satisfy. When a significant portion of your professional identity is predicated upon your ability to catch (or kill) bad guys (bad guys, mind you, whose primary objective is to avoid capture), you’ve got to be able to run, jump, support your own body weight, and adequately perform all the other physical activities that might come up in a day’s work. The various fitness standards are an attempt to ensure candidates are up to par in their respective areas.

 

They vary wildly, of course. Different jobs call for different levels of competency. Also, certain organizations, like the Army, are always looking for new recruits, so their standards aren’t quite as rigorous when compared to the Navy SEALs’ standards. There’s a high demand for entrance into the SEALs, and they do their best to dissuade casual applicants; while it would certainly be nice if the Army were populated entirely by SEALs, it isn’t realistic. Thus, the Army has “relaxed” standards.

I wonder, though, if any of these benchmarks are suitable for the general public. Should the average adult be fit enough to become, say, a police officer? A marine? A SEAL? Let’s take a look at a few.

The Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification requires prospective Utah County police offers to complete the following:

  • 1.5 mile run in 15:37
  • 16 reps of consecutive pushups with no rest
  • 15 inch vertical jump
  • 25 sit-ups in a minute
  • 300 meter run in 70 seconds

No pull-ups? Pretty mild standards, if you ask me, but I’m probably biased. I bet many of you could pass that test without breaking much of a sweat. Still, a fair amount of “average” adults probably could not. And anyway, that’s the just the first test. If you barely pass that, police academy should whip you into shape.

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The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT) is tougher and must be performed once a year, so you can’t exactly slack off with it. There’s also a Combat Fitness Test (CFT) to be completed, which is geared towards functional battlefield fitness. Males receive five points for every pull-up, one point for every crunch, and one point is deducted from 100 for every 10 seconds slower than 18 minutes on the three mile run. Females receive 1.5 points for every second on the flexed arm hang (maximum 70 seconds), while the scoring is the same for crunches and the three mile run (although they get 21 minutes for the run). To earn a perfect PFT score of 300, males must do 20 consecutive pull-ups, 100 crunches in less than two minutes, and complete the three mile run in at least 18 minutes. For females, it’s 70 seconds on the flexed arm hang, 100 crunches, and 21 minutes. Bare minimums, though? A male can get by with just a few pull-ups, 50 crunches, and a 28 minute run time; a female can get by with 15 seconds on the hang, 44 crunches, and a 30 minute run time.

The SEALs require even more general fitness competency, and that’s just for the initial Physical Screening Test (PST). The numbers listed are absolute minimums, with the understanding that they are to be exceeded. A guy who just barely hits the minimums will have technically passed, but there’s no way he realistically makes it further.

  • 500 meter swim using breast stroke or a modified freestyle (called Combat sidestroke) in 12:30, competitive time of under 10:30
  • 42 push-ups in two minutes, competitive count of at least 79
  • 50 sit-ups in two minutes, competitive count of at least 79
  • 6 consecutive dead hang pull-ups, competitive count of at least 11
  • 1.5 mile run in “boots and trousers”in under 11:30, competitive time of under 10:20

Once you pass the PST, there’s an additional three-phase, 27-week long training course that really weeds ‘em out.

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How about firefighters? Of all the official standardized fitness tests for service personnel, I like the physical ability test in the Basic Firefighter Certification most. Different states have different requirements, but they’re generally more strenuous than the law enforcement and military tests (save for the SEALs and other special forces). Take the Seattle Fire Department’s Candidate Physical Ability Test. Applicants must wear long pants, a safety helmet, gloves, and a 50 pound weighted vest while completing the following in consecutive order with very little rest in between exercises:

  • Stair climb – while carrying two additional 12.5 pound shoulder weights, candidates must climb a stairmaster at level three (50 steps per minute) for 20 seconds, then three minutes at level four (60 steps per minute)
  • Hose drag – placing the 1.5 inch nozzle over their shoulder, they must drag a 200 foot hose past a barrel 75 feet distant, make a 90 degree turn and pull the hose 25 more feet; then, pull the hose hand over hand for fifty feet
  • Equipment carry – carry two heavy power saws 75 feet to a marker and back
  • Ladder raise and extension – flat raise a 24 foot aluminum extension ladder, hand over hand, until it’s standing; extend a 24 foot ladder hand over hand, then lower it in a controlled motion
  • Forcible entry – strike the “Forcible Entry Cumulative Force Measure Device” with a horizontal swing of a ten pound sledgehammer without rest for several minutes
  • Search – blind, crawl through a tunnel maze and maneuver around, under, and over various obstacles to emerge from the exit
  • Rescue – pull a 165 pound dummy for 35 feet, then turn around and return to the starting position
  • Ceiling breach and pull – use a six foot pole to push up a weighted, 60 pound section of ceiling three times, then hook the pole to a weighted ceiling resistance device and pull down five times; repeat this sequence for four sets

What I like about this test (beyond just the weighted vests and general intensity) is that it’s entirely functional, and not just for firefighters. These are activities that anyone would find useful – dragging someone to safety, climbing stairs with extra weight on one’s shoulders, crawling blind through tunnels, dragging heavy objects, raising a ladder. You could probably drop your gym workouts and do nothing but this test a few times a week, and you’d be in fantastic shape.

Then there are the sports-specific standards. A decathlete is expected to show aptitude in ten track and field events: 100 meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meter dash, 110 meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin, 1500 meter run. Sprinting, jumping, leaping, endurance, power, strength – you can’t get much more balanced than that.

Football and basketball draft combines attempt to grade athletes based on standardized physical tests and drills.

Football players must complete:

  • 40 yard dash for time
  • 20 yard short shuttle run (twice) for time
  • Vertical jump
  • 225 lb bench press, maximum reps

Basketball players must complete:

  • No step vertical jump
  • Maximum vertical jump (step allowed)
  • 185 lb bench press, maximum reps
  • 3/4 court sprint

There are different expected scores for different positions, weights, and heights, of course, but both combine drill sets attempt to quantify and measure the type of activities (jumping, sprinting, pushing) players will make on the court.

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And then there are the benchmarks of pure fitness methodologies, like CrossFit. CrossFit is interesting in that it ordains no strict, precise, objective benchmarks. They don’t tell their members to hit a certain weight on the squat, or a minimum time on the rower. Instead, they preach general proficiency in all areas of fitness: “cardiorespiratory endurance, strength, stamina, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy, power, and speed.” Athletes are free to set their own personal benchmarks, whether it be completing a strict bodyweight overhead press, or rowing 2000 meters in under seven minutes. They are encouraged to complete the scheduled workout of the day (WOD), though, which allows athletes to compete against each other (or themselves).

For my money, this is the way to do it, especially compared to the way military and law enforcement test their recruits. CrossFit (and other similar fitness methodologies) is constantly evolving, and its athletes evolve along with it. There’s always that drive to best your personal benchmarks, to improve and to grow. Typical fitness tests, on the other hand, are usually one-shot deals; a police recruit could conceivably train just enough to pass the entrance exam, only to go to pot once he’s embedded in the force and comfortable with his place (funnily enough, CrossFit is hugely popular with police, military, and firefighters).

Now, I think CrossFit is on the right track, but it’s not for everyone. The overall, well-rounded approach to fitness is generally superior, though, (for most people’s purposes, which do not include dunking on a ten foot hoop or catching a touchdown pass) to the sport-specific training. Does the average person need to be able to complete the WOD in record time? No, absolutely not, but he or she should be able to squat down to pick up their kids, pull themselves up into a tree (using their feet, if need be) to climb around, go for a quick run with the dog, lift a heavy suitcase overhead, walk up several flights of stairs without breathing hard, and swim without sinking.

Or, as legendary strongman Earle Liederman once wrote, there are five fitness benchmarks that any man (or woman, with some modifications; Liederman wrote this in the not entirely enlightened 1920s) possessing adequate fitness should be able to do:

“Every man should be able to save his own life. He should be able to swim far enough, run fast and long enough to save his life in case of emergency and necessity. He also should be able to chin himself a reasonable number of times, as well as to dip a number of times, and he should be able to jump a reasonable height and distance.” (Liederman, Endurance)

Which works out to, at the very least:

  • 1/2 mile swim
  • 200 yard run, at full sprint speed
  • Ability to jump over waist-high objects
  • 15-20+ pull-ups
  • 25+ dips

These are basic life skills that everyone, for the most part (age, injury, fitness level, and illness all play a role in determining things, of course – but they are good benchmarks to shoot for), should be able to perform. When you’re able to traverse your environment (vertically and horizontally), manipulate your weight, and lift things overhead without excessive effort, you’re suddenly able to enjoy life a bit more easily. You go on a long hike and, rather than sucking wind and cursing your decision to embark on the journey, you’re instead able to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. Life shouldn’t be hard work unless you make it so. Everyday activities shouldn’t be struggles. Basic fitness should be like breathing – it should be second nature.

What do you folks think? Are there fitness absolutes? Is it enough to perform basic activities without struggling with your own body, or should Primal fitness standards reach for something more?

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January 29, 2011 Posted by | Fairway | Leave a comment

Part 2. (MDA)

Could You Save Your Own Life?

help2(This is the second part of a four part series on fitness. Part 1: What Does it Mean to Be Fit?, Part 3: Modern Fitness Standards)

Yesterday, I explored the malleable meaning of fitness, including how our ideas of fitness (both reproductive and physical alike) have drastically changed over history. What began as a reliable indicator of a person’s ability to survive and provide for his or her family or tribe has lost its urgency, and becoming fit in the modern world is now a choice, rather than a necessity for reproductive survival.

Or is it?

 

Putting aside the potential long-term health and longevity benefits conferred by optimum human fitness (to be discussed later), there are still certain timeless, universal advantages to being fit. And no, I’m not talking about stuff like tool making, hunting, interpersonal combat, hard physical labor – all classic human activities that undoubtedly see a boost when the actor is fit, but they aren’t exactly ubiquitous in 2009. I’m talking about those fight-or-flight moments, those instances where time slows down and you’ve got to act – NOW – or risk probable death. Grok faced these moments, probably on a regular basis, and it was his level of physical fitness that determined whether he’d escape unscathed or lose his life. We face these moments, too, though perhaps not as regularly as Grok (though this depends on our station in life), and the survival mechanisms are exactly the same.

You can’t always reach for your cell phone and call the authorities, and sometimes you just can’t wait to be rescued. In these situations, the abilities to maneuver your body with precision, manipulate/lift/push/pull your own bodyweight without tiring too quickly, jump high and far enough to clear a few feet, swim for a few hundred meters, and maintain top running speed for a couple hundred meters are crucial for survival.

  • Grok might have ascended a tree to escape a massive grizzly bear who cannot follow, whereas I might climb the nearest tree to escape a rabid dog that’s off its lead. In both situations, you’d have to be able to pull your own bodyweight up to survive. Practice your pull-ups!
  • The rain gods were overly generous this season – the hills have turned to mud and the creek’s trickle has grown to a torrent. A flash flood strikes camp, and Grok has under a minute to gather his family and get to higher ground. If he were a bachelor without dependents, escape would require little fitness; as it stands now, he’s got to carry the remains of last night’s kill over one shoulder and his little scamp of a son in the other, and haul ass to higher ground with over a hundred pounds of added weight headed up an incline. A strong core and lower body are absolute essentials.
  • Natural disasters and other incidentals might be less devastating with our modern infrastructure in place (although that can’t always be relied upon; see Katrina, Hurricane), but there will always be occasion to carry something precious and heavy to safety (if not a bloody bison, perhaps a flatscreen, or your chest freezer full of grass fed meat) under extreme physical duress. Imagine being out on a hike with your significant other, and he or she breaks a bone, gets bitten by a venomous snake, or is knocked unconscious. Your cell phone has no reception and your partner’s losing blood fast. What do you do? You’d better hope you can support their weight and make the hike back out.
  • And if Grok gets swept away in the flood? He’d better be a strong swimmer. Same goes for you, modern Grok. You can’t always expect a lifeguard to be on duty and, unless a life vest is part of your daily attire, you should know how to tread water and swim. Oh, and swimming fully clothed is a little different than swimming in shorts, so plan for that.
  • A couple of unsavory-looking fellows are trailing you on the street, and you know something isn’t right. Rather than let them catch up and (possibly) brandish weaponry, you decide to make your getaway at the next intersection. If you’ve been doing your sprints, you could turn the corner and take off. By the time they turned the corner, you’d be long gone. If you’re just waddling along, though, unable to run, you’re a sitting duck.
  • Then there’s the “organ reserve” aspect which argues that as you become more fit (read in this case: have more muscle) your organs (heart, lungs, kidney, liver, immune system, etc) must keep pace with that fitness and improve in their own functionality. Imagine, despite your hypervigilance, you fall off a ladder or are involved in a car crash and suffer severe injuries. Your fitness – and your organ reserve – may make the difference between your making it to the hospital or not. That same fitness would also play a role in the speed and quality of your recovery.

These are, of course, extreme examples. Most of them are unlikely to ever befall us, and I seriously hope they never do. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that these have happened, do happen, and will probably happen again, or that they negatively impact our survival – our reproductive fitness. One commenter on yesterday’s post asked about competency in fitness – “What’s ‘competent’ to mean these days, anyway?” – and I think the ability to save your own life in an immediate (however rare) crisis should be the absolute baseline for general competency. After all, what’s more truly indicative of one’s fitness (the ability to survive and reproduce) than being able to call upon said fitness to extricate oneself from a dangerous situation. That should be the absolute minimum.

So, I count manipulating your own weight (including pulling, climbing, pushing), supporting someone else’s weight while walking, swimming, and sprinting as the fundamental abilities any competently fit person interested in surviving dangerous situations should possess. I’m sure I’m missing at least a few more, though, so I’d love to hear from readers: what other physical abilities do you consider crucial for survival, especially in this modern world?

Now that I’ve established a tentative baseline standard for human fitness, tomorrow I’ll be exploring the other ways we can classify and compartmentalize effective, proper physical fitness. Is there an ultimate standard for optimum fitness? Check back tomorrow!

January 29, 2011 Posted by | Fairway | Leave a comment

Mark Sisson: What Does it Mean to Be Fit?

What Does it Mean to Be Fit?

modernathlete(This is the first part of a four part series on fitness. Part 2: Could You Save Your Own Life?, Part 3: Modern Fitness Standards)

fit-ness

\ˈfit-ness\

n.

  1. The capacity of an organism to survive and transmit its genotype to reproductive offspring as compared to competing organisms
  2. The ability to conduct oneself in physically demanding situations; to function effectively in emergencies; to display superior body composition and aptitude in matters of strength, cardiovascular capacity, power expression, reaction time, speed, agility, flexibility; to evince generally superior health and resistance to injury and disease

 

In Grok’s time, both definitions of fitness were inextricably linked. In fact, I’d argue a Paleolithic hominid organism’s reproductive fitness almost completely relied upon his physical fitness level, whereas today’s humans wield various currencies, both immaterial and tangible, that predict their reproductive fitness irrespective of their physical strength, stamina, or endurance. A person’s bank account, education, or employment status are all considered to be better predictors of reproductive fitness. The ability to whip out a debit card and pay for a cart full of groceries matters more than the ability to kill, butcher, and carry a deer. We pay monthly rent to a landlord rather than having to build a domicile out of heavy stones with our own two hands. With regard to reproductive fitness understand that evolution doesn’t so much care how strong you are or how fast you can run when all of your needs are met. Another way to illustrate this is to look at early examples of agrarian societies (e.g. Egyptians). You find that as soon as Homo sapiens had abundant sources of calories that were easy to cultivate and store (read grains) they became shorter, and exhibited bad teeth, decreased bone density and diseases that weren’t seen prior. The irony is that the cheap sources of calories that enabled us to easily reach reproductive age and eventually populate the world with billions upon billions of people is the root cause of modern man’s ill health and poor fitness. I could go on with examples, of course, but my main point is this: physical fitness no longer determines reproductive fitness. It has changed from requirement to elective. Being big, strong, fast, and agile is certainly beneficial to us (and even attractive to the opposite sex), but it isn’t necessary – let alone expected.

What, then, happens to our definition of physical fitness? If physical fitness is no longer a vital aspect of our essential humanness, what does it mean, exactly, to be fit?

I often talk about “functional fitness,” or fitness that enhances one’s ability to effectively function in a given environment. But that functionality is malleable, and the form it assumes is totally dependent on the environmental pressures being exerted. In other words, the required “functions” are always changing based on circumstance, and the “fitness” that allows these functions to be performed must change along with them.

I’ll give an example to illustrate my point. The body compositions of Roman gladiators were actually a far cry from those of the sub-10% BF, muscle-bound model-actors depicting them in movies; helped along by a diet high in barley and other grains, real Roman gladiators were sheathed in a substantial protective layer of subcutaneous body fat. To us, they would have looked like your average CW-touting slob, but in reality, they possessed incredible functional fitness – it’s just that they existed in an extremely narrow environmental niche, wherein the right amount of adipose tissue protected against serious wounds without compromising one’s ability to swing a mace or thrust a trident. Thus, a functionally fit body composition, for the Roman gladiators, was pudgy, bulky, and dense. But were they fit, in the broader sense? They might survive the arena, but would they reach old age, or would the effects of a grain-based diet eventually catch up with them?

That opens up another can of worms: isn’t overall health an aspect of fitness? The gladiator example is an extreme one (heck, their entire fitness regimen was predicated upon the assumption that they would be bludgeoned, stabbed, and sliced on a regular basis; these guys weren’t exactly thinking about their long term health!), but the extreme endurance athlete might be more suitable and applicable. As you guys know, I used to be one of them, running a hundred miles a week and training for hours daily at my peak. And unlike the gladiators, I actually looked to be in great physical health. I had almost no body fat, an impeccable resting heart rate (38 bpm), a relatively high VO2 max and I qualified for the 1980 Olympic trials as a marathoner, but I wasn’t healthy. I was constantly sick, my joints ached, my feet hurt, and my body was inflamed from all the simple carbs I had to eat to support my training. For my environment niche (endurance training), yeah, I was fit, even functionally so. But in terms of that other, somewhat wider environmental niche, the one that encompasses health, happiness, longevity, physical strength, agility, power, and resistance to disease? I was a mess. I wasn’t fit at all. Grok would have kicked me out when he saw I couldn’t haul a hundred pounds of bison back to camp without wincing and complaining about my knees.

I think we have to include health in the definition of proper fitness, especially if we’re talking about Primal fitness. There’s no point to lifting twice your body weight, running a sub-6 minute mile, and doing twenty consecutive pull-ups if you aren’t going to live a long, full life. With that in mind, I think true physical fitness must be functional across a broad spectrum of environmental pressures – no highly specialized gladiators or marathoners allowed – while still promoting optimum health and longevity. And I’ll admit – I can’t think of a time period in which greater varieties of functional abilities were demanded than the thousands of years before agriculture. Grok and company were the ultimate practitioners of a type of functional fitness that encompassed most, if not all of the parameters laid out in the dictionary definition up above. Competent strength, power, speed, agility, balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance were essential attributes for our hunter-gatherer ancestors as they hunted, stalked, foraged, lifted, hauled, threw, climbed, and jumped. They were essential attributes for reproductive fitness and survival of the species.

Okay, but we don’t live in the Paleolithic anymore and, as I said earlier, we don’t have those same environmental pressures demanding we be able to jump high, run fast, and lift heavy things. How, then, has fitness changed from the theoretical past to the present?

Isn’t fitness, in an objective sense, entirely dependent on environment? If finances matter more than might, and education predicts success more often than does foot speed, does that render the old ideals of fitness irrelevant?

Or has the objectively ideal physical fitness remained the same? Just as our bodies do better when we eat, sleep, and mitigate stress like our Primal ancestors, do they also improve when we achieve Grok’s physical fitness? Is a balanced, measured, all-around competency suited for a wide range of environments and experiences the best marker for general fitness, regardless of financial status?

Is physical fitness truly necessary, or is it just another form of tourism?

I think you probably know my answers to all these questions. I’m eager to hear your thoughts, so hit me up with a comment. Thanks, everyone!

January 29, 2011 Posted by | Fairway | Leave a comment