How Strong Are You, Really?
Have you ever lifted a box of books and felt back pain for days afterwards?
Do your arms sometimes throb after trimming a bush or gardening? What about carrying groceries to and from the car? How does it feel after you climb up and down stairs with a large suitcase? Some routine movements may feel fine, while others much harder to accomplish without discomfort, which leads to a simple question: Do you know your true strength?
Even if you exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight, you still may not be as strong as you think, (or would like to be), in order to continue to lead an active life with ease. Weight training is critical, but it needs to be targeted, which comes with awareness. If you understand both your muscle strength, and muscle endurance, you can tailor a workout that will increase lean muscle mass, strengthen your bones, and make everyday tasks easier to accomplish.
Muscle strength is the ability to exert a maximum amount of force in one, short moment against resistance — also called 1RM, or one repetition maximum. This is what’s happening when you lift a heavy box one time, for example. Muscle endurance is the ability to repeat a movement over an extended period of time, as when you need to hold that heavy box for several minutes. It’s important that your strength training routine addresses each type, conditioning your muscles to perform optimally in both ways.
While being tested by a professional exercise physiologist or physical therapist is the best way to get a complete and accurate strength profile, there are some simple tests you can do on your own to garner insight into which muscles need to be targeted. Test your strength by performing the following four moves:
What it Tests: Muscle strength in your quads, hamstrings, calves, and core
How to do it: Start by sitting in a chair with both feet planted on the ground. Without using your hands for help, raise one foot slightly off the ground and lift yourself out of the chair to a standing position using your other leg.
Results for Men and Woman, all Age Groups: If you can rise up steadily without falling, these muscles are strong; and if you can’t lift yourself at all, focus on building strength. If you lose your balance, focus on adding stability exercises to your routine.
How to Improve: Build strength with exercises like the Reverse Lunge and Squat. (Learn how to do them correctly in our bodyweight strength training article; plus, check out these must-do exercises for your quads.) To optimize balance, add Squat Jumps (starting at a very low height) or squats on the Bosu® ball.
What it Tests: Muscle endurance in your chest, shoulders, and triceps
How to do it: Start on all fours, knees and hands planted on the ground about shoulder-width apart. Extend one leg behind you, then the other leg, with your toes on the floor to hold you up. Keep your spine in a straight line to avoid hunching or arching your back. Bending your elbows, lower your body down until your chin hovers over the floor, then rise back up. That’s one push-up. Count the amount you can perform properly in one minute.
Results for Men: The figures below are based on the standard push-up described above. If your count falls below the average score, work on targeting these muscles more often:
Age: 20s, Average Push-Ups: 22-28
Age: 30s, Average Push-Ups: 17-21
Age: 40s, Average Push-Ups: 13-16
Age: 50s, Average Push-Ups: 10-12
Age: 60s+, Average Push-Ups: 8-10
Results for Women: The numbers below are based on a modified push-up, which is done keeping your knees on the ground. If your count falls below the average score, work on targeting these muscles more often:
Age: 20s, Average Push-Ups: 15-20
Age: 30s, Average Push-Ups: 13-19
Age: 40s, Average Push-Ups: 11-14
Age: 50s, Average Push-Ups: 7-10
Age: 60s+, Average Push-Ups: 5-11
How to Improve: Simply adding more push-ups to your routine will help you get better at doing them over time. Exercises like the Dumbbell Chest Press, Tricep Dip, and Overhead Shoulder Press will also strengthen the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Follow the instructions for these moves in our Mix-and-Match Upper Body Workout article.
What it Tests: Muscle endurance in your core
How to do it: Lie on your back, knees bent, and feet planted on the ground hip-width apart. Arms are down by your sides with palms on the floor. Engage your abdominals and raise your upper body to a 30-degree angle, your hands moving forward — on the floor or hovering above — about six inches (you can place a piece of tape on the floor to help mark this distance) and then lower back down. That’s one partial curl-up. Count the total number completed in one minute.
Results for Men and Women, all Ages:
Very Good: 17-24
Needs Improvement: <6
How to Improve: Spend more time on core-specific strength moves like regular and reverse Crunches with a fitness ball or V-Sits on the Bosu® ball. For more ideas check out our core strength article.
What it Tests: Muscle endurance in your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves
How to do it: Stand with your back flat against a wall and your feet about a foot in front of you, hip-width apart, and arms down by your sides. Bending your knees, lower down into a squat position so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Avoid placing your arms or hands on your knees while in the squat. Hold this position for as long as you can.
Results For All Age Groups:
Excellent: Men >100 seconds, Women >60 seconds
Good: Men 75-100, Women 45-60
Average: Men 50-74, Women 35-44
Below Average: Men <50, Women <35
How to Improve: Practicing more squats is the simplest way to get better at them. Additionally, try incorporating moves like Bridge, Side Leg Lift, and Weighted Lunge into your routine. Detailed descriptions of these exercises can be found in our Mix-and-Match Lower Body Workout article.