Gloomy stair runs, anyone?
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This is Part II of a series of three. Not unlike The Godfather. I mean, The Godfather Part II is where it’s at.

If you haven’t read Part I yet, I recommend you do so before diving into this. It’ll make Part II make more sense. If that makes sense.
Part I: Overall health markers, movement, body composition
Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?
Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

Let’s continue the adventures into the standards. By compering yourself to the standards you can gain clarity on what to work on, narrowing down the goals to set for yourself. Today, strength and conditioning standards.

Strength Standards

Search the internet or ask ten trainers for their standards on strength and you’ll get eleven different answers. Surprisingly to none, trainers tend to be biased on pushing the importance of strength. Getting people strong is our livelihood after all. 

But, how much strength is enough? It depends, as always, on your goals. Winning the heavyweight class in powerlifting requires an insane amount of raw strength. But as great as raw strength in powerlifting might be, it is too narrow approach for sports that require more than just moving heavy weights up and down. There is a point of diminishing returns for, let’s say, snowboarding, running, swimming or team sports.

I can’t give you a specific strength standards for every sport, but I can give you my standards

There are certain strength skills that have more carryover than others. The ones that provide the base for the other qualities, such as health, freedom and specific sports skills to thrive on. Beyond specific athletic endeavors where money, status and immortality are at stake, there is absolutely no point gaining strength at the expense of your health and freedom of movement. 

Bodyweight exercises hit the sweet spot for measuring general health and wellbeing

I am far from a calisthenic purists who thinks all the world’s problems can be solved with a quality set of pull ups. No matter how much I want a diplomatic solution to all of the world’s problems, I doubt that it’ll happen by getting Trump to rep out on pull ups. Unless he gets a heart attack while doing it, survives, and comes back as a more decent person. But, I digress.

Having the control of your body ticks multiple boxes all at once while acting as a measuring stick for your overall health. Controlling your body weight in space forces you to keep your body fat and weight in check. It’s easier to bang out 10 pull ups weighing in at 85kg compared to 125kg. That’s just physics 101.

Keeping the body weight in check also means that you are required to focus on things beyond pushing external weight for mindless hypertrophy chasing excessive muscle gains. As we established in Part, I there is a line where more muscle doesn’t serve a purpose beyond a bloated ego. 

And so, we finally arrive at the strength standards for health

Push ups – full range, one second pause in the top and bottom positions

Women 10 repetitions
Men 20 repetitions

Push ups are a simple test for upper body pushing strength, core strength and for creating and maintaining full body tension. Really, push up is just a moving plank. All the things challenged in a push up transfer to other activities in life, whether it’s maintaining tension on a bike or a surfboard, or creating stiffness in the trunk while throwing a punch in a street fight. 

Note, I discourage street fights. Unless it’s Tekken*.

Pull ups – full range, one second pause in the top and bottom positions

Women 2 repetitions
Men 8 repetitions

Pull ups demonstrate upper body pulling strength while being able to maintain a full body stiffness and control. Again, pull up is a plank with an added vertical pulling challenge. 

To even get into the starting position of a pull up requires 180 degrees of shoulder mobility. Something that a lot of people lose throughout the course of life due to poor posture and lifestyle habits. Another box ticked.

The get up

Both women and men 1 repetition per side with a cup of water.

Here’s an old write up devoted to the get up.

Then the guidelines as to what I believe a strong recreational athlete** should be able to do in the gym (on top of push ups, pull ups and get ups)

Kettlebell swing
Women 24kg x 10
Men 32kg x 10

Strength and power rolled up into a one heavy iron ball. Trains the rear side of the body like nothing else. If I could only do one exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the kettlebell swing. Yes, it’s that efficient.

Single leg deadlift
Women 28kg x 10 per leg
Men 32kg x 10 per leg

Beyond the obvious strength benefits without heavy load on the low back, SLDL is a great stability exercise for the hips.

Rear foot elevated split squat
Women 28kg x 10 per leg
Men 32kg x 10 per leg

Why single leg and not a two-legged barbell squat? Less load on the low back while getting the bonus of working single leg stability. Sure, the rear leg does a bit of work, but whatever.

½ kneel 1-arm landmine press
Women 20kg (aka just the bar) x 10 per arm
Men 30kg (including the bar) x 10 per arm

As much as I’d like the kettlebell overhead press to be my go-to upper body strength exercise for clients, landmine is a shoulder friendlier option.

Farmer Walk
Women 24kg per arm x 50 meters
Men 32kg per arm x 50 meters

If I could have a second exercise to do for the rest of my life, it would be the farmer walk. When you go heavy, it feels as if there’s not a single muscle in your body that doesn’t work to a some degree. 

Side note on grip strength as a measuring tool

Grip strength has been proven to be a reliable predictor of at least four super important things: a cardiovascular event in people with type 2 diabetes; the length of hospital stay in older patients admitted for rehab; a cause-specific mortality in middle-aged and elderly. Further, a study in 2017 found that grip strength is closely correlated with all causes of mortality. [1] And that’s sort of a big deal.

Training grip strength in isolation isn’t the solution though. Rather, grip strength is a signifier of overall health, vitality and strength. And which people have a strong grip strength? People who are active and participate in strength training. These folks (us?) tend to favor healthier lifestyle choices as well. 

You can use the grip to test your daily readiness for training at the beginning of the session. Simply pick up a 6-12kg kettlebell in a bottom up position and notice whether it feels easier, harder or the same as usual. The easier it feels the better your readiness is for the session. As with most things, you need to establish a baseline of “normal” first.

When you look at the strength standards above, are you inching closer to them, or do they seem like a far out of reach? 

If reading this made you realise your strength levels needs some work, that’s your goal for now. And guess what, here’s a great program to start with. But if you’ve got enough strength and some to spare, you should look at where you stand with your conditioning.


Conditioning Standards

“If your goal is to maximize your lifespan and stay healthy, you shouldn’t use the same conditioning strategies as a fighter preparing to step in the cage.” -Joel Jamieson

Resting heart rate, heart rate recovery, and heart rate variability are all important tools for checking your level of conditioning.

Resting heart rate (RHH)

As is often the case with general health guidelines the range for “normal” is as wide as Elvis’ pants in the 70s. Wide.

60-100 beats per minute is considered healthy, but for most people mid-to-high 50s is desirable. If you’re participating in a sport with decent conditioning demands (not darts), you should be probably sitting somewhere in the low-to-mid 50s.

Heart rate variability (HRV)

Heart rate variability measures the time between each heart beat. It can get all annoyingly technical so let’s just say that a high HRV is a great measure of your overall performance and efficiency of cardiovascular fitness. It means that the body can quickly change between different activities and demands.

High HRV may also mark how well your body handles different stressors of life. Too much training, poor sleep, lack of rest, and chronic inflammation can all lower your results. HRV goes down as you age, but as is with resistance training and muscle, bone and strength loss, you can control how fast this decline happens.

There’s not a clear “healthy” or “unhealthy” numbers for HRV as it varies depending on the person.*** To establish what’s good for you, establish a baseline from repeatable conditions. Shift your thinking from “higher is better” to a “normal is better”.

Measuring heart rate variability

You can use a variety of gadgets to measure HRV. Apple Watch, Joel Jamieson’s Morpheus and Finland’s own Polar are just a few of the options out there. I’ve personally tried HRV4Training app in the past and found it ok to use with a Samsung phone. Although the flash/camera based reader was sometimes out of tune, causing me periodically lose my shit.

To establish a baseline, take your measurement first thing in the morning when external stressors are low and you’re still in a rested state. For accuracy, try to keep the conditions as repeatable as possible. You should have a solid baseline of readings after four to seven days.

Keep tracking HRV for six months to a year to see any trends. If your readings are consistently normal, it affirms the goodness your current training and rest schedule. And I guess lifestyle habits in general.

I’ll go as far as saying that if you are consistently getting a high reading (and low on planned recovery days) you can probably stop measuring HRV until some factor significantly changes. Either in your training, rest or life and where you need to reevaluate your recovery.

Improving heart rate variability

If you’re getting frequent low readings (based on your baseline) there’s plenty you can do. Since Aerobic fitness improves HRV, I recommend you favor low-to-moderate intensity (about 60-80% of your max heart rate, or simply a pace where you can hold up a conversation) over doing multiple high intensity sessions each week.

Other things that will help you to improve your HRV score: manage stress, get enough sleep, don’t drink too much alcohol, stay hydrated, don’t get into a heated conflict with your wife or husband… As you’re starting to see, focusing on improving just one aspect of health should have a carry over to a host of other aspects too.

60 second heart rate recovery (HRR)

Heart rate recovery tells you how quickly you recover (surprise!) from a bout of exercise. The quicker you return towards your resting heart rate, the fitter you are.

You can measure HRR two ways: check your heart rate immediately after a high intensity effort (e.g. 30 second sprint) and again 60 seconds later. Or, check the heart rate after single all-out effort (e.g. long-distance run, cycle etc) and again 60 seconds later.

If you want to measure HRR specific to your sport, time the efforts and rests according to the demands of your sport.

Your heart rate should fall at least 20 beats within the first 60 seconds after intense exercise[2]. A drop of at least 30 beats within the first minute signals a strong conditioning. Anything less than 12 beats is considered abnormal so it might be worth checking in with your doctor.

How to improve your heart rate recovery?

Similar to reducing resting heart rate, heart rate recovery can be improved by improving aerobic conditioning (seeing a trend here?). You can do intervals at a medium pace, say 20s seconds on and 40 seconds off. The reps really depend on how conditioned you are. As a beginner 3-4 reps are usually enough. For more advanced 10 reps is a good number to aim for.

As with heart rate variability I also recommend long steady state aerobic work at 60-80% of your max heart rate. As an absolute minimum, aim for at least 20 minutes per day on average. Fast pace walking or rucking, cycling or kayaking are killer options for the enthusiastic individual.

As mentioned earlier, for more sport specific conditioning look at the demands of your sport and try to mimic those conditions in your training.

Onwards to the grande finale, Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

I’ve never seen a single Rambo, but isn’t the third one meant to be ok? And unlike most people, I think the third Godfather was decent. So yeah. Something to look forward to, perhaps.

* I wanted to say Street Fighter. But that would’ve been too obvious.
**Recreational athlete is anyone who participates in a sport, however seriously, but isn’t making a living out of it. Although often the case, being a recreational athlete doesn’t have to involve competition. It can be about participating, taking in the nature and being confident in one’s abilities to fully enjoy the sport.
***Although certain HRV trackers can give you baseline based on other users. [3]

[1] Low Normalized Grip Strength is a Biomarker for Cardiometabolic Disease and Physical Disabilities Among U.S. and Chinese Adults
[2] Heart Rate and Health
[3] Heart rate & heart rate variability population values

Other resources:
Brett Jones at FMS – Get a Grip! Why Your Hand Strength Matters
Kevin Carr at Movement As Medicine – Is Your Grip Strength More Important Than Your Blood Pressure
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool for diagnostic and monitoring performance in sport and physical activities
The 8 Biggest Mistakes Made When Measuring Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being – Harvard Health Blog
The truth about conditioning (and the missing link): Why being strong, fast, and fit is ONLY a piece of the performance puzzle
Heart Rate Variability: a (deep) primer