The scale or a measuring tape should never be the only markers you use to determine if your fitness routine is working. Your cardiovascular health, your muscles' flexibility and your overall strength are often not visible with those measurements. That's why I believe in creating benchmark exercises or benchmark workouts.
I have customized benchmark workouts that my clients do every few months as well as yearly goals we work toward. I have never had a client not meet or exceed her benchmark measurements. By having "numbers to beat," my clients push themselves harder.
There are so many ways to create a benchmark workout. When picking your exercises, choose ones that will challenge you to improve your fitness level. If you are already really good at squats, then choose something that challenges your balance or flexibility. If you need to work on your cardio fitness, select exercises that raise your heart rate - burpees, jumping jacks, squat jumps, gate swings, cross punches or lunges. In addition to benchmarking these specific exercises, you also need to make sure you are practicing them once or twice a week. The best way to make strength and cardio gains is to practice!
Here are some sample benchmark workout formats that are easy to customize:
- Choose four or five different exercises and count your reps for each exercise until you hit an "exhaustive" state - meaning you can't do any more repetitions while maintaining good form. For example: no rocking your body as you try to eek out one more bicep curl or lifting your hips as you try to plank five more seconds. Some sample exercises might include: maximum number of push-ups in a row; a timed plank; a wall-sit for a set time; balancing on one leg for a set time (in warrior position or just standing); or counting the number of burpees you can do in one minute. Repeat this benchmark every four weeks to track your progress.
- Select three or four exercises and complete them in as many rounds as possible during a set amount of time (10-20 minutes). For example, you could do 30 skaters, 20 bridges and 10 push-ups in a circuit as many times through as you can before you timer goes off. Repeat this benchmark every four weeks.
- Pick one exercise that you are going to try to improve on in a six-week time period. For example, you might try to increase your planking time from 30-seconds to 1-minute, or transition from planking on your knees to planking on your toes for a set time. Another option is to increase the number of flights of stairs you can walk or run in a set amount of time.
With all of these benchmarks, it's important to set a challenging-yet-attainable goal. If you have never done push-ups on your toes, it's not likely that you will be able to complete 20 push-ups on your toes in three weeks. You might want to make one push-up on your toes your goal. Several years ago, I set my yearly goal to be one pullup. I achieved that (yay!), so I was really overzealous in setting the next year's goal - 10 pullups in a row. Needless to say, I didn't reach 10. I topped out at five and felt like a failure because I couldn't do more. Setting a reasonable goal is as important as the goal itself!