Baseline Measurements Before Starting a Fitness Program

Impressive jump!

Before beginning or modifying a fitness program, it’s important to take some baseline physical measurements. Re-measure periodically. That way you’ll know whether you’re making progress, holding steady, or regressing. Seeing improvement in the numbers also helps to maintain motivation.

Not taking measurements would be like starting a weight loss plan without a baseline and subsequent weights.

Around this time last year, I finished a home-based, 15-week, six-days-a-week fitness program called Core Performance, designed by Mark Verstegen. I was pleased with the results. The only problem is that it’s very time-consuming. Perhaps fitness just has to be that way.

I regret that I didn’t take any fitness measurements before and after starting Core Performance.

For much of the last year, I modified Core Performance to a thrice weekly, then twice weekly program, until a couple months ago when I pretty much abandoned it. I miss the benefits now, but just didn’t want to put in the time to achieve them. In other words, I lost my motivation.

Who needs this much flexibility?

Intellectually, I know that regular exercise is important. I’m starting to get motivated again. Not sure why. Perhaps because I’ve read that you can be fairly fit with as little as 30 minutes of exercise a week. I’m not convinced yet. I’ll be test-driving some of these time-efficient programs soon.

This new style of fitness is promoted by the likes of Dr. Doug McGuff, Chris Highcock, Skyler Tanner, Nasim Taleb, and Jonathan Bailor, among others.

What to Measure

  1. Weight
  2. Blood pressure
  3. Resting heart rate (first thing in the AM before getting out of bed)
  4. Waist circumference (upright and supine)
  5. Height
  6. Body mass index
  7. Mid-arm circumference, both arms, hanging relaxed at your sides
  8. Maximal calf circumference, both calves, while standing at ease
  9. Maximum number of consecutive pull-ups
  10. Maximum number of consecutive push-ups
  11. Maximum number of consecutive sit-ups
  12. Run/walk one mile as fast as you can
  13. Maximum vertical jump (stand by a tall wall then jump and reach up as high as you can with one arm, noting the highest point above ground your fingers can reach)
  14. Can you touch your toes? Stand up straight, locking knees in extension, then bend over at your waist and touch your toes with your fingertips. If you can touch toes, can you flatten your palms against the floor? If you can’t reach your toes, measure the distance from your fingertips to the floor.
  15. Optional blood work for special situations: fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1c, triglycerides, cholesterols (total, HDL, LDL, sub-fractions)

The particular aspects of fitness these measure are strength and endurance in major muscle groups, cardiovascular and pulmonary endurance, a little flexibility, and a hint of body composition.

You may appreciate an assistant to help you measure some of these.

Record your numbers. Re-test some or all of these periodically. If you’re in fairly poor condition at the outset, you’ll see some improved numbers after a couple or three weeks of a good exercise program. It takes months to build significant muscle mass; you’ll see improved strength and endurance before mass.

Am I missing anything?

Steve Parker, M.D.

7 responses to “Baseline Measurements Before Starting a Fitness Program

  1. Hi Doc,

    I would add:

    1. Bodyfat%, Lean Body Mass, Fat Mass
    2. Heart Rate Recovery –
    3. Functional Movement Screen –

    • Hey, Doug.
      Good suggestions. (For those of you unfamiliar with Doug, visit his website. He knows his stuff!)
      When I think of body composition, I think skin fold calipers (easy but how accurate?), bioelectrical impedance (how accurate?), that water immersion thingy (probably accurate but not widely available), and DEXA scanning (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (very accurate but involves radiation and money).

      Your Functional Movement Screen link didn’t work for me (it’s the same as the heart rate article). I found some info on FMS at Pike Athletics (warning: it’s white print on a nearly black background, which I hate).

      Heart Rate Recovery is quite likely a better fitness indicator than is resting heart rate. The study you reference involved a maximal treadmill stress test ($$).

      I’m thinking of adding a timed two-mile run because that’s what the U.S. Army uses for soldier fitness testing. There are probably tables somewhere to see how you compare to others of the same age and sex.


  2. Re the short workouts you discussed, are we talking interval style (HIIT, HIRT, Tabata) or HIT (bodybuilding) style workouts?

    • Mostly HIT bodybuilding. But I’m also not ready to abandon HIIT on a treadmill, bicycle, or running outdoors. I’m no longer interested in long, slow, steady cardio. I jogged 20-25 miles a week for 20 years – that’s enough.

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  4. As far as anthropomorphic measurements are concerned, I would add waist diameter measurement midway between navel and breastbone (upright and supine).

    I would also estimate fat percentage – calipers or machine – so as to have estimate of lean body mass (LBM).

    A heart beat monitor is also useful.

    The Bruce treadmill stress test for maximum METS is one I have used in the past. (My cardiologist loved it.)

    • LeonRover, you’re the only other person besides me who I’ve heard of that measures waist both supine and upright. For you skeptics: yes they are different numbers. Supine is probably more reproducible. Your location for the tape seems a little odd (high).

      I know folks can get those skin-fold calipers cheaply. I haven’t reviewed accuracy.

      I’m afraid my list is already too long and compulsive for most people.