Hit a Training Goal With One Test
A benchmark workout is basically a custom fitness assessment — on repeat. Learn how to build one to gauge your progress and stay motivated.
It’s hard to know where you’re going without knowing where you’re starting from. That’s the purpose of what experts call a benchmark workout: to give you a clear sense of your baseline so you can easily see progress and feel successful as you get after it, week after week.
Typically, a benchmark workout includes a single exercise (max-rep push-ups, a 2K row or vertical jump, for example) or a variety of exercises (any mix of strength, cardio and/or gymnastics movements are fair game). Either way, it’s intended to test multiple components of fitness, such as strength, speed and skill, at once.
You can do a benchmark workout any time, but they’re most effective for establishing a starting point before you launch into a new training program or goal, then keeping you on track as you work toward it, says Nike Master Trainer Patrick Frost. “Every time you repeat the test, you can directly compare your progress, which helps you see growth — or spot weaknesses so you can correct them.”
“Every time you repeat the test, you can directly compare your progress, which helps you see growth — or spot weaknesses so you can correct them.”
Nike Master Trainer
More often than not, benchmarks are extremely motivating. On one hand, they hold you accountable. “If you go through a benchmark workout for the first time and think, ‘Wow, that sucked,’ you know you have to stick to your training or it’s going to suck again the next time you do it,” says Nick Clayton, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of NJC Fitness Solutions, in Laguna Niguel, California. “On the other hand, when a benchmark feels easy for the first time or you’ve improved your score since the last time you did it, you build self-confidence and the belief that if you keep up your effort, you’ll keep getting better.”
How to Program a Benchmark Workout
There are three different moments to work benchmarks into your journey, says Frost: when you’re just starting out or coming back after a hiatus (to set that baseline), when you’ve been doing the same routine for a while and need to check in (to see whether you’re actually progressing), and when you’re trying to improve something specific (so you can track even tiny advancements).
Regardless of what brings you to a benchmark test, there are three rules to follow to make sure you get the most out of it. First, go all out. Second, record your score (your time, reps, weight — whatever marker you’re testing) with every attempt. Third, don’t change the workout when you come back to it. “You’re testing what you’re capable of,” says Frost. “So to get the most accurate understanding of that, you have to leave everything on the floor, keep a record, and have consistency.”
If you want to test a particular cardio capacity or a specific skill, your first benchmark workout should mimic that activity, says Frost. For example, if you want to run a sub-7-minute mile in three months, your benchmark should be seeing how fast you can run a mile today. Or if your goal is to perform 10 pull-ups in a row in six months, your benchmark will be, yep, your best shot at that. Considering it takes about six weeks of training for major physiological changes to occur, Clayton recommends performing your benchmark every one to three months.
Testing your general fitness is a bit more complicated, as it involves analyzing more elements. In this case, the most effective benchmark workouts incorporate compound movements (exercises that work several joints and muscle groups at once) and many of the six fundamental movement patterns — squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and carry — says Clayton. If you want to improve your muscular endurance, Frost suggests doing 100 reps of air squats, 50 sit-ups, and 25 push-ups as fast as you can. If you’re looking to get stronger all around, you’d do way fewer reps of, say, squats, deadlifts, bench presses and rows, all with weights that challenge you, within a set amount of time. (If you still feel overwhelmed at the thought of being your own coach, you can find some solid benchmark workouts on the Nike Training Club app.)
To be clear, your overall training routine shouldn’t consist of only performing your benchmark, says Clayton. A holistic program should address not just the goal movements, e.g., running or pull-ups, but also the areas and muscle groups that support those movements, like core and glute strengthening for running, and rows and grip work for pull-ups, he says. By doing this, when you perform the benchmark workout your second, third, and 10th time (there’s no limit), you’re more likely to see progress every time.
What to Expect
After those six weeks of training, you should see a significant improvement. What qualifies as “significant,” though, depends on your fitness background, says Clayton. If you’ve never done more than three push-ups before, after six weeks, you might be able to crank out 15 or 20. But someone who’s been doing push-ups for years might improve by only a couple, because their baseline was already high.
If you don’t notice much of a change, take that as a sign that your training is neglecting something, says Clayton. For example, if your 5K-benchmark pace has barely budged and your training has consisted of mostly distance runs, you’ll want to add in speedwork or hill sprints to become a faster, stronger runner.
The beauty of benchmarks is they show you the reality of your journey, so you can adjust, celebrate and keep on crushing.