Data To Live By (Part II: Strength Assessment)
If you’ve been following my blog or have heard my story then you already know that strength training (also known as resistance training) is one of my go-to HWW Movement activities. I've been lifting weights regularly since I was a teenager (almost 40 years and counting), and if you're in pursuit of optimal health and well-being I recommend that you also spend at least some time each week lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling heavy things, even if it's only your own body.
There are so many benefits to strength training: it helps to maintain functional strength for everyday living, counteracts the inevitable loss of muscle mass as you age, boosts your metabolism even at rest, slows the again process and your old clothes will suddenly look better on you.
Think of it this way: you're in a constant war with gravity, which is constantly trying to pull you into the earth's cold embrace. Strength training is your anti-gravity strategy. It'll help you develop and strengthen the postural muscles (those muscles that help you maintain a strong back and open heart), even in the face of relentless gravitational forces. Strength training will also counteract the effects of a sedentary lifestyle spent sitting in front of a desk or in your car.
Staying strong is key to aging well; unfortunately too many people ignore as they age, often at their own peril. The good news is that you can build strength without an expensive gym membership or equipment. All you need is your own bodyweight and a little knowledge (I'll discuss the HWW approach to bodyweight strength training in a subsequent blog post).
The HWW Strength Assessment reveals how strong your key muscle groups are: your legs, arms (including hands), back, core (front, or anterior, and back, or posterior), chest and shoulders. We assess the strength of these muscles both during concentric contraction (the muscle shortens while maintaining constant tension through a range of motion, as in a bicep curl) and during isometric contraction (the muscle generates tension but doesn't change length; for example, pause half-way through that bicep curl, then hold the weight, and the bicep muscle, in that position). Assessing the strength of these key muscle groups in this way, at the beginning of the HWW journey and then periodically (3-4 times per year) thereafter, provides us with objective, incontrovertible data to let us know if we’re losing, maintaining or building strength.
The following section provides a detailed overview of the HWW Strength Assessment. In the interest of full disclosure the descriptions get fairly technical (anatomically). I've included a muscular anatomy diagram for your reference (following the Assessment).
The Health Warrior Way Strength Assessment
The HWW strength assessment consists of ten individual tests:
Grip strength, as measured by a dynamometer, is a good indicator of overall functional strength given the distal leverage point of the hands and forearms relative to the largest and strongest muscles of the upper body. We need hand and lower arm strength to do all sorts of mundane things, like open doors and screw-tops and lift grocery bags and turn off the sprinkler spigot. If your hands and forearms are weak links in your kinetic chain then your everyday functional strength will be compromised and injury is increasingly likely.
The classic body weight exercise, the good old push-up is a measure of how much strength we have to push something away from us (in this case, the floor). To do a push-up, you need strength in your chest (pectoralis major and minor), shoulders (anterior deltoid), arms (triceps) and core (anterior and posterior) for stabilization in the plank position throughout the exercise.
Proper push-up form entails locking the elbows in the up position and lowering yourself until the back of your arms (your triceps) are parallel to the ground. During the HWW strength assessment we test how many push-ups you can be done in 60 seconds without breaking form.
Another classic body weight exercise, the chin-up is a measure of how much strength we have to pull our body weight up. To do a chin-up, you need strength in your arms (biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis), back (latissimus dorsi, teres major, trapezius and rhomboids) and core (anterior and posterior) to keep the lower body quiet during the exercise.
During the HWW strength assessment we test how many chin-ups you can do in 60 seconds. Chin-ups can be assisted with resistance bands if they can’t be done unassisted.
Hollow body hold (for time)
Traditionally a gymnastics training exercise, the hollow body hold is a variation of Navasana, the boat pose in yoga. The hollow body hold is an isometric contraction of the anterior abdominals (the muscles on the front on your trunk, including the rectus abdominus) and the hip flexors (psoas major and iliacus, the only muscles which connect the trunk to the legs).
To perform a hollow body, lie on your back on the floor and stretch your body out long, with your hands reaching toward the wall behind you. Next, elevate your legs, arms and upper back off of the floor about six inches, so just your lower back and backside are touching the floor. During the HWW strength assessment you will hold this pose for as long as possible.
Superman hold (for time)
The Superman hold is the mirror image of the hollow body hold; you’re lying on your stomach instead of your back. The Superman hold is an isometric contraction of the muscles of the posterior chain, including your shoulders (middle deltoid), back (lattisimus, rhomboids, trapezius, erector spinae), posterior core (quadratus lumborum) and legs (glutes and hamstrings).
To perform a Superman hold, lie on your stomach on the floor and stretch your body out long, with your hands reaching toward the wall in front of you, palms facing each other. Next, lift your legs, arms, chest and shoulders off the floor about six inches, so just your lower abdomen and hips are touching the floor. During the HWW strength assessment you will hold this pose for as long as possible.
Plank (for time)
The humble plank has many different variations, but the one we use during the HWW strength assessment is known as the forearm plank, which isolates and stresses the core by resting the forearms (and therefore much of the body’s weight) on the floor. This results in an isometric contraction of both the posterior and anterior muscles of the core.
To perform a forearm plank, like on your belly on the floor. Prop your weight up onto your forearms and extend your body long; the only parts of your body that should be in contact with the floor are both forearms and both sets of toes. During the HWW strength assessment you will hold this position for as long as possible.
Bent-arm hang (for time)
The bent-arm hang is essentially a pause at the top of your chin-up (whether assisted or unassisted), except with your palms facing you (in pull-up position). The bent-arm hang is an isometric contraction of the same arm and back muscles that are activated during the chin-up (biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis, latissimus dorsi, teres major, trapezius and rhomboids), though with more emphasis on the biceps given the reversed hand position.
To perform a bent-arm hang, pull (or step) yourself up to the top of your pull-up (palms toward your face) until your chin is level with or above the bar. During the HWW strength assessment you will hang in this position for as long as possible.
Bodyweight squats/3 minutes
The squat is the number one strength training movement. It uses nearly the entire muscular system and also works the cardiovascular system, building respiratory capacity by developing thoracic expansion. The barbell-less version of this exercise is the bodyweight squat, which uses only your body’s weight for resistance. The bodyweight squat requires strength in your thighs (the quadriceps), your buttocks (gluteus maximus and gluteus medius) as well as the stabilizing muscles of the anterior and posterior core (the abdomen and lower back).
To perform a bodyweight squat, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. With your arms out in front of you, squat until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground, then return to standing, pausing briefly before squatting again. During the HWW strength assessment you will do as many bodyweight squat repetitions as you can in three minutes.
Chair pose (for time)
The chair pose is a deeper variation of the yoga pose known as Utkatasana, and is essentially a pause at the bottom position of the bodyweight squat. It is an isometric contraction of most of the large leg muscles (including the quadriceps on the front of the thighs and the inner thigh adductors), the buttocks (gluteus maximus), the back (the erector spinae, which run perpendicularly along the spine and help stabilize it) and both the anterior and posterior core (the abdominals and the lower back). In this modified version of the chair pose we extend our arms directly in front of us, parallel to the floor with the palms facing each other (rather than overhead, as in Utkatasana).
To perform a chair pose, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Raise your straight arms to chest height until they’re parallel to the floor, palms facing each other. Squat deeply until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. During the HWW strength assessment you will hold this position for as long as possible.
Straight arm KB hold (for time)
The straight-arm kettlebell hold (which can also be done with a dumbbell or any other weighted object) assesses the strength of the upper back (trapezius and rhomboids), shoulders (anterior and middle deltoids), the mid back (erector spinae) and both the anterior and posterior core (the abdominals and the lower back) to stabilize the torso, which will naturally want to tilt in the direction of the weight while under load. The amount of weight used during this lift will vary depending on the strength of the subject being assessed.
To perform a straight-arm KB hold, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the weight you are using to perform the lift (between 10-40 lbs., in increments of 5 lbs.) in front of you with both hands and slowly raise it to chest height, keeping your arms straight (elbows locked), stopping when the arms are parallel to the ground. During the HWW strength assessment you will hold this position for as long as possible.