1 – 25 Goblet Squats with 50% Bodyweight
Before you graduate to barbell squats, you should be able to goblet squat to parallel using a dumbbell or kettlebell for 25 unbroken reps. It's a test of relative strength, which means it'll show you whether or not you're strong for your size.
- Grab a kettlebell or dumbbell that's 50% of your bodyweight.
- Squat it for 25 reps.
A male weighing 200 pounds would complete 25 reps of goblet squats using a 100-pound dumbbell without any half-reps or pauses. To pass this test, the 25 reps must be unbroken and at parallel depth.
If you can pass this relative strength test, get the bar on your back. If you can't, work on your movement quality, bring up your weak links and then do a barbell squatting. Of course, you could also be too fat.
2 – Eight Strict Pull-Ups
Can you do eight strict pull-ups? You should be able to before you ever think about doing more direct arm work. There's no better relative strength test than the strict pull-up, and there's no reason to do direct arm work if you can't.
A strict pull-up starts at a dead hang position at the bottom of the range of motion, and ends with the chin moving over the pull-up bar. (The neck remains in a neutral position; don't "reach" with the chin.) Any momentum from the legs or torso makes it NOT a strict pull-up.
Take this test with objectivity and see how you stack up. If you can do eight or more strict with any hand position other than a mixed grip (overhand, neutral grip, underhand), you've earned the right to start doing direct biceps and triceps work. Your base of relative strength is at a level where you'll actually benefit from these more isolated direct arm movements.
If you have to cheat to do all eight reps, you can either continue hitting biceps and triceps, gravitating towards inherently easy lifts, or you can set your ego aside and work on getting strong in the compound lifts. Choose the latter and you'll be surprised by the type of full body strength you'll be able to develop. Chances are, in the process, you'll also build bigger biceps, triceps, and forearms than you ever did doing dumbbell curls.
3 – Carry Two Times Bodyweight for 30 Seconds
There's no need to do direct core work if you can't carry double your bodyweight for 30 seconds.
From the bros doing thousands of crunches a week to the fluffy functional training gurus, everyone has an answer for how to optimize core strength and aesthetics. But rarely will they ever tell you to improve your relative strength.
If you're having trouble activating your core, your shoulders ache, and your back is chronically flared up, you've got some weakness to address. And no amount of corrective exercises, mobility drills, or manual therapy can fix that. Thousands of crunches won't solve the problem either.
Luckily, one of the best tests and corrections for both mechanical and neurological full-body weakness is the loaded carry. By holding weight and walking for a given time, you can identify your weak links in the kinetic chain. They're what's holding back your ability to get stronger.
Test the loaded carry by holding near maximal loads – the goal is twice your body weight – and walking with them for 30 seconds. Since not many gyms have farmer's carry implements or dumbbells that go above 150 pounds, try snagging a trap bar. It's easier to load.
Deadlift the load off the floor, stabilize it, and walk with control of the shoulders, spine, and hips. Some people won't be able to deadlift twice their bodyweight off the floor in order to initiate the carry. And that's why it's a test, not everyone will pass. But remember, being weak in the deadlift is also indication that your full body capacity is also weak.
A few safety points need to be covered here before this largely safe and self-limiting movement breaks down. Don't test the loaded carry for distance. This may tempt you to go faster. Along with being inherently dangerous, running with the weight to get to a distance faster is also a form of cheating the test. Keep your shoulders, hips, and core in a neutral position while staying under control.
If you can carry twice your bodyweight for 30 seconds, only then should you introduce direct and isolated core training into your programming. And if you can't pass the test, your core strength movements should be centered on carries and isometric full-body tension variations until you bring up your weak links to the point of a near 2x bodyweight carry.
4 – Ten Perfect Push-Ups
Can you do 10 perfect bodyweight push-ups? If not, then you haven't earned the right to bench press.
The push-up and the bench press are both forms of horizontal pushing, but the two have very little in common other than the direction of force. What differentiates them is the stability the push-up requires that the bench press doesn't. During the push-up your body is in a position that requires stability of the hips, pelvis, spine and shoulders working together.
This posture-dependent position is advantageous to train because it requires full body tension and stability. It's also a powerful diagnostic test that'll identify weak links and dysfunction that may predispose you to pain and injury.
You'll plateau if your weak point on the bench press is posterior shoulder and pillar stability. If you can't stabilize the shoulders, you can't press maximal weights off your chest. That's why the push-up test can diagnose stability deficits. Pass it before you hit the bench and you'll have a foundation that'll actually yield results.
This test is pretty simple: Do 10 push-ups with your chest grazing the floor at the bottom and your elbows coming into full lockout at the top. Before you butcher your way through 30+ reps, make sure you're doing actual push-ups. Don't make these mistakes:
- Lumbar extension (hips sagging down) during the press
- Elbow flare (shoulders fly up into elevation) during the press
- Asymmetries (rotation of shoulder and/or body) at any point
To pass this test your reps must be perfect. If you can knock out 10 without a problem, hit the bench. Just remember to keep a closed-chain horizontal press (like the push-up) in the mix for your accessory work.
If you can't hit your reps, or you have to cheat your way through by hyperextending your spine or flaring your elbows, identify the weak link holding you back, improve it, and use the push-up as your indicator lift for full-body tension and stability.