Ask 10 experts for their definition of fitness, and you'll hear 10 different answers. That's because (to paraphrase a great American philosopher) "Fitness is as fitness does." The way you define the word depends on the type of performance you expect. Some athletes need to develop a particular type of fitness over all others—powerlifters at one extreme, marathoners at another—but most of us are at our best when we achieve balanced fitness.
In other words, we're good at everything a healthy, active man needs to be able to do. On those points the experts are in agreement. You need core stability. You need lower-body strength and power to run, jump, and lift heavy objects off the ground. You need torso strength to lift your own body weight in repeated challenges. And you need enough endurance to run a mile without stopping for defibrillation. Of course, there are always men who need to go beyond the standards of guys like us.
Take Ironman world champion Craig Alexander: To compete in events that can be timed with a sundial, he needs to engineer extreme cardiovascular fitness. Then there's San Francisco 49ers' linebacker Patrick Willis. UFC fighter Josh Koscheck. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. These are men whose sports require unique combinations of speed, strength, power, and agility. You'll find their workout secrets along with our Men's Health Fit tests—feats that guys like us can and should be able to pull off. If you can pull them off well, then you're more than merely fit. You're Men's Health Fit.
Sculpt a Hard Core
Part One: Core Stability
Fitness begins in the middle of your body. That's also where it ends, if your core isn't strong and stable. Not only do the muscles in your torso defend your spine against unwanted movements—the twists and jolts that produce injuries—but they also enable the movements you do want. They're the linchpins that allow coordinated actions of your upper-and lower-body muscles.
So we'll start with the plank, a fundamental test of core stability and endurance. The average guy should be able to hold a basic plank for 60 seconds, says strength coach Nick Tumminello, whose workout DVDs include Strength Training for Fat Loss & Conditioning. If you aspire to be MH Fit, you should be able to do a more challenging version for the same amount of time.
You'll need something long, solid, light, and straight, like a broom handle or dowel. Assume a basic plank position, with your weight resting on your forearms and toes. Your body should form a straight line from neck to ankles. You want your feet hip-width apart and your elbows directly below your shoulders. Have a friend set the dowel along your back. It should make contact at three points: the back of your head, between your shoulder blades, and your tailbone. Hold that position. Stop if your body loses contact with the dowel at one of these three points.
If you can hold your position for 60 seconds, stop and rest for two minutes. Then do the plank with your feet on a bench. (You won't be able to use the dowel, because it will slide off.) Nailed it? Rest two minutes and try this version: With your feet back on the floor, move your arms forward so your elbows are beneath your eyes instead of your shoulders. If you can hold this one for 60 seconds, congratulations: You're MH Fit.
Below average You can't hold a basic plank 60 seconds
Average You go 60 seconds
Above average You can hold a plank 60 seconds with your feet elevated on a bench
MH Fit You can hold a plank with your arms extended for 60 seconds
Patrick Willis, 25
The average NFL play lasts four seconds. During that time, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis might have to throw a 315-pound lineman out of the way, jump 39 inches to hurdle a halfback, or race 40 yards to slam down the ball carrier. He has sumo-grade strength, NBA-worthy hops, and sprinter speed. The all-pro usually pancakes his man. Willis has led the league in tackles for two of his first three years (he was second the other year). "I know that I've been blessed genetically," he says, "but I also know that I need to work hard to maximize my potential." That's the key: Can you make the absolute most out of what you have?
To do this required a work ethic so rigorous that it drew praise from 49ers coach and curmudgeon Mike Singletary—the equivalent of squeezing sweat from a rock. Willis says he seeks to improve every day, every play, every repetition. His workouts focus in equal parts on speed, agility, and strength; they're heavy on multimuscle exercises, with low rep counts. "I do squats and bench presses at weights that will help me on the field. So for bench, I'll rep out weights similar to the offensive players I'll have to handle. I'll do 225 pounds for six reps—that's a running back. Then 275 pounds for five reps—a big tight end. Then finish with 315 for another four reps—that's my offensive lineman. I take a similar approach to squats."