There are many ways you can gauge your physical fitness, with popular options being your deadlift one-rep max or a good 5K time. Impressive as those can be, however, they don’t always say a lot about your real-world fitness, and how you might be able to handle physical challenges that arise in your daily life.
“Are you useful?” That’s how fitness should be defined, according to US mobility expert Dr Kelly Starrett. “Can you swim in the ocean, move a piano, save money on taxi fares by carrying your luggage?”
To help you answer the question, here are eight physical challenges you should be able to conquer in your 20s, as suggested by top personal trainers and fitness experts. Not in your 20s? Browse more fitness challenges for every age group.
1. Lug A Giant Backpack Around Europe
This challenge comes from personal trainer and nutrition coach Tom Eastham, and it’s one anyone who traveled extensively as a young person will be familiar with. Hauling enough stuff to keep you going for six months across a continent on your back like a giant African land snail is the surefire way to demonstrate useful full-body strength. If you can’t, strengthen your quivering legs and paltry stamina with farmer’s walk finishers at the end of a workout. Hold the heaviest kettlebells you can find by your sides, brace your core and shoulders, and walk. Three sets of 20m is a good start.
2. Perform Multiple Pull-Ups At Any Given Moment
You never know when you might find yourself in a cliffhanger scenario, perilously clinging to a ledge with guard dogs snapping at your heels. Don’t be dog food—earn the upper-body strength to ease yourself to safety. Here’s Eastham’s pull-up standard.
- 1 cheat rep—you need to follow our 28-day pull-up challenge, stat
- 1 strict rep (your neck should be level with your hands)—it’s a start
- 2-3 strict reps—average
- 4-6 strict reps—good
- 7 or more strict reps—great work
3. Get Through A Yoga Class Without Leaving On A Stretcher
Physical fitness isn’t just about strength, it’s also about flexibility and mobility, things you should be focusing on in your 20s to help futureproof your body. “If you get good at it now, your body will thank you in your 30s,” says Eastham.
Yoga can be a bewildering experience if you go in unprepared—you may find instructors race through poses that you can’t keep up with. Watch, and attempt to follow, a couple of YouTube yoga sessions at home first and you’ll realize the benefits for your posture, mobility and even strength and muscle mass from your first class.
4. Get Into A Couch Stretch Position Without Getting A Hernia
This stretching challenge comes from Dr Kelly Starrett, physical therapist and author of Deskbound: Standing Up To A Sitting World, and it will both show and help you begin to correct the damage that might have been done to your body by sitting all day every day. From all fours, put your knee as close to the bottom of a wall as you can and bring the other leg forward into a lunge for stability. Gently lean your body back, getting as close to the wall as you can tolerate, and hold for 30-60 seconds (here’s a video of Starrett demonstrating the move). It will probably take several weeks of daily stretching to get close, but it’ll be very good for you in the long run.
5. Sit In A Deep Squat For A Full Minute
Your one-rep max for the back squat might be impressive, but can you hold a deep squat for 60 seconds? Starrett’s gold standard is actually 10 minutes, but one minute a day is your goal to loosen up your joints and muscles. Can’t squat without tipping forward onto your toes? Your calves are the problem. Mobilize them with a foam roller and by gently stretching your foot back with a resistance band to gradually reclaim your flexibility.
6. Complete A Tough Mudder Without Intensive Bootcamp Training
“Obstacle course races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are the epitome of our indigenous activity,” says Starrett. “But we’ve devolved to the point where they cause us injury and we’re no longer equipped to run on uneven ground or scale hay bales. That’s because we’ve boxed off fitness into one-hour sessions every few days rather than living with fitness at the core of what we do.” The solution: kettlebell training. Swinging a weight around demands full-body, athletic mobility that’ll give you all the tools needed to take an OCR in your stride.
7. Swim Two Lengths Of A 25m Pool From A Dive
Simon Griffiths is the founder of Outdoor Swimmer magazine, and unsurprisingly a firm advocate of the idea that anyone in their 20s should be able to swim a couple of lengths when needed. It could quite literally save your life, after all.
“Most people make the mistake of thrashing against the water and run out of energy,” says Griffiths. Alas, there are no quick technique fixes but if there’s one thing to work on it’s core strength and control. “A strong core helps you hold a more stable and streamlined position and assists in transferring power to the water,” he says. Planks and glute bridges are your friends.
8. Do A One-Leg Squat Without Your Knee Caving in
Another great test of your lower-body strength, along with your balance and co-ordination. The challenge is set by running coach Nick Anderson from Running With Us, and if you can’t pass the test it’s something to work on to improve your running performance.
Squat down on one leg, pick up a medicine ball off the floor, pass it around your raised leg and put it back on the floor. If your hip rotates, your knee buckles in or you have to put your raised leg down, then you should be doing this exercise regularly before even considering belting out a 10K. Find it easy? You’re a hero. Now do it 10 times on each leg.
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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.
- Nick Harris-FrySenior writer