What Is Your Gym Age (And How Can You Grow Up)?
Incredible athletes like Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen and 70.3 World Championships runner-up Ben Kanute are using this unique metric to measure their practical multisport strength. Check out the "gym age" test, learn why it's crucial for triathletes, and find out how you can "age up."
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How did Matt Pendola know Gwen Jorgensen was a real novice in terms of gym age? “In a basic isometric performance test, she thought she could hold a side plank for a minute, maybe two,” he said. “But within 20 seconds her top hip was rotating forward.”
This is not to say the 2016 Olympic gold medalist is weak. “Gym age is simply your level of experience in the gym,” said Pendola, founder of the strength training program The Pendola Project and guest coach for this month’s “Multisport Mobility Bootcamp.” “We automatically assign an Olympic gold medalist an advanced gym age, assuming that because she’s an elite athlete, she must be able to execute and coordinate advanced movements.”
What he found is that athletes —especially very good athletes—are very good at compensating, recruiting other muscles to achieve the appearance of a two-minute plank or a burly deadlift.
“Strength is only as good as your ability to express it in your skill set,” Pendola said.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how much you can press or how long you can hold a plank, if you’re using poor form it won’t translate to better performance in the swim-bike-run. So, you can be a beginner or an elite triathlete with a gym age of less than one.
That’s why Pendola, who works with elite athletes like Gwen Jorgensen, Ben Kanute, and age groupers like Pam Buxton, doesn’t make assumptions about gym age. In fact, given that triathletes may be training 20 hours/week out on the roads, they simply don’t have more than 20-40 minutes a couple times/week to spend in the gym. And that’s okay.
“Triathletes will get most of their strength through resistance in the bike and swim,” Pendola admitted.
It is still important to work on your gym age, though, he said. “It’s more about feeling like you’re moving better, and being able to train more consistently because you have fewer injuries.”
To improve your gym age, Pendola suggests focusing on quality over quantity and being realistic about where you are. “The best bang for our buck is doing skill sets that are easy to learn, so even someone with a zero-to-one gym age and not much time can learn it quickly. An example is the hip thruster. The learning curve for that movement is lower than, say, a deadlift. We think in terms of risk versus reward. If there’s a high risk of doing the movement improperly, we won’t do it, and that’s the case with deadlifts. The hip thruster is easy to learn, easy to load up, with very low chance of injury. And hip thrusters work on primary hip extension muscles like your glutes and hamstrings, posterior stabilizers like your erector spinae, and even knee extension—all transferable to swim-bike-run.”
Another benefit of practicing fundamental movements is that they fit the triathlon calendar. Pre-season, a base of strength can be built in the gym, but once the season gets going, there’s a lot of traveling. Pendola found that Ben Kanute could maintain, even improve, his strength through the competitive season with easy-to-pack resistance bands.
Improving your gym age, as you can imagine, is a progression. In the beginning, you’ll work on basics—being compact through the torso, isometrics, moving from the center of your body. Then the focus is on relative strength —how many single leg squats or hand release pushups you can do in a minute. Finally, you’ll tackle coordination.
“I like jump rope, especially for triathletes,” Pendola said. “It’s a great way to build power and endurance but it also tests coordination. At first, Pam [Buxton] did pogos. She was not controlling her arms well. As she gained relative strength and coordination, she gained stability in her shoulders, and progressed to jumping a rope. That stability showed up in her swimming and running.”
At first gym age progressions can feel almost as slow as chronological age. It can take a year to master the basics of a deadlift, and possibly another 12 months for more complex movement patterns like a snatch. Even though it might take a while to hit those gym age milestones, the payoff of working toward those goals is more immediate—performance gains with fewer injuries.
To find out where you stand, take the 15-minute, six-movement gym age test below and get a realistic gauge on where you are (and where you might have to go).
Looking to improve your score, reduce injury, and build strength in the preseason? Follow along with our free four-week Multisport Mobility Bootcamp, retest at the end, and learn how to mantain your gains into the 2023 season.
Relative Strength (Gym-age) Test
*Do not attempt or continue any test that causes pain
I’ve included test results from some of the athletes I’ve worked with including Gwen Jorgensen, Ben Kanute, and other athletes who were coming back from injury or competing in age-group categories as a great benchmark for improvement at all levels.
Movement 1: Jump Rope
Jumping rope is a great test of your coordination between your upper and lower body, as well as your leg spring stiffness. These two aspects are crucial to your performance in the run. Start by grabbing the right size of jump rope. If you put the rope under your feet, the handles should be at your armpits. If it’s too long you can just tie a knot to shorten it. Then, with handles in hand, in a sweeping motion you’ll swing the rope, jump over it, and repeat.
Even though it’s called a “jump,” you want everything above your ankles to be as stiff as possible, using your natural lower-leg elasticity to pop off the ground. Many people go wrong by jamming their joints: bending their knees too much, hinging through their hips, and kicking their heels back everytime they push off the ground. This is an indicator of inefficiencies in your running form. If you’re having trouble with this part of the movement, you can drop the rope for a bit and just practice on popping off the ground before you begin the test. If you’re a taller athlete, these standards may be harder to hit, so keep that in mind.
Gold – 190
Silver – 180
Bronze – 170
Real Results: Pam Buxton
Started with a pelvic fracture, but with consistent strength training achieved her dream of finishing the 2022 IMWC injury free
First test result: Not able to do the movement due to injury
8 months: 178
Movement 2: Reverse Runner’s Plank
Good running form flows out of good posture. This simple and effective drill will test your ability to maintain good posture while working on relevant single-leg strength. You’ll start in a reverse plank position, facing up with your elbows supporting you. Squeeze your glutes and your armpits, and maintain a straight line from your head to your heels. You’re going to lift one leg into a running position, and at the same time press through the grounded leg. Make sure your hips are level through the whole movement, if your hips shift as you transition to single leg, then the rep doesn’t count. Then in a controlled motion, you’ll lower your leg back to the ground. Alternate sides as you go.
1 minute per side
Gold – 30
Silver – 25
Bronze – 20
Real Results: Matt Balzer
4x National Xterra age-group champion and owner of Reno Running Company
First test result: 25 right leg, 14 left leg
4 weeks: 30 right leg, 28 left leg
Movement 3: Side Plank Lateral Leg Lift
This test is going to challenge the external rotator and core muscles that help control your hips. You’ll start by marking a line on the wall at hip height (you can use tape, chalk, etc.). This line is crucial to making sure you’re getting the proper range of motion during the test. To perform the movement, you’ll start in a side plank with your feet below the mark on the wall. Then, in a controlled motion, lift your top leg until it reaches the mark on the wall and then lower it. If your foot doesn’t reach the mark on the wall, the rep doesn’t count. Many athletes have a tendency to lose connection in their hips when they get fatigued in a side plank. You may notice that if you sit your hips back, it becomes significantly harder to reach the mark on the wall. So, keep your hips engaged and in line.
1 minute per side
Gold – 30
Silver – 25
Bronze – 20
Real Results: Gwen Jorgensen
First person in history to win 12 consecutive races on the ITU circuit and the first american triathlete to win Olympic Gold
First test result: 18 right leg, 12 left leg
1 year: 31 right leg, 30 left leg
Movement 4: Copenhagen
In the last test you looked at the external rotators in your hips. This movement will be testing the internal rotator and core muscles, which are often overlooked. These muscles play a crucial role in balancing your gate in concert with your external rotators. To do this movement, you’ll need a bench, chair or counter that is at hip height (you could stack a couple books on a chair to achieve this height if needed). It’s really important that the height is correct. There are athletes who are able to blow this test out of the water, only to realize their setup was lower than hip height. To set up the movement, you’ll be in a side plank position, and put your top leg on the hip height object. Your bottom leg will start from the ground, and lift up until your legs come together. If you aren’t able to get your bottom leg to the top, the rep doesn’t count.
1 minute per side
Gold – 30
Silver – 25
Bronze – 20
Real Results: Sue Reynolds
Author of Athlete Inside, Sue is now a world-class age-group triathlete who weighed 335lbs in 2010
First test result: 8 right leg, 6 left leg
3 months: 22 right leg, 22 left leg
Movement 5: Hand Release Push Ups
Push ups are a classic evaluation because they test your upper body strength as well as your hip to shoulder stability. This strength is relevant whether you are reaching in the water, bracing on the bike, or controlling your arm swing on the run. In this variation you’re going to lower yourself all the way to the ground, and lift your hands off the ground at the bottom. This ensures that you get a full range of motion and will encourage you to brace properly through your core with each rep. Hand position is also really important for testing the right muscles with this movement. When you’re at the bottom of each rep you want your hands to be by your ribs and your elbows at a 45 degree angle.
Gold – 35
Silver – 30
Bronze – 20
Real Results: Ben Kanute
Olympic triathlete, placed second at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in both 2017 and 2022
First test result: 28
4 weeks: 35
Movement 6: Levitation Lunge
Now we’re going to test your single leg strength and stability, which is particularly important in the bike and run. This movement requires strength through a broad range of motion in your hips and thighs, but also requires a great deal of stability in your feet, calves, and knees. You’ll want to use dumbbells that are around 10% of your body weight as a counter balance in this movement. It may sound counterintuitive, but the weight actually makes this exercise easier to do. Start in a single-leg stance, balancing through the tripod of your foot (your big toe, little toe, and heel). You’re going to sit back and down, attempting to touch your knee gently to the ground and return to the starting position without letting your knee cave in or touching your lifted foot to the ground.
1 minute per side
Gold – 20
Silver – 15
Bronze – 10
Real Results: Annie Fuller
In her first year of competition Annie finished 10th at the 2022 Maceio FISU World University Triathlon Championships
First test result: 0 on both legs
8 weeks: 11 right leg, 13 left leg
So What Is Your Gym Age?
- If you are not on the podium in more than half of our tests, your gym age is between 0 and 6 months
- If your average test is in the bronze standard, your gym age is 6 to 12 months
- If your average test is in the silver standard, your gym age is a little over a year
- If you were able to get the gold standard in each of the tests, your gym age is about 2 years! I like to see athletes achieve this standard before they move on to more advanced lifts and training.
If your gym age is lower than you thought, this is to be expected. A triathlete’s focus is on the swim, bike, and run. That usually leaves very little extra time or energy for the gym. That is exactly why you should give our Multisport Mobility Bootcamp a shot!