Regardless of what you are training for it is important to always have a yard stick by which you can measure your progress, without this there is no-way to know whether what you are doing is effective or not and what you need to adapt of change.
Now if, for example, you are trying to lose bodyfat, this could be as simple as checking your weight and measuring your waist regularly but generally this is the minimum that I expect most people to keep and eye on.
Through personal experience and especially working with my clients I have become a strong advocate of Benchmark sessions. Now there are a couple of guides to adhere to when creating a benchmark session:
Firstly it has to be specific to your goal.
Are you trying to change your bodyshape? Get stronger? Or perform better in your sport? If your goal is athletic development then what does your sport look like? Is it endurance based? Do you play in 20 second bursts over 90 minutes or 5 minute rounds over 25 minutes? Making the benchmark appropriate to your goals will allow you to accurately chart progress and make changes where they are needed, otherwise it is just a guessing game.
Secondly, you must be able to consistently recreate the parameters of your benchmark.
This is one of the most basic laws in scientific experimentation, only change ONE variable at a time.
In this case the one variable is your body, so that means everything else needs to stay as consistent as possible, otherwise the results aren't reliable.
For example, if your goal was simply to get 'fitter' then a simple benchmark could be to time yourself doing 100 Burpees. Simple, if you get quicker then its safe to say your fitness has improved.
However to really be able to trust the results you have to make sure each rep is as identical as possible.
So, how low did you come with your burpee? Did your chest touch the ground on each rep?
How high did you jump? Onto a box? Can you use the same box each time? Or did you jump up and touch a bar/ceiling each time? Is that a set height?
Finally, test regularly and with a variety of different sessions.
Without regular testing your can't make the micro adjustments that you need to in order to keep progressing with your development. Also, I like to use a few different benchmark sessions to keep things fresh and varied (obviously this is different if you have a very specific goal, e.g. running a marathon). If you only have one benchmark then there is a tendency to train just to get better at the benchmark. You should always train to get achieve your goals, not to improve the benchmark, this should improve anyway, and if it doesn't then you need to change your training.
I realise that this seems very pedantic but this is the nature of benchmark sessions, they have to be accurate, even if the rest of your training is completely unstructured and free-styled (which is fine by the way).
Some sessions I will just go outside, hit a tyre with a sledgehammer for a while, lift the sandbag a few times, maybe carry it a bit or try and throw it over my shoulder, maybe do a few burpees in between, that session doesn't have to be exactly re-creatable, I just have to work my ass off, but that's the difference between training and testing with benchmarks.
With that said, here is a benchmark session which I decided to revive, I last did this one back in 2008 (over 4 years ago) but I remembered it kicking my ass and it seems appropriate to my goals again so here is is:
10 Pull ups (Full R.O.M. - kipping allowed)
10 DB or KB swings per arm
10 Plyometric Press ups
10 Tuck jumps
Try not to rest between exercises, rest as necessary between rounds.
Perform as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes.
The Pull up station - where I think most of my gains were reaped during this session
Now I have my own parameters that I use for each exercise but this one is fairly easy to recreate.
I am happy because I managed to significantly improve my PB on this session from 8 rounds to 10 rounds.
Now I don't actually think that I am cardiovascular fitness is better than 4 years ago when I achieved 8 rounds of this session (in fact I am pretty sure it has gone down) but I know that my strength has improved meaning that I was able to perform the exercises with more ease, putting less strain on my cardio.
For this reason I will also be using other benchmarks which reduce the strength aspect and more purely test my cardiovascular fitness.
Still, a good result and I was happy with it, especially considering that I learnt Banff is 'Canada's highest town' at 1,384m (4,540 ft) above sea level!
Anyway, apologises for the long post,
Any questions or if you want help creating a benchmark session or even adapting this one then just add a comment below.
Train hard, live happy.