Test your 'ups' with W's fit challenge

When professional skateboarder and four-time X Games gold medalist Elissa Steamer lands her gravity-defying tricks at X Games 17 this week, spectators will marvel at how the petite skater (she's just 5-foot-4) can get major air. Her secret: explosive strength, the ability to expend energy -- power -- in one strong and forceful movement.

But even sports that keep you closer to the ground require this type of power. So you will likely benefit from a power boost whether you play softball or basketball, tennis or golf. "It's especially important for start-and-stop sports because being able to move with force helps generate speed," said Peter Melanson, M.S., C.S.C.S., manager of the education department at the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Explosive strength might not be something you've ever tested before, but it's fairly easy to evaluate, he said. Here's how:

The test: Vertical Jump

Why do it:

Explosive strength tempers reactive forces as they move through your body and into the ground. If you're average (or below) building power will make you more competitive.

Equipment needed:

Colored chalk, measuring tape or stick.

How to do it:

1. Rub chalk on the fingertips of your dominant hand.

2. Stand with your dominant shoulder about six inches from a wall, both feet flat on the floor.

3. Keep your feet flat and reach as high as you can with your dominant hand. Touch the wall to make a chalk mark; lower your hand. This is your "standing reach height."

4. Flex your knees and hips, move your trunk forward and down and swing your arms backward. Now jump straight up, again reaching your dominant hand up as high as you can (non-dominant hand moves down), placing a second mark on the wall at the highest point of your jump.

5. Compare the marks. Your "score" is the vertical distance between the two marks. Repeat the test three times and use your best mark.

How do you measure up against the average female athlete, age 20-plus?

Excellent: >21.65 inches
Above average: 18-21.65 inches
Below average: 14-16 inches
Poor: <14 inches

How to develop more explosive strength

Need more power? Certain strength-building exercises done quickly (but always with proper form) will do the trick. Melanson recommended exercises such as squats and bench press done with 3/4 range of motion. Aim for four reps in six seconds. "Make sure you're using weight that is challenging, but still allows you to move quickly," he said. "This is not a one-rep max kind of strength test."

Plyometric exercises, power cleans, medicine-ball throws and sprinting, also build explosive strength. After six weeks of power practice re-test your vertical jump.

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