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The Harvard Step Test

The Harvard Step Test is used to measure a clients aerobic fitness. Specifically it is a 'predictive test of their VO2max. This page shows you how to conduct the test.



The purpose of this test is to predict a clients aerobic fitness using a simple test with minimal equipment.

Equipment required: step or platform 50.8 cm high, stopwatch, metronome or cadence tape.


personal training step 2Description / procedure: The client steps up onto, and back down from the step at a rate of 30 completed steps per minute (one second up, one second down) for 5 minutes or until exhaustion. Exhaustion is defined as when the client cannot maintain the stepping rate for 15 continuous seconds. The client immediately sits down on completion of the test, and the total number of their heart beats are counted from 1 to 1½ minutes after finishing and from 2 to 2½ minutes after finishing and finally from 3 to 3½ minutes after finishing.  The clients heart beats are counted through feeling the clients pulse at their wrist.

Scoring: the clients fitness index score is then determined by the following equations.

Fitness Index = (100 x test duration in seconds) divided by (2 x sum of heart beats in the recovery periods)


For example, if the total test time was 300 seconds (if the client completed the whole 5 minutes), and their number of heart beats between 1-1½ minutes was 90, between 2-2½ it was 80 and between 3-3½ it was 70, then the fitness index score would be: (100 x 300) / (240 x 2) = 62.5. Note: you are using the total number of heart beats in the 30 second period, not the clients heart rate (beats per minute) during that time.



Fitness Index





High average


Low average




Validity: The correlation to direct VO2max when stepping is approximately 0.6 to 0.8, so its not particularly good validity.


Advantages: This test requires minimal equipment and costs, and can be self-administered.


Disadvantages: Biomechanical characteristics vary between individuals. For example, considering that the step height is standard, taller people are at an advantage as it will take less energy to step up onto the step. Body weight has also been shown to be a factor. Testing large groups with this test will be time consuming.


Comments: The Harvard Step Test was developed by Brouha et al. (1943) in the Harvard Fatigue Laboratories during WWII. Some sources suggest a 40 cm high bench, which is not the standard and original bench height. Since the original description of this test, there have been variations in the test procedure such as reducing the bench height for female persons in some research studies.  

The height of the step can be modified to suit different personal training clients.  A 50cm high step is very high for 'non-athletic' clients so a step height of 25-30cm can be used.  If the height is modified you must record the exact height and ensure that this exact height is used in subsequant tests to ensure the test results are valid.  Also, if the step height is altered the comparative data in the table above cannot be used.



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