Shape memory alloys (SMAs) are used as active elements in novel actuation devices. Two generic types of SMA actuators can be distinguished according to the type of bias passive-bias actuators where an elastic component serves as a bias and active-bias actuators where two SMA elements are connected together. This paper describes an experimental testing bench developed for the characterization of SMA active elements and their testing in a real actuation environment. The characterization of SMA active elements is performed under three complementary testing modes: (a) constant-stress, (b) fixed-support, and (c) elastic-bias recovery modes. Force, displacement and temperature data acquired during testing of a given SMA active element are then used to assess the mechanical work-generation potential of this active element and, ultimately, for the design of an SMA actuator containing this element. Finally, a case study is presented to illustrate the experimental design methodology and results.