Military Fitness: How Fit Do You Need to be to Serve?

Understand the physical fitness requirements of the U.S. Military.

We associate the U.S. military with peak fitness and readiness. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are prepared for battle through months, if not years, of work and combat training drills. The reality, however, is that a broad spectrum of fitness exists within this population. Let's take a look at what's actually required to meet the military's standard of physical fitness, where these measures of fitness come up short, and what changes have been proposed.

Military fitness requirements are generally centered around three exercises: Push -Ups, Sit-Ups and running. While not always the most comprehensive, the idea is to require minimal equipment and offer easily duplicatable tests. After all, members of most branches will be assessed once or twice per year throughout the entirety of their careers, and these tests will be administered in different locations with different peers. The testing focus is, unquestionably, muscular and aerobic endurance. What differs from branch to branch is the amount of time given for muscle endurance, the distance required for aerobic endurance, and whether or not a supplemental combat fitness test is required. The short version is as follows:

  • A 1.5-mile run for the Navy and Air Force
  • 2-mile run for the Army
  • 3-mile run for the Marine Corps
  • 1 minute of Push-Ups and Sit-Ups for the Air Force
  • 2 minutes of Push-Ups and Sit-Ups for the Navy, Army and Marine Corps
  • A required combat fitness test incorporating more tactical movement for the Marine Corps

The exact performance one needs to achieve to meet the standards depends on factors such as military branch as well as the member's age and gender.

How does this all come together to provide feedback on a member's readiness to serve? While it is difficult to find literature specifically discussing which areas of the fitness test lead to the most failures, years of experience assisting military members has given me some perspective.

As it turns out, the biggest hurdle actually lurks in the shadows—the body composition test. In addition to the fitness requirements outlined above, all branches have established body composition standards that must be met. The easiest way to meet them? Maintain your weight and avoid a body fat measurement altogether.

Just as the Body Mass Index establishes acceptable weight ranges based on someone's height (taller folks can weigh a little more), a "max allowable" weight is set in the military. Those exceeding the maximum weight face a body fat measurement administered in the form of a "tape test." Various circumferences around the body are measured (they vary by branch and gender) and a body fat level is approximated. In reality, these tape test scores are often wildly too generous. When compared with other means of body fat testing, the tape test allows many who would not put up passing marks squeak by and stay in their commanders' good graces. Ever wonder if you would pass the military's fitness and body fat test? Take a look. The Army's APFT Calculator is a great tool to plug your numbers in and see how you stack up.

Beyond the high fail rate from body fat scores, running is often the second-biggest issue many will face. The requirements for the physical tests follow the biological changes that we expect to see throughout the lifetime, meaning younger members are expected to be able to run faster than older members. Peak years are roughly the early-to-mid 20s through the mid 30s, and most marks of physical fitness tend to decline from there. Therefore, the fastest run times are expected by those near those peak years. Not surprisingly, excess pounds from poor weight management set many up for trouble in the run. Runners with a BMI greater than 25 are more likely to suffer an injury related to physical activity, which can lead to inconsistent aerobic training. The injury is more likely to stem from overuse, but acute and traumatic injuries can also occur.

The cycle becomes obvious: A heavier runner needs to move more weight and expends more energy doing so. There may also be pressure to engage in more running to cut weight, adding to the total training time and the risk of overuse. While he/she is training, their risk for injury is higher, and prolonged rest may be needed if an injury were to occur. Six weeks on the sidelines to allow an injury to heal does no good in improving run times or keeping the weight off, either. Runners with a low BMI (generally considered to be anything under 18.5) also face increased risks of injury related to military training, but this "underweight" group makes up only a minority of cases.

In my six years of experience, I've found Push-Ups and Sit-Ups are rarely reported as an issue. Extra weight doesn't help in lifting the upper body off the ground numerous times, but most military members seem to get by. The same can be said for core strength and Sit-Ups; a large belly makes things no easier, but the bar is set rather low. Perhaps it comes down to how closely proper form is enforced, but generally the marks are met. However, confusion over muscular endurance and muscular strength is a common observance here. While strength is desirable for many, it is an essential job requirement for a military career.

Those who train relentlessly for strength gains often become frustrated at the limited improvements seen in their military fitness test scores. The frustration is a result of not recognizing the difference between muscular endurance events like Push-Ups or Sit-Ups and the strength needed to Squat 400 pounds. The message is two-fold—strength is crucial for readiness and many daily duties, but without muscle endurance training, fitness test scores may remain stagnant.

The case for changing the military's various fitness tests is always ongoing. Sure, the test lacks emphasis on high-level muscular strength and explosiveness, gives a potentially inaccurate picture of body fat levels, and is assessed too infrequently to keep military members accountable. But how can it realistically be improved without too much added cost and complexity?

To be clear, numerous proposals have been made throughout the years, but with large, slow-moving systems at work, they often die at the doorstep. Time will tell if that ends up being the case for the latest version, but below are a few considerations.

The most reasonable change might be adding a test of explosiveness. Modern battles are fought in a very different manner than those of several decades ago. Moving quickly with power and forcefulness is a requirement for today's fighters. Options such as the 50 or 100-meter dash, vertical jump test, standing broad jump, and shuttle runs offer some strong assessments of lower-body explosiveness, all with widely established norms that could be age- and gender-adjusted.

The beauty here is the need for minimal equipment, as measuring tapes and Vertec systems would be about the only necessities. Agility drills are equally cost-effective, short and well-established, requiring minimal equipment as well. Hexagon drills, the T test, or the Three-Cone Drill are all good examples.

Finally, movements that assess strength-endurance, such as Farmer's Walks, could be considered a dark horse option. Weighing the added value of these proposed tests, however, requires an assessment of not only cost, but space, injury risk, the ability to duplicate testing, and how well the test replicates current military demands. A thorough understanding of where the military has been and where it is going can help establish best practices in combat fitness training. Although no test is perfect, these are the decisions left to military leaders, who shape the future our armed forces and their readiness to serve.

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