Trainers Hope for Revisions to Army Fitness Test

Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Barner, 35, of Erie, Pa., spots for Capt. Elizabeth Marlin, 31, of North Little Rock, Ark., during a master fitness trainer course at Camp Zama, Japan. Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes
Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Barner, 35, of Erie, Pa., spots for Capt. Elizabeth Marlin, 31, of North Little Rock, Ark., during a master fitness trainer course at Camp Zama, Japan. Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes

CAMP ZAMA, Japan -- Strength, power and agility drills will be part of revised Army physical fitness tests if the service's top trainers get their way.

New job-specific, gender-neutral fitness tests could be "good to go by June," acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy told the Army Times this month, although the Defense Department must approve the changes.

Soldiers must take the test yearly and score at least 60 points out of a possible 100 in each component. Test scores, which take age and gender into account, are awarded based on run times and sit-up and push-up repetitions. Test failures can result in a soldier being discharged from the Army for unsatisfactory performance. Scores can also affect a soldier's promotion chances.

Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Barner, 35, one of four master fitness trainers from Fort Jackson, S.C., came to Japan this month to share his training skills with soldiers here. He said that while endurance is only one component of physical fitness, it is the main focus of the Army Physical Fitness Test, which rates troops based on two-mile run times and the number of sit-ups and push-ups they can complete in two minutes.

"Soldiers train for [the test] but don't train for other factors that would help in combat," said Barner, an Erie, Pa., native who deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan as an aircraft mechanic before becoming a fitness trainer.

"In combat, you need strength because you are wearing a full combat load and possibly a rucksack," he said. "Clearing a room, you might have to get up and down. In a firefight, you might need to sprint. You need a lot of core strength, but you aren't running five miles."

A better test would look at a soldier's power, strength, anaerobic endurance and agility, Barner said.

"A lot of people want [a new test] to happen," he said.

If and when change comes, the master fitness trainers plan to be ready.

At Camp Zama, headquarters of U.S. Army Japan, Barner and his team conducted a two-week course, training three dozen soldiers to become master fitness trainers who will be responsible for mentoring their units and advising commanders on physical fitness issues.

The trainers showed the Zama soldiers how to run assessments that are very different from the Army Physical Fitness Test.

"We look at soldiers' 10-rep maxes for bench, squats and deadlift to test strength," Barner said. "We also make them do the broad jump to test power, and we have a 'T-test' where soldiers run forward, backward and side to side between cones to test agility."

They also test soldiers' anaerobic endurance by having them run two 300-yard sprints five minutes apart and calculate their average time. The troops also climb a 30-foot rope -- something that every soldier should be able to do in combat, Barner said.

"Most soldiers can do these activities, but not many are maxing them out," he said. "People who get 300 points on the Army Physical Fitness Test only score average on our test."

Strength, power and agility are the sort of things master fitness trainers already incorporate in programs they design to get soldiers in shape for combat tasks, Barner said.

"It's geared toward getting soldiers to their peak fitness right before deployment," he said.

The Zama troops taking the master fitness trainer course this month performed well on the Army Physical Fitness Test. A typical master fitness trainer can run two miles in 15 minutes, complete 60 sit-ups in two minutes and a similar number of push-ups in the same time, although female soldiers get a little more leeway on the push-ups, Barner said.

Sgt. Andrew Dixon, a Zama soldier from Brooklyn, N.Y., looked like he had pushed himself to his limit during a timed two-lap swim in the base pool last Wednesday.

"I'm not a keen swimmer," he said after emerging from the water exhausted. "I was trying for a good time and didn't use proper form."

Dixon, who installs communications gear for U.S. Army Japan, will head up physical training for a handful of other soldiers in his unit now that he's a master fitness trainer. He said he appreciates the new tools he picked up during the course.

"Plenty of soldiers are focused on getting their physical training out of the way in the morning rather than trying to improve," he said. "If they understand how they can progress by doing things properly, they will be more interested."

Another Zama soldier, Capt. Elizabeth Marlin, 31, of North Little Rock, Ark., said she will help oversee physical training for a dozen soldiers, both enlisted and officers, in the U.S. Army Japan intelligence section.

Marlin said she supports a move away from the focus on endurance in physical training.

"It's not just run, run, run like the old Army, which is why a lot of our senior soldiers are hurt," she said.

Marlin also supports a common standard for male and female soldiers but doesn't think there's too much wrong with the Army Physical Fitness Test as it stands.

"If you can max your run you will do pretty well at other events, but if you can only lift weights and not run, that's going to be a problem," she said.

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