Just three years after the Marine Corps acknowledged fewer than half of female recruits in boot camp couldn't complete three pull ups, some 65 percent of all female Marines voluntarily performed pull ups in their annual physical fitness test this year, officials said.
Last year, the Corps rolled out the biggest overhaul to its PFT in 40 years, with major changes to upper-body strength requirements designed to make equal demands on female and male troops.
The changes did away with the timed flexed-arm hang, which had been the standard option for female Marines, and gave all Marines the option to perform push-ups, or the more challenging pull ups. The test was, however, clearly weighted toward pull ups, with rules that made it impossible to get a perfect score without choosing that option.
For women, depending on which of eight age groups they fall into, they can max their score with between three and 10 pull ups; male Marines can max out with between 18 and 23.
According to new data provided to Military.com, 9,500 female Marines did pull ups in their most recent test, with Marines age in the four age groups up to age 40 averaging 7 to 8 reps.
In the three previous years, in which female Marines had an option to do pull ups instead of the flexed-arm hang but no performance incentive to do them, the percentage of female Marines choosing the option has risen steadily, said Brian McGuire, deputy force fitness branch head for the standards division of Marine Corps Training and Education Command.
In 2013, just over 1,000 of all female Marines chose pull ups; in 2014, more than 1,700 chose the option; in 2015, more than 1,900 opted for pullups; and last year it was just under 2,000, or roughly 14 percent of all female Marines, McGuire said.
The massive increase this year "is a marker for how this change has incentivized female Marines on the PFT," he said. "What's happening is that behaviors are changing and the benefits of upper body strength training are being realized, so this will enhance physical performance in combat-related demands as well as garrison duties."
McGuire said female Marines who opted for pull ups but found they could not complete the minimum single repetition, or men who could not complete the minimum average of five, were not given the chance to do pushups instead.
"That was an early consideration, but as the policy is now, a Marine, male or female, declares on that event which event they want to execute," he said.
In spite of that, McGuire said overall failure rates in a test that also incorporated more stringent running times for most age group were only marginally increased this year, less than 1 percent. In addition, he said, there was negligible impact on promotions as Marines rolled out the new standards.
But while the overall PFT failure rate for all Marines was 2.9 percent, some female age groups saw a significantly higher rate. According to data reviewed by Military.com, female Marines ages 21 to 25 had a 5.6 percent failure rate, the highest of any age group. Male Marines in the same age group had the second-highest failure rate, 4.9 percent.
The updated upper body strength standards come shortly after all previously closed combat jobs opened to women throughout the Department of Defense in keeping with a Pentagon mandate from late 2015. The Marine Corps crafted job-specific fitness requirements for both genders that emphasized upper body strength and other key combat requirements.
While a 2014 boot camp test found that half of female recruits were unable to do pull ups, the Marine Corps has since leaned in to efforts to develop the skill set, promoting a pull up training plan designed by a female officer and more recently developing a program to make professional fitness instructors available to the force.