Ask Stew: What Is a Fair Way to Judge a Fitness Test?

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A U.S. Marine Corps poolee executes crunches during an initial strength test.
A U.S. Marine Corps poolee with Recruiting Station Harrisburg executes crunches during an initial strength test in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Nov. 6, 2021. (Cpl. Andrew J. Smith/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

I often receive emails from military and law enforcement personnel about how fair a fitness test is and whether it accurately measures someone's fitness level. Here is an email from a police officer seeking candidates for his department's SWAT team:

"I am about to open up tryouts for a few SWAT team positions and am trying to develop a fitness test that will help the team select the best candidates to attend our training program. Any suggestions?"

Most military and law enforcement groups try to measure two things -- basic fitness/health and physical potential to succeed in advanced training.

Basic fitness and health

The basic fitness test ensures a certain level of health and well-being, which will have an impact on job performance, decreased sick days and a better mental attitude in a stressful environment. Training for a cardio test (two-mile run or a 12-minute swim test) requires people to exercise regularly and helps with cutting extra pounds. 

The strength, muscle endurance and flexibility will help with injury prevention from doing odd jobs that may require lifting. Remember that the goal is to create healthy people in the public-service workforce. 

Standard fitness tests used today usually are good indicators of one's health, not necessarily an indication of satisfactory job performance. Basically, the run, push-up and sit-up test that most groups perform will give a selection board only a minimal amount of information. However, it is still a valid test to assess current fitness standard scores.

Physical potential to succeed

The physical potential to succeed in advanced training testing can offer more insight if graded in the following method:

First, these tests should be more directed toward strength, endurance, speed and agility in a job-related method, if possible. For instance, if you are a SWAT team with many water sources in your jurisdiction or a military special-ops selection team, here is an example test and grading method.

Example of SWAT test:

Swim test

300-500 meters of swimming with fins

Agility test

There are many examples from which to choose, but the Illinois Agility Test, stair climb with gear, a 120-yard shuttle run or 300-meter run with hurdles/obstacles would suffice.

  • Max push-ups in 1-2 minutes of body-weight bench press -- max reps
  • Max sit-ups in 1-2 minutes
  • Max pull-ups and/or rope or caving ladder climbs
  • One-mile run with gear

This type of test will help assess some level of tactical athleticism and can be altered with a variety of tests, but the interesting way to grade this type of test will help with the selection process of your spec-ops group.

One way to create a fair scoring system is to devise a test that has some form of cardio/upper-body/speed/agility/lower-body setup so you would score it like this:

Cardio speed and agility run; add both up in seconds (sample test)

Events

Time

Points

1.5-mile run

10 minutes = 600 seconds

600 points

300-meter sprint with hurdles

60 seconds

60 points - total = 660 pts

Example 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes = 600 seconds/points; a 300-meter sprint with obstacles to weave/jump through done in 60 seconds = 60 points). Their base score is 660 points.

Strength Events

Score

Points

# 1: Push-ups with armor

50 reps

50 points

# 2: Long jump

80 inches

80 points

#3: Pull-ups with armor (x6)

5 reps (add body weight)

30 reps 200 pounds = 235 points

#4 - Body-weight bench press

10 reps (add body weight)

10 reps 200 pounds = 210 points

Total strength scores

 

575 points

Upper-body exercise # 1

Pick one (pull-ups, push-ups, bench press, kettlebell swings, etc.) for max reps in two minutes. Say you get 50 reps = 50 points

Lower body

Sample (long jump, vertical jump or squat test for max reps in two minutes, etc.). Add distance in inches = points. Say you long-jump 80 inches = 80 points.

Upper-body exercise #2

Max reps of pull-ups (x6) with body armor: 5 reps = 30 points body weight of a 200-pound candidate = 235 points

The added-in body weight will give extra points to a 200-pound person who can get 20 pull-ups, compared to a 150-pound person who can get 20 pull-ups. It makes the playing field even, according to effort and exertion. These tests tend to favor the smaller candidate who can typically run faster and do more body-weight calisthenics, but it does not penalize you for weighing less. The goal at selection is to have a fair playing field for each candidate.

Scoring method for the above example:

  • 600 + 60 points for cardio = 660 (now subtract strength event scores)
  • 660 - (50 + 80 + 235 + 210) = 660-575 = 85 points (lowest score is the best score)

Then setting up scoring criteria is easy, but completely subjective by the graders to what you create for your test. The thing this test will do is to rank them numerically for the assessment team.

For instance:

  • Less than 100: Outstanding
  • 101-150: Above average
  • 151-200: Average (passing)
  • 201-300: Below average (minimum standard)
  • Greater than 301: Failing

This test is just an example to demonstrate an idea for scoring criteria. Obstacle courses, shooting skills and other job-related events should be tested and graded on a different scale.

Adding in body weight and subtracting from cardio scores ensures that testing can be scored fairly when competing for a slot in a spec-ops unit. Say a 200-pound guy gets 10 pull-ups and a 150-pound person does 10 pull-ups. The 200-pound guy gets 260 points and the 150-pound guy 210. Remember that I like to multiply pull-ups by six for the fitness test to give it as much weight as 1-2 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups. This gives the pull-up test an actual exertion assessment, pound for pound.

We used to do this type of scoring while trying to figure out who went to SEAL training from the Naval Academy and found it helpful when selecting only 15 candidates for training out of 50 excellent candidates. The interview, resume, grades and other factors were considered, but having a numerical value next to their physical tests gave us a ranking system to use to assess physical potential to make it through the training.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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