Some conventional thinking would have you believe that if you can score 300 on the Army Physical Fitness test, the Cooper's test, or whatever other PT test the military comes up with for vetting Special Ops candidates, that you're physically fit enough to endure the rigors of selection. I'm here to tell you otherwise.
Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the need for the military's choice of physical fitness tests. They have thousands and thousands of people to test every single year. They need to pick a method that will test the most relevant physical attributes for the job, which in most cases is aerobic power and muscular endurance. Some might disagree and say that strength is more important and I would agree, however, there is a certain level of strength required to express one's muscular endurance in the push-up, sit-up, and pull-up. Not as much as I would like, but it's there. So, in a way, they do test for strength, albeit in a very limited variety of movements.
They also need to choose a test that is easily administered almost anywhere in the world. Due to operational tempo, service men and women are not always surrounded by the luxuries found in your downtown recreational center or fitness facility. The test needs to be administrable with the sparsest of equipment in order to allow members to be tested regularly regardless of where they are stationed.
Lastly, the military needs to choose movements that as many people as possible can perform with very little instruction. You might argue that the thruster and triple jump are more 'functional', but the military would probably deem it too time-consuming to teach everyone proficiency in those movements, and I think they're right.
So running, push-ups, and sit-ups are logical options. Is there room to improve? Probably. Does it service its purpose while adhering to fiscal and logistical reality? Mostly.
Unfortunately for the Special Ops candidate who is preparing himself for Navy SEAL BUD/S, R.A.S.P., MARSOC Assessment & Selection, Special Forces Assessment & Selection (SFAS), or any of the other elite military units they need a few more assessment tools in their pocket to determine where their weaknesses and strengths lie. That's what this article is all about.
Below I describe 5 different tests that I believe to be good indicators of a Special Ops candidate's ability to physically finish selection. There is further testing and programming that can and should be done, but it falls outside the scope of this article. This is simply meant to upgrade your 'prescription' of the standard military physical fitness tests as a way to gauge your fitness to something a little more robust.
200m Max Dumbbell Farmer's Carry
For this test, I want candidates to find the most weight they can carry per hand while walking 200m. This test is done without putting the weights down or stopping and is done at a normal walking pace. I recommend that athletes warm up to their max by performing 50m carries. Once they reach a weight with the 50m carries that they feel will be tough but doable for the full 200m, then I tell them to keep going for their max attempt. I like to see athletes achieve at least 70lbs per hand for this test. It's fairly self-explanatory as to why this is a good test for Special Ops candidates, or any tactical athlete for that matter.
5 Rounds for Time: 350m Row, 12 Burpee Pull-Up, 8 Wall Walks
This is one of my favorite 'grinder' tests for Special Ops candidates. The goal is to perform 5 rounds of the following: 350m row, 12 burpee pull-ups, and 8 wall walks. All of the work in each movement must be completed before moving on to the next movement. The movements chosen in this workout hit all of: upper body pushing, upper body pulling, bending, core, and double leg movement patterns, which make it a great fully body test. The movements are also 'tough' in the sense that they require more CNS drive than movements such as biking, walking lunges, and sit-ups.
The standard for the burpee pull-ups is chest-to-deck at the bottom, jump to double leg squatting, and jumping up to the pull-up bar and transitioning into a pull-up with chin over the bar and head neutral. The pull-up bar should be placed 6" above max standing reach in an ideal setting. Pull-ups are completed with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you).
The standard I like to see for this is sub-25 minutes. Sub-20 minutes is an excellent score, and sub-30 is acceptable. It is a mentally and physically demanding workout which makes it a good test for the tactical athlete.
For Time: 400m Swim in Pool
Just like it reads. The standard environment is a 25m indoor pool for this test. The only caveat is that the athlete cannot touch or push off the sides of the pool throughout the test. This makes it slightly more demanding as the athlete can never get into a true rhythm since they are forced to slow down, spin around, and start back up every 25m length. In the real world, in open water, there is seldom anything to push off of. Tactical athletes should develop the ability to manipulate their direction and movement efficiently without the use of external objects.
The goal for this test is sub-8 minutes, however, candidates preparing for BUD/S should aspire to exceed this standard.
For Time: 200m Swim in Pool with Combats
Same test as above, only this time the Special Ops candidate is required to wear combat pants, t-shirt, and combat shirt. The time goal for this test is sub-7 minutes.
For Time: 10 mile Ruck March / Run with 90lbs
Lots of weight and lots of distance are involved for this test. The goal is sub 2:25, with an exceptional score being under 2:05. The terrain recommended for this test is hard-pack gravel with minor elevation change. Training can be done with larger hills or through vegetation, but in order to maintain a certain level of standardization for this distance and load, I recommend sticking to the aforementioned terrain for testing purposes.
There are many more tests that I like to use to gauge a tactical athlete's physical fitness and preparedness for selection including several horizontal and vertical upper body pressing and pulling movements, core and bending tests, running across a broad range of times, single leg strength and shoulder strength (which are two big ones for injury prevention), and many more. The tests above, however, are the ones that I have seen to have correlation over the years between candidates physical fitness and preparedness on selection. There's more that can be said about the subject, but this should give you a good start.
I should mention that it is not recommended that anybody begin fresh from a training hiatus by performing the above tests. There are also many other pieces that need to be in place in terms of foundational strength, mobility, and training age before even attempting the above tests. If you have a coach, they can guide you towards choosing an appropriate test for you based on your current ability. If you train on your own, use your best judgement. Enjoy!
Wes Kennedy is an ex-Special Forces Operator and the Founder of Elite Training Programs, which specializes in online fitness coaching for athletes. He draws on his time in the SOF community as well as years of self-education and fitness coaching to provide tactical athletes with the training tools needed to arrive as physically and mentally prepared as possible on selection.