Tips and Recommended Workouts to Improve Your Fitness Test Score

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A Marine recruit hydrates after a physical training session.
A recruit with Bravo Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, hydrates after a physical training session at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, April 12, 2020. The recruits performed multiple exercises at different stations after completing a 400-meter dash. (Cpl. Brooke C. Woods/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Prior to basic training, boot camp or police academy, personnel line up to take their physical fitness tests (PFT). Though each service and agency differ in testing exercises and measuring criteria, most personnel gear up for this event for several weeks. But for those who properly prepare themselves, the PFT can be just another workout.

Here are the exercises of all the service's PFTs and helpful tips to increase your overall score on test day:

Test yourself

The anxiety felt by most service members is largely due to performing within a time limit. The more your workouts are timed, the better you are at "pacing" yourself, thus eliminating most anxiety.

Pull-ups

During the pull-up and push-up test, you want to perform these as fast as possible while adhering to proper form and technique. Also, look straight up at the sky in order to use your back muscles more for pull-ups.

Recommended workout:

Pyramid workout: Start off with just one pull-up for the first set, two pull-ups for the second set and continue up the pyramid by adding one pull-up for every set possible. When you no longer can continue, repeat in reverse order until you are back to just one pull-up. (ex. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) Read "Perfecting the Pull-up" for more information.

Push-ups

Placing your hands in the wrong position can seriously affect your maximum score. A perfect location for your hands is just outside shoulder width. This position enables the chest, shoulders and triceps to be equally taxed. Keep your hands at shoulder height when in the up position. Your push-ups will be weakened if your hands are too low, wide, close or high. Read "Perfect Practice for Perfect Push-ups" for more information.

Recommended workout:

Try five sets of maximum push-ups in five one-minute periods.

Curl-ups (sit-ups)

This is an exercise you need to pace. Most people burn out in the first 30 seconds with 30 curl-ups accomplished, then are only able to perform another 20 or so curl-ups within the next 1:30. By setting a pace at, for instance, 20 sit-ups every 30 seconds, you can turn your score from 50-60 to 80 with very little effort. Read "The Proper Technique for Curl-ups" for more information.

Recommended workout:

Try timing yourself with five sets of 30 seconds, setting your pace to your goal. A good pace is 20 sit-ups in 30 seconds, totaling 80 in two minutes.

For most people, the most challenging event of any PFT is, by far, the run. I receive many requests every day from military members who are seeking workouts for their 1.5-, two- or three-mile PFT runs (Navy, Army and Marine Corps, respectively). Since all these distances use relatively the same training philosophy -- short distance, faster pace -- here are a few options to help all armed forces members, regardless of service, get a little faster on their runs.

Timed run -- pace

The most important thing is not to start off too fast. Learn your pace and set your goal by pacing yourself to the finish. For instance, if your goal is to run the two-mile run in 14 minutes, you must run a seven-minute mile pace or 1:45 for a quarter-mile.

Recommended workout and techniques:

The four-mile track workout has worked for many military and short-distance runners for years. This workout is basically interval training. Interval training means you run at a certain pace for a particular distance, then increase the pace for the same distance. The four-mile track workout is broken into quarter-mile sprints and jogs and eighth-of-a-mile sprints and jogs for a total of four miles. The workout goes as follows:

Four-mile track work:

  • Jog one mile in 7-8 minutes.
  • Three sets of:
  • Sprint a quarter-mile as fast as you can.
  • Jog a quarter-mile in 1:45-2:00
  • Six sets of:
  • Sprint an eighth of a mile as fast as you can.
  • Jog an eighth of a mile in one minute

Do this workout without walking to rest. The only rest you will receive is during your slower jogging pace. Try to catch your breath while you jog. Have fun with this one; it is tough.

Another good speed workout is called repeats. Simply run a certain distance as fast as you can a specified number of times. This time, you get to walk to recover and catch your breath before the next sprint.

You can try one of the following distances for a challenging workout:

  • Mile repeats: 1 mile x 3-4 (walk a quarter-mile in between) = 3-4 miles
  • Half-mile repeats: Half-mile x 6 (walk a quarter-mile in between) = 3 miles
  • Quarter-mile repeats: Quarter-mile repeats x 12 (walk an eighth of a mile in between) = 3 miles
  • Eighth-of-a-mile repeats: Eighth-of-a-mile repeat x 16 (walk 100 yards in between) = 2 miles

Finally, if you have not had enough, you can try mixing shorter jogs and sprints together for a longer period of time. This type of training is great for building the speed and endurance needed for any of the PFTs or 5K or 10K races. I call them sprint/jogs. Simply run about 50 yards as fast as you can, then jog 50 yards fairly slowly to catch your breath. I like doing this one where telephone poles line the road so I can just sprint from one telephone pole, then jog to the next.

Sprint/jogs

  • 100-yard sprint/100-yard jog for 10, 20, 30 minutes

All of these workouts are fantastic ways to get faster but build the needed endurance that most sprinters lack. Remember to take big deep breaths, relax your upper body and slightly bend your arms. Do not run flat-footed.

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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