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Are Military Fitness Standards a Good Benchmark to Measure Myself Against?

I can march in place for up to three, maybe four minutes

The reality of athletic cutoff standards is often cruel, but they’re usually established with sound logic behind them. For instance, as a young swimmer, I quickly learned why everyone was striving for at least an “A” time standard: It meant that you were faster than 85 percent of all the other swimmers in your age group for that stroke and distance, and you were welcome to compete in meets only accessible to the top 15 percent. In that sense, swimming was the most unforgiving of sports — no matter how fast you imagined yourself to be, the clock was never wrong, and it was exclusionary with a purpose.

But outside of competitive sports — and especially as we age — there are few minimum fitness standards that would tell us where we rank within the physical pecking order. Most modern job descriptions that seemingly require displays of physical strength either lack specificity about what those capabilities are, or they set the bar so low that virtually anyone can step over it. 

On the other end of the spectrum, some jobs require displays of physical strength so specialized that they’re nearly impossible to replicate on your own. Case in point: Other than at a fire academy, you won’t find many venues that are willing to permit you to step through the door brandishing a fire hose, a sledgehammer, a mannequin and a pike pole to test your mettle against the marks of authentic firefighters. 

In that respect, the military fitness tests — at least until the U.S. Army began making adjustments to its test a few years ago — were the most easily replicable since they differed only slightly from branch to branch, and didn’t have the wide variance in standards evident in the requirements of different police and fire departments. But outside of a military environment, how valuable are those physical performance assessments with respect to guiding your own expectations of fitness?

What does it mean if I can hit the bare minimum requirements in all of those performance tests?

That’s an excellent question, because it speaks directly to the practicality of the tests.

So let’s suppose that you’re 25, and you want to compare your physical capabilities with those of other 25-year-olds without challenging each person to a fitness duel. If you can meet the minimum physical standards required to sustain employment in the Marine Corps — meaning you can complete the five required pull-ups and 40 mandatory push-ups, and also finish the three-mile run in 27:40 — what does that mean? 

It would mean that for all of these exercises, you would rank higher than the average person at your age, especially considering that the 30-minute barrier for three miles is considered a solid average for non-competitive runners, that 40 push-ups is considered to be at least above average across the board and considering the large number of people who can’t do any pull-ups at all. Even when you enter the minimum military push-up requirement into a one-rep-max-bench calculator to get a sense of how that rep total translates into a display of raw strength, the minimum required military push-up mark would translate to a bench press total that would get you classified as an intermediate trained lifter.

With this being the case, it’s understandable why it would be worth it to chase a performance standard that would qualify you for military service.

Great. It sounds like these standards are worth pursuing.

That’s the real trick, though: How should you go about actively pursuing these marks? Is there any value to the idea of taking the test every day in order to directly improve your score on it? As with many things, there is more than one correct answer. 

If you ran three miles each morning as fast as you could for several months, there is no doubt that your performance at that distance is going to improve. In fact, the general rule of thumb for running is that two to three months of consistent training is required to get in respectable running shape, which is a standard that more than exceeds the requirements imposed by the Marine Corps. All things equal, this training method is a more-than-adequate strategy for accelerating the loss of non-essential body weight as well, which will make success on the two measures of bodyweight training far easier to attain, too.

Two to three months of training also has special meaning with respect to the pull-up and push-ups measurements. This time period overlaps very well with an expectation of the acquisition of three to 10 pounds of muscle mass, so devoting your attention to push-ups and pull-ups can ensure that much of that muscle mass is added in the service of helping you maximize output in those two movements. On top of that, even a targeted Army training intervention program that was considered a failure — a dedicated training series intended to skyrocket enlistees’ pull-up totals over a period of two months — still resulted in an average increase of two pull-ups per trainee. Considering that three pull-ups are required of all male recruits, and five pull-ups are required of all Marines to remain in circulation, a two pull-up boost can represent a massive percentage increase and can mean the difference between job retention and dismissal — and will certainly keep a drill instructor from breathing down your neck.

So, yes, the strategy of training yourself solely by using the military tests and meeting the military’s minimum standards is a reasonable way to vault yourself into probably the top 25 percent of all people in your age group.

I sense a “but” coming.

But it doesn’t capture the intent of what those tests were developed to measure. The military’s tests aren’t in place to ensure that soldiers can crank out lots of pull-ups and push-ups; the military uses pull-ups and push-ups as a proxy for assessing strength and endurance. I like to think of it this way: The grown-up version of myself would never train for the GRE or GMAT by taking them repeatedly; I would spend the bulk of my time striving to improve at the foundational skills that are supposedly being measured by the test. Then I’d do actual test preparation, and then I’d take the actual test.

Theoretically, a person who consistently dedicates a regular portion of their lifestyle to remaining fit should be competitive on the military’s tests even if they haven’t taken explicit steps to prepare for them. If push-ups, pull-ups and three-mile runs are regular pieces of a training puzzle that includes other consistent training of the chest, back and heart — along with all other parts of the body — achieving military minimums is probably going to be a foregone conclusion for you.

Or more simply put, you don’t need to train like a soldier to be as fit as one.