Capt. Lee Kind, author of 'MAX Out the Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force Physical Fitness and Combat Fitness Tests.' (Courtesy of Lee Kind)
Army Capt. Lee Kind still remembers the sting of that first PT test. A cadet at Augusta State University in Georgia, he felt like a miserable failure. Technically, that’s exactly what he was.
Too slow on the run and unable to crank out enough pushups meant he’d failed the test. The misery was just a natural byproduct of his shame and frustration.
Drawing from his experience playing high school football, Kind put together a new training plan, and three months later, he not only passed the test, but maxed it out with a perfect score.
“I dropped my run time from 18:03 to under 11:54, increased my pushups from 45 to over 82 and situps from 58 to over 90.
“From then on, I have always maxed the PT test,” he says.
He soon was a jumpmaster in the 82nd Airborne Division, and it wasn’t long before others in Kind’s unit were looking for help with their own physical training test scores. After years of tweaking and refining his plan, he turned it all into a book helping transform thousands of PT fails into fitness super studs.
Indeed, with a new update released last year, “MAX Out the Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force Physical Fitness and Combat Fitness Tests” has sold more than 45,000 copies.
PT fails, he says, are rarely the result of a specific shortfall but instead the combination of several small bad habits. “Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to train smart and they’re doing something flat-out wrong.”
Here are some of the worst PT test killers and how you can avoid them.
Low training goals. Training to meet the minimum passing scores is a sure path to failure, Kind says. “If your pushup minimum pass rate is 49 pushups and all you can do is 49 pushups, what happens if you have an off day, you’re sick, or you have a tough grader? You fail.”
Do this instead: Set your goal for a perfect score and work to that standard.
Starting too fast. You can’t go from slug to speed demon in a day. “If you are overweight or out of shape and try to train like a superstar, not only will you most likely hurt yourself in the process, but it will also take you longer to get in shape and you will hate every minute of it,” Kind says.
Do this instead: Start slowly with a program based on the level of fitness you are currently at and build yourself up. Even one month of focused training will provide serious increases.
Too much focus on building muscle. Even the most ripped bodybuilders can fail the PT test. That’s because the testing events “are not just about brute strength,” Kind says. Indeed, PT tests measure three things: muscle endurance, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness, so training has to incorporate all three of those elements.
Do this instead: Pick a well-rounded total body workout plan.
Over-repping. You can’t just keep maxing out the reps on the test exercises and expect to do your best. That’s especially true for pushups. “Not only does this make you more prone to injury, but it will take you longer to improve and you will never achieve your greatest potential.”
Do this instead: In general, muscle building and endurance are best achieved by doing fewer reps in each set, but with shorter rest periods in between, Kind says. For example, let’s say your current max on pushups is 50. Do 25 in 35 seconds, rest one minute; then 25 in 45 seconds, rest one minute; then 30-35 in one minute and 20 seconds. In his book, Kind recommends then doing a round of ab exercises and repeating the pushup sets again.
Bad breathing. This is a performance killer. “You’ll get more reps when you breathe properly. It also prevents you from running out of breath,” Kind says. “So many people fail the test just because they don’t know how to breathe properly. When you breathe correctly, you’ll also see much faster gains in training.”
Kind has worked with people who failed their runs, “but once they learned how (to) breathe, they’re suddenly passing.” Bad breathing also will cost the average person three to five repetitions on other exercises. “Good breathing is what takes you to the next level.”
Do this instead: Proper breathing looks different depending on what exercise you’re doing, but it always comes down to getting into a rhythm. Kind’s preferred method in running, for example: Take a breath every other time your left foot hits the ground while exhaling on every other right step.
Targeting only certain muscle groups. While there is nothing wrong with isolating certain muscle groups during specific workouts, PT fails often focus only on the exercises and specific muscles used in the test. It doesn’t take long before back pain, shinsplints and joint problems set in. “A total body workout not only helps you to perform better as a warrior athlete, but also strengthens the muscles around key joints — knee, lower back, shoulders and wrists — that will minimize wear and tear.”
Do this instead: Be sure to incorporate regular core-building exercises into your workouts, including lunges and squats. Flutter kicks will strengthen abs while helping amp up your situp score. Wrist curls will help build up and protect that critical joint area.
Peaking early. Working out to muscle failure and heavy workouts within three days of your PT test will reduce your overall score by five to 15 points, Kind says. “Upper-body muscles, especially, need 48 hours of recovery to build muscle and regain full strength.”
Do this instead: For the week before your PT test, do only light workouts — no muscle-failure drills — resting completely the day prior to the test.
Test day fails
Sugar bombing. Eating a candy bar or any other high-sugar food is tempting for a quick pick-me-up, but it will drag you down before a PT test. “The sugar will spike your energy levels and crash them before you finish your test, thus robbing you of energy when you need it most,” Kind says.
Do this instead: Eat half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to boost your energy. And really, keep it to half a sandwich. “You don’t want a full stomach as that can cramp you up as well as give you gas — not good when someone is holding your feet during situps.”
Not drinking enough water. Cutting fluid consumption to reduce water weight is a common tactic for those close to weight limits. That may help you shed some pounds, but it can also kill your PT test score. Proper hydration allows your body to operate at peak performance.
Do this instead: Drink 12 ounces to 18 ounces of water when you get up. “Yes, you will have to pee, but on the bright side, you won’t have to worry about overheating, and if there is a urinalysis test, you can go to the front of the line and get it over with quickly.”
If you need to shed some weight, Kind recommends fasting for 24 hours starting two days before the test, leaving a full day of normal eating before testing.
“You can lose a few pounds, and it cleans out your colon,” he says. Just be sure to drink plenty of water.Also, consider a haircut just before test day. “And, don’t forget to poop on test day,” he says.
Not stretching when you first wake up. “There is a lot of contention now about static stretching, but let common sense rule here, and let’s take a lesson from the dogs,” Kind says. While the latest research says static stretching before a workout will hurt your performance by as much as 20 percent, Kind says a simple full-body stretch immediately upon getting up in the morning has proved effective for those he’s helped.
Do this instead: When you wake up, before you even get out of bed, stretch out your arms and legs until fully straight, then put your hands behind your head, rotate your hips so your right hip is down and left is up, and bend your legs as if you were sitting on a chair. Repeat on the opposite hip.
Not warming up properly. Instead of static stretching before any workout, fitness experts now say it’s better to do light calisthenics, such as the bend-and-reach and walking lunges, to get your heart rate up and muscles prepared for more strenuous movement. That’s a good idea for the PT test, too, but because events are usually spaced out, you’ll need to use the rest breaks in between (up to 20 minutes depending on service) for individual warm-ups. Kind says targeted warm-ups not only will help to prevent injury but also to improve overall test scores.
Do this instead: For pushups, knock out five to 10 medium- to slow-paced pushups five minutes prior to the event. For the run: About five minutes before the run, jog in place or do walking lunges for about a minute. For situps: About five minutes before the event, knock out two to three unassisted situps. For pullups: About two to three minutes before, do three to five slow- to medium-paced pushups. For the crunch: No specific warm-up needed.
Going too slow. In training, you generally want to do your reps at a slow to medium pace to maximize strength building while increasing endurance. During testing, however, that extra strain works against you. “This is one of those rare times when you don’t want to fight like you train,” Kind says. For Marines doing pullups, for example, a faster pace usually means squeezing out three to four more reps, with similar gains in other events.
Do this instead: Burn through your reps as fast as you can while maintaining proper form.
Using harder form. There’s good form and bad form, but there’s also enough wiggle room in good form on some events that can make things harder than necessary. As with your pace, you generally want to train with the harder form, but go the easier route on test day. With situps, for example, training with your feet as close to your butt as possible will give you a better ab workout.
Do this instead: On test day, push your feet out as far as the grader and service regulations will allow. Most see a 10- to 15-rep improvement, Kind says. For pullups, most people can do two to four more reps with the hands facing in than out. Similarly, for pushups, if your testing regs allow, changing the width between your hands as you get tired will allow you to tap slightly different muscles and give you more reps.
Not resting sooner. Most people only pause for a midtest recovery break once they’re almost maxed out. If you’re near muscle failure or already out of breath before you take a quick break, you’re probably costing yourself five to 10 or even more reps in each of those events, Kind says.
Do this instead: Pause at about the halfway point to your typical max. Take two quick breaths and then knock out five more reps. Repeat until time is up.