The physical readiness test is designed to measure a sailor's baseline health and fitness, but experts say it has its share of weaknesses, particularly the alternative cardio choices.
Following an in-depth study with sailor tests, experts offered changes that would transform the Navy's semiannual fitness test.
Back in 2011, three experts and a Navy lieutenant commander assessed put together a study of physical tests new events that would do a better job measuring aerobic fitness and muscular endurance than the Navy's standard battery of pushups, curl-ups and run and Navy's standard run-pushup-curl-up battery.
It started when Lt. Cmdr. David Peterson, then assigned to Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tennessee, reached out to a local health sports sciences professor at the University of Memphis to pick his brain about the Navy's physical readinessfitness test.
"I could've told you that it might not have been the best way to train or test, right from the get-go," Brian Schilling told Navy Times in a June 16 phone interview. "However, I understand the logistics of testing a couple hundred thousand people."
The study recommended adopting physical tests like the standing long jump and a shuttle run to test fitness and agility that sailors need on the job, however, none of the study's recommendations have been adopted by the Navy. While the past year has brought brought announced big changes to the ments of an overhauled body composition assessment, the Navy has said the PRT isn't changing.
"This study suggests alternate approaches and exercises similar to what we hear from sailors at all hands calls and on social media," chief of naval personnel spokesman Cmdr. Chris Servello told Navy Times.
Though the physical fitness assessment has been going through changes lately, the PRT is not at the top of the priority list, he confirmed.
"While leadership is certainly open to innovative 'job-focused' ways to better measure health and fitness, I don't expect to see any of these particular changes in the policy we roll out later this summer," he added.
A different way
Schilling holds bachelor's and master's degrees in exercise science and a Ph.D. in biology. He expertise is in strength and conditioning for athletic performance, which has led him to two internships with Olympic training centers as well as studies of military and law enforcement research in tactical strength and conditioning.
Peterson and Schilling teamed up Lawrence Weiss, head of Memphis' musculoskeletal analysis laboratory, and Paul Whitehead, a Sports Medicine doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, and secured a funding grant from from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Brian K. Schilling, PhD, associate professor at The University of Memphis.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Brian K. Schilling
They recruited 179 sailors and civilians from Millington, Tennessee to test nine events, while comparing sailors' performances with their existing PRT scores. What they found:
The team began by reading the Defense Department's fitness instruction, to find out what the military specifically wanted to test.
The new tests included the single-leg plank, the single-leg wall squat, cadence pushups, leg/hip dynameter, standing long jump and pro-agility test, as well as a 300-yard shuttle run, 2 km row and 5 km bike ride as cardio alternatives.
There were various reasons for picking each event. The plank, for instance, is a good curl-up alternative, because it measures core muscles with less injury risk.
And the cadence pushups came from the Coast Guard model, Schilling said, because their version requires you to hold each position while pushing up and down.
It could solve a common complaint about counting proper pushups.
"It helps to kind of normalize technique a little bit, because it's on a cadence," he said, "rather than having some people flopping around, doing something that looks like a pushup — or might not — depending on which [command fitness leader]CFL is looking at them."
They also tried to included events that might be operationally relevant, though Schilling said they quickly learned the Navy doesn't prioritize that in a fitness test.
"If I'm shipboard and I'm in a fire situation, something like agility might be very important, rather than my ability to run one and a half miles," Schilling said.
Sailors say the same thing all the time — that the PRT doesn't measure how well they can do their jobs or negotiate a ship during an emergency. Some have joked about the "scuttle test," where sailors will have to squeeze through the tight hatch to pass.
"I think it's something that needs to be considered," Schilling said. "But everybody's telling me the number one job in the Navy is still driving a desk."
However, he's studied other fields where fitness tests mimic on-the-job situations, like law enforcement and firefighting.
"I've actually heard that if you are not doing the right physical training, you are actually opening yourself up for negligence," he said.
The Navy could address that with a PT test, he added. A job-centric test would force sailors to train to it, making them better in on-the-job physical situations.
In fact, he added, in terms of general physical health, the pushups and curl-ups are probably overkill.
"I've had some discussion with people where they think that the run is so predictive of who's going to score well on the other things as well, that you can probably get away with just having people do the run," he said.
And if cardio is the best predictor of health, the Navy isn't doing a great job measuring those who don't do the run because of injuries or other physical limitations, experts say. Alternative cardio on either the stationary bike or elliptical is based on a calculation of the estimated calories burned during the 1.5-mile run.
If you can burn that number of calories on an exercise machine, you can pass the test.
The problem here, Schilling said, is that exercise machines have notoriously inaccurate "calories burned" figures.
"There's all this fancy electronics in there, which is proprietary, and we don't really know what's going on in there," he said. "But it's giving us this number and we have to assume that this number is correct and stable over time."
It amounts to multiplying errors, he added, because there's an inherent error in the Navy guessing how many calories a sailor burns in a 1.5-mile run, times the error of the machine's calorie reading.
The best alternative is the swim, he said, but swimming scores rely on technique as well as fitness. getting a good working swimming is very dependent on whether someone knows how to swim properly.
The University of Memphis team published its findings in the November 2012 issue of Military Medicine, a journal from the Society of the Federal Health Professionals.
The Navy didn't adopt any of the findings, Schilling said, for probably a variety of reasons.
"The pain of making the change was greater than the benefit of making that change," he guessed theorized.
And, he added, there was probably some weight behind the status quo, which officials have been loathe to change to avoid upping administrative burdens on the fleet.
"It also could be that somebody who makes decisions really likes to do the elliptical test and he or she decided that they weren't getting rid of it," he said.
The Army had come up with an elaborate new PT test along the same lines, but dumped it that year. The five-event test featured with max pushups in one minute, a 60-yard shuttle run, one-minute rower, long jump and 1.5-mile run, on top of a combat readiness test.
Now, that service is working on a totally revamped PRT system, with dozens of tests tailored to each military occupational specialty.
The Coast Guard for years has used a similar system, with unit-level PT tests for the more physical ratings, like law enforcement, rescue swimmers and others.
In 2013, Coast Guard officials began developing their first service-wide test, but scrapped it in March after the three-event pilot — a 300-yard shuttle run, pullups and a jump — proved too difficult to implement for many of the service's small boats and remote stations.
A standard test that every Navy unit can do is also a challenge, which is why the three-event system exists as it does.
"We have the current PRT in place because it is a test that can be administered across the entire Navy," Physical Readiness Program director Bill Moore told Navy Times last year. "It is designed to test for a baseline of sailors' fitness levels."
While specialized combat units like the SEALs and riverines make accommodations for their own fitness tests, the rest of the Navy needs something it can do in any setting.
"Given that we are a sea-going expeditionary service, we've determined this method to be the best for the Navy, given our operational requirements," Moore said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.