Ask Stew: Do Physical Fitness Tests Really Matter?

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A military police battalion uses new portable gym equipment for PT to better prepare themselves for the new Army combat fitness test.
The 97th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, uses new portable gym equipment for PT to better prepare themselves for the new Army combat fitness test (ACFT), slated to begin October 2020, on Fort Riley Kansas, Aug. 5, 2019. (Pvt. Brandon Bruer/U.S. Army photo)

Here is an email from a distinguished military and law enforcement officer concerning physical fitness testing in military and police professions. 

He writes:

"Stew - I like your programs and articles, but what is the big deal with physical fitness testing? Do you really think that maxing a fitness test is going to make you a good soldier or police officer? I have been in the military on the Special Ops side (now reserves) and a SWAT team police officer as well and have never maxed out a PT test. I feel I am a damn good soldier and police officer, but if you look at my history of PT scores on paper, you might say I am average in shape. Just curious ..."

These questions had me thinking for more than a week about the reasons I think PT tests are important, as well as understanding his point of view. I agree. There are many SEALs and other special operators I know in the past and present who have posted mediocre scores on physical tests, yet were invaluable to the team for their ability to think, shoot, lead, fix anything or get anything done. There are definitely skills that the physical fitness test (PFT) does not test. Additionally, many great athletes can max any fitness test easily, yet they cannot make it through SEAL training or other training programs.

However, understanding today's future pool of military and law enforcement talent, having a solid foundation of fitness under them will help them graduate training, whether it is basic or advanced special-ops training. Too many young people who seek military and law enforcement professions lack basic fitness skills because of various societal and environmental reasons. As a result, we have an overweight population who need a good year of fitness training under their belt before even attempting any boot camp or police academy. Otherwise, they will be injured, no doubt.

More than 75% of my emails are from young men and women seeking to lose 20-40 pounds before the military or police departments will consider them.

So for the physically untrained individual without an athletic history throughout their adolescence, a pre-training program is critical to their survival at any military and law enforcement training. They do not have to max every score, but a higher score on a test is indicative of that person's fitness foundation and is a good indicator that they are ready for training. 

A higher fitness level not only ensures a candidate can survive training but can handle it and thoroughly learn the job without being inundated with nagging remedial PT programs or physical therapy after injury.

Think of PT tests as an important part of joining the ranks of the military, law enforcement and firefighters if used as a tool to gauge successful completion of training. The remaining job training will come with proper instruction and some natural ability of the candidate to handle the skills aggressively of being a warrior in the military, police force, or fire departments around our great country.

The fitness test can measure to a degree how successful a person will be throughout training, but there is no measure for someone's heart or determination. Long days and nights of practicing a mission in hot or cold environments usually will help determine one's internal fortitude and teamwork ability. Together, the PT testing and practical application of the profession will prepare a soldier, police officer or firefighter properly.

Thanks for your email. Please feel free to send me emails as they are fuel for my articles. I will never use your name, unit or divulge any information you do not wish to see again in an article. Email me at Stew@Stewsmith.com and check out the fitness store if you are thinking about joining the military, police force or fire department. We have the answer to getting into shape for training or just getting back into shape after too long at a desk.

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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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