APFT Scores: Shame and Pride

a soldier doing a situp

My first squad leader was a fan of using shame and pride as a means to motivate soldiers, especially when it came to physical fitness. He built a wooden board and painted it black and yellow and hung it up in the platoon hallway. Along the top of the board were score ranges: 200 and below, 201-230, 231-270, 271-299, 300+. Under the score ranges were labels. The only two I remember were “Stud” and “Dud,” labels for the 300+ and below 200 scores, respectively. Under the scores were little nails. On laminated strips of paper, the platoon’s soldiers’ names were printed and your name would hang underneath whatever score you ranked. Over time, you might move up or down the board depending on your score.

How soldiers performed on the APFT was not a private matter – it was platoon business. And in the eyes of that Squad Leader, the shame of doing poorly and the pride in doing well were prime motivators.

It worked for me. I’m not sure which was more powerful – the fear of doing poorly or the ambition to do well. Like most things, it was probably a combination of both. Shame and pride.

Since then, I have always believed in publicly posting APFT scores so that everyone knows where everyone else stands. It seems there is only a small percentage of soldiers who are motivated by this to the extent that it actually has an effect on their physical performance. While most soldiers will go and check the scores, I don’t see them doing it with the same rabid curiosity I had.

Maybe times have changed, I don’t know.

Shame and pride can be motivators, but they’re double-edged swords. While leaders should never fail the APFT, it happens. Having that information displayed publicly can undermine the authority of a leader rapidly in an organization that places such a premium on physical fitness. Of course, it is the leader’s responsibility to maintain physical fitness, and it is easy to brush this off as a complete non-issue. “He failed himself, he has to deal with the consequences!” But the reality is there are often many more things you need that leader to do than just pass the APFT. Undermined authority in one area bleeds into all areas.

There’s no question that physical fitness is a personal responsibility, especially among leaders. Failing an APFT is unacceptable, but I’m also aware of the realities that leaders face across the force. For many leaders – like Stanley McChrystal recently wrote about – physical fitness happens to be their chief hobby. When the thing you love to do the most is working out, it isn’t difficult to stay in great shape. Conversely, there are plenty of leaders who hate working out, and in an environment that demands more and more of their time, maintaining physical fitness might fall off the calendar in lieu of something they actually enjoy.

What’s really challenging is finding the right mix of shame and pride and everything in between to properly maintain the physical fitness their jobs require. The fear of being labeled a “dud” and the pride of achieving a top score worked (and still works) to motivate me. Of course, there’s the intrinsic motivation of being healthy and physically fit. That mix works for me, but not others. The best leaders will figure out how to get the tough ones going.

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The Power of Scoring a 300 on the APFT

soldier doing situps during the apft

After an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), leaders always want to know two things: 1) who failed, and 2) who scored a 300?

The fastest way to get recognized (in a good way) in the Army is to score a 300.

I’ve seen it over and over: a soldier who is generally the gray man scores a 300 on the APFT and becomes an instant superstar. That soldier suddenly bubbles up to the top of the list for favorable actions – leadership positions, increased responsibility, promotions.

To score a 300 means that the soldier achieved the maximum points for each of the three events of the APFT; push-ups, sit-ups, 2-mile run.

Scoring a 300 is not a terribly difficult physical fitness goal to achieve, but it does require a measure of dedication and a more rounded physical training plan to accommodate both muscular endurance and cardiovascular ability. In most units I’ve been in, only a handful of soldiers hit a 300 on any given APFT.

Soldiers often scoff at the praise others receive simply for being in good shape. This goes for officers and enlisted alike. Just because someone scores high on the APFT or can run doesn’t mean they will be good at leadership – or anything else.

But there is evidence out there, although scant, that there are positive relationships between physical fitness and leadership, or at least, perceived leadership ability.

In my experience, good leaders tend to also be in good physical shape. That’s not to say that they are good leaders because they are in good shape. The two just seem to go together. Likewise, I’ve seen good leaders who aren’t in good shape and bad leaders who are – but I see those types less than the first.

Scoring a 300 on the APFT receives the praise that it does because it is one of the common denominators across the Army. All soldiers take the APFT, regardless of job or duty position. The standards are understood across the force and for most soldiers, you can’t really stumble into an APFT and knock out a 300 without some base level of fitness and effort.

And for those who knock the APFT as a poor measure of physical fitness, I’m not arguing with you. That’s also not the purpose of this article (see here if you really care).

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In Defense of the APFT

a soldier doing a sit up

One of the first topics of this blog was a discussion on how you can’t seriously discuss certain things with military folk. Physical training is one of them. The source of the problem – I think – is that since every single soldier does PT every day (a questionable assumption), every single soldier has developed some level of experiential expertise on the subject.

I’ve very rarely heard anyone say anything good about the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which consists of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. The idea behind the event is to get a general idea of a soldier’s fitness through a maximum effort test.

From FM 7-22, Appendix A (Army Physical Fitness Test):

The APFT provides a measure of upper and lower body muscular endurance. It is a performance test that indicates a Soldier’s ability to perform physically and handle his or her body weight.

The problem, as has been written about at length, is that the test doesn’t accurately measure the types of fitness that will likely be required in combat. Typical jokes include “I’ve been on 3 deployments and not once did I ever have to run 2 miles.”

Back in February, Jim Gourley explored the current struggle with embracing different fitness programs in the military at The Best Defense. In it, he captures some of the issues with the current APFT:

Palkoska admits that some aspects of the “legacy doctrine” persist in the form of the Army Physical Fitness Test. “One of the problems of the old fitness model is that units trained to the test, and that resulted in overtraining to certain aspects of fitness.” More than generating injuries in a large population of individual soldiers, it created an unbalanced paradigm of fitness in the Army at large. Efforts to change the APFT to reflect the new model of fitness have been going on since General Peter Schoomaker’s tenure as Chief of Staff. Though the old APFT remains the standard, Palkoska says that new initiatives aim to update it in the next few years.

Without question, there is pressure to do well on the current APFT – not just as an individual, but as a unit. The quantifiable score that comes out of the APFT becomes the easiest measure of “success” for a young platoon leader trying to impress his Commander. Raising the platoon’s APFT average is a simple, quantifiable means of “doing well.” The problem, as the argument goes, is that this often results in physical training regimens that train to the test, emphasizing the ability to do 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and run 2 miles as fast as possible at the expense of other, more “combat focused” physical training.

And it is true, that just because a soldier can score a 300 on their APFT doesn’t mean they can perform their physical job better than someone who scores less.

When I was in basic training, I was the first in my platoon to score a 300 on the APFT. Nonetheless, I was one of the weakest foot marchers in the platoon. I only weighed 140lbs at the time, and my ability to do a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups and breeze through the run didn’t help me much when I was carrying a heavy rucksack, a weapon, and walking up and down Sand Hill.

It wasn’t until I started weight lifting and packing on some muscle that carrying a rucksack became less of a burden. Preliminary research from StrongSwiftDurable also correlates upper-body strength with rucking ability.

So I am in agreement that the APFT is not an absolute measure of physical ability. And I am sure there are a host of really fantastic fitness tests out there that could eek out a better way of identifying where individual soldiers stand when it comes to their physical ability to actually perform their jobs.

However, what those tests lack – and I’ve seen a number of the proposed tests – is practicality and feasibility.

Soldiers in the active duty Army are supposed to take two “record” APFTs a year. In all of the years I’ve been in the military, the only time I’ve ever seen that enforced was when I was in a TRADOC environment, and taking APFTs was part of the course. In the operating force, it is a miracle to get a whole platoon doing physical training on a regular basis, and usually takes signficant prioritizing to get everyone together for an APFT.

The beauty of the APFT is that it requires no special equipment or space and can be completed for most elements during normal PT hours (usually between 0630 and 0745). All of the proposed fitness tests either require a bunch of extra equipment or space, and in some cases need to be tested over multiple days.

Additionally, there is evidence that performing well on the APFT generally corresponds with success in physically demanding courses, such as Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The below is from USAREC’s notes on how to adequately prepare for and succeed at SFAS. In it, they make a direct correlation between APFT score and ability to pass the course.

Again, having a high APFT score does not mean you are in great physical shape for everything, but it does correspond to being in good shape generally.

Lastly, while it’s true that I’ve seen soldiers who could adequately do their jobs yet still perform average or even poorly on the APFT, I have never seen the opposite. That is, most soldiers I know who score well on the APFT generally are able to perform their jobs well and do not “suck” any more than other soldiers.

The APFT in its current form provides a good baseline measure of physical fitness while being relatively easy to administer. For those reasons, we should be very careful about discarding it altogether simply because it is not the perfect measure of combat fitness.

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Army Myths: Keeping your “head up” during the push-up

information on the push up event apft army

Maybe this one isn’t as rampant as others, but if you’ve ever been docked a push-up during an APFT for not “keeping your head up,” then this can become a significant emotional event.

I’ve heard NCOs and officers grading an APFT consistently make the correction “keep your head up” and not count a repetition because the soldier didn’t keep his head up, or wasn’t looking forward during a push-up repetition.

While I’m not sure if there is a true belief out there that the push-up only counts if your head is kept up, I’ve heard people say you should keep your head up because it presents a more “confident” appearance while conducting a push-up, as opposed to having your face staring into the dirt.

In the actual instructions, there is nothing said about the position of the head.


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