Physical fitness training series: USMC physical and combat fitness tests

The Marine Corps physical fitness test (PFT) and combat fitness test (CFT) measure muscular endurance, muscular strength, and cardiorespiratory endurance. You’ll want to put in dedicated, structured training to prepare. When taking the PFT, you’ll have a choice between doing push-ups or pull-ups, and sit-ups or a plank. (You’ll need to choose the pull-up if you want to get the maximum possible score.) You’ll also need to run 3 miles. Learn more about the training principles that will help you get ready for the PFT and CFT.

Muscular endurance

Muscular endurance is the ability of your muscles to move or contract for long periods of time—or to contract as many times as possible in a set period of time. Examples include holding a plank or doing as many push-ups as you can in 2 minutes. The push-up/pull-up test and sit-up/plank test are the PFT components, and the ammunition lift is the CFT event that test muscular endurance and core stability.

Muscular endurance is often used as the base component of muscular fitness. The lighter weights used make it easier to learn the proper form before you move to heavier weights and train to improve muscular strength and power. To improve muscular endurance, the National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends you lift 67% or less of your 1-rep max (1RM) for at least 12 reps per set, with less than 30 seconds of rest between sets. Training muscular endurance is one of the few times when limiting rest is helpful, because it stresses your muscles’ energy systems by limiting the time for your muscles’ energy stores to replenish, forcing them to adapt to that stress.

For the muscular endurance events, basic core stability will be half the battle. Push-ups, pull-ups, and the ammunition lift actually require similar forms of muscular endurance: You need to maintain an active and rigid core to support your torso through the exercise. The difference is the direction you’re supporting your core in relation to gravity—perpendicular to gravity for the push-up, and parallel to gravity for the pull-up and ammunition lift. For all 3 exercises, start with a base core-strengthening program, then for the pull-up, progress to vertical core training.

If you choose to do sit-ups instead of the plank, general core strengthening programs are just as effective at improving sit-up performance in a PFT as doing sit-ups in every workout. The benefit comes from the reduced strain on your back and hip flexor muscles that can possibly lead to pain or injury.

Finally, when training to improve your muscular endurance, it might help to focus on one muscle group at a time, rather than doing supersets (a group of exercises one right after the other) of muscle groups. Supersets, while efficient time-wise, build in too much rest for each specific muscle group to fully train for muscular endurance.

Muscular strength

Muscular strength is the ability of a muscle to exert a maximal or near maximal force—or how much weight you can push, pull, or lift. Even though the PFT isn’t a true test of muscular strength, incorporating strength-building goals and workouts can help improve your performance during muscular endurance tests.

The maneuver under fire (MANUF) part of the CFT will require muscular strength to complete the fireman’s carry, casualty drag, and ammo can carry. You’ll need to lift set weights and carry them for short distances. Each component of the MANUF will be very short, so it won’t always cross into the muscular endurance component of fitness. Read HPRC’s article on muscular strength to get more specifics on how to train for this component of muscular fitness.

People who don’t regularly weight train can expect to see strength gains with focused training in as little as 2 weeks as muscle activation—your body’s ability to fire more of the muscle fibers that make up a muscle—improves. As you continue working out, after about 4–6 weeks, you should start to see muscle mass gains, too.

Muscular power

Muscular power is producing force over a short period of time, such as lifting a weight quickly, or jumping for maximum height. Though there’s no objective assessment of muscular power, it will be helpful to train this component of muscular fitness to improve speed.

Increasing power requires you to have a good base of muscular strength. Ideally, as you’re training year-round for the PFT/CFT, you can dedicate 12 weeks to improving muscular strength before you start more focused training of upper- and lower-body power.

Training to develop power requires you to lift using different intensities—higher intensity (75–90% of 1RM) to build strength, and low intensity (30–85% of 1RM) while doing the lifts at higher speeds. You can also train power by doing speed training, plyometric exercises, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Speed

Speed, or covering a distance in a short period of time, also requires a high degree of muscular power to move fast. Speed will be important for the movement to contact (MTC) and MANUF events of the CFT.

Training for speed has considerable overlap with building muscular power, especially when using resistance training. Varying your run-training is also important to improve speed; training with only distance runs will only help your 3-mile time.

Cardiorespiratory endurance

Cardiorespiratory endurance (CRE), what you’re training when you do aerobic exercise, is the key area of fitness measured in the 3-mile run. Although you’ll be tested on your ability to run 3 miles within the standard, activities like tennis, hiking, swimming, and biking can help improve your CRE. (They can make training more fun if you don’t like to run, too.) Adding variety can also make it easier to train if you have bad hips, knees, or ankles, because it reduces the forces on those joints. If you have nagging pain or injuries but you don’t have a profile exempting you from the 3-mile run, swimming, biking, and rowing are great ways to keep up your CRE. You should still run a couple times every 2 weeks, but it doesn’t need to be the focus of your training.

Run training to improve speed is also good for improving your CRE. When designing your training program, try not to get tunnel vision and think speed workouts are only for speed. Remember to track your total mileage during a speed workouts, and avoid adding another 2–3 mile long run to the end of it so you don’t overtrain and increase your risk of injury.

To see improvements in CRE, you’ll want to train at least twice a week, and work out at 60–80% of your maximum heart rate (max heart rate = 220 – your age). Keep in mind, if you’re doing speed workouts in your 2–3 CRE training sessions per week, your heart rate will likely go above 80%, and that’s okay.

Fueling for the PFT/CFT

As always, make sure you’re well hydrated in the days leading up to the test. Don’t wait until the day-of to drink up. Since the whole test should take less than an hour of total activity, you should be okay with water, rather than a sports drink.

Plan to have a light, 200–300 calorie, high-carb snack, like a bagel and some fruit, 1–2 hours before the start of the test so you stay energized through every event. Since the test should be less than an hour of activity, you probably won’t need much between events. But if you feel yourself starting to crash, small snacks or sports drinks with small to moderate amounts of carbs might help improve your endurance. For more information on nutrient timing, read Chapter 9 of the Warrior Nutrition Guide.

Bottom line

Preparing for the PFT and CFT should be a months-long training progression. To make the most of your training, get help from a Force Fitness Instructor or other fitness professional.


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References

National Strength and Conditioning Association. (2017). NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning (B. A. Alvar, K. Sell, & P. A. Deuster Eds.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Suchomel, T. J., Nimphius, S., Bellon, C. R., & Stone, M. H. (2018). The importance of muscular strength: Training considerations. Sports Medicine, 48(4), 765–785. doi:10.1007/s40279-018-0862-z

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Retrieved 8 July 2020 from https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf

U.S. Department of the Navy (2019) Marine Corps Order 6110.13A CH-2. Retrieved 14 July 2020 from https://www.marines.mil/Portals/1/Publications/MCO%206100.13A%20CH-2.pdf?ver=2020-01-07-070037-003