3 Easy Steps to Passing the APFT

Odds are, if the name of this piece got your attention, you’re in bad shape. I’ve been there.

For many soldiers in the Guard and Reserves, the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) is the largest military source of anxiety. Weekend warriors find a way to be “too busy” to exercise, and subsequently struggle to pass the APFT. This can be fixed. It’s not a permanent problem unless you decide to let it plague your career.
My focus here is to help with two things. First, I’ll share 3 tips to help you pass an APFT with very little prep time. Secondly, I’ll share a modified list of 3 similar things that will keep you in shape year-round, so you’ll be ready for an APFT at any time.
Be advised, if you struggle with the APFT, the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is going to kill you. Keep your eye on October 2020, and my blog – I’ll be preparing a similar piece designed for that test.

For now, we still live and die by the APFT though, so here we go.
In 2012, I moved from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. The Oklahoma Guard had created a medical military purgatory for me, so it took two years to clean up the paperwork and allow me to transfer. I did not work out during that period. You could imagine my disappointment when I got to my new unit and had to take a PT test. Surprise! No warning was given – just had to change into my PT uniform and give it a shot.

That day might be one of the top 3 most embarrassing days of my life. I knew I was better than my score, and I set out to prove it…quickly. I had 30 days to get ready. My program revolved around these 3 key practices.

1.) Set an alarm on your phone and do pushups every hour you’re awake.
2.) Start and finish every day with sit ups until you experience muscle failure.
3.) Run.

The push up event always surprises me when I grade PT tests. I’ll never stop being surprised when kids that weight 120 pounds can’t crank out more than 25 push ups. It’s a clear sign of simply not working out between drills. There’s no substitute for a good diet and daily exercise, but if you have a PT test coming up at your next drill, you don’t have time for the right way to work. You must cram for it. Here’s how. Set an alarm to go off when you wake up – and every hour after that you’re typically awake. When that alarm goes off, do pushups. Start with 5 at a time, work up to 10, then 15, etc. In a couple weeks, you’ll notice immediately when you start doing each set that you feel stronger and more comfortable. Feel free to take weekends off for recovery, but for this to get you any traction, you must do it every weekday. This should take about 15-30 seconds of your time while you’re awake. I don’t want you thinking or saying, “I don’t have time.” That’s complete BS.

Sit ups can be just as surprising. If I lined up ten soldiers and asked you to pick which 3 suck at sit ups based on their looks, you’d probably fail. There are some skinny folks out there who just suck. There are other soldiers built like tanks that can crank out 70 without breaking a sweat. Preparation is usually the difference-maker, like most things exercise related. Need to fix your sit ups before next drill? Start and finish every day with a set of sit ups that take you all the way to muscle failure. Chances are, if you decided to read this, that should take less than two minutes if you suck at them. Your benchmark – the thing to watch for – hitting muscle failure after the two-minute mark. This is a good indicator that you’re going to pass if you’re not running out of gas before the two-minute mark. Abs don’t need heal time – you want to break them down repeatedly. It’s okay to take weekends off, but at a minimum you must stick to this plan on the weekdays. This takes less then 10 minutes of your day, perhaps less than 5…don’t start with the “I don’t have time” crap.

So that leaves the run. The two-mile run is the most dreaded event. Running sucks. So, while fixing push ups and sit ups is easy and takes almost no time from you, this event can only be fixed one way. You must run. This can be tricky. I live in Wisconsin, so without a gym membership or a treadmill, I can’t get a lot of running done during winter. I pay $10 per month for a Planet Fitness membership. If you can’t afford that, find a nearby armory. If you live in the south, you can run outside pretty much year-round. Figure something out though and run 3 miles every other day. Put it in your schedule wherever you must, but it must be done.

Here’s why running 3 miles is crucial. If you only practice running the two required miles, all it takes is a head wind or a bad day to wreck the time you thought you’d have. Your brain will have you programmed to start quitting too early, and you will fail.

To get to a passing score quickly, divide your required time by 2 – then make it your goal to run three miles in that time. For example, if you need 16:00 to pass, then divide by 2 and that give you 8:00. So now your goal is to run 8-minute miles. Track the time after each mile. Pay attention to whether you’re meeting or exceeding your goal. The good news is that by running every other day, you are conditioning even if you’re not meeting or exceeding your goal. By simply getting out there and doing it, you will already be on the right track. Stretch your goals out so they are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and scheduled to time. For example, earlier I used the 16:00 example. If you need to get to where you can run 3 miles at 8 minutes a piece, take the difference of your old time and divide by 4. So, if your last run was 18:00, you were 2 minutes off. 2 divided by 4 is 0.5 (or a half). In this scenario, your week one goal should be to run your 3 miles 0.5 minutes faster, then week 2 should be another half a minute faster, and so on. The last week leading up to your PT test, if you’ve stuck to this plan, you should see gains. Best part is, because you conditioned to run 3 miles, when you hit the 1-mile mark, and feel you need to pick up the pace, this should not be a problem as you’d only have one mile left. Even while your muscles are resting from pushups and sit ups, you can still run without messing that up. Run a day, recover a day, run a day, recover a day. You should complete about 15 runs between drills assuming you have a month to prepare. If you stick to this, and don’t quit and make excuses, you will improve.

Remember, same rule applies to all three of these tricks…give yourself two days off before the PT test to be fully recovered. You don’t want to be sore for your APFT.
Even if you fail, if you put this in place, you will see improvement, and reduce the amount of work needed to pass if you repeat the process one more time. That should motivate you. Once you pass, it will be a huge relief – but you can’t stop for another year and put yourself back into this situation. You must sustain your improvements and set your goals higher. Passing is cool, exceeding the standard is better. Besides the annual test the unit makes you take, you’ll need to pass additional times to secure spots at schools. These schools are necessary for promotions.

Now that you aren’t in “cram mode” you can implement the following schedule to sustain your growth and get even better. We’re still working on push ups, sit ups, and the two-mile run. However, to get the best performance, you must work all the other muscles too. I designed a very, very simple schedule to get you started. Once you’ve become a full-blown gym rat, you can start doing your own thing. Everyone needs a starting point though and a schedule that’s easily compatible with busy personal schedules. Don’t try that old, “I don’t have enough time” crap. Wake up 30 minutes earlier and you can follow my plan. Either that or go to bed 30 minutes later. That’s the minimum amount of time necessary to take care of your body, but more is better if you can find a way. That doesn’t mean over-do it. That’s why I plan rest periods.

The schedule looks like this:
Monday – chest/tricep/abs
Tuesday – run 3 miles
Wednesday – legs/abs
Thursday – run 3 miles
Friday – back/bicep/abs
Saturday, Sunday – off, but stretching or even going for a short walk is better than doing absolutely nothing

To keep the schedule compatible with your schedule, plan each day’s activities to be 30 minutes.

On Monday, before you start any chest/tricep workouts, do push ups. It’s the exercise you are tested on, so use that to get to muscle failure before doing any bench press, dips, etc. Finish with sit ups until muscle failure.

On Tuesday, run 3 miles. Use extra time for stretching.

On Wednesday, do any and all leg exercises you can do, but do not run. Finish with sit ups until you encounter muscle failure.

On Thursday, do exactly what you did on Tuesday.

Friday will be curls, pull-downs, pull-ups – any back/bicep exercises you can do. Finish with sit ups until you hit muscle failure.

Recover on the weekends.

If you start this, and find you have more time than you realized or want to become a fitness freak, add to it, change it up, talk to your gym rat buddies…do whatever, but make it a part of your daily routine. Once you get to this point, that APFT is a minor detail. You’ll be pushing for 270 or better instead of just passing it.

This last piece of advice might be the most important detail of all these best-practices. Write down your goals and track your results. Perhaps weigh-in and record your weight too. Sometimes adding muscle and shedding fat can get you unplanned results as your body changes shape. You’ll like what you see in the mirror, but that’s just a fringe benefit. The success rate of people who write their goals down and track their progress is exponentially higher than people who don’t. Make a chart, download a fitness app, whatever it takes, but there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned pen and paper. Do it.

Know a battle buddy struggling with PT? Please share this with him or her. Please subscribe for easy access to future posts, and as always, I invite you to share your thoughts. Good luck!

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Husband, dad, soldier, veteran, transportation manager, musician, and now a blogger and podcast host...sharing stories, experiences, and debates.

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