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News Link • Health and Physical Fitness

Are You As Fit As a World War II GI?


Have men these days “gone soft?” Is our generation less manly than past generations? Are we less tough than our grandfathers?

I see guys debate these kinds of questions all the time. Of course it’s hard to quantify “toughness.” But there is one area where we can definitively say we’ve slipped–the Army fitness test isn’t as hard as it used to be.

The Army first introduced a formal fitness test to the troops in 1942. Millions of men were being called up to fight in World War II, and not all of them were prepared for the rigors of combat. To get the men in fighting shape, the Army implemented a systematic physical development program as part of the Combat Basic Training course. And the Army Ground Forces Test was designed to assess whether the program was having its desired effect. The test included squat jumps, sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, and a 300 yard run. The emphasis was on functional fitness and giving American GI’s the strength, mobility, and endurance they would need to tackle real tasks on the battlefield.

In 1946, a Physical Training School was created at Fort Bragg with the mission of exploring how to take the goal of functional fitness farther. The training program developed at the school and the fitness test were codified in the 1946 edition of FM 21-20, the Army’s physical training manual.

Basically, Grandpa was doing Cross-Fit before it was cool.

In 1953, the Physical Training School closed, and its focus on combat readiness was lost; in the ensuing decades, the military began to concentrate more on general fitness, focusing on aerobic over anaerobic exercises. The fitness test was revised several times during the 60s and 70s, and standards began to be assessed on a sliding scale based on age and gender.

In 1984, the Army Physical Readiness Test was introduced, and it continues to be used today. It has only three elements: sit-ups, push-ups, and a two mile run. In 1987, General Schwarzkopf became concerned that only 5% of soldiers were able to achieve the highest score on the test, and so the standards were eased and more provisions were made for age and gender.

Also, whereas soldiers who failed the test used to be discharged, this rule has been greatly relaxed.

For the past couple of decades, many critics have said that the physical fitness standards for the troops are too easy, and more importantly, don’t assess the kind of skills soldiers actually need in our current conflicts. In a time of new equipment like body armor, men are humping large loads for long periods, and are much more likely to be sprinting and crouching than running for miles at a time.

When Dr. Edward Thomas, an instructor at the Army Physical Fitness School, re-discovered the WWII fitness test and administered it to soldiers in the 1990s, he was surprised at the result: soberingly low scores. While the numbers of required repetitions for things like push-ups are higher in the modern test than the WWII version, the standard for the precision with which the repetitions must be completed has been relaxed. Consequently, when Thomas tested the modern soldiers, they could only do a fraction of the repetitions required of WWII GIs.

In the last several years, the Army has been changing its physical training program to concentrate more on functional fitness and is currently developing a new fitness test which will be rolled out in the future and incorporate things like a shuttle run and long jump.


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