A Look at the U.S. Army's Physical Fitness and Training Culture

In the Army, one notices the cultural impact and influence between physical fitness and soldiers. In the Army, every soldier is required to maintain a high level of physical fitness. To this extent, formal physical training, (also known as PT) is conducted five days a week. In addition, the culture of the Army stresses and rewards those who strive to improve their own physical fitness. From daily training to casual conversation to leadership, physical fitness permeates many levels of the Army, and this article takes a look at the physical fitness culture of the Army.

Across most units, physical training is conducted Monday through Friday, starts between 6:00-6:30, and lasts for at least an hour. In the unit I was assigned, our physical training week looked like this:


Monday – 3-4 mile run
Tuesday – Upper Body Training / Gym
Wednesday – 3-4 mile run / Sprints / Circuit Training
Thursday – Abdominal Muscle Training / Gym
Friday – 4-5 mile run / Sports Day

On Monday we would open with a warm-up run to start the week. On Tuesday, we would conduct upper body exercises or meet as a group and go to the gym. Wednesday would be another run, or alternatively sprints or circuit training. Thursday was another gym day, or we would conduct abdominal exercises for an hour. Finally, Friday would be either a long run to end the week or a sports day where physical training was done “for fun”.

The majority of physical training events and activities come from the Army’s physical training manual, known as FM 21-20. However, Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) leading training can be creative and devise new techniques to enhance and add variety to the weekly training regimen. For example, during one of our upper body training sessions, a very creative NCO led us in an hour-long upper-body strength session simply using chairs.

Of course, waking up at an early hour to conduct physical training five days a week, repeating the same cycle, becomes repetitive. And in the Army, there are rarely any cancellations regarding physical training. Short of a special event, such as a change of command or an awards ceremony, physical training will take place in the morning. I assume you have heard the quote associated with postal carriers “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds“. You could change that to “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of early day stays these soldiers from completing their early morning physical training.” A light drizzle…no problem…you can still conduct physical training. If there’s a downpour, training is simply moved indoors. If it is freezing outside simply put on warmer Army issued physical training clothes and you’ll warm up during training. I have been through runs in the rain, snowed upon during training, and witnessed a unit go on a “run” in 4-in deep snow. Bottom line, it takes an act of God to convince your leadership to cancel a physical training session.

There is an implied notion in the Army that every soldier will conduct additional physical training during their own time to improve upon their current level of physical fitness. And the Army goes a long way to promote the importance of physical fitness to motivate soldiers to improve their physical fitness levels. You see advertisements in the dining facility promoting an active lifestyle, the importance of nutrition, NCO’s stressing physical fitness on a daily basis, unit commander’s talking about how leadership is always from the front (hint, hint…physical fitness…), etc.

I assume it works because on Army installations, you see gyms fill up around noon and after the duty day is over. Quite a number of soldiers use some of their extra time to focus on improving their physical fitness levels. Furthermore, the Army, with its emphasis on physical fitness and unit camaraderie, makes it very easy to find a gym buddy to train with. And it is well known that working with a buddy leads to greater improvement and mutual motivation.

This camaraderie also extends beyond your gym buddy. Many soldiers in the Army freely offer advice on physical fitness improvement. You can also pick up a copy of the weekly Army Times. Every week the Army Times publishes a segment written by a soldier regarding a physical training technique he or she recommends. You can be sure you will never run out of ideas for physical training or programs, or nutritional advice for that matter. And aside from Army operations or family affairs, I have noticed physical fitness ranks high on topics of conversation between soldiers.

A major factor for constant physical training and self-improvement is to pass and score high on the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). This tests a soldier’s ability to do push-ups, sit-ups, run 2-miles, and meet height, weight, and body fat requirements. The Army standard requires the APFT be administered every six months at a minimum, but makes no provision for the maximum number of tests a soldier can take in a given year. Because of this, soldiers must be prepared to pass this test at any time. This is no surprise given the Army’s emphasis on physical fitness and I once had to pass seven tests in nine months.

The APFT is a very important aspect of the Army. The Army rewards those who score high on this physical fitness exam. The APFT is very important for promotions, especially for promotions in the Army NCO ranks. In the Army’s decentralized promotion process from Specialist (E-4) to Sergeant (E-5) and Sergeant (E-5) to Staff Sergeant (E-6), a number of “promotion points” are awarded to soldiers based on their APFT score. Soldiers who score above 90 points in each APFT event and meet the height, weight, and body fat requirements are also awarded the Army Physical Fitness Badge, which are also worth promotion points. Suffice to say a higher score represents a better chance for promotion.

In the Army centralized NCO promotion boards for senior NCO ranks, Sergeant First Class (E-7), Master Sergeant (E-8), and Sergeant Major (E-9), there is a block on each NCO’s evaluation form to allow their rater to assess their level of physical fitness. Usually this includes a comment regarding the NCO’s APFT score as well as what the NCO accomplished in terms of physical fitness during his or her rating period. Again, better comments can mean a better chance at promotion.

Similarly, the APFT score is part of the application packet used to evaluate soldiers considering careers as a warrant officer, commissioned officer, or transferring into the Special Forces. In addition, some Army schools, such as the Airborne and Ranger schools, won’t enroll soldiers who score below their minimum standard (which exceeds the Army’s standard) on the APFT by weeding soldiers out within the first few days of the course by administering an APFT.

Failure of any APFT event results in a soldier being “flagged”. This means the soldier becomes ineligible for promotion and cannot attend Army schools. Failing two consecutive APFT tests can result in a “chapter” or the separation of the soldier from the Army. However, there are times in which a soldier simply has a bad day, a series of bad events (i.e. divorce), stress, family issues etc. Thus, most units have a remedial physical fitness program to help soldiers who fail an APFT pass it the next time. Usually these are additional physical training sessions later in the day to help the soldier improve in the event(s) he or she failed and retake the test within a month or two to remove the “flag” from the soldier. After all, with the time, training, and money invested in each soldier, it is not in the Army’s best interest to cut soldiers without giving them a second chance.

I hope this article has given you more insight to the Army’s physical fitness and training culture. Being the Army, a high level of physical fitness is expected of every soldier. And the Army goes a long way to ensure every soldier does just that, maintain a high level of physical fitness.

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