KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — I have yet to encounter an Airman who did not want to achieve a score of 90 on his or her PT test. However, many do not know how to train to accomplish this, and the Internet is an unreliable source of information. With this in mind, here are some evidence-based training tips that will help Airmen reach that 90-point goal.
Let’s start with the run test; 1.5 miles is not really a long distance; it’s far shorter than a marathon, or even a 5K. Simply going out and putting in lots of road mileage doesn’t really improve run times. Endurance runs improve stamina, but not speed, and the way to a good run test score is to become faster. The most effective tool to become faster is high-intensity interval training or HIIT. This type of training involves alternating sprint intervals of very high intensity with equal or longer duration intervals of low intensity. This type of training produces unique adaptations at the cellular level, which traditional cardio does not produce, and has consistently been shown to improve athletic performance in a variety of sports, including distance running.
There are many different HIIT protocols that have been demonstrated to be effective. One of these is known as “10-20-30” training. For this workout, you start with low-intensity cardio (run, bike, swim or some other mode) for 30 seconds. Increase to a moderate-intensity level for 20 seconds, and then sprint all out for 10 seconds. This sequence is repeated five times, followed by a two-minute rest period. You then repeat the sequence for five more intervals, then finish with a two-minute cooldown, and you’re done.
Losing excess body fat can also dramatically improve run times. Body fat is dead weight, which slows you down on a run. For example, if two male Airmen have the same amount of lean body mass and train the same, but one has 10 percent more body fat, that additional fat will slow the second Airman down by two-thirds of a lap, which is substantial. If you want to experience what extra fat does to run times, run on a treadmill with/without carrying 15- pound dumbbells in each hand.
One persistent myth regarding the run test is “runners must run.” Most of the aerobic adaptations seen from running can be acquired from other cardio modes. The only unique aspect of running is the movement pattern, and you don’t need to run more than a few miles per week to obtain this. Since 45 percent of all sports/PT-related injuries in active-duty populations are running-related, I recommend alternating running with non-running days; this greatly reduces the risk of injury. As an example, you could run Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and cycle/swim/elliptical on Tuesday and Thursday. You will still experience aerobic adaptations, plus the non-running sessions provide your body with recovery time from the impact forces (about three times body weight) from running.
I strongly recommend that all Airmen include resistance exercise into their training/workout routine. Resistance training is the only training mode that improves all four components of the PT test; cardio only improves two. A 2007 study conducted at Langley AFB examined the effects of resistance training on PT test scores. Every Airman in the study had failed their previous PT test. One group was assigned a 12-week running program. The second group participated in a combined machine resistance and cycle-training program for 25 minutes a day, three days per week. Both groups were retested at the 12-week mark. The PT test scores in the run group did not significantly improve. By contrast, the resistance training/cycle group experienced a 21 percent improvement in push-ups/sit-ups, an average reduction in abdominal circumference of 1.5 inches, and a 35-second average improvement in run times. The last result is particularly interesting because for the duration of the study, the strength training/cycle group did not run a single step; they improved their run time by more than 30 seconds, yet did not run at all!
As the above study documented, strength training also improves push-up/sit-up scores. The muscles trained while performing a bench- press exercise, for example, are identical to those used during a push-up, and the crossover training effect is extensive. There appears to be a gender difference in the amount of crossover. In males, the crossover is so extensive that push-up specific doesn’t need to be extensive, in females, the crossover effect, though still significant, is not as great as it is in males, so females would need to perform more push-up specific training.
Resistance training also improves core strength, and therefore sit-up scores, even when core muscles are not specifically worked. For example, any time you lift a weight above your head, such as a squat, that’s also a core exercise. Your core muscles are not directly involved in moving the weight, but those muscles are heavily involved in stabilizing the weight.