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The push for pullups: Why soldiers want it added to PT test

Apr. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Army Times asked soldiers how to improve the Army Physical Fitness Test and many wrote back to say pullups would be a better measurement of strength than pushups.
Army Times asked soldiers how to improve the Army Physical Fitness Test and many wrote back to say pullups would be a better measurement of strength than pushups. (T. Anthony Bell / Army)
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Soldiers across the Army say there's a simple way to better measure an individual's strength and prepare them for combat — add pullups to the PT test.

Soldiers across the Army say there's a simple way to better measure an individual's strength and prepare them for combat — add pullups to the PT test.

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Soldiers across the Army say there’s a simple way to better measure an individual’s strength and prepare them for combat — add pullups to the PT test.

“They’re difficult to do, and it’s the kind of thing that can save your life — to be able to pull your own body weight,” said Sgt. Maj. Alfred Todd, a medical official with the California Army National Guard.

Sgt. First Class Daniel Lopez-Bonaglia, a Fort Hood soldier with 4th Sustainment Brigade, said pullups provide a better snapshot of overall fitness compared with the pushup.

“You can fake a pushup, but not a pullup, because your chin has to go to that bar,” said Lopez-Bonaglia, who deployed twice to Iraq. “If you’re overweight, there’s no way you’d be able to do a pullup.”

These soldiers are not alone in their views. Army Times recently asked readers to weigh in on what PT changes they wanted to see. The request received thousands of responses and many endorsed the idea of making pullups a part of the Army Physical Fitness Test.

The current APFT, required of soldiers twice annually, is meant to test their strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness. Soldiers must complete pushups, situps and a 2-mile run, and receive a score from zero to 100 in each event. A minimum of 60 points for each is required to pass.

Training and Doctrine Command is spearheading a potential overhaul of the test as part of larger efforts toward a gender-neutral Army and more combat jobs for women.

Pullups are likely part of the discussion.

In the World War II and Korean War eras, pullups were part of Army physical fitness tests, according to Army physical fitness scholar Whitfield East’s book on the topic. The pullup was part of discussions to revise the test in the 1980s and in 2010. A requirement that the test be performed with minimal or no equipment was a likely factor in excluding the exercise.

Pullup supporters

William Brechue, director of the Center for Physical Development Excellence at West Point, called the pullup a “good exercise” and said he favors it over the pushup if forced to pick one for the PT test.

The two are complimentary exercises, and both are beneficial in training, he said. The pullup primarily uses the latimus dorsi, or upper back muscles, the rear deltoid to a lesser degree, and the chest and biceps. The pushup is the opposite exercise, primarily using the chest, with the arms, and upper back muscles for stability.

“If I’m climbing a rope or mesh, anything where I’m trying to pull my body up, I’ll be using those pullup muscles, but I’ll be using my pushup muscles as stabilizers,” Brechue said.

As a measure of strength, the pullup is more demanding.

“When you’re doing a pullup you’re suspending your whole body weight, and when you do a pushup you only suspend 70 percent of your body weight, which means the pullup is much more strength oriented,” Brechue said.

Brechue acknowledged that women tend to have less upper body strength than men, but it doesn’t mean they cannot do pullups.

“There are plenty of female cadets here who can do 10 pullups,” he said. “If you train them, train them properly, stick with it and train the upper body musculature, you’ll find they’re going to be okay and gain the strength that needs to be gained.”

UFC fighter Sgt. 1st Class Tim Kennedy said that because pullups are part of the Ranger Physical Fitness Test, the exercise has a certain cache. He favors including pullups in the APFT because the “the shape of the force should change.”

“It’s an athletic muscle movement,” Kennedy, who is in the Texas National Guard, told Army Times by phone, “and they’re supposed to be protecting our freedom and they can’t do one?”

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Marsh, a Ranger-turned-Black Hawk pilot said pullups should be required, but only for soldiers in physically demanding jobs.

“Upper body strength is key in light infantry,” Marsh told Army Times by phone, “as far as maneuvering, climbing rocks and obstacles, and carrying battle buddies.”

Support personnel should not be required, he said.

Lopez-Bonaglia, on the other hand, endorsed separate requirements for men and women. Male soldiers would have to perform 10, he said, while women would only have to complete three.

Arlene Lucia, one of the many Facebook supporters for pullups, said the current test is just too easy and pullups would up the ante.

“I’ve never had an issue passing the APFT, and I’m a 44-year-old female soldier with 22 years of service,” she said.

Anti-pullups

Not everyone believes pullups are the right answer.

Lee Kind, an Army captain turned fitness guru, said pullups demonstrate upper body strength and are essential for air assault and parachute missions, carrying heavy gear, throwing grenades and gripping power. But he believes that for the Army, the pushup is superior.

“The pullup is a great exercise, but it would be a terrible PT test event for the regular Army,” said Kind, author of “MAX Out the Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force Physical Fitness and Combat Fitness Tests.”

Pullups are primarily a muscle-building exercise, he said, whereas pushups combine muscle building with muscular and cardiovascular endurance. Brute strength is important, but every soldier needs sustained endurance, he said.

He listed other drawbacks: Pushups can be performed almost anywhere and anytime while pullups can’t. People can get hurt slipping off the pullup bar or kicking their legs for extra reps, which can cause severe lower back injuries.

A woman’s physiology differs from men, making it more difficult for women to perform pullups, Kind said.

“If you added pullups, the Army would probably get down to less than 100,000 personnel,” a reader, Brandon Ward, said on Facebook.

Another commenter, Matthew McBride, said he did not see a need to change the test for everyone and suggested giving commanders more discretion.

“Let certain units tailor it to their needs; for example, let airborne units add pullups because those types of units need or value that skill,” he said. “We keep trying make a cookie cutter PT test when that isn’t the answer.”

Joe Christenson also suggested leaving well-enough alone.

“Keep pushups because you can do them anywhere and you need no props, no pullup bar,” he said.

The Marine way

The Marine Corps uses the pullup in the men’s physical fitness test because they are harder than pushups, Marine Capt. Maureen Krebs, a service spokeswoman, said.

Men are required to complete at least three pullups, and the score maxes out at 20.

The Marine Corps had plans to start requiring female Marines this year to complete a minimum of three pullups.

Implementation has been delayed, however, as more research is conducted. There is concern among leadership that making pullups mandatory for women at this time could hurt recruitment and retention, Krebs said.

As of now, women have the option to perform pullups or the flexed-arm hang instead.

If a female Marine chooses pullups they must complete three to pass, and their score maxes out at eight. To attain the maximum score using a flex-arm hang, a female Marine would have to hang for 70 seconds without dropping off the bar. The score is calculated by subtracting the actual hang time in seconds from the maximum hang time and deducting two points for each second of difference.

The flexed-arm hang, Krebs said, does little to prove a Marine could complete combat tasks such as pulling oneself over obstacles or lifting and carrying equipment.

As female Marines are integrated into combat roles, the Corps plans to phase out the flexed-arm hang, but the timetable is unclear.

Some women in uniform are saying they don’t want it any easier than men. Army Staff Sgt. Victoria Parker, a personal trainer in a Reserve drill sergeant unit, said pullup troubles in the Corps only make the case for slowly phasing in pullups for women in the Army. Parker, who deployed twice to Iraq as an active-duty MP, said she can perform three sets of 10 pullups — and she favors adding them to thePT test.

“If you raise the standards and expectations, they’ll strive to meet them,” Parker said of female soldiers. “I don’t think I’m the exception.”

Women in combat units have to handle the same weapons and equipment, and could just as easily have to lug a battle buddy , she said.

“We need to be able to pull our own weight,” Parker said. “If we want to be equal, we need equal standards.”

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