I have sent several emails to people looking to ace their military physical fitness tests. In my closing, I always remind them not to give up and that they will "succeed by failing."
Some people get it and understand that to improve with push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and other high-repetition calisthenics testing exercises, you have to push yourself until you can't do any more reps. Then, you can try a few more of the easier versions like knee push-ups, assisted pull-ups or negatives, and crunches, respectively.
Once you get to that burning sensation, you are reaching the peak of the muscle stamina in your body. In order to gain more stamina and muscular endurance, you have to "push the envelope" at least one workout a week. The remaining workouts of the week need to be foundation-building workouts that enable your body to do many repetitions in several sets. Such workouts are circuits, pyramids or supersets, as listed below:
Supersets for push-ups and sit-ups:
Repeat this cycle of exercises nonstop 5-10 times:
Regular push-ups 10
Regular sit-ups 10
Wide push-ups 10
Reverse crunches 10
Close or triceps push-ups 10
Double crunches 10
If you do this five times, you will have done 150 push-ups and abdominal exercises in less than 15 minutes. Now that's a good foundation-building workout. You'll reach failure, no matter who you are, only if you continue this workout for 10-15 times.
When you reach failure and your goal is to reach five sets, go to your knees for push-ups if you have to. That is what I mean when I say "succeed by failing."
You have to be able to tell yourself that you can do these workouts even when you never have done more than 100 push-ups in your life. By breaking it up into little sets, nearly anyone can do the above workout. Even if you can't, you still succeed and will be stronger the next time you try it.
There is a mental aspect to this type of "failure" training. Your mind will tell you that you are ready to quit before your body will usually. You have to be able to disengage that thinking process and push yourself until you truly fail. You want not only to fail at push-ups, but also to fail at knee push-ups, too. The same goes for pull-ups, pulldowns, sit-ups and crunches, too.
I have trained many people who were unable to increase their PFT scores for years, and by adding the supersets and pyramid two times a week, and a testing workout once a week, they were able to gain in all areas.
Testing workouts should be goal-oriented and pushed to maximum repetitions during a certain period of time. For instance, the SEAL trainees I work with will do the following workout to test themselves and fail each set.
SEAL trainees workout:
The repetition goal above is to be done in as few sets as possible, alternating from one exercise to the next. The only rest you receive is when you work out the other muscle groups and moving from exercise to exercise. If you are not on that level of endurance, set your goals for half of that or even a tenth.
Everyone fails at this workout, even the most fit people I know. Try it. You will get stronger by pushing yourself to failure once in a while.
Also see "The PT Pyramid" article for other ideas on foundation-building exercise.
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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