Why Weights Are Not Necessary to Prepare for Military Boot Camp

Pull-up is performed at Tough Mudder fitness challenge.
Cheyenne Martin excels in the fitness challenge at the 2016 Atlanta Tough Mudder obstacle course event. (Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Breckenkamp/209th Broadcast Operations Detachment)

I received an email from a young man who says he is a former high school athlete who wanted me to critique his weightlifting routine as he prepares for boot camp. Being a former weightlifting football player, I stepped back in time some 18 years and saw many of the same things I did to prepare for plebe summer at the Naval Academy. The way I prepared was the wrong method to train for military-style fitness.

I soon realized when I took my first physical fitness test (PFT) that one maximum set of push-ups was not the same as the bench press, and no matter what weight machines you use, there is no substitute for pull-ups. Sure, pull-downs, biceps curls and bent-over rows work the same muscle groups as pull-ups, just as the bench press is the same motion as the push-up.

But nothing prepares you for push-up and pull-up tests quite like doing push-ups and pull-ups to failure during your workouts. Check out my articles on push-ups and pull-ups for workout ideas.

A reservist does sit-ups to pass the Army physical fitness test.
U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Caroline Shaw, an aide-de-camp for 335th Signal Command (Theater) deputy commanding general of sustainment Brig. Gen. Nikki Griffin-Olive, does sit-ups to pass the Army physical fitness test on a field near the 335th headquarters in East Point, Georgia, May 6, 2017. (Staff Sgt. Ken Scar/U.S. Army Reserve photo)

Sit-ups and Running

The two other events of many physical fitness tests seemed easy enough. Anyone can do sit-ups and run, right? Sure, most young people can do 50-60 sit-ups in two minutes, but I realized that to be competitive with other scores, and to achieve a high grade, you needed to do 80-100 in two minutes. The only way to reach numbers like that is to practice sit-ups several times a week with timed intervals and pacing yourself.

Once I saw people hitting 100 sit-ups in two minutes, I increased my pace (sit-ups per second) and reached 30 sit-ups in 30 seconds. I was moving fast and felt strong until about 40 seconds into the two-minute test, when the lack of training caught up with me and I only did another 30 sit-ups in the remaining 1:30 for a total of 60 sit-ups. I barely passed the minimum standard.

When it was time to run, I was a bit worried when half the guys in my group all ran track and cross country. I tried to hang with them on the first lap of a quarter-mile track as they ran it in 80 seconds. After the first lap, I could not hang at a 5:20 mile pace and was spent for the remaining five laps, struggling to breathe and run at my comfortable seven-minute mile pace.

I just passed the run with only seconds remaining. How could this be? I was a very fit guy who lifted weights for three hours a day before coming to the Naval Academy's version of boot camp. Read the "Interval Training" article for more information on workouts to run faster.

Now, even at age 36, I can nearly double my PT scores from age 18 and run sub-six-minute miles for a few miles. The moral of this story is: "There are no weights at boot camp. Start doing the events you will be tested in immediately." If you want to be in the following branches of the service, here is what you need to do to be competitive and remove the added stresses of physical discomfort and failure:







Marine Corps

3 Miles (18-22:00)

Not tested -- 50 reps nonstop




1.5 Miles (9-11:00)

Men 80-100

Women 40-60

Not tested



2 Miles (12-14:00)

Same as above

Not tested


Air Force

1.5 Miles (9-11:00)

Same as above

Not tested


Coast Guard

1.5 Miles (9-11:00)

Same as above

Not tested


*Note: These are not minimum standards but above-average competitive standards recommended by Stew Smith

The hardest thing about failing a physical fitness test or not performing as well as your fellow soldiers is that you have to play catch-up. The good news is that at the age of 18-20, it is easy to get into shape and become competitive with your comrades. However, it is tough to do while in the middle of boot camp or other military training. My recommendation is to get in the competitive range before attending these military programs. I promise you it will save you from becoming discouraged, reduce muscle soreness and enable you to focus on your job at hand -- becoming a soldier, Marine, sailor, airman and hero of tomorrow.

Other related boot-camp articles:

Next step: If you are considering joining the military, your next step should be to speak to a recruiter from the service of your choice.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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