Ask Stew: Should I Do Plank or Crunches for the Marine Corps PFT?

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Resting With Crunches

As of this year, Marines have the option of choosing either planks or crunches on their annual physical fitness test. The change, which took effect Jan. 1, follows a 2017 change that let them choose between push-ups or pull-ups on the test, albeit with the equivalent of a scoring penalty for push-ups.

Which exercise you choose should depend on your current strengths and weaknesses, but a little time to prepare can change that decision before the next testing cycle.

Here is a question from a future, hard-charging Marine seeking to hit the maximums on the USMC PFT:

Hey, Stew. I am preparing to join the Marine Corps this year and was wondering if you had a recommendation on what to do with the USMC PFT plank or crunches option. Seems like the plank is tougher to max, but I could be over-analyzing it. I am preparing for USMC OCS and focusing on maxing everything. Thanks -- Gregory

Gregory, thanks for your career choice to serve our country. My advice is to test yourself and see which one you prefer and how that choice affects the rest of the exercises. It could be a very simple choice, depending on current weakness, or it could be a more strategic decision that affects the entire PFT.

Check out these options:

  • Time. To max out the plank pose in the Marine PFT, you will need to hold it for four minutes and 20 seconds. To max out the crunches, you will need to do them at a two-minute pace that yields 110 crunches (age dependent for both). See score chart.

Depending on your history of practicing plank poses, I would let that be the determining factor. If you want to get good at plank poses, you need to start practicing them now and build up to 5 minutes without wiggling (just for good measure). Moving at a 1-crunch-per-second pace is not easy to maintain for 2 minutes, but is it easier than 4 minutes in plank pose? To perfectly balance out your core system, do both during workouts and see which one develops the best for you.

  • Effects on the 3-Mile Run.The 3-mile run is the toughest and longest distance for regular military members during the PFT. This requires regular practice running, as well as maintaining a 6 minutes per mile pace to max it.

Also consider how the 2-minute crunches or 4-minute plank affects your 3-mile run. Before you practice running, do a 2-minute crunch test one day, then a 4-minute plank test another day of the week before you do a 3-mile run.

Depending on the strength of your hip flexors compared to your lower back, the run can be adversely affected if the 2-minute crunches tire your legs. Eventually, conditioning will help you catch up but, as you prepare, you should self-test and see which one affects you the most. However, continue to practice both options.

As you age, you may start to prefer the plank pose over crunches. Many experts claim crunches are bad for your back. Personally, I believe there are many things military members do that are bad for their backs.

Here is a list of things that are bad for your back:

1. Sitting down most of the day. Whether you have an office job or you spend many hours in trucks, tanks and aircraft, sitting down for long periods of time is tough on the back. Blaming it on sit-ups or crunches may not be identifying the correct cause of your back pain.

2. PFT Prep. Many people in the military (even some in the Marine Corps) do not practice PFT exercises as regularly as they should. Maybe they lift, run, bike or swim more in between PFT cycles. Maybe they do very little at all.

When then start practicing crunches and running again a few weeks prior to the test, that method of short-term pre-test training can lead to many of the injuries the military is trying to avoid by offering the plank as an option for testing.

3. Heavy Rucks or Load Bearing. Rucking and lifting heavy equipment takes its toll on the body, including the spine, hips and legs. Adding plank poses to a regular training routine will be very helpful with building and maintaining a healthy back strength for the challenges you will face in the military.

My personal go-to core activity is either the plank pose or the hanging knee-up. If I were taking the test, I would do the plank pose. However, if the crunches do not affect your hip flexors when running, they are a viable option. Regardless, you should do both exercises for overall core balance.

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 starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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