History of Fitness Testing in Tactical Occupations

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  • History of Fitness Testing in Tactical Occupations
    Physical assessments have evolved as a result of developments in scientific research, equipment loads, operational environments, and doctrine.
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     The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning, published by Human Kinetics. All text and images provided by Human Kinetics.

    Physical assessments have evolved as a result of developments in scientific research, equipment loads, operational environments, and doctrine. Current fitness tests for tactical populations are summarized in appendix tables 8.1 to 8.6 near the end of the chapter, and sources for current test protocols are listed in appendix table 8.7, also near the end of the chapter.


    Over the last century, the U.S. Army’s physical training and evaluation has undergone numerous revisions aimed at improving soldiers’ physical preparedness. After World War I, the Army recognized that fitness tests were necessary to determine whether soldiers were physically prepared for battle and that activities such as group games, wrestling, and hand-to-hand combat were necessary adjuncts to the callisthenic exercises used at the time (39). As a result, minimum physical standards were established for a physical fitness test (PFT) that included the 100-yard (91 m) dash, running broad jump, 8-foot (2.4 m) fence climb, hand-grenade throw, and obstacle course. In 1946 the PFT changed to include pull-ups, squat jumps, push-ups, sit-ups, and a 300-yard (274 m) run (3). Because the PFT was not mandatory after basic combat training, the physical achievement test was added in 1957 as a tool for commanders of combat units to evaluate their unit’s physical readiness. The physical achievement test consisted of a 75-yard (69 m) dash, triple jump, 5-second rope climb, 150-yard (137 m) man carry, and 1-mile (1.6 km) run (4). The 1973 field manual (FM) 21-20 published the Army Physical Evaluation Test (APET), which consisted of 15 exercises that were either included or excluded in seven physical evaluations (5). In 1980, the U.S. Army implemented the APFT, the current three-event physical fitness test (push-ups, sit-ups, and 2 mi [3 km] run), replacing the APET. Undoubtedly, Army testing and evaluation will continue to evolve as combat requirements change.

    In addition to the United States, other countries have remodeled their military fitness testing and evaluation. In 1972 the Canadian Forces (CF; also known as the Canadian Armed Forces [CAF]), adopted a version of the Cooper aerobic test (i.e., running 1.5 mi [2.4 km] as fast as possible for time) (6). The CF also tested muscular endurance by including push-ups, bent-knee sit-ups, and chin-ups. In 1979 the CF adopted a new fitness test, the CF Exercise Prescription (EXPRES), that included push-ups, sit-ups, trunk forward flexion, and handgrip strength. In the late 1980s the CF EXPRES included minimum physical fitness scores based on age and gender to reflect research conducted in response to the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977 (6, 22). The purpose of this act was to ensure that federal employers managed all personnel fairly and indiscriminately. In 2010 a new fitness assessment concept was proposed, Fitness for Operational Requirements of CAF Employment (FORCE), to test the mission readiness of personnel using battle simulation tasks (41). In 2012, the final FORCE assessment was approved and consisted of a sandbag lift, an intermittent loaded shuttle run, 20 m (22 yd) rushes, and a sandbag drag. There is ongoing research to further modify the FORCE protocol so that it remains operationally relevant and compliant with the Canadian Human Rights Act (41). Other countries, such as Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand, have modified their military fitness testing and evaluation in accordance with combat requirements (8, 9, 16).


    The 1974 NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) Standard 1001 published minimum physical fitness requirements for entrance into fire service (where duties are primarily structural) (36). This test involved the following:

    Running 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in under 12 minutes

    Twenty-five bent-knee sit-ups in 90 seconds

    Five pull-ups

    Walking a beam (20 ft [6 m] wide by 3-4 in. [8-10 cm]) while carrying 20 pounds (9 kg) of hose without falling off

    Ten push-ups

    Lifting and carrying 125 lb (57 kg) for 100 feet (30 m) without stopping

    Lifting and moving a 15-pound (7 kg) weight, alternating from outside the left foot to the waist to outside the right foot, 14 times in less than 35 seconds

    In 1997, the U.S. Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative developed the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) (2) to measure a candidate’s ability to perform critical firefighting tasks (2). The CPAT continues to be used by most U.S. firefighting departments. Further review of physical testing was conducted in 1998 by the U.S. Air Force to help determine which test battery the Department of Defense Firefighter Physical Fitness Program should adopt (37). This comprehensive review provided a list of firefighting tasks that had been published by previous authors.

    In 2015 the NFPA issued an updated version of NFPA 1583, Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members, which superseded the 2008 version. The first edition of this document, published in 2000, provided a comprehensive health and fitness resource for firefighters and an adjunct to NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments (27). The NFPA 1583 standard contains recommendations for an annual physical fitness assessment (PFA) that can be administered to incumbent firefighters, as well as a prequalification tool before attempting the physical performance assessment (PPA) (27). The PFA measures general fitness parameters (aerobic endurance, muscle endurance, muscle strength, flexibility, body composition, and anaerobic endurance) and consists of the following tasks: victim rescue, forcible entry and ventilation, hose advance, stair climb with load, hoisting, and carry evolution (27).

    Law Enforcement

    In 1883, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was approved by the U.S. Congress, establishing a civil service commission to develop competitive examinations regarding the fitness of civil service applicants (1). Although the Pendleton Act was directed at federal employees, it was the first law to recognize the utility of fitness assessments in the candidate selection process. Over the last 40 years, physical ability testing protocols in the United States and Canada have had to comply with legislation protecting people from discriminatory hiring practices (21, 25). As a result, physical ability tests are required to be objective, to reflect physical demands observed in the field, and to use nondiscriminatory minimal standards. An overview of the U.S. Federal Law Enforcement Physical Efficiency Battery (PEB), a pre-employment physical fitness test, can be found in appendix table 8.5 near the end of the chapter.

    Occupational task analyses of law enforcement in various countries have shown many similarities in the work capacity of occupational tasks (13). Of the various tests that evaluate occupational fitness, the Physical Abilities Requirement Evaluation (PARE) developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is a legally defensible test that directly reflects activities observed during a task analysis (13). Coupling occupational fitness with general fitness tests may be ideal to assess occupational performance and health.

    NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning is the ideal preparatory guide for those seeking Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator® (TSAC-F®) certification, and a reference for fitness trainers who work with tactical populations such as military, law enforcement, and fire and rescue personnel. The book is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at the NSCA Store.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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