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Lessons learned: PT assessments at Eglin

Staff Sgt. Bobby Brewer, of the 46th Maintenance Group, and more than 20 other Airmen perform “mountain climbers” during a physical training leader class March 30 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.  PTLs lead their flights and squadrons in group PT sessions during the week throughout the base.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Bobby Brewer, 46th Maintenance Group, and more than 20 others perform a side bridge during a physical training leader class March 30 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.  PTLs lead their flights and squadrons in group PT sessions during the week throughout the base.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Q: What are the biggest take-aways and lessons learned you've seen at Eglin after two and a half years on the fitness testing program?

1. A solid unit physical training program is very important. Lack of structured PT in the unit will lead to most Airmen not keeping good fitness habits. Having the commander and other unit leadership present at all PT sessions is also a vital factor for success. The commander can also evaluate general fitness status of personnel during PT and address issues accordingly.

The best programs are planned, not randomized. It's important to progressively increase intensity and volume of a program to avoid injury risk. A PT leader just taking something from a website or making something up on the fly is not progressive or smart and these practices can injure participants. Breaking up Airmen according to ability groups during runs, etc. is also a great method for managing injury risk.

2. Misinformation is still perpetuated by the majority of Airmen about push up depth. AFI 36-2905 calls for upper arms parallel to the ground and body straight at the bottom of the movement. The "elbows at 90 degrees or less" rule is the most commonly misinterpreted. Folks tend to latch onto that and fail to prepare properly. In truth, your elbows are going to get much lower than 90 degrees in an Air Force push up for it to count. Airmen can watch the video on the AF fitness program site for a detailed analysis of the movement.

3. Bad pushups will hurt your shoulders. A good push up has arms abducted from the body up to 45 degrees at the bottom of the movement. Weaker individuals tend to wing their arms out to the side, which stresses the shoulder joint and causes injury. Fixing bad pushups takes time and know-how...and strength training.

4. All Airmen should be strength training. This will increase strength and make someone more injury resistant. If anyone fails one of the "muscular fitness" components (both endurance tests), they clearly have a strength deficiency. The common military answer for addressing push up and sit up failures is to do more pushups and sit ups.

Sometimes that works, and the person gets a little better or good enough to pass, but that answer frequently misses the mark. The best way to fix a strength deficiency is by addressing it head-on with strength training. Work capacity (endurance) is much easier to develop once a good strength base has been developed.

5. Airmen don't often seek help if they need it. There exists a wide array of classes, etc. at Eglin to help Airmen get better at PT. Very few Airmen ask our base experts for help or pursue those free options, instead they attend the unit PT sessions that do little to address their specific weaknesses.

In this sense, the system frequently works against itself. For example, if an Airman fails pushups, she'll go to unit PT three days per week and do mostly calisthenics and body weight exercise, and perhaps run for a few miles. None of this training will do much for her to address her issues. If she is weak she needs to lift weights. If she is a slow runner she needs speed work.

Here's another example. An Airman has significant knee arthritis and can't run. He is required to attend unit PT. While everyone else runs around the track, he has no other option but to walk. He gets 20 minutes of walking in, which does little for his fitness level. Instead of showing up to his unit PT, he should be attending a class like the Deep Water one.

6. From 2008 to 2011 the number of profiles per year at Eglin increased exponentially -- from 507 to 3655. There's some profile abuse still occurring, but most of those people have injuries likely sustained in intramurals or unit PT. Our most common profile is lumbago (general term for low back pain). About 18 percent of our base personnel did not run on their last fitness test, about 13 percent didn't do pushups, and 12 percent didn't do sit ups. Those are very high injury rates for a predominantly non-combat force.

Q: How much positive improvement have you seen?

Our fail rates were very high at first at about 45 percent for men and 65 percent for women as of January 2010. Much of that was due to poor execution of the push up component and folks being generally out of shape. After things normalized in the last year or so, our fail rates have fluctuated between 10-15 percent per month with no significant improvement. We're not getting better. Improvement has basically flatlined.

Q: What areas need to be improved, continue to suffer?

Push up mechanics need to be improved. We see way too many people winging their elbows out. People still aren't strength training like they should be. Also, attitudes need to improve. Many Airmen still point the finger at FAC staff after a failure, instead of addressing their own weaknesses, getting help, and fixing the problem. That's probably the most disappointing part--it's always someone else's fault they failed.

We also still see too many individuals coming to test without their profiles. Our staff are not able to test someone on a profile without seeing the form first (we need the AF Form 422, not the AF Form 469). Overall we still have issues with unit fitness programs using poor methods and being disorganized. I have waged a hard battle with the help of the HAWC staff trying to improve the fitness IQ of Airmen on this base, but it has been tough mudding.

Q: What is the strangest/worst training advice you've heard a tester say they tried, etc.?

One of the most common training myths is when someone looks to advanced athletes for training methods. NFL genetics will tolerate pretty extreme training loads; your body may not. It takes athletes a very long time of progressive exercise to get to the training intensities and volume they use.

The worst training advice I've heard is that some people on this base have been telling people to stop at a 90-degree elbow angle for pushups. One Airman came in last week and said someone in the gym had told him that he had been going too low for pushups. We have clinics every month for folks to drop by and get their form checked (next one is April 11 at 1 p.m. at FAC). The FAC staff will personally watch a few reps and help people fine-tune their form.

One more issue is people doing high-mileage run programs with the impression they'll improve run speed. This will actually train someone to run slow.

Another issue is someone not eating or drinking with the unfortunate philosophy that a few days of this practice will allow their body mass to reduce enough to get by the abdominal circumference component. One individual had to leave in an ambulance during the run component after several days of malnutrition. That was really stupid.

Since lumbago is our number one profile it makes a lot of sense that we have been doing a lot of trunk flexion activities in PT. People should train by using challenging planks and bridges, etc. are much safer options for training core stability and endurance. Since the back does not heal after these injuries occur, we need to be careful to train safely.

Q: What good advice should all testers take?

Rule #1: If your performance report is due within six weeks of your test, you're setting yourself up for failure. Allow several weeks of buffer space just in case...so you have time to address any issues should they appear during the test.

Rule #2: Prepare your body for the test & prepare your mind as well. This is an athletic event. Practice for it and train well so you can exceed your minimums. Be well rested so you can excel. Stress can degrade performance, so try to sleep well and show up well prepared. Most of the people who fall out during a test have not eaten anything that morning. The body needs fuel to run.

Rule #3: Develop a strong training base and keep it up. Stuffing six months of training into two months of test prep after four months of inactivity is a recipe for failure. If you have a good training baseline you can focus on what you like doing throughout the year & enjoy being fit, then prep specifically for your 90+ score a couple months before you test. This will minimize issues with overtraining shoulders, etc. By keeping your fitness base, you won't let desk time decondition you.

Rule #4: If you struggle to meet AF standards, target your weaknesses, train smart, and show patience! Miracles don't exist in fitness. Success comes with hard work and perseverance.