When the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) had its deadly collision in June 2017, I mourned the loss of our shipmates and yet was incredibly inspired by the heroism of the crew who saved lives and the ship. The physical ability to save lives, contribute to fighting catastrophic damage, and help the wounded is an attribute every single sailor in the fleet should have; but does the Navy’s current fitness assessment confirm a sailor can perform in such a situation?
The answer is no. The current Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA)/Physical Readiness Test (PRT) does not prove a sailor can perform in an emergency or warfighting situation because of what the current assessment tests. OPNAV 6110.1J Section 5, Article b., states: “The PRT is a series of physical events that assess cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, and endurance.”
The 1.5-mile run/bike does test for endurance and cardiorespiratory function, but it does not test how fast a sailor can get from point to point on a ship. On a large deck such as a Nimitz-class carrier, the length of the flight deck—the largest space on the ship—is only .2 miles long. A 1.5-mile run only tests a narrow aspect of cardiovascular conditioning and does nothing to show leg strength or lower-body power, which is equally, if not more, important in fitness and performance.
In addition, the cardiorespiratory test is almost meaningless to a warfighter in a real-world situation. For example, consider the act of donning firefighting personal protective equipment. When a sailor is fully geared, there is an additional 45–75 pounds of weight on the body, and that stresses the cardiorespiratory system significantly compared to one’s own body weight. Sailors who cannot handle this load or the resistance placed on them while performing duty fully geared would not be effective in a firefighting situation.
The push-up assessment only tests muscular endurance of the anterior superior musculature and fails to test for muscular strength. The same applies to the sit-up assessment. Moderate to heavy load and resistance must be used to test for strength.
Thinking back to the tragedy on board the Fitzgerald, I would walk my previous ship and play scenarios in my mind, and one thought always made me anxious: “If I got hurt or trapped, could my shipmates save me? Could I save them?” This brought to mind the adage that every damage controlman preaches, “Train like you fight.” So shouldn’t sailors physically train to fight a fire, save a life, or save the ship? Bodyweight exercises and movements chosen for the fitness assessments do not carry over to real-world scenarios.
For example, the average American male weighs 197.9 pounds. If he is knocked unconscious or seriously injured, a fellow shipmate must be able to drag 200 pounds of deadweight to safety. How does a high push-up or sit-up score or a 9:45 run time on a 1.5-mile run reflect a sailor’s ability to do that? It doesn’t. In addition, emergency situations are high intensity and unpredictable. Physical training and testing should emulate this to best test how effective a sailor can perform under such circumstances.
The U.S. Army recently developed its Combat Readiness Test, which had its first trial on 4 August 2017. It introduced a three-repetition deadlift max, standing power throw with a 10-pound medicine ball, a 250-meter sprint-drag-carry relay, and other exercises. Given the similarities in operational needs for Army and Navy forces, physical assessments such as these would be a more accurate assessment of fitness because they are reflective of what a sailor may encounter during an occupational emergency situation. High-intensity training with a wide variety of resistance exercises adds strength to cardiovascular demands. For example, in a real damage control or warfighting scenario, can a sailor drag or pick up an unconscious shipmate and get him or her to medical and then immediately sprint across the ship to assist damage control efforts? The Fitzgerald incident proved that such scenarios are possible, and not to train sailors to perform under dire circumstances is a disservice to the fleet and to sailors’ ability to stay capable amid adversity.
In 2018, then-Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie reported that approximately 13–14 percent of U.S. armed forces personnel were medically unable to deploy. An emphasis on strength testing and less focus on outdated calisthenics could reduce this percentage because of the effect strength training has on injury reduction.1 A stronger sailor will be less likely to be injured in daily operations and will be more effective in high-intensity emergency situations than a sailor who cannot handle resistance or loads outside his or her own bodyweight. Having a PFA/PRT test that reflects sailors’ physical ability to save their shipmates’ lives or their ship is a psychological benefit that helps perpetuate fleet readiness. If I know that my shipmate, male or female, has passed the PFA similar to the Army CFT, then I know we can trust each other to save each other’s life.
Navy physical fitness can be measured with a variety of exercises. The deadlift, for example, is a full-body measure of strength because with very high load, every muscle in the body is activated either to maintain spinal integrity (trunk/core and spinal erectors), exert force against the resistance, (quadriceps, gluteus complex, and hamstring complex), or exert isometric strength (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, shoulder complex, and arm muscles including grip). Testing with deadlifts can gauge a sailor’s ability to lift heavy objects off the floor, a skill much more useful than high repetition push-ups.
A relay, similar to the Army CFT, using sandbags, kettlebells, and other implements under a time constraint, places a greater cardiorespiratory/vascular demand because the resistance replicates one’s ability to interact with the environment in imperfect conditions with unknown objects. Last, a sprint complex, for example—three 200-meter sprints with 30 seconds rest in between—would time each sprint, then average the times for a score to measure ability. This assessment would test lower-body power and endurance; multiple sprints would test the cardiorespiratory system in a way similar to metabolic conditions during emergencies, and it also would test how conditioned a sailor is based on his or her ability to recover in a short time frame.
“We defend our Nation and prevail in the face of adversity with strength, determination, and dignity.” The Navy’s ethos puts strength at the forefront in support of our roles as guardians of peace and victors in war. The service invests massively in every aspect of the fleet, from state-of-the-art technology and constantly improving infrastructure to advances in policy and culture, yet the Navy’s fitness standards still lag. Behind the equipment, weapon systems, and technology of the future stands the sailor. If the Navy is to stay the strongest naval force in the world, it must have a better way to test physical readiness. It is time to invest in the science and resources of human performance to ensure the greatest coefficient of the Navy’s military might, the sailor, becomes and remains as strong as possible.
1. Steven J. Fleck and Jeff E. Falkel, “Value of Resistance Training for the Reduction of Sports Injuries,” Sports Medicine 3, no. 1 (January 1986): 61–68.