As part of my role as a Personal Trainer at Nuffield Health, I regularly conduct pre-joining fitness assessments for the Royal Navy, Marines and RAF.
Not everyone passes. Often this is due to inadequate training. Here are a few tips I offer to those who want them (it should be noted that I am not, and never have been a member of or affiliated the armed forces or emergency services).
Run outdoors, test indoors.
Running outdoors is much better than running on a treadmill. Yes, your test with Nuffield will be on a treadmill, so you do need to practice this to familiarise yourself with the difference (understanding what speed to select, how long they take to get going, what the pacing means, etc.). Do the majority of your running in the real world where there are hills that won’t be there on your test and you’ll be best prepped for the test. You’re also likely to run further and for longer in the real world than the 10 to 15 mins on your test. But test yourself once a week or once a fortnight on a treadmill so that it’s not a complete change.
Find a Park Run near you.
I love the Park Run movement – it’s a grass-roots, non-profit run every Saturday in hundreds of locations around the country. It’s a 5km run (double what you need to do). You will naturally run faster when surrounded by others. I used to run these in Southampton where 500 people turned up every week with the fastest completing it in approx. 19 mins. This is a fantastic weekly test and will raise your game as you run with dedicated runners.
Here’s a link to their website:
Check out Pose Running
Running is far more about technique than most people realise. Pose Running helps you to understand what good running technique looks like. Many people run inefficiently and it wastes energy and/or increases the risk of injury. Given that military training involves a lot of running, developing better form is a good idea.
Saying that, tread carefully (pun not intended) with changing such areas as your foot-strike. There is massive debate regarding the correct footfall in running. Adopting the “forefoot strike” too quickly, or incorrectly can result in injuries (I got Achilles tendinopathy in both feet making this mistake).
Here is a good video about the method:
Train for Running like you train for Strength
You wouldn’t try to improve your push-ups by simply doing them for 30 minutes, so don’t do that with running!
If you’re a complete beginner, use treadmills, running tracks or circuits to develop stamina by gradually increasing your distance and including rest.
E.g., an absolute beginner may start with running 100m and then resting for 2 mins, repeating this 10 times to run a kilometre.
An intermediate may run 400m at a time, stopping to walk, stretch and recover.
I trained for a half marathon by running for 15 minute blocks, stopping to stretch after each block and adding a block each week.
When I was 17 I went from running a maximum of 1 mile without stopping, to completing my first health marathon in just 5 months, simply by increasing the length of each run by 100m each time I went.
Finally, don’t try to run every day if you’re new to it. It puts a lot of impact and strain through the body, so give the body a day to recover between runs until you find it easy.
Strengthen Your Legs
As part of the compulsory warm-up there are reversing lunges with a rotation over the front leg. I can usually guess whether a person will successfully complete their run based on how well they perform this exercise.
Whether it’s correlation or causation doesn’t matter, it’s worth doing bodyweight leg exercises to keep your legs strong and mobility good. Deep squats (ass to grass!), a variety of lunges (forwards, backwards, lateral), steps, glute bridges and calf raises will ensure that you have the strength in your leg and core muscles to endure.
Depending on which branch of the forces you want to join, you’ll be tested on push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and maybe other exercises.
Many people struggle with push-ups and pull-ups. Here are a couple of strategies to improve them:
Phase 1: Don’t have a push-up or pull-up?
Trying to develop pull-ups or push-ups when you can’t do one may seem like a paradox, but there are ways to get your first rep and even develop stamina for multiple reps without doing one.
For push-ups I direct people to the chest-press machine. This is because it directly targets the chest, shoulder and arm muscles, and you can start light and increase the weights used over time. How much weight should you use? As much as you can. Start with lower reps (5 or 6) at max weight to develop strength (many people use a weight they can lift for 10 reps and then never see progress – remember we want strength here for your first pull-up). I suggest doing a plank on a set of scales with your hands on them to see what weight you have to push. I’ve found this to be around 60 to 70% of a person’s bodyweight (the reminder is through your feet). Use this number as your goal.
At the same time, I recommend working on planks (that old favourite) and using “commando planks” (moving from elbows to hands in the plank) to develop core strength.
Finally, I love push-ups on dip bars to help develop full-range of motion and bring the upper-body push with the core engagement. You can start with the bars high and gradually reduce the height to make it tougher, until the bars are almost on the floor and you can progress to full push-ups.
Combining and rotating though all three methods above should best help to develop your first push-up.
The same is true of pull-ups, where I recommend using an assisted pull-up machine (found in most decent gyms). These work by offsetting your bodyweight with the load, e.g.,: if you weigh 80kg and select 50kg then you will be doing a 30kg pull-up. This is much more effective at developing pull-ups than using the lat-pulldown machine.
Another option is to use a TRX suspension bands to do rows, or supine rows to develop the core-engagement alongside the upper body pulling stamina.
Another favourite from the CrossFit world is using resistance bands to assist the pull-up. Seek help in how to set these up first as they do present a risk of falling badly. I also recommend not using the “around the knee” version as it compromises the body shape. These banded pull-ups are good for developing volume, e.g.,: double digits of reps.
Combining and rotating though all three methods above should best help to develop your first pull-up.
Sets and Reps
When training, use sets and reps to improve your strength and stamina.
It’s common for people to default to 3 sets of max or 10+ reps. This isn’t always optimal, particularly if you are chasing your first pull-up or push-up.
Use lower reps if you struggle with a weight, but increase the total volume by gradually increasing the number of sets.
Example: at one time I did the 3 sets of max effort pull-ups. I achieved 6 on the first set, 4 on the second and 3 on the third. A total of 13 pull-ups.
I then tried doing sets of 3 reps (the lowest number) and found that I could do 5 sets of 3 (an improvement of 2 reps total volume). I also tried sets of 2 and found I could do up to 10 sets (a total volume of 20). By increasing my total volume over multiple sets of lower reps, I was able to improve my stamina and increased my max from 6 reps to 12 (after a couple of months).
This applies whether you are using weight training machines, or bodyweight exercises.
E.g.: 3 sets of 10 chest press at 30kg will be less effective for developing push-ups than 10 sets of 3 at 45kg.
Phase 2: EMOM Training – The best protocol to develop volume.
EMOM training means “Every Minute On the Minute”. Essentially you set a timer and when it starts you perform a set number of reps of an exercise and then rest for the remainder of the minute. When the next minute starts, you repeat the same number of reps. You repeat this for a set number of rounds (usually 10 to 20).
EMOM is a great way to turn your first push-up or pull-up into larger sets. Eg: a person who can only do one rep can simply recycle that rep for 5 to 20 rounds. Ten rounds tends to be a good starting place. Where 3 sets of “max reps” may have simply resulted in a total of 3 reps, 10 rounds of 1 rep are more likely to surpass that total. They may need to take more rest than just one minute, so you can EMOM for 90 second or even 2 minute rounds. You can also double-up, doing a hard exercise first, then a second easier one (eg: 1 pull-up, 5 push-ups each round).
EMOM’s also replicate the short-turn around time of military PT much more than the typical gym protocol of do a set of 10 reps, then sit “recovering” for 2+ minutes surfing Facebook – they won’t give you that luxury in PT!
Make them extra hard by including a cardio element during the rest period eg: 1 pull-up each minute, plus shuttle runs/stationary bike/jumping jacks/jogging on the spot during remaining time of each round.
Phase 3: Conditioning for GPP (General Physical Preparedness)
Got these pull-up sand push-ups into decent numbers? Don’t stop there – it’s now time to apply them in conjunction with other exercises to create conditioning workouts to prepare you for the rigours of PT.
Here’s an example that I used to use as variously a warm-up or a workout in its own right:
- Run 400m on treadmill
- 5 pull-ups
- 10 push-ups
- 15 sit-ups
- 20 alternating lunges
I would do this two to three times as a warm-up, or 4+ times as a workout in its own right. It did the job either way!
You can create something similar and either do multiple rounds, or set a time-limit and aim to complete the maximum number of round in that time (known as AMRAP – as many rounds as possible – training).
Want more of these?
This is very CrossFit-esque training, so finding a CrossFit box near you is a great way to gain exposure to this type of high-intensity, functional and constantly varied training. CrossFit first gained popularity with the military and emergency services because it developed this essential blend of strength, conditioning and stamina needed for such professions.
Here’s their Website: CrossFit.com
Similarly, Mark Divine is a former Navy Seal located in the US, and he has taken the CrossFit system and applied it to training people for Navy Seal training, calling it “SealFit”. He has a website and social media, as well as a book outlining a SealFit training programme that you could do on your own.
Here’s his website: SealFit.com
It’s not all about the fitness.
I’m astonished by some of the people who come for their MOD fitness tests. They are often ill-prepared and arrive with the wrong attitude.
Whilst I have not personally been a member of the military or emergency services, I’ve been trained by those who have, and I’ve learned a few lessons from them that I think are essential:
Failure to prepare, is preparation for failure.
Turn up ready.
50% of the people I test don’t have their paperwork with them or their candidate number. This means that the first experience they have with me is one of failure: “Do you have your test form?” “No.” “Do you have your candidate number?” “No.” Whilst I can still find these things for them, it is not a good first experience.
I recently had one who 5 minutes into the assessment asked if he could go to the toilet – he’d spent the previous 30 minutes sitting in our café next to the toilets.
One candidate waited until 20 minutes into the assessment to announce that he wanted to change into a different set of kit for the test. I’d already referenced in the pre-assessment briefing provided by the MOD that he needed to be in kit. He hadn’t indicated that he wasn’t.
The keys to success are turning up in the right place, at the right time, with the right kit and the right attitude.
This seems to reiterate the point of the previous maxim, but the attitude part is the one I emphasise here.
A sloppy, entitled or disrespectful attitude will make the test (and everything thereafter) harder than it needs to be.
The young man who turned up without paperwork, decided 5 minutes in that he needed the toilet and referred to me as “buddy” throughout the assessment, even though we’d never met and I was 15 years his senior will have a rude shock when he meets his first drill sergeant, even though he passed the physical test.
That’s all from me. I hope this has proven helpful. Good luck to all who are applying to join the military. And thank-you in advance for your service.