The Air Force Physical Fitness Test, and how to prepare for COT PT

I have had a few messages recently from people who have received a Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) scholarship, or another form of military funding, and are wondering how to prepare for the physical demands of military initial entry training. As an Air Force HPSP recipient, I can really only speak in detail to the Air Force’s Commissioned Office Training, but I suspect that the general physical requirements will be similar for each branch.

What is physical fitness training (PT) like at COT?

This may be the image some people have of Air Force physical fitness, but PT at COT is a fair bit more intense than your college bowling class! (Image courtesy of the US Air Force)

This may be the image some people have of Air Force physical fitness, but PT at COT is a fair bit more intense than your college bowling class! (Image courtesy of the US Air Force)

When I attended, PT was based on insanity, and lasted for an hour each morning, Monday through Friday. There was no PT on weekends. Insanity is intense, bodyweight-based exercise. Think lots and lots of pushups, sit-ups, and running.

Do I have to take a physical fitness test?

A “diagnostic” physical fitness test was conducted a few days after arrival. This is a practice version of the real physical fitness test that you take at the end of COT. It is conducted exactly like the real physical fitness test. You can find more details of the physical fitness test here. The COT handbook that I received says that you can have certain privileges withheld if you fail the diagnostic physical fitness test, so you really should arrive ready to pass the test. In fact, because you won’t have much of a chance to exercise in the first couple of days at COT while you get settled in, and you’re going to be exhausted, you should be ready to pass with a wide safety margin. You will take the “real” test at the end of the course.

What is the physical fitness test like?

The Air Force Physical Fitness Test (AFPFT) has four components: waist circumference, 1.5 mile run, sit-ups (total reps in one minute), and push-ups (total reps in one minute). Each component is scored on its own points scale, and each has a minimum that you have to meet. You need to hit the minimum in each category, and earn a minimum of 75 total points in order to pass the test. You can find the scoring charts here. The minimum scores in each category are listed here. The Air Force’s FAQs on the physical fitness test can be found here.

Image courtesy of the US Air Force.

Image courtesy of the US Air Force.

Um… What does that chart mean?

Example: As a female under age 30 when I went to COT, I had to run the mile and a half in less than 16:22 (44.1 points), have a waist circumference less than 35.5 inches (12.8 points), do 18 push-ups in a minute (5.0 points), and do 38 sit-ups in a minute (6.0 points). But if I only did that, I would have a total of 67.9 points. You need 75 points to pass, so I need to pick up 7.1 more points somewhere. How can I do that? Well, I could run the mile and a half in 14:52 or less, have a waist circumference of 31.5 inches or less, or do 28 push-ups (3 more points) and 45 sit-ups (2.5 more points) and run the mile and  a half in 15:50 or less.

It looks like I have a lot of work to do… What should I do first?

Let me start by saying that when I started getting ready for COT, I couldn’t run more than a block without slowing to a walk for at least a little bit, and I couldn’t do even one real push-up with proper form. If I can pass the PT test, then you can, too.

You definitely need to hit the minimums in each category, so make sure you can hit the minimums in each category. We’ll talk about how in a minute. Once you are hitting the minimums in each category, you can see from the chart that you get the most points for improving your run time and your waist circumference. Dropping half an inch from your waist or cutting 30 seconds from your run can get you as more extra points than doing 20 more push-ups in a minute.

Demonstration of the two phases of a correct Air Force push-up, from the "Top Dog" competition at Minot Air Force Base.

Demonstration of the two phases of a correct Air Force push-up, from the “Top Dog” competition at Minot Air Force Base.

So how do I actually DO push-ups?

This might sound silly, but if you don’t routinely do push-ups, it can be hard to get started. One of the best ways to start is by doing modified push-ups. Yes, “girl” push-ups, on your knees. Focus on keeping your back straight, controlling your movement up and down, and making sure your elbows reach a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the push-up. Do as many as you can do in a minute. You can rest as much as you want during the minute, but only in the “up” position. During your rest periods, you can arch your back (stick your butt up in the air), which takes some of the strain off your abdominal muscles. The next day, try to do one more.

When you can do 10 or more knee push-ups in a minute, switch to full push-ups. Focus on the same things – keeping your body straight from head to heels, controlling your movement (no flopping), and getting your elbows to a 90 degree angle.

If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, youtube has some great examples of how to do push-ups correctly.

What about sit-ups?

Easy – just like the sit-ups, do as many as you can in a minute, resting when you need to (in the “up” position). Try to do one more tomorrow. It’s that simple. You need to keep your hands on your shoulders. Your elbows must touch your legs in the “up” position, and your shoulder blades must touch the ground in the “down” position. For the actual test, your partner will count your reps and hold your ankles.

Demonstration of a correct form sit-up from the Air Mobility Rodeo at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2011. Image courtesy of the US Air Force.

Demonstration of a correct form sit-up from the Air Mobility Rodeo at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2011. Image courtesy of the US Air Force.

And the run?

There are a ton of couch to 5K programs out there. I would recommend trying one of these – they help you work up to running 5k straight (3.2 miles). If you can do that, then passing your mandated 1.5 mile run will be a breeze. Most programs have you running 3 days per week.

The bottom line?

Image courtesy of the US Air Force

Image courtesy of the US Air Force

You can do it. Start early; it takes 3-6 months to get ready to pass the test by working out for 20-30 minutes 3 days per week.

If you aren’t ready to pass when you get to COT, they will try to get you to the point where you can pass, but they will do it by kicking your butt for an hour a day for 5 weeks, and you still may not pass the PT test at the end, which goes on your Air Force personnel record. Whether this actually does anything in the military match, or in your career, I don’t know. Probably not. But you may as well have all the possible check marks in the right columns, and avoid the stress of worrying about the PT test.

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  • lily

    Thanks Indy! I would love to hear more about what we do during the rest of the day for the 5 wks during COT. Happy holidays!

    • Indy (admin)

      I’m glad it was helpful! I’m planning a series of posts about what to expect at COT, how to prepare, what to buy beforehand, etc. They should start popping up soon on the site.

  • lily

    Amazing! And I will love to contribute when I complete COT this summer.

  • Spencer

    Thanks for the post! I’m going to COT this summer, and in recent teleconferences, they stressed very highly that it is important to arrive at COT ready to pass. They have started sending medical students home who do not pass the first physical fitness test (they emphasize that this is different than in the past). I’m pretty sure they said if you fail by more than 10%, you will definitely be sent home–otherwise they might be willing to work with you during the course of COT.

    • Indy (admin)

      Thanks for sharing that information! I have heard that they are getting a lot stricter with regard to PT standards. If you are getting ready to go to COT, make sure you are ready to pass the PT test!!

  • Ana

    Can you use your cel phone, look at email when you’re not in training (evening hours when off the clock)? Or do they still have officers using pay phones with calling cards to call back home (like back on the day when I was in basic training)?

    Also, do they want you in bed at lights out, or do you have time to yourself (to use phone, etc).


    • Indy (admin)

      When I was there a few years ago, you could use your cell phone during your “off” time at the end of the day after you were done with training. (Basically, the time between dinner and bed when you were showering, getting your uniforms ready for the next day, working on assignments, etc.) Cell phones were to be turned off during the duty day, and you wouldn’t have an opportunity to do anything with them anyway, since we were so busy. You have some brief time to yourself at the end of the day but not much – you will be pretty busy with assignments and other work. At lights out you are expected to be in bed, lights off, asleep.

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