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The new PFT: What it means for all Marines

Dec. 3, 2012 - 08:47AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 3, 2012 - 08:47AM  |  
The Marine Corps is changing its physical fitness test for women. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, female Marines will need to complete three pullups to pass the test, and eight to achieve a perfect PFT score, although that number may change. In a transition phase beginning Jan. 1, women can choose the flexed-arm hang or pullups for official scoring.
The Marine Corps is changing its physical fitness test for women. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, female Marines will need to complete three pullups to pass the test, and eight to achieve a perfect PFT score, although that number may change. In a transition phase beginning Jan. 1, women can choose the flexed-arm hang or pullups for official scoring. (Marine Corps)
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Pullup scoreboard for females

Scores are subject to change based on data.
Pullups       Points
3 (minimum)       40
4       65
5       75
6       85
7       95
8       100

MARINE CORPS BASE, QUANTICO, Va. — Female Marines will soon be required to complete pullups as part of their physical fitness test, just like their male counterparts. But the shift is likely to affect unit training and promotions for all Marines, not just women.

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MARINE CORPS BASE, QUANTICO, Va. — Female Marines will soon be required to complete pullups as part of their physical fitness test, just like their male counterparts. But the shift is likely to affect unit training and promotions for all Marines, not just women.

In a Nov. 27 forcewide message, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos said the change takes full effect Jan. 1, 2014, and he tasked commanders and unit leaders with ensuring a smooth transition.

"This change will take place in two phases, with phase one beginning Jan. 1, 2013," wrote Amos. "Phase one will serve as a transition period and is intended to allow commanders and individual female Marines to adjust individual and unit training routines to prepare for implementation of the new requirements."

The second phase, beginning in 2014, will end the era of the flexed-arm hang, and women will be required to complete three pullups to pass the PFT, the same number required of men. However, a female Marine who is able to do eight pullups will earn a perfect score, while men must complete 20 to receive a top grade.

The physical fitness test, which also includes situps and a timed three-mile run, is one of two strength-and-conditioning evaluations every Marine is required to pass once a year. A 100-point scale is used to grade each portion of the PFT, with 300 total points being a perfect score. A woman can now earn 100 points if she can do a flexed-arm hang for 70 seconds, but she must hold it for a minimum of 15 seconds to earn a passing grade in that portion of the test.

During the yearlong first phase, female Marines can elect to perform either the flexed-arm hang or pullups during their tests. But if a female opts to do pullups and fails to meet the minimum requirement, she will fail that portion of the test. She will not be allowed an attempt at the flexed-arm hang.

The flexed-arm hang will remain, however, as part of the Corps' initial strength test for female enlisted recruits and as part of the initial PFT required for female officer candidates, according to the message. But in 2014, "passing the PFT with pullups instead of the [flexed-arm hang] will be a graduation requirement for recruits and officer candidates," Amos wrote.

While women will have the option to perform overhand or underhand pullups, they will not be permitted to gather momentum for the pullup with a lower-body swing, known as a "kip."

Why change now?

Although the adjustment in the female PFT presents a significant challenge, officials said it should not come as a surprise.

"I think it's a natural progression of a lot of things that have been going on in the Marine Corps," said Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

Mills said the announcement falls in line with the Corps' recent efforts to create gender-neutral requirements to ensure that Marines are assessed based on a fair set of standards.

Changes to the PFT have been an area of discussion for nearly two years. During a Marine fitness summit in March, the decision was made to "review and validate" the PFT — a move that was reaffirmed at the Combat and Operational Stress Control Conference two months later. But the review — part of a triennial look at the order governing the PFT — did not recommend changes.

Meanwhile, efforts to break down long-standing gender barriers in the military services, including opening more jobs to women, have proceeded. During the past year, dozens of billets in ground combat units, positions historically reserved for men, have been opened to female Marines.

And the Defense Department is reviewing the possibility of opening even more jobs to women, and part of that debate includes an assessment of the physical standards required for battle. The Marine Corps was expected to make the first of several recommendations to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in November.

But Mills said the timing of the PFT announcement is not tied to those recommendations.

"We've made a decision based on facts. The time is right. There's no reason why we shouldn't do this," he said.

Instead, the PFT changes are simply an acknowledgment of the changing roles of female Marines, he said.

Promotion fairness

Even with the change to the female PFT, current physical fitness assessments are still "gender-normed," meaning scoring is adjusted based on gender differences. A female Marine can attain a perfect score by performing fewer repetitions or running a slower time than her male counterparts.

To critics, this creates an unfair advantage when it's time for promotion, because men can outperform women on the test and still receive a lower score. And the PFT is one of the assessment tools used to determine a Marine's career progression.

Advocates of Corps-wide "gender-neutral" standards, which would require men and women to undergo the same PFT and CFT tests and be judged by the same criteria, say they would create a more fair promotion system.

But Mills defended gender-normed evaluations.

"There are differences. Female legs are generally shorter than men's and they run a little slower. We have to gender-norm the standards of the scoring so that [they're] fair to everybody," Mills said.

Evaluating the changes

It is possible that changes in the number required or scoring of pullups will occur before they become mandatory in 2014, Marine officials said.

The force will gather data from Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., and Officer Candidates School here at Quantico, to see how women are progressing. They will also consider feedback from Marines, unit leaders and commanders in the year ahead.

"The [scoring] tables … are experimental," Mills said. "We're going to take a look at those over the next year and decide whether they are right or wrong. We think we got it probably about right."

However, the standards for a woman to attain a perfect pullup score under the new regulations exceed the Marine Corps' own recommendations.

In 2011, Training and Education Command conducted research with 318 female Marines at 12 installations across the Corps. On average, they could perform 1.63 pullups. More than 21 percent performed at least three, and 37 percent performed at least three when kipping was allowed. TECOM later recommended that 100 points be awarded for six pullups, which only the top 10 percent of women could do.

"We're not intending to set anybody up for failure. That's not our intention. What we want to do is challenge our Marines," Mills said. Ongoing PFT scores will be an important factor as officials determine whether the scoring table needs modification.

But Mills said that during the yearlong transition phase, women should base their decisions on whether to do pullups or the flexed-arm hang based on their own comfort level.

"I'm not going to tell anybody to get up there and do something that might hurt them in the promotion process," he said.

So, unless a large number of women do pullups during phase one, a portion of the review will be based on scores from the flexed-arm hang, not pullups.

The effect on your unit

Amos will also require commanders to include pullup training for all Marines in their units, not just women.

According to Mills, the mandate will be a chance to strengthen unit cohesion.

"[Commanders] can get everybody together to build team camaraderie, team spirit and get everybody better on that pullup bar. It's good for every Marine," Mills said.

TECOM has developed a new website with workout plans designed to enhance pullup performance and upper-body strength. The website includes a list of all the High Intensity Tactical Training Centers across the force.

Mills said commanders should immediately start to familiarize themselves with the website, https://fitness.usmc.mil/fpft, to help ease the transition and understand their role in helping females succeed.

"I expect every commander to go right to that website, find out what the training plan is and incorporate that with his female Marines," Mills said. "Heck, he ought to incorporate it with his male Marines because I'll bet he can get his male Marines to crank out a couple more [pullups]."

Reaction to the changes

Sgt. Amanda McGhee, an intelligence analyst with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., believes the PFT change is long overdue.

"The Marine Corps has been going back and forth for a while," she said. "Women should have already been preparing themselves for this change."

McGhee, who said she can perform 20 pullups, called the new requirements a good start but believes the Corps should consider additional adjustments to the PFT. Women should have to complete the three-mile run within 28 minutes just like men, not 31, she said.

Capt. Angela Hatch, an electronic warfare officer assigned to the Information Operations and Space Integration Branch at Headquarters Marine Corps, said the new pullup requirements promote fairness, but she has concerns.

"I think it may have a negative connotation. You now have females only required to do 40 percent of what the males have to do. Part of this is just the physiological differences between males and females. Something like pushups would be gender-equitable," Hatch said.

Even so, she thinks the new requirements are reasonable. She said she can now do two pullups and plans to boost her upper-body strength training.

"I'm confident that I can pass it, but currently I get a 300 [on my] PFT. I think I'll probably take a pretty big hit when we move to the pullups," she said.

She also worries about female recruits.

"They are going to have to most likely go from being able to do zero pullups to three over a short period of time at boot camp. It took me six months to a year to go from zero to three," she said.

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