Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Physical Fitness Testing & Combat

Recent policy changes in the U.S. military will allow women to serve in so-called combat units.   There is some skepticism about this related in part to the idea that women may not be able to do all of the physically demanding things required to qualify for assignment to these units.   This is especially true for the most physically demanding jobs in things like the Special Forces.


What are the standards?

Standards vary by service but here is a link to the basic fitness standards for the U.S. Marines.  I am using the Marines for the purpose of this discussion because they have been very open in discussing the “Women in Combat” issue and because the Marines place extra emphasis on fitness by all members of the Corps.   Here is what it takes to get a perfect 300 on the fitness test for a Marine in the 17-26 year old age group (the standards are age adjusted) and also the minimum standards.


To earn a perfect PFT score of 300 points, a male must do 20 pull-ups, 100 crunches in less than two minutes, and complete the three mile run in 18 minutes or less. A female perfect score is 70 seconds on the flexed arm hang, 100 crunches, and a 21 minute three mile run. The minimum a male Marine must complete are 3 pull-ups, 60 crunches, and a 28 minute (9:20 pace) 3-mile run. The minimum a female Marine must complete are 15 seconds on a flexed arm hang, 44 crunches and a 31 minute (10:20 pace) 3-mile run.


The Running Standards vs Marathon Times

How do the minimum running standards above compare to something like the average pace for the marathon?   Here is some summary data from about 520,000 marathon finishes recorded 2011.


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Remember these times represent all comers and when you compare them to the 3 mile pace standards for young Marines listed above it is pretty clear that all sorts of people could in fact meet the Marine Corps minimum standards for the three mile run.   Based on years of watching people improve as they train, my rough guess is that many males in their 20s could break 21 minutes for three miles and many females in their 20s could break 24 minutes.

The data below is a further breakdown of the marathon data and about 30% of men break 4 hours (9:10 pace) and almost 20% of women do.   There are all sorts of caveats about this data including people could have run multiple races and some of the times include delays while runners farther in the back pack got to the starting line.   The data is not also broken down by age.   However, I would say this data clearly proves that many women could meet the running standards for combat units.


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There is nothing like the data above for strength differences in men and women as assessed by things like pull-ups and push-ups.   We don’t see thousands or people participating in massive group events and competitions to see “who can do how many” all over the world like we do for running and the marathon.   However, a few rigorous training studies suggest that young women can improve remarkably and that many could meet current standards with training:


“Strength training improved physical performances of women over 6 months and adaptations in strength, power, and endurance were specific to the subtle differences (e.g., exercise choice and speeds of exercise movement) in the resistance training programs (strength/power vs strength/hypertrophy). Upper- and total-body resistance training resulted in similar improvements in occupational task performances, especially in tasks that involved upper-body musculature. Finally, gender differences in physical performance measures were reduced after resistance training in women, which underscores the importance of such training for physically demanding occupations.”


That having been said, my bet is that with intensive training, plenty of women would be able to meet current body weight specific tests of strength.  Whether the distribution would be similar to that for running is not clear, but the point is plenty of women could qualify.


Special Forces

The table above also provides some insight into what happens if the standards are really tough as they are for the Special Forces in various services.   If you set physical standards that less than 1% of men can meet then perhaps only 0.1% of women will be able to meet them.   Until you get to the fastest of the fast or the strongest of the strong do you see things that “no woman” can do.   The figure below makes that point for the marathon (42,000m) and 1,500m times.




This is an Old Issue!

In the 1970s my teacher Jack Wilmore was asked to evaluate whether women could ever be fit enough to serve in the California Highway Patrol.  Many of the arguments about physical strength and fitness as they relate to women in combat echo the arguments made about police and firefighter work in the 1970s and 80s.    In a classic study Dr. Wilmore made a number of observations including the fact that many police officers were in poor physical condition once they finished training.  He also advocated task specific fitness tests, and noted that:


“….there were overlaps between the range of values for each task for males and females, indicating some women were performing better than some men.  The authors feel strongly that a screening test battery must be nondiscriminatory both on the basis of age and sex.”



The data from exercise physiology and sports performance studies clearly indicate that with training there will be many women who can pass the rigorous physical fitness tests required for assignment to many combat units and combat related jobs in the U.S. military.  The only exception to this conclusion might be seen in the Special Forces with physical fitness standards similar to those seen in truly elite athletes.   I will leave the political, philosophical, and religious discussions about women in combat to others.  However, from a physiological perspective there is no reason to bar women from combat, and there is no reason to believe many women will not qualify and excel.


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