I have an embarrassing secret to share: I failed my initial physical fitness test (PFT). During Commissioned Officer Training (COT), all candidates are expected to pass a PFT consisting of one minute of sit-ups, one minute of push-ups, and a 1.5 mile run. Sounds easy enough, right?
I went to COT after my first year of medical school. Truthfully, I put fitness on the back burner but I wasn’t terribly concerned about my ability to pass as I have always been fairly active. I landed in Montgomery, Alabama on a Tuesday and was immediately flung into the hustle and bustle of officer training. The first few days consisted of a lot of yelling and waiting in formation and very little activity. We would start every day with an 0430 wake up call and would spend about a half hour lining up and marching out to the athletic fields. By the time we got to the fields, warmed up, and stretched, our actual work out time was only about 20 minutes or so before we would have to line up and march back to our dorms.
I decided to take upon myself to do an ab workout in my dorm room the Saturday prior to our initial PFT which was scheduled for Monday morning. On the first sit up I felt a stabbing pain in my low back and instantly my back muscles went into a spasm. After laying on the floor for 15 minutes trying to figure out a way I could sit up without irritating my inflamed back I managed to hobble down the hall to my FOIC’s (Flight Officer In Charge) room and told her of my situation.
As it was the weekend, the medical clinic on base was closed so first thing Monday morning (when I should have been taking my PFT) I took a shuttle to the clinic and x-rays confirmed I had herniated a disc. After discussing my results with me, the physician who examined me asked if I wanted “a waiver”. I had zero idea what a waiver was, but it did not sound like a good idea. I was concerned that a waiver from physical activity would result in some kind of punishment, failure from COT, or loss of my scholarship. I declined the waiver and stopped by the pharmacy to pick up some ibuprofen and prayed that a day’s rest would heal my back enough for me to take my PFT.
After returning to the officer training school portion of base my squadron commander asked me to step forward in front of the entire group of 200+ other COT attendees and asked me why I missed my PFT earlier that morning. Only a few days into COT, I was terrified of not responding correctly or standing with my feet in the wrong position. I nervously told my squadron commander that I had injured my back but I had declined a waiver. To my surprise, my flight commander was impressed with my decision to decline a waiver. He informed me that I would be making up my PFT the following morning.
Surprise, surprise the next morning I failed my PFT abysmally. On my very first sit up, I threw out my back. Fun Fact: when you start your PFT you are required to complete all 3 sections. So after I completed 1 sit up (yes, only 1) I was on to the push up section where I completed a measly 3 push ups and I was on to the run. At this point I was in serious pain. I fortunately was able to complete my 1.5 mile run time in the allotted time frame, making it the only component I passed for my initial PFT.
I had to inform my squadron commander of my results and to put it lightly, he was not pleased. I was scolded for failing the test and I was scolded for declining a waiver and putting myself at risk of further injury.
As part of my punishment for failing the test I was put in a provisional group which included other students who had failed the PFT, student’s who failed any of the tests or quizzes we had to complete for class and students who broke the rules. Being a part of this group meant I was restricted in my privileges. I was limited in where I was allowed to go on base and had to walk with a group of people for a period of time before I was granted the ability to move around campus independently. When my flight mates were allowed to leave base, I had to stay.
I had to return to the clinic for a waiver and I was given a referral to a chiropractor and physical therapy, and a prescription for a steroid dose pack and a muscle relaxant. For the remainder of COT I was not allowed to participate in any of the physical activities including a high ropes course, marching competitions, or our leadership obstacle course at the end of COT.
Bottom line, the PFT is an important aspect of COT. You must make an effort to be prepared to pass the test at the start of COT and you will have to be physical fit for the duration of your Air Force career. If you are looking for ways to pass components of the PFT or you want to increase your reps or run faster, a great resource is Military.com.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Do I need to be able to pass a PFT at the start of COT? YES! I think this was one of the biggest misconceptions I heard during my time at COT. While you do have physical training every morning it is not enough to prepare you to be able to pass the test. Also the initial PFT is done within the first week of COT so you need to start preparing for the test prior to your arrival.
- What happens if I am injured during my time at COT? Talk to your squadron commander ASAP! Depending on your injury you may be seen in the officer’s training school clinic or you may be sent to the clinic on base. During your time at COT you are covered via Tri-Care so all of your medical expenses will be covered. Speaking from personal experience I had great medical care while at COT! I was able to be seen quickly, had x-rays done and read during my appointment and was set up with weekly chiropractic and physical therapy visits.
- What happens if I go on a waiver? You’re given time off to recover! Going on a waiver (granted you have a justified reason to be on one) does not negatively affect you. However a waiver only excludes you from portions of the PFT that would be directly affected, so if you have a wrist injury you will be excused from push ups but still have to complete sit ups and a run.
- Why do I have to do a PFT, I’m going to be a Doctor/Lawyer/Chaplain/etc? During COT you will learn that everything you do in the Air Force is dependent on “The Mission”. In order to do well in your role and to be able to pull your own weight on a team you need to make sure you are fit and healthy. Being active duty in the Air Force comes with the possibility of deployment so making sure you are integrating health and fitness into a daily routine is important for your safety and ability to perform all aspects of your job.
- Does the PFT at COT matter? Yes and no. The initial PFT at COT is to measure a baseline and influences your privileges during your time at COT. You must pass a final PFT at COT to be able to graduate from COT. However neither of these PFTs is recorded in your chart moving forward in your Air Force career. Once you are active duty (either in residency or as an attending), you are given 45 days to acclimate to the new environment before you are scheduled to take a PFT. Once acclimated you must pass an annual PFT for your duration of active duty service.
- What are the components of the PFT? Push Ups in 1 minute, Sit Ups in 1 minute, waist circumference and 1.5 run time. The minimums and scoring for each component are dependent on age and gender and can be found here
- Can I just meet the bare minimums in all the categories? No. You must meet a minimum of 75 points total on each PFT and pass each component of the test.