Want to improve your run? Jump on a bike. Need to crank out more situps? Grab your golf bag.
If you’re tired of pounding out endless reps at the gym to get in shape for your next PT test, consider a sport or some other fun activity instead. You might be surprised just how much you improve, experts say.
While sports alone won’t do it all, they’re great to add variety to your routine.
But some sports will help you more than others when it comes to raising your scores on specific events. These are guaranteed to help you do better:
Doing well on the upper-body-strength component of the PT test — pushups for everyone but the Marine Corps, who test with the pullup instead — mostly comes down to building arm and shoulder strength.
“Sometimes we get into a mindset that everything has to have specificity to transfer. That’s not necessarily true,” says Buck Blackwood, the director of strength and conditioning for athletes at the Air Force Academy.
The heave-ho of rowing a long boat across the water, for example, will work wonders for the upper-body muscles needed for both pullups and pushups.
“Even though it’s a pulling action, something like crew or rowing is still going to help strengthen the shoulder girdle muscles that are so important in doing pushups.
“Any strength you develop there is going to help you with pushups because you’re going to be able to use those larger upper back muscles for stability as opposed to relying on the smaller, weaker, rotator cuff muscles,” Blackwood says.
And even though you’re working those muscles on the horizontal plane, the pulling action in rowing will translate the next time you look up at the bar to crank out some pullups, Blackwood says.
Hit the wall at your local climbing gym once or twice a week — even for just half an hour — and you’ll start to see real gains in your pullups and pushups, says Army Staff Sgt. Ken Weichert, a fitness expert for the American Council on Exercise and master fitness trainer for the National Guard.
“There two types of strength,” Weichert says. “And rock climbing taps both.”
There’s the strength you use when your limbs are close to your body, and then there’s the muscles needed when your limbs are completely extended.
“That’s why you’ll never see a pro rock climber with their arm only half bent — it’s always either one or the other, fully extended or right against their body. It’s just a beautiful graceful motion between the two. That’s what you want to have with the pullup as well.”
And while you may think of rock climbing as mostly pulling yourself up, there’s plenty — if not more — of the kind of pushing up that’s more akin to a pushup.
Any sport or activity that makes you clench your gut is going to help with situps and crunches.
“It’s called midline stabilization — anything that causes tension in your abdominals,” Blackwood says. “So, if I’m sprinting as hard as I can, on a scale of 1 to 10, my midline stabilization is probably going to be a 10.”
It’s all about working your core. And even some of the slowest-moving sports can do that. Just ask any golfer.
“You look at someone like John Daly, he may not be the first person you think of in terms of six-pack abs, but if you can whack the heck out of a ball like that, it’s because of tremendous core strength,” Blackwood says.
Think about it: Your core consists of all the muscle groups running from your hips up to your sternum. “And that’s where all your power generates in a golf swing,” Blackwood says.
Now think about what it takes to whack that ball down the fairway.
“You have to be able to swing the club, under control. At the top of the swing, you have to be able to stabilize isometrically, and then through the swing there’s going to be some eccentric and concentric movement of the trunk for the snap and power that you see in golfing. All that power emanates from the hips, right up through the trunk and into the upper extremities.”
So if you play 18 holes one to three times a week — or even just hit the driving range for 20-30 minutes — Blackwood says that’s going to be a significant core workout that will pay dividends in your PT test.
“You will definitely see improvement there.”
The same kind of rotational forces that make golf a good core workout apply to racket sports such as tennis as well, Blackwood says.
“There’s a lot of rotational strength in both single-hand or two-handed strokes. That begins with the lower extremities but feeds right into the hips and requires strength from the core to transfer that power into your upper extremities.”
Spend 30-60 minutes on the court and see for yourself.
If you want a better time on your run, you need to do things that not only work your legs, but also get your heart and lungs pounding.
When Weichert is coaching troops who have trouble passing the run portion of the PT test, one of the first things he recommends is getting out for hikes.
“Especially for people who have added weight, the softer ground is easier on the joints,” he says.
He starts people on flat trails but soon points them toward the hills, adding weight to a rucksack.
“You’re increasing your cardio-respiratory stamina, with the load and the slope becoming the resistance strength training you need to perform better on the run.”
And even if you’re in great shape, regular hikes and rucking will only help your run, he says.
With all the spinning classes, elliptical machines and recumbent contraptions, it’s easy to forget about that two-wheeled device in the garage that actually moves down a real road.
And while those gym-anchored bikes are great as well, there’s something about feeling the wind to spice up your workout routine.
“When you’re biking, the movement of the legs is still in the sagittal plane, the same as in a running event. You’re training your legs in the same way, so it will help improve your run,” Weichert says.
The key is riding hard — hitting hills, throwing in sprints — whatever it takes to get your heart pumping.
“If my running training was going to be two miles of interval work, I’m going to do four miles on bike with the same intensity. Just double whatever distance you were going to do in run.”
And like hiking, biking is a great option for those struggling with extra weight without all the wear and tear on your joints.
In fact, Weichert says you can make biking your primary method for building your cardio stamina, but recommends focusing your workouts on actually running through the last two weeks before your PT test.
“You’ve got to start doing the event you’re going to actually be tested in. There’s no way around it.
If you prefer team sports, joining a local soccer league — or just jumping into some pickup games — is another great way to improve your run.
“About 90 percent of what you’re doing in soccer will have some type of aerobic component to it,” Blackwood says. “That’s going to have carryover in your run, as well as improving your ability to perform an anaerobic activity like max pushups and max situps quickly.”
While other team sports — say basketball or football — will get your heart pumping as well, most rely more on quick sprints and explosive moves. Few can compete with the near-constant cardio workout of soccer, he says.
For maybe the most intensive cardio workout, give cross-country skiing a try this winter.
“It’s hard to find another sport that is comparable,” Blackwood says. Indeed, VO2 max — or the amount of oxygen needed to perform a particular exercise, and a key yardstick in measuring aerobic activity — “is off the charts in cross-country skiing.
“It’s a way to amp up your run time because you’re working against the resistance of the snow, adding variation by going up and down hill, and you’re more actively using your upper extremities with the ski poles. It’s just a great aerobic workout.”
Lose the body fat
It’s the one part of every PT test where strength and speed don’t matter, and less is always more. If you’re worried about facing another dreaded tape test, or are just looking for a way to shed a few pounds, you already should know the most important thing is eating right.
“Body composition is 85 percent nutrition,” Blackwood says. The balance lives in burning the excess calories you eat, “and any sport will burn calories.” But, again, some are better than others.
“If you’re engaging in any sport that requires any kind of sprinting, you’re going to start increasing your lean body mass. And that burns more calories. You’ll burn more calories during the actual activity, but there’s a metabolic component where you continue to burn more calories even after you’re done with the activity,” Blackwood says.
Mixed martial arts
In terms of raw calorie burning, it’s hard to beat mixed martial arts, Weichert says.
Full-contact MMA training — whether you’re getting ready for a cage fight or just working out at a local jiu-jitsu studio, will burn an average of 11.2 calories per minute, he says.
Grappling-style martial arts especially — Judo, wrestling and jiu-jitsu among them — also put a lot of emphasis on core training, with direct benefits to your ability to knock out situps or crunches, Blackwood says.
You can burn plenty of calories in the water as well.
Doing laps at the pool will cook an average of 7.2 calories per minute, Weichert says. Add some butterfly strokes, and you’ll start seeing results in how many pullups you can do as well, Blackwood says.
But even non-swimmers can tap the power of the pool — or lake, ocean, or anywhere you can get up to your waist in water.
“Just doing high step trot in water up to your abs while swinging arms in and out of the water will create the same cardio-respiratory stamina and muscular power needed for all of the events of the PT test while also losing body fat at the same time,” Weichert says. Calorie burn: 5.9 per minute.