The weigh-in/body composition assessment (BCA) portion of the Navy’s physical fitness test (PRT) is in need of a change.

The height-weight tables are based on standards from the insurance industry that are out-of-date and no longer appropriate to assess the fitness of a contemporary military population—if they ever were. The current standards remain in place mainly because they are straightforward enough to allow many collateral duty physical fitness coordinators throughout the fleet to reliably administer them. What is often overlooked is the fact that precision (in this case, ease of replication) is not the same as accuracy.

It can be assumed that nearly everyone wants a force that can safely perform the tasks asked of them and also looks sharp in uniform. The Navy’s physical fitness portion of the assessment is divorced from occupational requirements and flawed in its own right, but I intend to talk about here about the more-overlooked BCA.

The Navy is a sea-going force and that presents unique challenges to physical fitness that the Navy prefers to ignore. While it is true that the physical fitness portion of the test can be waived for deployment or operations, the instruction is very specific that BCA cannot be waived. This serves to hold Sailors accountable for an area that they sometimes have very little control over. In addition to the real, physical consequences of rotating shift work on metabolism, there are often very limited healthy food options underway. Opportunities to work out can be similarly limited. While there might be a few functioning treadmills onboard, running in rough seas can be very difficult, even unsafe. The increasing length of deployments only exacerbates this problem. While Sailors may no longer be at high risk for scurvy, eight, nine, or even ten months at sea is still a long time and the toll it takes on one’s body is undeniably.

On a personal note, I was a three-sport athlete at one of the top NCAA Division I athletic programs. Under the Navy’s system, for the first fifteen years of my career, I have always been on the border of being judged to be out of standards. There is no way that I could ever make my maximum Navy body weight. I go into each PRT cycle knowing that I will have to undergo the ‘rope and choke.” There are many dimensions of fitness that are not captured by the Navy’s system. What the Navy is asking of people like me under the current system is not to become more fit, but rather to mold my body into a shape that more closely resembles their normative model.

As one who has spent my entire career on this borderline, when I am young and fit, I live with a sense of dread of what may happen if I were to sustain an injury that prevents me from working out or even the somewhat natural loss of muscle mass that can be expected as one ages. The Sailors with the most to lose are the career Sailors that have dedicated their most productive working years to the organization and are working towards retirement. It is these Sailors that also have the greatest incentive to go to extreme—even unsafe—measures to preserve their careers and to prevent getting kicked out.

The standards themselves need to be reviewed—the ‘waist-minus-the-neck’ method is a guesstimate at best. We cannot continue to have such severe consequences (discharge from service) applied to those whose genuine body composition (and by extension their physical fitness) is being approximated. What is the answer then for a Navy that still needs a standard that can be easily administered at the command level throughout the fleet? There needs to be recourse for those Sailors that do not meet the current, approximated BCA tables. Sailors who fail the tape measured BCA should be afforded the opportunity of a more accurate method (7-site caliper, electrostatic impedance, immersion, etc.) at a base medical facility. The costs of adding this option would be manifestly less than recruiting, assessing, training and then dismissing the otherwise good Sailors left behind under the current system.

I understand that Sailors that can fail the BCA and still score an outstanding on the PRT are truly rare, but that does not mean that outliers should be driven out of the service because they do not fit within an arbitrary model.

Posted by LT JD Kristenson in Navy
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  • This is a great example on the constant theme of the standards taking on a life beyond their purpose. We’re looking for fit people, not people who pass the BCA. Correlation is not causation.

  • Jenn Stillings

    You raise an interesting point, JD. Only the PRT exercises determine the level of performance, which seems most important for combat readiness. And retention of talented personnel is also important for combat readiness, so if BCA is hindering that inappropriately, we have a problem. Even more interesting to me, though, is the point you make about opportunities that exist for physical training aboard ship. Having spent many hours myself on treadmills and elliptical machines at sea, I agree with you about the safety. And yet, on perfectly calm days, the gym would often be nearly empty. The question I have is, what message is being sent about the importance of physical fitness, and how is it being supported by policies and resource allocations that are aligned with that message? Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  • TheMightyQ

    What is the end result the Navy is trying to obtain through the BCA? Is it attempting to measure the overall health of an individual service member? If so, given the current use of the BCA as a force-shaping tool to get rid of what the Navy considers excess personnel, perhaps the Navy is attempting to cut down on what it perceives as future health risk Sailors.

    Is the Navy attempting to ensure a service full of personnel who look good in their uniforms? If that is the case, then all it would need to do is have every CO appoint a panel of his or her most fit Sailors to look at each person in the command and say “Yes” or “No” to the question.

    I’ve never quite understood the BCA portion of the physical fitness
    assessment. It has never had any effect on whether I, or anyone else for
    that matter, would pass or fail the physical portion of the test, so it has to be done for some other reason. The Navy should elaborate that reason, and give its Sailors a straightforward answer, with no euphemisms or doubletalk.


    Every PFA is a hard time for me; dieting followed by starvation and diuretics and laxatives. I always make weight but hate it with a passion.

    My weekly routine is 5-6 sessions per week of hard weight training and 5-6 sessions of cardio. Up at 0330 every day to get it done.

    Maxed out the PRT for my age group last week and then went right into the gym for a real workout. While I could be lighter, size and strength matter in the real world where nothing is scaled to you, it just is.

    The current system rewards physical attributes that cannot be tied directly to ensuring the most combat effective shipboard population.

    What should be done is to determine the tasks associated with the most stressful shipboard environment. I suspect it would include hauling heavy bodies and equipment up vertical ladders in flooding or a conflagration. Then testing for those qualities. Sailors haul on lines more than they push anything. Why no pullups or a test of pulling a hawser with a few hundred pounds on it a certain distance in a certain time? Why no test of the ability to carry a 200# dummy or dewatering pump up a 20 foot vertical ladder?

    Sailors should be tested for their ability to do sailor stuff in an emergency situation. Determine the critical physical tasks to be performed then test those tasks specifically or at least the physical attributes that lead to the ability to perform those tasks.

    The Army did that for its Soldiers and completely overhauled its fitness program with Field Manual 7-22. It’s pretty darn good. The Navy should do the same. Determine the standard task set and test it.

    We could alternate the current PFA with a test of the ability to perform the necessary physical tasks like the Marines have done. That would be a step in the right direction.

    I would have more confidence in the PFA program and my shipmates if I knew everyone had to perform tasks associated with saving their ship and shipmates. A Sailor who runs 1.5 miles in 6 minutes but can’t pull a shipmate to safety is not fit for sea. Test what you need people to do and people will understand the importance of it. That is an assessment of fitness for being at sea, where Sailors do sailor stuff.