The economic boom of the 1940s and 50s sparked concern among parents and politicians that American kids were becoming a bunch of weakhearted squibs.
They feared that prosperity was laying a primrose path for children, and that modern luxuries like school buses, playpens, and television sets were enervating their spirits and softening their bodies.
Thus, the idea of the Presidential Fitness Test was born.
The Presidential Physical Fitness Test became a mandatory biannual fitness challenge for middle and high school students across the United States. It consisted of calisthenics, cardio, and stretching exercises to test children’s strength, endurance, and flexibility.
As is often the case with government diktats, the Presidential Fitness Test was hated by most students and became a paragon of how compulsory workout routines soured people’s relationship with exercise.
Strangely, though, the Presidential Fitness Test has been making a comeback laterally.
Whether it’s a desperate response to our overall spiraling physical fitness or a tendency to reminisce on the past through rose-colored glasses, more and more adults have decided to see if they can still pass the test they so maligned as youngsters.
If you’d like to learn what the Presidential Fitness Test is, how it came about and why it went by the boards, and how to do it, keep reading.
Several aspects of the test changed between its inception in 1966 and abandonment in 2013, but the most recent version included the following exercises:
- Shuttle run
- “V-sit reach”
- One-mile run
- Right-angle push-ups
Students were given a score based on their performance on each exercise in the test.
If all of their scores were at or above the eighty-fifth percentile for their age and sex, they received the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, which consisted of an embroidered badge and a certificate that bore the President’s signature, a congratulatory message, and the recipient’s name.
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While working at New York Presbyterian Hospital in the “Posture Clinic” in the 1940s, Dr. Hans Kraus and Dr. Sonja Weber developed a test to assess children’s strength and flexibility. The “Kraus-Weber” or “K-W” test took about 90 seconds to complete and required participants to do a single rep of the following six exercises:
- A sit-up with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor
- A sit-up with your legs extended
- Raising the feet while lying on one’s back
- Raising the head, chest, and shoulders off the floor while lying on one’s stomach
- Raising the legs off the ground while lying on one’s stomach
- Bending forward to touch the floor with one’s legs straight from a standing position
The pair used the K-W test to study 4,000 children in America and found that only about three out of five kids had the requisite strength and flexibility to pass.
Alarmed by this poor showing and curious how other countries’ youth compared, Kraus performed the same test on children in Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. With the help of his new research partner, famed fitness enthusiast Bonnie Prudden, Kraus found that Europeans seemed to be made of harder stuff—9 out of 10 tykes passed the test.
The resulting media storm in the States prompted President Eisenhower to create the “President’s Council on Youth Fitness by Executive Order”—an advisory committee tasked with ensuring the American youth didn’t “become soft” and fall behind their European fellows. This coincided with a general fear of Americans being outdone in all matters big and small by the Soviets, and prefigured the US’s decades-long Olympic-medal feud with its communist adversaries.
(One has to wonder if Eisenhower remembered the speech his former subordinate General Patton delivered to the US 6th Armored Division a month before D-Day: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.”)
The result was the Presidential Fitness Test.
In 2013, President Obama spiked the Presidential Fitness Test and replaced it with the Presidential Youth Fitness Program. The new program is claimed to emphasize incremental improvement over exceptionalism and help children develop a genuine interest in fitness instead of a desire to pass arbitrary testing standards.
If you’d like to attempt the Presidential Fitness Test, here’s how:
- Sit-ups: Perform as many sit-ups as you can in 60 seconds. To perform a sit-up correctly, lie on your back with your knees bent. Plant your feet flat on the floor about 8-to-12 inches from your butt. Cross your arms over your chest, then curl your torso toward your knees until your back is roughly perpendicular to the ground, then reverse the motion to return to the starting position. Your feet must remain flat on the floor throughout each rep and your head must touch the floor between reps—if you lift up your feet or don’t touch your head, the rep doesn’t count.
- Shuttle run: Mark two lines on the floor 30 feet apart. Place two objects that you can easily pick up and set down (yoga blocks or water bottles work well) behind one of the lines, then walk to the other line and turn to face the objects on the floor. This is where you’ll start. Start a timer, then run to the objects, pick one up, run back to the starting point, and place the object behind the line. Immediately run back and pick up the second object, then run back to the starting point. When you cross the start line with the second object, stop the timer and record how long it took. (You’ll run 120 feet in total—30 feet 4 times).
- V-sit reach: Mark a straight line two feet long on the floor (this is your “baseline”), and then place a measuring tape on the floor perpendicular to the midpoint of the baseline. Sit on the floor on the opposite side of the line to the tape measure with your legs outstretched and your feet about 8-to-12 inches apart and your heels right behind the baseline. The tape measure should line up with the middle of your body. Extend your arms in front of you, turn your palms toward the floor, and overlap your hands. Then, without bending your knees or moving your feet over the baseline, reach as far forward as you can and touch the tape measure. Have a partner record how far you reach. (This sounds much more complicated than it really is, so watch this video to make sure you do it correctly).
- One-mile run: Run one mile as fast as you can. I recommend you do this outside on a track (most high schools allow you to use their tracks for free), but you can also do it on a treadmill.
- Pull-ups: Perform as many pull-ups as you can in a single set. To perform a pull-up correctly, grip a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, then lift up your feet so that you’re hanging with your arms straight. Pull your body upward until your chin rises above your hands, and then lower yourself to the starting position. For a rep to count, you must not kick your legs or swing your body.
- Right-Angle Push-ups: Perform as many push-ups as you can in a single set. To perform a push-up correctly, get on all fours and place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Extend your legs behind you, so that your body weight is supported on your hands and toes, and your body forms a straight line from your head to your feet (don’t lift up your butt or let your hips sag). Keeping your back straight, lower your chest to the floor, and then push your body up and return to the starting position. For a rep to count, you must lower your body until your elbows form a right angle (hence the name).
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If you want to know how well you perform on the Presidential Fitness Test, you have to know the Presidential Fitness Test standards.
Unfortunately, there are no Presidential Fitness Test standards for 2021–2022, but if you want to give the test a try, you can use the standards from 1985 displayed in this Presidential Fitness Test chart to see whether you’d make it into the top 15% of achievers:
While it’s fun to test yourself with (largely arbitrary) fitness standards or military fitness tests, it’s debatable how useful the results are.
A cardinal rule of proper workout programming is to first understand why you’re training—what’s the end result you’re gunning for?
If you’re like most people, and your fitness goals are to simply build muscle, lose fat, and improve your overall conditioning and health, The Presidential Fitness Test isn’t the best barometer.
Instead, you’re better off carefully tracking your strength on several compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and measuring your weight and body composition over time.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to measure and improve all of these metrics, check out Mike Matthews’ best-selling fitness books, Bigger Leaner Stronger for men and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women. They’ll teach you everything you need to know to build a body you can be proud of, how to measure and maximize your progress, and how to adjust your workout routine and diet to stay on track toward your goals.
+ Scientific References
- Kraus, H., & Marcus, N. J. (1997). The reintroduction of an exercise program to directly treat low back pain of muscular origin. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 8(2), 95–107. https://doi.org/10.3233/BMR-1997-8205
- M.D., H. K., & Hirschland, R. P. (2013). Muscular Fitness and Health. Http://Dx.Doi.Org/10.1080/23267232.1953.10627704, 24(10), 17–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/23267232.1953.10627704
- John F Kennedy. (n.d.). December 26, 1960 - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://vault.si.com/vault/1960/12/26/43278#&gid=ci0258c07fc00526ef&pid=43278---017---image