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How to ace APFT push-ups

Tips and strategies to build your upper-body strength and endurance
©Shutterstock; Illustrations by Kyle Hilton
©Shutterstock; Illustrations by Kyle Hilton

Does lack of upper-body strength and endurance limit your ability to perform well on the APFT? If so, incorporating exercises throughout the year on a regular basis is the key to building the strength, shoulder stability and endurance to perform effectively on your annual test. Follow these guidelines to build the strength you need to succeed on the push-up segment of the test.  


Your APFT grader will check for the following: 

• Feet must be together or no more than 12 inches apart

• You may not rest on the ground, raise a hand or foot, bounce your chest off the ground, cross your feet or move any part of your body off the mat

• Lower the body until upper arms are at least parallel to the ground and return to a starting position with fully extended arms

• Body should form a straight line from shoulders to ankles


1. Maintain a tight body from head to toe.

2. Breathe in on the way down and exhale as you push back to the top.

3. Have a rep strategy in mind. Know how many push-ups you need to perform and then break that down into manageable sets to prevent fatigue early in the two-minute set. Then practice this strategy to see how it works and adjust as needed. Sixty push-ups can be broken down into six sets of 10 or four sets of 15, depending on what works for you. Or maybe you can easily knock out 30 and then finish with four sets of 7-8.


Build your upper-body strength and endurance for the push-up segment of the APFT with these exercises:


Use either a set of stairs or a Smith Machine Rack with a quickly adjustable bar. Start with hands on the ground and perform as many perfect push-ups as you can without breaking your rhythm. Once you are unable to complete a perfect repetition, immediately move up to the next high step and continue with your push-ups. Keep moving up the steps as needed until you complete your goal for number of reps. Record how long it took to complete the set and how high you went. Sets: One set 3 times each week; goal is to be able to remain on a lower “setting” for more reps as you get stronger. Reps: Equal to the number of push-ups you need for your APFT. 

TIP: For each rep, maintain perfect form and lower chest all the way to the step or bar and lightly touch.


To train depth, place a canteen flat on the ground under your chest. Lower to the bottom of your push-up, bringing chest to canteen, then release hands from floor. The only thing on the floor will be your toes, not hips, knees, thighs, etc. Then reset hands on the ground, engage core and push back up. This will train your body to stay tight while going through a full range of motion. Sets: 2-3. Reps: 30 percent of your APFT goal.

TIP: Utilize the authorized rest position—you can either sag in the middle or flex your back—until you perform all reps in each set.


A magnesium-rich smoothie can help reduce muscle soreness. Blend a banana with raw spinach, a handful of Brazil nuts or almonds, and a bit of dark chocolate for your post-workout recovery. The recommended dietary allowance of magnesium is 400-420 milligrams per day for men and about 300 mg for women.

How many push-ups will you have to complete to pass? Find out at

To see tips and strategies for the APFT's other two events, visit GX articles on the Sit-Up and the 2-Mile Run links. For more fitness articles, go to

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