Ask Stew: How to Prepare to Handle PST Rule Changes

Marine Corp swimming
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Andrew Blackburn, a recovering service member with Wounded Warrior Regiment, practice during a training camp on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, August 4, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photos by Sgt. Maverick Mejiacabrera)

Be prepared for surprise rule changes on any Physical Screening Test (PST) event, because instructors will often institute what appears to be an arbitrary rule just to see how students handle the disruption.

For the Navy PST, the first event is the 500-yard swim using an underwater recovery stroke like the breaststroke, side stroke, or combat swimmer stroke (CSS). Next, you will do push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and a 1.5-mile run. Depending on the testing location and its facilities, there may be changes to the PST.

Here is a question that prompted me to discuss examples of changes to some of the written rules of the test and why instructors make these changes.

Stew, I saw a CSS video where the swimmer stays on one side the entire 500-yard PST swim test. Is this just in a timed 500-yard swim for the PST? Should we be alternating sides in practice? Thanks.

You can stay on one side or alternate strong and weak sides when doing a side stroke or CSS-type swim. The CSS is just a modified side stroke with a cool nickname, so there are two sides you can choose for your swim.

For a 500-yard swim, it doesn't really matter as you should only be swimming for 8-9 minutes. Some pools may be 25 yards or 50 yards. Some may be 25 meters or 50 meters. Knowing the difference matters, since 450 meters = nearly 500 yards.

There may be some rules from the instructor grading the PST swim. If they say you have to be facing them during the entire test, you must change strong and weak sides every length of the pool. Regardless, you should learn both sides of the stroke, as you may need it someday.

Other rules during the swim can be the following: No goggles or mask, no breaststroke pullout off the wall, or you must call out your name and lap number every lap. These are common rules during a PST, but you won't see them every single time.

Switching sides regularly really does matter when you swim with big scuba fins for multiple miles. At SEAL training, you will swim 4,000 yards (two nautical miles) with fins every week in the ocean. Switching sides every 5-10 minutes is wise, since your legs and top arm pull may need a "break" from that movement, especially when it takes 65-80 minutes to swim that far in open ocean.

Push-up Rules

Push-up testing varies as well. Graders will count repetitions when the chest touches the ground, a flat hand under your chest or even a closed fist. Some will require a 90-degree angle bend in the down position and a zero-degree bend (straight arm) in the up position. There have been students who quit in the middle of a push-up test when these rule changes appear for the first time.

In a course of instruction where there is a high attrition rate (like SEAL training), instructors want to make sure you can handle negative feedback and changes to procedure without losing your composure.

Sit-up Rules

The rules often say that shoulder blades touch the ground in the down position, arms stay crossed and hands touch your collarbones, with elbows touching the knees in the up position. Getting called for a "no-count rep" is common if your hands leave your collarbones or your shoulder blades do not touch the ground.

Usually, small changes to this event do not change the test that much. Having someone hold your feet with their hands or sit on them during the two-minute test can be a rule change some are not prepared to handle.

Pull-up Rules

The rules usually require a straight dead hang (arms straight) in the down position and chin over the bar for the up position to count as a full repetition. However, the cadence of the first eight repetitions can throw off first-time PST takers, so be prepared for the first reps to the minimum standard to be on the instructor's count of "up/down."

1.5-Mile Timed Run

The rules here are minimal, but the locations where you run the 1.5 miles can vary. If you have a track, you are lucky. Some courses are smaller tracks, or two three-quarter-mile straightaways with a turn around on ground that can be dirt, concrete or pavement.

Just be prepared to run your 1.5 miles at the pace you have practiced, regardless of the type of venue used to test this event.

If you don't want to be bothered by any subtle rule change or different type of venue from pool size to the ground you run on, you need to practice this test many times on your own. In fact, my No. 1 recommendation is, do not even talk to a recruiter until you know (because you have prepared and self-tested) that you can crush any fitness test you must take to join any branch of the military. For jobs like special ops that require a higher level of physical performance, you can ruin your chances if you do not follow this advice.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Show Full Article