What Is the Spartan fit test?
The Spartan fit test is as follows: perform as many burpees as possible in five minutes. At my Spartan fit test in 2015, I completed 89 burpees in five minutes: chest to the ground, full push-up, jumping with hands over the head and heels off the ground. A partner was counting for me, so all I had to do was work. I remember this as if it were yesterday because I recall my heart rate being elevated for 10–20 minutes after the test. I was trying to listen to head instructor Todd Cambio, CSCS, SGX, but during those first few minutes of recovery, my mind felt it was in outer space.
Why did Spartan decide to have their physical fitness coaching test be a burpee test? “The burpee is a great exercise for building cardio, muscle endurance, mobility and core stability,” says Jeff Godin, PhD, CSCS, SGX, and head of fitness education at Spartan. “The test is relatively easy to administer and doesn’t require any specialized equipment or space.” Godin says there was one pilot test that preceded the Spartan fit test but recalls “Spartan only did it at one workshop, and it was really nothing that exciting to talk about.”
The burpee traces its roots to 1940, the year Royal Huddleston Burpee published a book about seven fitness tests, one of which included a squat thrust that started and ended in a standing position. Two years later, the US Army took notice and Colonel Bank (chief of the Athletics and Recreation Branch) enlisted the services of Charles McCloy and A. A. Esslinger to develop a new physical training and assessment program for the Army, according to A Historical Review and Analysis of Army Physical Readiness Training and Assessment by Whitfield B. East, 2013. They began by administering 25 different fitness assessments to over 400 soldiers. McCloy and Esslinger narrowed the 25 moves to 10 that best separated fit and unfit soldiers, two of which were pull-ups and 20 seconds of burpees. Future iterations of Army Physical Fitness Tests in the 20th century included the burpee, since it was shown to elicit favorable physiological results.
The main benefit of the burpee is that it yields similar or better physical adaptations compared to long endurance training, and in way less time. In a 2012 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 22 recreationally active women were divided into three groups: endurance training (30 minutes of treadmill running at 85 percent maximum heart rate), Tabata training, and a control group that went along with their regular physical activity. Both workout groups trained four days per week for four weeks, but the endurance training group did the same workout every time whereas the Tabata training group did a different workout every day. The Tabata group did eight rounds of 20 seconds of work alternating with 10 seconds rest, doing either burpees, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or squat thrusts to make a 4-minute workout. Both groups increased their aerobic capacity (VO2 max), but only the Tabata group improved muscular endurance as measured by increased work performed in push-ups, machine lat pull-down, chest press machine, leg extension, and leg curl. Another interesting finding was that out of the burpees, climbers, jacks, and squat thrusts, the burpees produced the best heart rate response–the burpee caused a significantly lower training heart rate in week four compared to week one.
The benefits of the burpee in the military has recently been studied too. According to a 2015 study published in Military Medicine, a training program consisting of four to seven sets of 30 seconds of burpees interspersed with four minutes of active recovery (walking at a self-selected pace) maintains fitness just as well as a training program with 60 minutes of typical running and calisthenics. Measures of aerobic and anaerobic capacity and performance in the Army Physical Fitness Test were similar between both groups, suggesting that ROTC cadets can get soldier-ready with just burpees. This is of practical importance for military members because sometimes there is minimal space or equipment for working out while on missions.
Performance on the Spartan Fit Test
Now that we’ve established the burpee as a legitimate exercise tool, let’s explore why five minutes of them is useful. “The Spartan fit test actually can measure many dimensions of fitness,” says Godin. “The test can be used to assess functional movement. A skilled coach can identify mobility and instability issues watching an athlete perform burpees. High scores on the test would indicate high aerobic and anaerobic capacity.”
Here is the definition of a burpee according to Spartan.com: “The Burpee consists of 3 components. At the ‘bottom’ of the burpee the chest touches the ground and the body and legs are straight and parallel to the ground. At the ‘top’ of the burpee, the hips reach a fully extended position with the body and legs straight and perpendicular to the ground. To ‘finish’ the Burpee, the feet must leave the ground with the hands reaching above the ears.”
Day one of two of my Spartan SGX coach workshop had a schedule like this:
9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m.: Spartan Coaching history
10:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m.: the seven pillars of Spartan coaching
11:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.: Spartan fit test
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.: Spartan psychology and motivation
1:00 p.m.–1:30 p.m.: Phase one training: alternative location/animal flow
1:30 p.m.–2:30 p.m.: Lunch
2:30 p.m.–4:00 p.m.: Needs analysis for obstacle course racers
4:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.: Phase two workout
To prepare for the five minutes of exhaustion, I did my normal OCR training, as I had completed a handful of races before my test date. However, I would start workouts with a selected number of minutes of burpees, eventually leading to mimicking the test by doing five minutes of burpees. For example, I did one minute of burpees before 30 minutes on the stairmaster. Then, the next week, I did two minutes of burpees followed by a metabolic conditioning workout, and so on. I never got to 89 burpees during training though, since the adrenaline of the whole room cheering me on probably helped. I would suggest preparing for the Spartan fit test similarly, either starting or ending your normal routine with burpees for a prescribed amount of time. Even if you can only reach four minutes, you’ll be good to go on the day of the Spartan SGX workshop.
“The test is an initial rite of passage for our coaches and their clients,” says Godin. “It is a hard five minutes that few people will ever forget. The final test, of course, is the race.”
Any score above a 70 for people ages 20–70 definitely makes you Spartan fit. However, 30 should be your goal, since that’s all you need to do at once if you miss an obstacle. I’ve done 90 burpees at a Spartan Race in 2016, a year after doing 89 burpees at the Spartan fit test. Training for the Spartan fit test and the test itself are great preparation for the penalty burpees you may encounter during a Spartan race. Even elite athletes do penalty burpees, and in fact, sometimes they choose burpees over an obstacle.
My best burpee tip is to keep your eyes directed toward the ground for the majority of your set. Once you hit the “continuous burpee zone,” you’ll know.
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