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  • Writer's pictureLTC Brechin, USAF, Ret.

Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA): Maximizing Pull-Ups

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Pull-ups are a unique exercise that must be practiced often!

Practicing the CFA Pull-Ups event for the US service academies

The second (but often most difficult) event of the Candidate Fitness Assessment is the pull-up! As most readers will recognize, the CFA is an important step in your application to one of the U.S. service academies: the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Most will note that the Coast Guard Academy does not use the CFA and does not test this skill.

The pull-up itself represents a practical skill required for any soldier, airman, marine, sailor or guardian -- the ability to pull yourself over an obstacle and potentially out of harms way. The pull-up differs from a chin-up. The former is accomplished with palms facing forward, and the latter is done with palms facing back toward your face and "chin."

So let's explore the details. First, here are the formal instructions for this CFA event:

  • The candidate:

    • Mounts the bar with a pronated grip (back of the hands facing the candidate) with arms fully extended in a static hang.

    • Cannot swing, kick, or bicycle legs during upward movement.

    • Will raise her/his body until the jaw line is above the bar and parallel to the ground.

    • Executes each repetition on cadence (command).

    • Returns to a fully-extended static hang position to complete each repetition.

Candidate pull-up using the proper technique for the CFA

  • The scorer:

    • Note the event start time (as it should be 5:00 minutes elapsed).

    • Before giving the "GO" command, ensure the candidate's elbows are fully extended and shoulders are relaxed in a "dead hang."

    • If a candidate needs to use a chair to grip the bar, pull the chair away and take the time to ensure the candidate is in a straight-armed, relaxed shoulder "dead hang" before beginning.

    • Do not allow the candidate to jump off the ground or a chair to gain momentum for the first repetition. Require a short fully-extended period before giving the "GO" command.

    • On the command "GO" start the event. When the candidate's chin rises above the bar, command "DOWN". When the candidate reaches the starting position with arms fully extended, command "UP." At the end of two minutes, command "STOP," and record the number of correctly executed repetitions.

    • May steady the candidate by extending an arm in front of him/her on each repetition.

    • Monitor each repetition to determine that the candidate's chin is parallel to the ground and over the bar in the up position and that arms are fully extended in the down position.

    • When a candidate reaches the maximum number of repetitions in under the 2-minute period (18 for men; 7 for women), the command "STOP" will be given.

Now, you know the details. So how do you get started?

It is important that you practice pull-ups using the proper form. Many will form the bad habit of swinging their legs. Another bad habit is reaching your chin to the bar, instead of raising yourself up with a horizontal chin above the bar. The photograph above demonstrates the proper form.

To improve consistently, I suggest that you install a pull-up bar at your home. It should ideally be accessible at any hour of the day to allow you to practice anytime you like. However, many students will want to supplement their pull-ups with other upper body exercises.

A great resource that I recommend is from the former-Navy SEAL, USNA graduate and military fitness expert, Stew Smith. His article, How to Pass the Service Academy CFA, is quite thorough and provides a spectrum of exercises to help you improve your pull-ups as well as the other CFA events. Also, for candidates struggling to complete their first pull-up, I recommend watching Stew Smith's online video, which presents a great set of exercises to work your way up to your first pull-up and beyond.

I recommend that my students aim to reach the average performance on all of the CFA events. My blog "Failing the CFA" provides guidelines for all of the events. For pull-ups, the averages are 13 for men and 4 for women, which may vary a small increment from year to year across the different service academies. Since West Point requires you to video your pull-ups, their averages may be a bit lower.

For women, you should aim to accomplish at least one pull-up, which will provide a higher score than achieving the maximum time on the Flex-Arm Hang. My article about the Flex-Arm Hang discusses the event and preparations for female candidates.

The pull-up is a unique exercise. It is often the most difficult event for candidates taking the CFA. Excel, practice and use good form. Be sure to supplement your pull-up practices with other upper body exercises. If you follow this advice, then you too will 'max' the CFA pull-ups!

[ I would welcome a chance to discuss details with you. I offer coaching services to pace and prepare you (and your parents!) for the entire Academy application process . . . including your preparations for the CFA. Contact me at chris@cbbrechin.com, 503.515.7406 or use my contact form on this website. ]

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