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The Physical Agility Test for Police Officer Exam

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Updated on Mar 16, 2011

One of the first very first things to know about this test is that different agencies have different terms for it. Whether it is called the physical agility test, the physical ability test, the physical performance test, or the fitness test, it is an attempt to measure your ability to perform the duties of a police officer or, at least, to be sufficiently agile to complete the training to perform those duties.

To accommodate the entry of women and smaller applicants into policing, many physical agility tests were modified in the 1970s. In some agencies, applicants are permitted to show these competences at the end of academy training rather than prior to acceptance into the academy. While physical agility requirements differ across types of agencies and geographic areas, state police and some federal agencies generally place a higher priority on physical agility tests than other agencies. You may be permitted to enter the academy conditionally if you have not passed these tests, but don't let that prevent you from preparing for them. Any agency may change its rules if the pass rates on the physical agility exam increase, or may group applicants in such a way that a lower score places you in a second-tier entry group.

The physical agility test will measure your abilities through such exercises as sit-ups, push-ups, running a specified distance within a specified time, lifting or dragging something that simulates the size and weight of a person or common object, and similar tasks that can be compared to what police officers may be asked to do during their work day. Some agencies, particularly state police agencies and many police departments in California, have retained a six-foot wall climb as part of the physical agility test. Although many candidates find this the most intimidating of the physical requirements, departments that retain it as part of the test have shown that candidates who prepare sufficiently are consistently able to pass.

Departments use somewhat different exercises and different cutoff scores to indicate passing. Some departments also permit different cutoff scores based on age (called age-norming) or sex (called gendernorming). A few departments, most notably the New Jersey State Police, maintain that all officers must achieve and maintain the same level of fitness because people challenging or running away from an officer do not first determine the age or sex of the officer before deciding whether to stay or to flee and, if to flee, how fleet of foot they must be to escape. In cases where norming is used, it is based on extensive physiological testing to ensure fairness in the selection process.

Sometimes in addition to (but also in some cases in place of) the physical agility test, departments include in the selection process a general fitness test. The fitness tests require less physical exertion and are, in some ways, more similar to the medical exam than to a physical agility test. The fitness exam, rather than have you actually participate in physically exerting activities, measures your body composition, aerobic capacity, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility. Using a variety of tests and medical technology, your height and weight will be measured to see if they are proportionate, your body-fat content will be measured, and your breathing techniques may also be considered. The fitness test involves far less running, jumping, and pushing and pulling, but is viewed by many departments as a better predictor of your ability not only to complete physical tasks but to complete them without becoming injured or disabled.

Agencies that process large numbers of candidates schedule the physical agility test fairly early in the application process. Like the written test, it can be administered to a large number of candidates at the same time—making it a cost-effective and efficient way to determine the number of candidates who will remain in the selection pool.

Agility tests are often scheduled in gyms, field houses, or similar facilities. When you are notified to appear, you will also be advised of what clothing to bring or to wear to the test facility. Generally you will be advised to bring a warm-up suit, sweat pants and shirt, shorts and a T-shirt, and sneakers. Although the test differs from meeting your background investigator or participating in an oral interview, it's still best to maintain a professional image. Your wisest course of action is to rely on plain sweats or shorts and a singlecolor T-shirt without any writing or photos. You may be asked to place masking tape with your name written on it on your gym clothing, another reason that unadorned outfits are best.

Do not bring extra gear or food and liquid refreshment unless you receive instructions to do so, although bringing a towel and a change of clothing for the trip home would be sensible. Bring a few sheets of paper and pencils or pens; you may be given information that you want to write down for retention. Since so much of police work involves taking notes and writing reports, you will almost never be faulted for thinking ahead that a paper and pen are amongst your most important tools of the trade.

As fewer young people play sports competitively and more are involved in sedentary activities in front of their computer screens, the physical agility test has become a serious obstacle for many applicants. To increase the number of candidates who pass, many departments post the entire test on their websites. Many also provide exercises and tips to assist candidates in preparing for the exams. Few of the tasks are based on brute strength; most involve learning a particular technique—including the much feared wall.

Whatever the specifics, each agility test requires you to be physically fit to pass it. Whether or not you are now physically fit, you should begin a physical fitness regimen as early as possible, based on what you can learn about your agency's testing style. Some agencies offer the opportunity to practice for the agility exam under the direction of their physical fitness instructors. This training will give you unique insights into how to pass the physical exam. If it is impossible for you to attend agency-sponsored training, find out if you can receive a copy of the training program to participate on your own or to set up a study group with other candidates. Particularly if you are attending a school with a criminal justice program, others may be interested in forming a physical training study group, which should motivate you to continue until the actual testing period.

What else can you do to prepare for the physical agility test? This is not the type of test you can cram for; you need to start immediately upon learning that you passed the written exam, or even earlier. Even if you change your mind and decide not to become a police officer, getting in better shape than you are now is never a waste of effort. Aside from an organized physical education program, if you know you are overweight, begin a weight reduction program. Improve your aerobic capacity by becoming more active; think about places you could walk to or ride a bicycle to rather than jumping into a car. Could you take up swimming, ice or roller skating, rowing, hiking, jogging, or simply walking?

If the funds or time for joining a gym cause problems for you, think of activities that are totally free.Most of the callisthenic activities you will be tested on can be done at home or in a park. Jumping jacks, squats, situps, push-ups, and stomach crunches help build the strength and flexibility you will need to pass the physical agility exam.How many times do you take an elevator or escalator? Think about walking up and down the stairs next time. Dancing is also an aerobic activity!

Once you set up a workout schedule, stay with it even after you pass the physical portion of the selection process. Remember that the tasks you will be asked to perform will also be part of your academy training, and if you start to exercise regularly and work it into your lifestyle, you will remain fit throughout your career.

Physical Ability Exam Tips

  • Begin a rigorous fitness program and stick with it. Work on your upper body strength, reaction time, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. Make sure you include daily stretches in your routine.
  • Don't forget exercises that strengthen your legs. Strong legs can help you surpass other applicants because most practical physical ability tests (like pulling a dummy, pushing a car, or scaling a wall) involve the use of legs as much as, if not more than, the upper body.
  • Maintain a healthy diet; lay off the junk food!
  • On the day of your exam, eat lightly and don't overdo the caffeine. You want to be clearheaded, energetic, and calm.

Sample Physical Fitness Exam

Here is an example of an actual physical fitness exam used by a police department to screen potential candidates.

  1. Sit-ups. The candidate lies flat on the back, knees bent, heels flat on the floor, fingers interlaced and placed behind the head. The monitor holds the feet down firmly. In the up position, the candidate should touch elbows to knees and return with shoulder blades touching floor. A passing score depends on your age and gender. For example, a 21-year-old female must do 32 sit-ups in one minute to pass the test.
  2. Flex. The candidate removes shoes, sits down with legs extended, and places the feet squarely against a box with feet no wider than eight inches apart. Toes are pointed directly toward ceiling; knees remain extended throughout the test. With hands placed one on top of the other, the candidate leans forward without lunging or bobbing and reaches as far forward as possible. The hands must stay together and the stretch must be held for one second. Three attempts are allowed with the best of the three recorded to the nearest inch to determine whether the candidate passed/failed.
  3. Push-ups. The hands are placed slightly wider than shoulder width apart, with fingers pointing forward. The monitor places one fist on the floor below the candidate's chest. (If a male monitor is testing a female candidate, a 3-inch sponge will be placed under the sternum to substitute for the fist.) Starting from the up position (elbows extended), the candidate must keep the back straight at all times and lower the body to the floor until the chest touches the monitor's fist. The candidate then returns to the up position. This is one repetition. The candidate's score will consist of the number of correct repetitions performed without a break (i.e., failing to extend the elbows, one or both knees touching the floor, hitting the floor, remaining on the floor, or stopping). A 22-year-old male must do 29 push-ups in one minute to achieve a passing score.
  4. One-and-a-half-mile run. The 1.5-mile run will be administered on a track. The candidate will be informed of his/her lap time during the test. A 31-year-old female must be able to complete the 1.5-mile run within 15 minutes and 57 seconds to achieve a passing score.

Staying "FITT"

FITT stands for Frequency, Intensity, Type, and Time. FITT simplifies your training by helping you plan what to do, when, how hard, and for how long. Because the four FITT variables are interrelated, you need to be careful in how you exercise. For example, intensity and time have an inverse relationship: As the intensity of your effort increases, the length of time you can maintain that effort decreases. A good rule of thumb when adjusting your workout variables to achieve optimum conditioning is to modify one at a time, increasing by five to ten percent. Be sure to allow your body time to adapt before adjusting up again.

The following presents some FITT guidelines to help you plan your training program.

Frequency

  • 3-5 times a week

Intensity

  • Aerobic training—60–85% of maximum effort
  • Resistance training—8–12 repetitions
  • Flexibility training—Just to slight tension

Type

  • Aerobic—Bike, walk, jog, swim
  • Resistance—Free weights, weight machines, calisthenics
  • Flexibility—Static stretching

Time

  • Aerobic—20–60 minutes
  • Resistance—1–3 sets, 2–4 exercises/body part
  • Flexibility—Hold stretched position 8–30 seconds
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