The death of the pull-up in Singapore

987

By Ian Tan

When I was 13, I couldn’t do pull-ups and I was in despair.

I had joined the National Cadet Corps as my extra-curricular activity and being able to do pull-ups like a real adult in the army was a big deal. You were often admired if you were a “pull-up king”.

My good friends Derek, Eu Jin and Jerry appeared to have no problems doing pull-ups and I kept struggling to get my chin over the bar just once. I remember I even had a dream where I managed to do 10 repetitions and I was so happy; then I woke up.

Over time, with many push-ups and help from my friends who had to keep pushing me above the bar, I earned the ability to do my first pull-up and I was over the moon… err, iron bar.

Doing pull-ups became a regular affair as I later joined the ACJC dragon boat team and through the army days. Even today, nearly 20 years after I was enlisted, I still do pull-ups as part of my regular exercise regime.

Last week, the Singapore Armed Forces announced that it was revamping the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) to have just three stations – 2.4km run, sit-ups and push-ups – instead of the current five.

The Defence Minister said the change was to make the test “easier to pass” and “to train for”. The Chief of Army disagreed with the bit on “easier to pass”, focusing on saying that the test was “easier to train for”.

What we all can agree on is that the government continues to flunk at basic public relations when it cannot be consistent with the right message. “Easier to pass” vs “Easier to train for” are two very different things.

A lot of people have opinions on the IPPT changes. My personal take is that it’s a real cop-out and a poor case of problem solving by the SAF to solve the high failure rate in the IPPT test.

It has also effectively killed off the pull-up, an exercise which has caused much pain, and perhaps joy, with us Singapore guys.

Solving the wrong problems

I don’t know the actual numbers (and the media didn’t even know how to focus on this bit), but from my observations over the past decade, the camps have been swelling with too many people taking remedial training after failing their tests.

Even during my reservist training, there were years when nearly half my company of  guys in their 20s would fail their annual in-camp test.

High failure rate means a lot of money and time being spent by the SAF to conduct remedial sessions for tens of thousands of  NSmen. Giving out monetary awards for getting a pass grade ($100) didn’t work either in reducing failure rates.

To make things even worse, the SAF made it a nine-month window instead of the 12-month window for one to take the test each year, causing much more grief among NSmen.

So rather than truly understand why is it that failure rates were so high, the SAF decided to lower its physical fitness standards. No matter what their logic is – three stations are obviously easier than five.

No time to exercise?

I believe the high IPPT failure rate, especially among reservists, is simply due to the less healthy lifestyles of people today. People make all sorts of excuses why they fail their IPPT, but what about people who don’t fail? They dedicate time and effort to exercise regularly and eat properly, and they don’t complain about having to run 2.4km at heart-bursting speed because this is part of national defence.

Even during my miserable days of being a frazzled father to my first baby and having zero work-life balance during my journalism days, I took the effort to train a few months ahead of each IPPT test.

For those who are cheering the new test, some bad news: If you don’t exercise regularly, you will still fail the 2.4km portion of the new test. Personally, I think the 2.4km run is really tough even though I jog about 18km a week now at a moderate pace.

To run at the required speed, it requires intense interval training and a 2.4km practice session is thorougly unenjoyable for most people. The worst thing is that no matter how fast you run the 2.4km, you’ll only burn 150 calories, the equivalent of a can of Coke. So reservists who think they are exercising well by running 2.4km a few times a week, and yet eat unhealthily, will still get fat.

If the SAF wants men to get into exercising regularly in their daily lives, the 2.4km test is NOT the way to convince people about a healthy lifestyle. A 3.2km or 5km run at a slower pace is a much better way to build cardio in the population over the long run.

What will they cut next?

Every generation of reservists will always mock the latter generation as being softer and weaker. I try not to do so, because I’ve endured the insults from my seniors and I don’t like it too.

But we have a problem when army boys no longer wash their own toilets and now don’t even have to do a pull-up. Why, I heard that it’s not even necessary to pass the Standard Obstacle Course in the BMT anymore!

Some army general will then give us the same old tired line of defence:  “Times are not the same anymore, this is a 3G army and we have to change with the times.”

All I know about a 3G army is that our boys are carrying more ridiculously heavy loads while being asked not to be as fit as previous generations.

I shook my head when I saw young soldiers having to wear thick elbow and knee guards in the field to prevent injuries from fire-movements. The current skeletal battle order prevents a lot of air-flow and the full-pack can fit a small child.

That’s just adding to the chance of getting a heat stroke in an age of global warming. Nobody wants to solve the problem of heat-inducing heavy personal gear in the SAF, but let’s reduce the IPPT stations ok?

Combat fitness is not IPPT fitness

No matter what you think of the old five stations – I hated SBJ to death because I never got the technique right – they tested a wide range of body capabilities and I always agreed that they were reasonable tests of overall fitness.

People like to link IPPT stations to combat fitness but are they really so intertwined? In my experience and opinion, real combat fitness is a different ball game of endurance and strength (both physical and mental) in the field – getting a gold in IPPT doesn’t mean anything when you’re wheezing during a firefight with an overloaded full-battle order.

Our boys are so weighed down by their gear you’ll never see them sprinting very much in the field. The IPPT tests a spectrum of anaerobic and aerobic fitness, so let’s leave it at that. It’s important to be fit in the army, but it’s tiring to hear people justify why each station will help you in a certain specific task.

(Nobody could explain clearly why “Sit and Reach” was important until it was thankfully deleted from national fitness tests)

I could go on about this but what the SAF decides, the SAF does. And I’ve already completed my reservist cycle, so people will ask me why I’m not happy with the changes since I don’t even have to take the IPPT anymore.

I thought long about it, and I’ll tell you that I’m most upset over the death of the pull-up experience in Singapore.

Goodbye, pull-up bars

From here on, our young men will never need to worry about not being able to pull their own body weight and lift their chin over a miserable bar.

I don’t know if this means they’ll have more difficulty scaling a low-wall or getting out of a big trench they just dug, but the SAF will assure us that it’s ok. Then I want to ask why did we have to do pull-ups for so many decades?

It’s never been easy to find a pull-up bar in Singapore playgrounds or parks (that could explain why people kept failing too, since they had so little chance to practise).

Now, they’ll disappear for good. And so will the iconic pull-up bars in all the army camps that bear the encrusted sweat and tears of thousands of young soldiers.

All the expensive IPPT pull-up/shuttle run/SBJ stations that the SAF invested in to automate IPPT tests… those will be gone soon too.

For decades, the pull-up has been a cornerstone of a Singaporean male’s fitness grading. Whether you could do a pull-up or not, we all spent hours trying our best to conquer that iron bar.

To those guys who could never do a pull-up and just gave up, I can tell you that no matter your weight or size, you can definitely overcome the odds because I’ve seen really heavy guys do it well. The help of friends is important too, and I remain forever grateful to those who struggled to push my butt above their shoulders until my own muscles were strong enough to take over.

And when we finally managed to do that very first pull-up, what could be sweeter than that joy of overcoming one of the greatest challenges in a Singaporean guy’s life?