Chong Zi Liang

Yes, the IPPT is now easier, and the SAF should just say so

One of my most vivid memories from Basic Military Training a decade ago is of meal times. Or more specifically, about 20 minutes before lunch and dinner.

Our whole platoon would line up at the chin-up bars, each recruit taking his turn to hoist his head above that dreaded bar as many times as he could.

Some didn't need the practice, rapidly cranking out 20 or more chin-ups as if they were weightless. A few poor souls were not as blessed - they kicked, swung and scrunched their knees to their chest, but their elbows would barely bend.

Chin-ups have been a staple for generations of soldiers, so I was surprised that they have been dropped from the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) and replaced with push-ups as part of the military's fitness standards revamp.

Some national servicemen took to cyberspace, zero-ing in on the relative difficulty of push-ups versus chin-ups, and wondered aloud if the army was going soft.

Although both are upper body exercises, they focus on different muscle groups. Chin-ups work the upper back and biceps; push-ups, the chest muscles and triceps.

In a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page, general practitioner Yik Keng Yeong noted that the chin-up "is far more difficult to perform than the push-up". And unlike the push-up, a lean physique is needed to perform a chin-up. "One can literally do 100 push-ups - an impossibility with pull-ups," he wrote.

Perhaps the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) could have acknowledged right off the bat that the new benchmarks are less stringent for a practical reality: Too many soldiers find the IPPT too difficult and don't even bother to train for it. Only half the 116,000 men who attempt the current IPPT clear the test.

And maybe fitness levels might actually rise if more men made an effort to pass the more attainable goal of push-ups.

Instead, the SAF top brass got caught up with assuring everyone that simplifying the IPPT from five stations to three did not necessarily mean making it easier, stressing that push-ups are excellent for testing upper body strength and endurance. Indeed, someone my age, 28, will have to do 57 push-ups in under 60 seconds for a perfect score.

Unfortunately, the way the SAF pitched it just got NSmen comparing push-ups and chin-ups, with many actually defending the latter.

No one would argue that the IPPT, introduced in 1982, was due for a review. The new three-station test - push-ups, sit-ups and a timed run - seems a good choice and it is used by no less than the United States army and Israeli Defence Force, both battle-hardened fighting forces.

But don't expect NSmen past and present to stop harking back to how much tougher the IPPT was back in their days. Strange though it may seem, they may even continue to wax lyrical about chin-ups for some time to come.

This is because the chin-up has long been ingrained in the Singaporean male as the ultimate gauge of his upper body strength.

Way before national service, secondary schoolboys go through a rite of passage performing chin-ups to pass the National Physical Fitness Award Test.

I remember my trepidation in Secondary 1 when I first gripped the chin-up bar, and the sinking feeling when I couldn't muster a single rise, and the elation when I finally managed to lift my head over the bar after months of training at the back of the school field.

Chin-ups are also a way of life for many in school uniformed groups and sports, including canoeing.

No chin-ups in the army? After being tested through secondary school and junior college, it will feel to some like being let off the hook.

I called Forum writer Dr Yik and learnt that he is 58 years old and enlisted for NS in 1975. He accepts that every generation feels it had things tougher than the generation following, but remains convinced the IPPT has been made easier to pass. "It's just politically incorrect to say out loud," he said. But he also conceded that having push-ups instead of chin-ups is not entirely a bad thing as it may motivate those who used to keep failing the IPPT to aim for a pass now.

"Those who could never hope to do one chin-up now have a chance to clear the IPPT. Perhaps with the more realistic standards, people will try harder," he said.

The experts also tell us that chin-ups are more challenging and harder to do, but push-ups are more specific in distinguishing each soldier's upper body capabilities.

So two men, neither of whom can do a single chin-up, may not necessarily be equally strong, or weak.

One of them may well be able to do more push-ups than the other, so this test would differentiate their abilities, said Dr Ng Chung Sien of the Changi Sports Medical Centre.

Ultimately, the SAF hopes that NSmen will put more effort into training for the new three-station test. No specialised equipment is needed, and you can pump out the push-ups right in your living room.

I think the military would have sold its new programme to the citizen army more easily if it had just said upfront: Yes, we've made it easier for you.

And sent this message as well: No need to agonise over chin-ups any more. But you still need to keep fit, so squeeze in those push-ups whenever and wherever you can.

Now that would have been something all of us NSmen, busy with our civilian lives, would have understood right away. After all, we're no longer recruits and our days of attempting chin-ups before meals are well behind us.