What Is The Military Tape Test?

Definition & Examples of the Military Tape Test

Female military officer doing chin-ups

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The military tape test is the official method used to estimate body fat for military officers. The test must be administered to all soldiers at least once every six months to ensure they meet the required standards.

Given how much military work requires officers to be physically active, the government requires that soldiers maintain certain health and fitness levels to be able to serve effectively. Body fat is one of the key physical measurements soldiers must maintain.

What Is the Military Tape Test?

There are several methods of measuring body fat. The most common of these is the Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is defined as body weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. BMI ranges are defined as follows: 

BMI Weight Status
Below 18.5 Underweight
18.5 – 24.9 Normal or healthy
25.0 – 29.9 Overweight
30.0 or higher Obese
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

However, the military tape test uses circumference measurements around the neck and two spots at the waist. This measurement is placed into an algorithm chart to produce a percentage of body fat.

How the Military Tape Test Works

As of 2018, about 17.4% of the military is considered obese. The military has strict physical fitness standards and body fat standards in order to keep soliders fit for duty, so those numbers are not considered acceptable.

In order to maintain accurate health assessments, the Department of Defense requires that all military officers be assessed with the tape test at least once every six months. The test must be administered by two trained individuals who know the proper points of measurement on the hips, abdomen, and neck, as well as the right way to tension the tape measure.

The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps use a basic height-weight body mass index tool as an initial assessment, and then those who exceed weight limits get taped. Men are measured at the neck and waist, women at the neck, waist, and hips. For both, the neck measurement is subtracted from the other measurements in an equation designed to determine their “circumference value.” Those results are then compared against height measurements using Pentagon-generated charts to determine the body fat percentage.

Current military body mass policy requires service members to maintain body fat levels as follows:

Age Group Max Body Fat % — Male Max Body Fat % — Female
17 – 20 20% 30%
21 – 27 22% 32%
28 — 39 24% 34%
40 and older 26% 36%
Source: Department of the Army, "The Army Body Composition Program."

The consequences of exceeding body fat standards within the services are severe. These can include fitness programs, limits on promotions, and ultimately discharge.

Limitations of the Miltary Tape Test

While the tape test is cheap and easy to administer, many complain that it’s not accurate. The tape test accounts for the size of an individual but does not take muscle mass into consideration.

There have even been instances when soldiers having maxed out the fitness test and failed the tape test. When they questioned the results, and after had hydrostatic testing, it was determined that their body fat was well within acceptable limits.

In this method, you sit on a scale in a tank of warm water, blow all the air out of your lungs, and bend forward until you're completely submerged. After a few seconds, your underwater weight registers on a high-precision scale. The result is then plugged into a mathematical equation to get an extremely accurate reading of your body fat percentage.

Hydrostatic underwater weighing is the most cumbersome method of body fat testing, but it's also the most accurate.

Is the Tape Test Fair?

Troops have complained the tape test is unfair, saying it is an inaccurate gauge of fitness with too large an impact on their careers. They feel that the tape test is only administered to ensure that individuals have a proper military appearance and function of their duties. At least for now, however, it is still the primary standard for checking body fat in the military.

Key Takeaways

  • The military tape test is the official method used to calculate a soldier's body fat percentage.
  • It compares height to circumference measurements at points around the hips, abdomen, and neck to determine body fat.
  • Maximum body fat percentages for officers vary by age and gender.