Army unveils new, six-event physical fitness test to help ready troops for combat
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 10, 2018
WASHINGTON – The Army will roll out its long-planned update to its physical fitness test during the next two years, with a new six-event assessment that will dramatically improve the service’s ability to predict how a soldier will perform in combat, senior officials said Monday.
By October 2020, the new test, dubbed the Army Combat Fitness Test, will replace the three-event Army Physical Fitness Test, which was used for nearly four decades, said Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, the chief of the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training at Fort Eustis in Virginia. By that time, soldiers across the force will have to pass the new test twice a year to remain in the service.
But the test itself still needs some tweaking, Frost said Monday at the Pentagon.
While the service’s top officials have finalized the events that the ACFT will include, they have yet to determine what requirements soldiers must meet in those exercises to pass the test, the general said. The Army will begin training soldiers in 60 battalions across the service in October to take the test in a year-long study to determine its ultimate event standards.
“We don’t need to rush into this and we’re not going to,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dan Dailey, the service’s top enlisted soldier. “We’re going to take about year to do a lot of assessment of this… because we don’t have all the answers yet.”
The events chosen are designed to mimic actions that soldiers regularly perform in combat situations or evaluate specific aspects of physical fitness, Dailey and Frost said.
The events are:
- Strength deadlift: Soldiers will perform three repetitions of deadlift at the heaviest weight they are capable of between 120 and 420 pounds. The deadlift replicates picking up heavy equipment or a wounded comrade in combat.
- Standing power throw: Soldiers will throw a 10-pound medicine ball backward as far as they can. The exercise tests muscular explosive power, replicating aiding a fellow soldier over an obstacle or moving rapidly across uneven terrain.
- Hand-release push-up: Soldiers will perform as many hand-release push-ups as possible in two minutes. In a hand-release push-up, soldiers lift their hands and arms from the ground at the bottom of the push-up.
- Sprint, drag, carry: Soldiers will twice sprint up and down a 25-meter lane, drag a 90-pound sled up and down the lane, and carry two 40-pound kettlebell weights up and down the lane. The exercises are meant to simulate pulling a soldier to safety, moving quickly to cover or carrying gear.
- Leg tuck: Hanging from a pull-up bar, soldiers will lift their legs up and down touching their knees or thighs to their elbows as many times as possible during two minutes. The exercise strengthens core muscles, requiring more strength than traditional sit-ups
- Two-mile run: Soldiers will complete the test with a two-mile run, as they must in the APFT. However, Frost said, soldiers will have only five minutes of rest between the leg tuck and the run, which will likely slow their times by 45 seconds to two minutes compared to the current test.
The new fitness test will be designed to be gender and age neutral, Frost said. That does not mean every soldier in the Army will be required to achieve the same base scores, however. Among the aspects that the Army will begin to study in October is whether certain military occupational specialties – such as infantrymen or cannon crew members – should have higher test score standards than others or whether certain units require higher standards, he said.
That does mean that senior leaders in brigades or battalions will be held to the exact same standards as their much-younger soldiers, Frost said. To command at any level, leaders will have to pass the ACFT standards set for their unit or job.
Feedback from some soldiers on the new test submitted through official channels has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to the Army.
"As we all know, physical fitness training can become rather monotonous if people train the same way," said Michael McGurk, the director of research and analysis at the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training. "So, a lot of them saw this as a great change and how it required them to use different muscles.”
But privately and on social media, some soldiers expressed mixed reactions to the new test. Many of them who said they were in favor of the updated fitness assessment agreed with Dailey’s and Frost’s assertions that it would better prepare soldiers to fight, rather than simply to pass a test.
But some others raised concerns, including the need for specific equipment to train for the test, risk of injury if some of the tasks are not performed with proper form and whether the current test needs replacing at all.
Army Maj. Rick Montcalm, the deputy director of the Army’s Modern War Institute at West Point, outlined several of those common concerns expressed privately by soldiers about the Army Combat Fitness Test in a recent essay published on the institute's website before the service officially approved the new test.
Montcalm described the new test as “much more intensive” and agreed the ACFT would better assess soldiers’ abilities to fight. Among his chief concerns, however, is the cost to outfit units with the equipment needed for the tests.
Frost said the Army intends to supply each Army battalion with 15 sets of the gear needed, including the medicine balls, the bar and weights for deadlifts, the pull-up bars, weight sleds and kettlebells. In total, the gear is expected initially to cost the Army about $30 million, he said.
“That’s a big budget pill to swallow after almost four decades of a nearly cost-free physical fitness assessment,” Montcalm wrote. “That also doesn’t address associated costs of equipment replacement over time or potentially reconfiguring on-base fitness facilities to allow soldiers to train for these news tasks.”
The equipment is expected to last units about 10 years, Frost said.
Montcalm suggested the exercises could largely be done using actual combat gear, instead of fielding new equipment to each Army battalion.
“Rather than purchasing kettlebells to simulate carrying ammunition, why not carry ammunition cans?” he wrote. “… it would be easy to fill them with a set amount of weight and use them for the test.”
The ACFT is the culmination of nearly seven years of study of soldiers’ physical fitness capabilities, Frost said. While the old test was an effective tool for measuring general physical fitness, the new test is designed specifically to measure how fit a soldier is to perform combat tasks – such as loading artillery rounds, conducting long patrols, evacuating wounded comrades or hauling supplies on the battlefield, he said.
“The current physical fitness test is only a 40 percent predictor … for effectiveness of performing your tasks in combat,” Frost said. “This [new] test is approximately an 80 percent predictor of performance in combat.”
If soldiers embrace the new test, he said, it should help change the service’s overall attitude toward physical fitness, an aspect Montcalm raised in his essay.
“The challenge we have – too many folks only train for the current test to pass the test,” Frost said. “So this is a cultural problem that needs to be changed in the Army, where we train on all aspects of physical fitness so we are better prepared for combat.
“It’s simple — if you are training for this [new] PT test, then you are training for combat.”