war on the rocks

So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance: Observations from the Army Combat Fitness Test Pilot

November 5, 2018

There has been much ado lately over the Army’s decision to implement a new physical fitness test. Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Barno and Nora Bensahel recently authored an indictment, which, while compelling on its surface, did not sufficiently ground its arguments in any substantiating data or corroborating evidence. Contrary to the authors’ assertions, our experience with the test pilot in West Point’s Department of Physical Education suggests that the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is not a disaster in the making. It will not, as they suggest, result in chronically broken soldiers, or in units so bogged down by the logistical demands of accounting for extra gym equipment that they are unable to find time to execute their mission-essential crosswalks. Instead, the ACFT is a meticulously researched, well-thought out, and extensively vetted test of comprehensive physical fitness that will go a long way towards replacing a broken fitness test that has led to a broken fitness culture. To be sure, there are kinks to be addressed and plenty of testing still ahead, but on the basis of our experience at West Point, Army leaders would do well to give the ACFT a chance.

What the Army Combat Fitness Test Is Not

Let us start with the obvious. The ACFT is not its predecessor, the Army Physical Fitness Test. This is a good thing, as that was less a test of comprehensive soldier fitness than it was a measure of how often one performed pushups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. Its ineffectiveness as a measure of fitness was not redeemed by its simplicity.

The ACFT is also not something that is intended to fit seamlessly into the Army’s existing physical training (PT) culture. For those who are familiar with what this culture is, this is also a good thing. Current Army PT culture neither teaches nor incentivizes proper movement mechanics. It inhibits variety by limiting soldiers to an unchanging menu of movements and exercises, thereby distorting soldiers’ perception of what constitutes physical fitness. And it is plagued by a “more work is better work” mentality, which ignores current literature on the importance of recovery and periodization in effective physical training.

Finally, the ACFT is not a direct simulation of the conditions of combat. This fact has not stopped the more cynical dissenters from quibbling over how many medicine balls it will take to defeat the Taliban or how often one has ever had to “throw kettle balls” while in a firefight —  sentiments that have appeared in various forms on Army online discussion forums. It is instead designed to test the general muscular and metabolic pathways that combat regularly stresses. Preliminary ACFT testing conducting from 2015 to 2017 supported this reality: The test had an 80 percent success rate in predicting performance on the most common individual combat skills.

What the ACFT Is

The ACFT is a test of combat fitness that has been six years in the making. Designed to prevent injury and improve combat readiness, it tests along a number of different physical modalities, to include power, muscular strength, muscular endurance, speed, agility, cardio-respiratory endurance, balance, coordination, flexibility, and reaction time. These are widely considered to be the baseline muscular and motor skills that are required of ground combat. Any institutionalized fitness test must address all of these fitness domains with sufficient granularity to both encourage proper soldier development and inform the commander of how to prioritize future training. The current three event Army Physical Fitness Test, which measures aerobic capacity and limited muscular endurance through pushups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run, has failed in this regard.

The current test has also failed in the realm of injury prevention. The vast majority of musculoskeletal injuries are the result of improper movement patterns. They are, therefore, imminently preventable. Yet the Army’s failure to prevent them results in a loss of over 10 million duty days each year and accounts for over 70 percent of the Army’s medically non-deployable population. This is not something that we can simply chalk up to the rigors of the military profession — it is a direct reflection of the fact that a significant percentage of the force is physically unprepared to meet these rigors. The Army’s 2010 Physical Readiness Training initiative attempted to address some of these deficiencies through its emphasis on kinesthetic awareness and proper movement patterns, but the current injury rate suggests that it did not go far enough.

The ACFT aims to address the Army’s preventable injury problem by leveraging an initial $30 million equipment investment to significantly reduce the billions of dollars spent annually on injured soldiers. This equipment will incentivize safe training by enabling soldiers to learn proper movement patterns. The experience of the Australian army suggests that this trade-off will be worth it. The Australians instituted a training methodology very similar to the ACFT in 2016, and it decreased the injury rate of their initial entry trainees by 40 percent. Yes, units will have more equipment to maintain, and yes, it is likely that not all will go according to plan during the fielding process. But the challenges of receiving and maintaining equipment are unit-level leader problems that have little to do with the test’s effectiveness in measuring or incentivizing soldier fitness. Concerns that the equipment will be too much for units to properly maintain and distribute speak less to the effectiveness of the test than to the state of the Army’s Command Supply Discipline Program. Such logistical alarmism does not contribute to substantive discussion of how to change Army fitness culture, nor should it be used as an excuse to avoid giving units the very thing they so often request at the small-unit level: access to functional fitness equipment and the permission to use it during PT hours.

The ACFT is also intended to provoke a shift in Army fitness culture as part of a broader long-term overhaul of the Army’s entire approach to health and wellness. Called the Holistic Health and Fitness initiative, this overhaul is intended to address everything from access to proper physical fitness expertise to the nutritional deficiencies of the average soldier diet. While the complete initiative will take time to implement, naysayers may rest assured that senior Army leadership do not intend to airdrop the ACFT onto every brigade parade field and leave it for units to sift through the rubble.

Observations from the Pilot

The U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Physical Education administered the ACFT twice in the past two weeks to two different populations: members of the faculty who are over 40 years old, and the class of 2019. The class of 2019 is particularly representative because the testing population is the approximate size of a light infantry battalion. Using 16 testing lanes over the course of two days, it took just under four hours per day to test 732 cadets, plus 40 minutes of daily set up and tear down. The test was administered on a large, flat field adjacent to a two-mile run course. It required 32 graders, each of whom had been trained on movement standards, grading criteria, and traffic flow through one hour-long session the week prior. By testing four cadets per lane, throughput was approximately 64 cadets every 25 minutes, yielding an overall flow rate of around 128 people per hour. Throughput was enabled by the use of six lane supervisors who helped to manage graders, monitor movement standards, and field questions. Neither the cadet population nor the over-40 population sustained any injuries during testing — a remarkable statistic given that some test participants had never done a deadlift. Cadet feedback was largely positive, in spite of the fact that few approached the maximum test score.

What did we learn about the ACFT from this experience? First, the test is not “too complicated,” nor is its execution too time- and labor-intensive for the average unit to handle. Our pilot suggests that four hours for 400 people is a generous upper limit for overall testing time. That number will only go down as units and leaders gain testing familiarity. The data show that a battalion of 514 soldiers, using one company to grade, will be able to test their entire formation in four and a half to five hours. This is, admittedly, about two–three times longer than it takes to administer the current APFT, but is still less time than it takes to rehearse for and execute a single battalion change of command.

Furthermore, the comparative complexity of the new test may turn out to be a good thing. The amount of planning and preparation required to administer the ACFT means that it will likely become a battalion-level event, as opposed to a company-, squad-, or platoon-level event that it is easy for leaders to ignore. This means that every member of the battalion will have to participate, and they will have to do so in front of other unit members. Gone are the days of pencil-whipping an APFT card or of leaders simply opting out of an APFT because they cannot be bothered to take it. The ACFT may thus bring a welcome culture change not only in its emphasis on realistic physical standards, but on its demand for visible leader accountability to those standards. Far from micromanaging, the ACFT has the potential to empower local commanders to hold themselves and their formations to a higher standard of fitness across a broader range of physical domains.

While it is true that the ACFT requires specialized equipment, it does not necessarily follow that access to equipment will be the limiting factor in a soldier’s ability to properly train. As stated above, the ACFT is a true fitness test in that it tests broad fitness modalities rather than one’s ability to simply perform a series of prescribed exercises. Whereas the only preparation for the current test consisted of performing the specific movements of the test, ad nauseam, preparation for the new test can consist of a variety of movements and exercises that test the same or similar fitness attributes. We found this held in the feedback from the cadets’ own recent experience.

Barno and Bensahel also suggest that the test complexity means it will not scale well across the force, particularly to National Guard and Reserve units or those stationed in far-flung locales. While it is true that certain units may be at a comparative disadvantage in terms of equipment access, as well as in the relative number of training days available to administer the test, neither of these are sufficiently disqualifying to ditch the test altogether. As argued above, there are a variety of ways in which one can prepare for the ACFT besides simply using the test’s own equipment.

For example, a barbell is a fine substitute for a trap bar, as are the numerous deadlift variations that access to YouTube or Instagram can sufficiently explain. Plate pulls and pushes or weighted Skedco drags all achieve the same physical end state as the ACFT’s canvas sled drag. The 40-pound kettle bells were specifically chosen because they approximate the weight of a full ammo can or a five-gallon water jug — which means that they can be replaced in training with ammo cans or water jugs. This is not to say that soldiers should be made to rely purely on self-instruction and equipment substitutions for their fitness preparation, but it is to say that one can sufficiently prepare for the ACFT without regular access to ACFT equipment.

Barno and Bensahel also worry that the ACFT will result in more injuries, not fewer. This conclusion is not backed up by current testing data, nor is it supported by the similar experiences of partner nations, such as the Australian military. There is nothing unduly complex about picking something up and putting it down, sprinting, carrying something heavy, or having the core strength to lift one’s lower body while suspended. These movements may be difficult, but they are not complex. Others have worried specifically about the deadlift, but the fact is that the trap bar deadlift is widely considered to be safer than its barbell alternative. Furthermore, if so many people in the Army do not know how to properly lift something heavy that the thought of testing them on the task causes widespread panic, that in itself suggests that the Army is in desperate need of this test. If the West Point pilot experience is any indication, the ACFT will actually decrease injury rates over time by forcing soldiers to train proper movements in preparation for a test that they can no longer afford to approach from a cold start.

Set the Standard, Maintain the Standard

All of that is well and good, but what about the unrealistically high testing standards? The ACFT standards are deliberately high with the expectation that few — probably less than 1–2 percent of the overall force — will be able to achieve the highest score. This means that the results of the test are actually meaningful, and will thus go farther to inform participants about a unit’s overall fitness than the slew of inflated scores that one would expect to see on an APFT. And even if soldiers, for whatever reason, only aim for the minimum score, they will have still achieved a higher level of overall fitness than what is possible through the repeated exercise of pushups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. User experience at West Point and elsewhere suggests that soldiers prefer this more challenging format.

Similarly, some might argue that the age- and gender-neutral standards are unreasonable and will unfairly impact certain subsets of the population. This argument makes the mistake of evaluating the ACFT according to APFT expectations. Successful implementation of the ACFT will demand a culture shift in how the Army approaches physical fitness in general and the fitness test in particular. Gone are the days in which all leaders are expected to max the fitness test, or in which soldiers will be able to let their fitness atrophy under the guise of “getting older.” Instead, soldiers of all sizes and shapes will be indiscriminately tested on their strength, speed, and athleticism, with the expectation that they will be able to maintain a passing range of performance throughout the duration of their career. Given that there are few battalion commanders out there who are able to max the test according to current proposed standards, it is reasonable to assume that this culture shift will be swift.

One can agree with this perspective yet still find the numerical standards of the ACFT to be somewhat arbitrary. When in combat will anyone have to lift 340 pounds by him or herself? the argument goes. These protestations are understandable, but they ultimately miss the point of the test. The average soldier may never have to lift 340 pounds in combat — but a soldier should be strong and confident enough in his or her own strength to know that he or she can withstand whatever unpredictable physical rigors combat might throw the soldier’s way. Neither the APFT nor the process of training for it does anything to engender this type of holistic physical confidence.

Not the Perfect Challenge, but the Right Challenge

Soldiers want to be challenged, and will adjust their expectations of fitness according to the standards to which they are held. The ACFT is not perfect, nor is it final in its current form. It is, however, a welcome first step towards changing the Army’s fitness culture and improving its dismal injury rate. The test will continue to be refined throughout the ACFT pilot, with the expectation that final standards and modifications — from minimum and maximum pushup standards to the comparative effect of grass versus turf on the sled drag — will not be published until the pilot concludes in 2019. However, the lack of perfect standards now is not a good enough reason to continue to delay the Army’s necessary fitness overhaul into the indeterminate future.

As lieutenants at Fort Bragg, we used to joke about how we had to stay in shape in spite of the Army, not because of it. The ACFT may be imperfect, but it is a marked improvement to the wholly inadequate system of physical fitness that once inspired our cynicism. By working to change the Army’s fitness culture, the ACFT is a necessary first step in making this sort of cynicism obsolete.

 

Capt. Will Fuller is an Army infantry officer and current instructor in the West Point Department of Physical Education.

Capt. Sally White is an Army cyber officer and PhD candidate at Harvard University.

The views expressed here are their own and not those of the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.