It’s Not About the Test: Toward a Better Fitness Training Regimen for the Army
This year’s introduction of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) presents soldiers with their first new physical assessment since the Army Physical Fitness Test was introduced in 1982. This institutional shift is intended to address holistic, combat-ready fitness, and it has been met with significant hype. Some fear that a new test will unduly burden units and result in more injuries. Others worry that failing to modernize the test will prevent the Army from meeting relevant battlefield needs. But many of these debates, while certainly engaging and useful, overlook a deeper point: Instead of focusing so intently on how to test the force, critics should pay more attention on how to train it.
The rollout of the new test offers an opportunity to recognize the lack of a detailed training protocol accompanying it. If the Army is ever going to have the combat-ready force it desires, it must fundamentally shift the way it views training physical fitness.
Individual soldiers and units exercise almost every day, but they don’t follow a training program. The results are the same drivers that led the Army to develop the ACFT in the first place: poor physical performance and abnormally high rates of musculoskeletal injuries.
While the Army is rightly attempting to improve readiness and reduce injuries, modern exercise science would simply recommend developing a training regimen that directs how to physically prepare for combat, centralize the resources and expertise needed to carry out the program, and establish a clear timeline that enables soldiers to optimize their performance. The irony is that this framework is not novel: The Army uses it for nearly every task it trains. Physical fitness training should be no different.
The Fitness Test: A Certification, Not a Substitute for a Training Regimen
The Army is adept at transforming untrained civilians into proficient warfighters. Recruits with little to no experience quickly become capable of flying helicopters and driving tanks in high-risk environments. Leaders know their soldiers are capable of executing those tasks because the helicopter pilots and tank gunners are routinely required to validate their readiness at the individual and unit level.
To take a useful parallel, live-fire exercises — complex maneuver events that use live ammunition — often serve as the culminating event at the end of a training cycle. These exercises are infrequent, intensive training events that are only executed when conditions provide a high likelihood of success. They occur after months of focused training that start with basic, individual tasks, and incrementally move toward more complex, collective tasks. Leaders assess the risk of the exercises, take steps to mitigate that risk, and provide direct oversight.
Live-fire exercises are the culmination of an intense training regimen, just as any fitness test should be. A certification without a proper training regimen is the equivalent of executing a live-fire exercise — in which attack helicopter pilots and tank gunners shoot live rounds in close proximity to ground forces — before any leader checks to see if they can actually fly or aim correctly. In fitness, it’s the difference between training and exercising.
This is not to say that daily training and execution of the test should be as intensive or complex as a live-fire exercise, but rather that the training regimen should follow the same supervised, well-defined, well-timed process. The goals should be the same: provide a systematic method that culminates with an objective measure of readiness.
The Framework: Prescriptive, Centralized, and Periodized Training
How does the Army consistently transform civilians into soldiers who fly helicopters and drive tanks? Its success relies on three pillars: the training is prescriptive, centrally managed, and periodized. These elements should similarly underlie a training regimen for soldier fitness that culminates in the ACFT as its certification.
Prescriptive: (adjective) relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method.
From the day those helicopter pilots and tank crews enter the Army, they are told how, when, and what to do in order to progress from untrained to trained. The Army requires soldiers to follow a set path to achieve a training objective. Pilots are introduced to the theory of flight before they ever sit in a cockpit, and they become proficient flying in daylight before progressing to fly at night.
Yet the Army has never prescribed a similar process that physically develops soldiers or prepares them for the fitness test. The Army has only a loose set of guidelines for physical readiness. Physical training does not receive nearly as much direction as training for other tasks. Its conduct is largely ad hoc, and is left up to individual soldiers and small units to plan and execute. This results in unit cultures that are driven by individual preferences instead of an Army standard. Elite units will far surpass the minimum standards, but results vary for the rest of the Army. You can be sure that a unit led by a marathon runner will spend more time running than one led by a powerlifter. But there’s no guarantee that either is optimizing their soldiers for combat.
Instead, Army leaders fall back on cliches like, “fitness is an individual, unit responsibility,” and are overly sanguine about the idea of empowering subordinates to train small units. But that approach does not work for this task, especially given a large population without prior experience or education in exercise science. The human body is a piece of equipment more complex than anything in the Army’s inventory, making it even more important to provide a rigid, prescriptive training protocol.
Centralized: (adjective) concentrating control of an activity under a single authority.
The Army provides the resources and expertise necessary to carry out the prescriptive training regimens it mandates for mission-related tasks. Pilots and tankers are given instruction manuals, simulators, and practice ranges to develop basic skills. The Army also aligns experts to help ensure all soldiers adhere to universal, directed standards. Leading up to a live-fire exercise, Army Master Gunners provide units the resident expertise to develop proficiency among novice soldiers.
The Army has attempted to mirror that model for physical training by integrating Master Fitness Trainers, but they are not professional, certified trainers and they are not assigned to every unit. It also identified the need for a standardized regimen in the Army Human Dimension Strategy that was designed to address holistic health and fitness challenges. While those efforts are promising, they have yet to capitalize on this critical aspect of Army training.
Periodized: (adjective) dividing across strategically implemented phases.
The Army manages training such that soldiers and units can meet institutional and operational requirements from routine skill certifications to combat deployments. A phased approach ensures soldiers and units attain the highest level of readiness at the right time without losing proficiency in their basic skills. This requires iterative training cycles with the goal of making incremental progress. The progression may be linear or non-linear based on specific requirements and time available, but it is always divided into defined phases that build on one another.
For instance, attack helicopter pilots are only integrated into combined arms maneuver training — where air and land forces operate in unison — after they have been certified to fly under all conditions. However, once they reach that level, they will not focus only on advanced techniques and operations. Rather, pilots are still required to regularly retrain and demonstrate proficiency in fundamental tasks. This process of consistently training both basic and graduated tasks allows pilots to optimize their performance, while granting opportunities to build on experience.
Periodization is a widely promoted concept in exercise science, but has never been formally applied to Army fitness training. A linear, periodized physical training program — like the one evaluated in a recent article in the Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research — can incrementally increase performance while decreasing overall injury rates. Others have commented on similar programming ideas for military populations and are even evaluating specific requirements for the ACFT.
Under this model, new soldiers would build foundational strength and develop proper movement patterns, while more experienced soldiers would be able to maintain optimal levels of performance. In the absence of such a model, many in the Army are hesitant to introduce a new physical task without the same assurances they have in other controlled tasks across the force. For instance, when the Army announced the deadlift would be a component of the new test, it was met with immediate controversy even though it is considered the best movement to evaluate strength and power. Some see the ACFT as too risky and onerous – despite the fact that the events were designed to evaluate the same physical capacity required for combat – because the test doesn’t include a training protocol to mitigate risk like other tasks do.
Unit leaders do not have the expertise to assess the physical attributes of their soldiers and develop a periodized plan that optimizes performance. But given prescriptive direction, resources, and resident expertise, they can create training plans to reinforce fundamental movement patterns and develop a baseline of strength and endurance in preparation for the ACFT.
Moving Beyond the Test to Finally Address Training
It is beyond the scope of this article to identify a specific end-to-end solution that can be evenly applied across a total force including Active, Guard, and Reserve components. We recognize that each has unique constraints on training time and resources, and the difficulty of exerting centralized control over this population is a major reason the current, more ad hoc system exists. Instead, our intent here is to spotlight a real problem and kick-start a focused discussion on how to train fitness, which is required if the new fitness test is to succeed.
Moreover, a new training framework along the lines we propose will not necessarily optimize every soldier or eliminate all the risk. Injuries can occur during any activity because of a number of factors including a limited resilience to withstand stress. Still, a standardized fitness regimen will provide a comprehensive individual and small-unit physical training program for the first time. It will align physical training with all other Army training and eliminate a gap in the quest for readiness.
The Army announced its new fitness test against a backdrop of unacceptably high musculoskeletal injury rates among soldiers and a body of science pointing to an institutional problem with the Army’s physical training program. The Army will never have a force physically prepared for combat until it treats physical training like all other forms of combat training. If the Army relies solely on a new test to solve its problems, the only difference will be an evaluation of suboptimal deadlifts instead of suboptimal push-ups. How a soldier performs on any test is determined by how the soldier trains for it. What happens on the day of the test doesn’t matter nearly as much as what happens during physical training every day in between.
Capt. Nick Bono is an active duty Army officer, a graduate of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and an Army Fellow assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has written extensively about Army physical readiness programming and recently completed his graduate thesis on the topic.
Capt. Brett Reichert is an active duty Army officer and a graduate of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He is currently serving as an Army Fellow on the Joint Staff.