What the Army's New Physical Fitness Test Says About How We Work Out Now
What the Army's New Physical Fitness Test Says About How We Work Out Now

What the Army’s New Physical Fitness Test Says About How We Work Out Now

The Army’s physical fitness test has remained unchanged for some 40 years: two minutes to do as many push-ups as possible, then two minutes for sit-ups, then a two-mile run. Recruits need a certain score to graduate from basic training, and active-duty soldiers and reservists get tested a couple of times a year to ensure they’re in shape. The current test is pretty old-fashioned, if simple and elegant. But it increasingly has less to do with the CrossFit-adjacent workouts that the fittest soldiers use to stay combat-ready. 

The new Army Combat Fitness Test, which began being to be tested in 2018 and becomes official this year, seeks to shorten that distance. Consisting of hex-bar deadlifts, a backwards medicine ball throw, push-ups, planks, a run, and a hybrid sprint-drag-carry—kettlebells and a sled; kinda complicated—the new test is done over 120 minutes. Mostly, it’s complex. It’s made up of exercises you probably didn’t do in gym class, and nailing them requires real training. The idea is to build and test “functional” strength, a buzzword that’s somewhere between pure strength, conditioning, and injury prevention. Lifting heavy weights often is more efficient at reaching these goals than doing unweighted exercises and runs, but also requires equipment, coordination and, at first, supervision. It’s remarkably different from the test it’s replacing. 

Which a big deal to the soldiers and reservists who are, right now, actually in the Army: When the test becomes standard in October, those who land below a certain threshold too many times will be discharged. But it also feels big for civilians: a move by a giant institutional body away from simple bodyweight work and towards a pricy barbell-based program is a bellwether of the new age of fitness we’re in. 

The rollout of the new test has been rough. It was originally pushed as a gender-neutral, inclusive set of exercises that were also meant to better toughen up soldiers for combat. But female soldiers, in testing, failed at incredibly high rates—44% as recently as late March, and nearly twice that before—and reservists have not done very well either. Initial exercises, like the leg tuck, seemed showy, and without real application; the Army replaced them with planks, first as an option, then as a rule. Most out of touch was the equipment requirement. Training for the new exercises requires a hex bar, a medicine ball, and a sled—much more expensive than the old test’s pen and stopwatch. (While recruits can improve the lifts with cheaper alternatives, like kettlebells and bands, there’s an idea floating around that the ACFT rollout might be more about gym equipment contracts than getting in shape.) Designed with the goal of serving the whole Army, the ACFT has instead been revealed to be geared towards younger, male soldiers, ones more likely to be on base with access to this equipment, or who might work out a lot to begin with.

Dr. Kyle Novak, a science and technology congressional fellow who reviewed the test’s rollout for the Senate, has said that the ACFT’s original sample, which was used to develop the initial exercises, was biased against female and older soldiers. The 16 women volunteers among the 152 soldiers underrepresented the Army’s approximately 16% female enrollment rate; the sample’s average age of 24 was a few years younger than the Army’s. What’s more, the 152 soldiers were all volunteers, which likely skewed the sample to super-fit folks: Anyone who signs up for an exercise test is probably in better shape than average.

A RAND report followed, and the Army made changes, easing standards for women. But while the Army was selling the ACFT as gender neutral as recently as last year, it’s really always just been a scaled-down version of a test developed for young, in-shape men. It’s another example of the gap between the inclusive way the military perceive and promotes itself and the way it behaves in practice. (To take one example, a so-called “woke” series of ads highlighting soldiers of diverse backgrounds from last year was unpopular enough for the Army to turn off its comment section.)

Still, the new ACFT, imperfect as it is, may hint at a more complete picture of fitness than its predecessor. “You don’t need to go run a 10K in combat,” says Mark Divine, a retired Navy SEAL and the founder of SealFit, a tactical fitness company that advises the military, “nor do you sit there and do a lot of sit-ups. What you do is haul 70 or 80 pounds on your back and run short distances.” These maneuvers, Divine says, require “a lot of core strength,” and what he calls “durability,” or resilience—staying injury-free. By forcing recruits to train movements closer to those repeated in combat—like sled drags, deadlifts and throws—the ACFT may cut down on injuries sustained in the field, so long as the compound movements are done the right way.

Some of these movements may be familiar from powerlifting and CrossFit, programs that elite military units have been leaning on for a while. “Training methods always trickle down from elite groups,” says Divine. Elite groups like Divine’s SEALs and the Army Green Berets have been squatting heavy and dragging sleds for years—and taking their branch’s baseline fitness standards as a given. (The Green Berets, for example, suggest a perfect score on the Army’s two-minute test as a baseline for entry.)

These high physical standards are, in part, about keeping things difficult and exclusive. “You don’t want to give everyone the secret sauce,” says Divine, “if they’re not willing to research and figure it out themselves.” A candidate who enters the SEALS’ 24-week training course having already trained to squat 400 pounds has a better chance to thrive, in other words. To stay in shape, elite units and SOFs—slang for special operation forces— try just about anything that works. Some adopt their routines from abroad, like Russian kettlebell training, some use heavy weights, some go deep on “getting their mind right,” through mental approaches like breathwork. These workouts, over time, get declassified, and research spreads out: Programs trickle down to reservists, rank and file, and finally to desk-bound civilians looking to shake up their days.

The best example comes from CrossFit: The Murph, a punishing circuit workout named after fallen SEAL Michael Patrick Murphy. He designed it as a slapdash way to maintain his strength and endurance while deployed, the circuit—one-mile runs bookending 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 air squats, done in under 75 minutes, wearing a weighted body armor vest. The workout was adopted by CrossFit in the 2000s, and has become a Memorial Day competition at just about every gym each year. (Women compete wearing lighter-weight vests.) Simple and punishing, the Murph might be CrossFit’s most renowned WOD, or workout of the day. Even for folks who want nothing to do with combat, it’s a thrill. If feels like a precursor of the new ACFT, but that simplicity has been lost in translation: Murphy’s low intervention workout was designed closer to the old push-ups and sit-ups test. It doesn’t require any special equipment, and it’s tested through time, and not weight. Unlike the Army’s new test, it’s about making do with what’s around.

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