Master Sgt. Ross Strom thought he was ready when he took a version of the Army's new fitness test. The 49-year-old maintenance noncommissioned officer was used to doing a combination of running and CrossFit six times a week.
"I was like, 'I'll be able to do this, no problem,' " Strom told Military.com, recalling when he volunteered to participate in last year's pilot for the Army Combat Readiness Test, the near-identical precursor to the new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT.
But as he worked his way through each of the events -- the deadlift, the power throw, the sprint-drag-carry, the pushups and the leg tuck -- Strom felt the exertion build in his muscles like never before.
"Doing all those events and then running two miles -- that's tough," he said, adding that he finished "a minute and 40 seconds" slower than his normal time on the current Army Physical Fitness Test.
Strom just re-enlisted for six years on Active Guard Reserve status at Fort Lee, Virginia, and now worries that his age will work against him on the ACFT, which will have no age-specific scoring standard.
The Army's July 9 announcement that the new six-event ACFT will become the mandatory test of record in 2020 was a jarring wake-up call for more than a million soldiers accustomed to the comfortable norm of the four-decade-old APFT's pushups, sit-ups and two-mile run. Over the next two years, the Army has pledged to refine the new fitness standard; prepare active-duty, National Guard and Reserve units to administer the new test; and figure out what to do with soldiers who fail to meet the new standard.
"The purpose of ACFT, first and foremost, is to make sure our soldiers are ready for the rigors of combat," Army Secretary Mark Esper told Military.com. "We do have to sort through all the policies that come with a physical fitness test. I will tell you though ... at the end of the day, if you can't pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, then there is probably not a spot for you in the Army."
One Standard, No Exceptions
The Army Combat Fitness Test evolved out of the Army Combat Readiness Test pilot program the service conducted last year. The only difference is that the ACFT requires soldiers to do hand-release pushups and the ACRT required T-pushups.
Staff Sgt. Rebecca Alvarez, a 31-year-old military police NCO at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was one of hundreds of soldiers who volunteered for the pilot test with no knowledge of the events.
"I was already in shape because I was a drill sergeant ... so I knew that I was going to perform well," said Alvarez, who now works in the S3 shop with 1st Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment, supporting the basic training companies at Leonard Wood. "For me personally, the event that was the most challenging was the standing power throw, only because I didn't really know what part to exert my energy on, at what phase of motion; it was just a little awkward."
After performing all of the events prior to the two-mile run, she said she was "definitely tired" but performed "almost exactly the same as I would on my normal two-mile run."
Alvarez said that taking the test just once showed her that she had more work to do if she wanted to score high on the ACFT.
"I thought I was in pretty good shape prior to taking the test and then afterward -- I still did well -- but I know there were some areas that were kind of exposed and I was like, 'I need to go back and I need to train a little harder,' " she said.
Soldiers who took the ACRT pilot knew the Army was going to change its fitness standard, and the service's announcement on the ACFT confirmed it.
"I think everybody is excited for it," Alvarez said. "The Army is changing, and we have to change with it. They want to make us stronger and more capable, and I don't know any soldiers who wouldn't want to be stronger and more capable."
Some older soldiers view it differently.
"A lot of soldiers, when we were doing the pilot last September, they were like, 'Oh my God. You know, if I don't make it, I'm done. What am I going to do with my family?' " Strom said. "I believe that the Army system does need to change ... but I think there should be an age standard. I'm 49 years old and ... the run time, I just can't do anymore."
The ACFT eliminates age-specific scoring that doesn't require older soldiers to perform as well as younger soldiers, but Army officials say there was no marked difference in performance between age groups during the ACRT pilot, according to Michael McGurk, director of research for the Center of Initial Military Training, the organization overseeing the new ACFT.
"I would say there was not a huge chasm, and the reason for that is that if you have been in the Army for 20 years, you have been working out for 20 years," he told Military.com. "A lot of people have been in the Army for a long time and worked out a lot, and they are very efficient at their physical fitness. They understand how much they have to run, when they have to go to the gym, what they have to do ... and younger people may not be as efficient."
Strom tends to agree with McGurk. He runs three to eight miles on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and does a CrossFit workout on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays -- a training regimen he knows a lot of younger soldiers at Fort Lee don't come close to performing.
"I see soldiers that are coming back from their [APFT] test, and they're between the ages of 17 and 25, and they are coming in at 17, 18, 19 minutes" on the two-mile run, he said. "I don't think they quite have an idea of how hard [the ACFT] actually is until you actually do it."
For Strom, the most challenging ACFT event was the standing power throw, "and then going on that two-mile run after doing all that, because I tried to lift as much as I could, tried to do as many pushups as I could," he said. "The ones that I have to improve on, as I look at it, is the sprint-drag-carry ... and the two-mile run."
Preparing for the ACFT
When Army leaders announced that the ACFT would do away with gender and age scoring, "it kind of gave a wake-up call to everybody," McGurk said.
"It was like, 'Oh wow! We better pay attention to this because this is a big change,' " he said. "The decision that was made was, 'Hey, look. When you go in harm's way, the standard in combat is the standard for everybody. The old test, because it was normative-based data and male and female and aged, it was basing you on how well you do against your compatriots, your peers. This new test isn't about how well you do against your peers. This test is about how well you do against the Army standard."
McGurk admits that the Army has been very careful about how it puts out information on the ACFT. But on Sept. 6, the service published the "Field Test Manual, Army Combat Fitness Test" and the "Army Combat Fitness Training Guide" to help leaders and soldiers understand how the ACFT will be administered and how best to prepare to meet the standard.
The test manual addresses the upcoming ACFT field test, involving 60 battalions, to finalize the test standards, uniform, preparation, equipment lists, event procedures and grading guidance.
The training guide offers soldiers alternative exercises to prepare for the ACFT to help strengthen the muscles needed for each event.
"The purpose of the 'Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) Training Guide' is to provide exercises that will help soldiers successfully prepare to take the ACFT," the guide states. "These specific exercises will help develop strength, endurance, and mobility using common strength training methods and Army doctrine. The exercises and drills in this guide can be conducted anywhere and are not resource intensive."
For example, for the sprint-drag-carry event, the guide recommends doing straight-leg deadlifts in the gym, bent-over rows with 45-pound kettlebells or dumbbells, and a 300-meter shuttle run.
For alternate equipment to practice the event, the training guide recommends a 40-pound rucksack or duffle bag instead of kettlebells and a SKEDCO or litter loaded with 90 pounds instead of the special 90-pound sled. Soldiers can also drag 90-pound logs or large tires, the guide states.
"The kettlebells are 40 pounds. The reason they are 40 pounds is they are very close to what ammunition weighs," McGurk said. "And if you take a five-gallon water can and fill it up with water, it's between 40 and 45 pounds. And there are other things you can use until you get all your equipment on hand."
The Army has also sent out teams of soldiers to demonstrate the ACFT to units and leadership.
"I have probably done [the ACFT] in the past year about 10 times and, every time that I am going through it, I am tweaking it, finding something here or there that I am tweaking to help me improve," said Staff Sgt. Bryan Ivery, a 32-year-old military intelligence NCO who is currently assigned to the Center for Initial Military Training to help demonstrate the ACFT.
Ivery won the 2017 Advanced Individual Training Platoon Sergeant of the Year competition, which had participants take the ACRT used in last year's pilot.
"For me, that very first time, the most challenging one was the sprint-drag-carry; that was a smoker and probably next to that was the leg tuck," he said. "It was the taxation on my posterior chain, all the muscles that are being used during the sprint-drag-carry, so all of that being taxed and then still being expected to go backward and forward and sprint. That was tough on the muscles, and you had a little bit of Gumby legs."
Those two events are proving to be hard for a lot of soldiers who have taken the ACFT, he said. "The sprint-drag-carry is providing a lot of difficulty for the soldiers that I have seen go through it and then I would say it's a toss-up between the leg tuck and the three-rep deadlift, depending on what that particular individual is used to doing. We still have some time before we will be operational with the test ... so I let them know, 'Hey, after you have taken this, it's really a reality check. You know as soon as you finish the test where you are weak at and what you need to work on. Nobody has to tell you anything.' "
Many leaders are concerned about the equipment needed to administer the ACFT. The Army released an equipment list Sept. 6, detailing the amount of weights, deadlift bars, medicine balls, nylon sleds, pull-up bars, stopwatches and other items that will be required.
"A question that they ask is how much equipment are they going to be receiving? What's the funding look like for the respective units? How soon are they going to begin to get the equipment so they can begin to get a little bit more educated and prepared for the exercises?" Ivery said. "And the answer is generally a lot of the stuff you already have. It's just making sure that the Army as a whole, the leadership included, that they understand that if you don't have this specific equipment ... there are other things that you do have currently that you can utilize in the meantime until you actually get this equipment to help you prepare."
That answer helps, "but nevertheless, they still want the equipment sooner rather than later," Ivery added.
Most soldiers are excited to start practicing the ACFT, he said, but the ones that are apprehensive "may be the ones who aren't taking so much effort and initiative to improve their physical fitness."
A New Standard for Being Deployable
Before the ACFT becomes the test-of-record in 2020, Army leaders are going to establish a policy that deals with soldiers who do not pass the new fitness standard.
"It doesn't mean you get immediately kicked out," Esper said. "There will likely be a remedial physical fitness program and all of those things. But, at the end of the day, we need soldiers who are deployable, who are lethal and ready."
This reasoning is in line with the Pentagon's "deploy-or-out" policy that requires troops to be deployable within 12 months or be removed from service.
"At one point in time, we had a non-deployable rate of about 15 percent, so do the math ... that's 150,000 people," Esper said. "Now that rate is down to 9 percent or so. We have reduced that part down, and we are going further."
There are other reasons soldiers are unable to deploy besides not passing a fitness test, but "we do think that that will enable us to again send the right signal to the force," he said.
"If you are not physically fit for combat, we are not only doing you an injustice, but we are doing your colleagues and your peers an injustice as well. That's our obligation," Esper said. "We've got to sort through all those policies -- what it means, how long does remedial training take, there is a lot of concern about [medical] profiles if you have a profile -- and we have to sort through all those things. Again, the Army is an organization based on standards, and we play away games. And you've got to be able to deploy, and that is what this is about."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.