Because of limitations of gear, some troops have had to spend a lot of their own money to buy fitness equipment and find the physical space to train for the test. The Army doesn't offer soldiers any subsidies for exercise expenses, despite a high level of fitness being a job requirement. Failure to pass a fitness test could lead to a soldier being removed from the service, and low scores can stall a career.
A noncommissioned officer in the Michigan National Guard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he has spent more than $1,500 on gear so he can simulate the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, on his own.
"In the long run, this is good for my health, I was getting good scores before. My unit hasn't mentioned the ACFT once, let alone get the gear out," he said. "I don't know what I would do if I didn't have a garage to set all this stuff up. ... I accidentally throw the ball into my neighbor's [yard] a lot [when practicing the standing power throw event]."
Military.com talked to a dozen soldiers in the National Guard and Reserve. They all shared similar concerns of being unable to train adequately for the test, which will be a huge factor in their career success once it becomes official next year. Many soldiers, especially in the National Guard and Reserve, report they are finding it hard to get access to exercise equipment to set themselves up for success.
Some soldiers said they have had to invest in memberships to expensive CrossFit gyms, which could cost more than $200 per month, because not all regular gyms have the space or equipment the ACFT demands.
"I was at a Gold's [Gym]," a New York National Guard NCO said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It was a reasonably priced place. I take fitness seriously and so should every soldier. It's part of the game. But I had to switch to a CrossFit gym, that's $220 a month. My old gym didn't have the space for sled drags or the ceilings to throw a ball."
The New York NCO said he appreciates the idea behind the ACFT and said he's confident it will create a stronger force. But he said it has the bad side effect of costing soldiers most of their military pay just to cover the cost to staying fit enough to perform well on the test.
"I live in the city," he added. "I think the [test] sets up a lot of barriers. I'm combat arms, I get it. We need to be strong. But does a human resources soldier or a chaplain's assistant need this? We see women are ... falling behind, but I think [another] bias is soldiers who live in cities. We don't have anywhere to throw a heavy ball around. ... I can afford the big gym, but I have soldiers living paycheck to paycheck. To me ... this test has become about who has the money to train."
Some fitness companies have jumped on this issue and started marketing pricey gear to troops. Volt Athletics is pitching training programs. Rogue also touts some of its gear as "ACFT certified."
Reservists and Guardsmen aren't the only ones facing gear hurdles. On the active-duty side, some base gyms still don't have enough equipment, and individual units sometimes either keep gear locked up in a conex or do not have access to it at all.
"I've invested in a $2,500 rower because I'm on a permanent profile, and between $500-750 worth of weights etc. because of the new ACFT," one active-duty officer told Military.com on the condition of anonymity. "I've only been given the chance to take it twice, and often the equipment in our gyms isn't within regulation or simply is too little to meet the demands for training."
The officer added that, in her experience, base gyms have been stretched beyond capacity, and soldiers must sign up for time slots for access to ACFT gear.
"It's hard to get repeated access," the officer said, adding that units are typically on a waiting list for access to the gear.
The ACFT is a monumental logistical task for leaders to administer. The test involves bumper plates, kettlebells, diamond bars, sleds and medicine balls. It also requires a large amount of space. The Army bought about half a million pieces of gear from Sorinex through a $63.7 million contract.
The previous fitness test consisted of only push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. It required no gear, other than a stopwatch, and minimal setup and time. The new test consists of leg tucks or a plank, deadlifts, a sprint-drag-carry event, a standing power throw, hand-release pushups, and a two mile run.
"I've only had the opportunity to take the test once," Lt. Col. Mark Zinno, a Georgia National Guard logistics officer, said in an interview with Military.com. "A lot of the challenges we're facing right now is getting the equipment to every armory in the state."
Most soldiers said their units do not have their own equipment, or that it's locked up and inaccessible. The bulk of fitness equipment appeared to have been given to headquarters elements, according to the soldiers interviewed, which could be hours away from someone's home or unit.
The Reserve and Guard serve roughly two to four days a month, but there are thousands of soldiers in each who work full time. The onus is on them to train on their own time. But many full-time reservists and Guardsmen find it impossible to go to their units to train on their personal time or during work hours. Even when a unit does have ACFT gear available, an individual soldier's commute could take hours.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston said in May that, out of the 317,600 ACFT scores recorded in the past six months, only 25,000 came from the Guard. However, the recent unprecedented number of domestic Guard missions -- including pandemic relief and securing the U.S. Capitol -- may be a limiting factor. There are 336,500 soldiers in the Guard, according to Defense Department data.
Beyond an apparent gear shortage, the ACFT requires a sizable percentage of the Reserve element's limited training time, possibly making it difficult for commanders to commit much time to practicing for the test. That could be compounded if a soldier needs updated scores. Guard and Reserve units have many of the same training requirements as the active duty, with significantly less time to accomplish it.
"Because the test is so elaborate, it isn't like you can knock it out quickly," Zinno said. "Even at a company size, 150 people, that's a four-hour block. It kills half the training day. It just isn't a valuable use of the limited training time we have. The struggle with the Guard is getting soldiers to the point they have equipment to train on. They aren't all going to a CrossFit gym."
Some Guardsmen and reservists say they still haven't been briefed on the ACFT and know about it only through media reports.
Another Reserve lieutenant colonel told Military.com on the condition of anonymity that her unit sent out a memo ordering soldiers to review the ACFT on their own, saying that leadership was not going to go over instructions or demonstrations before a scheduled test date.
"We don't have access to the equipment on a regular basis," she said. "We do have a little gym at our facility, but it doesn't have all of the proper equipment."
Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Rice, who is an Army Master Fitness Trainer instructor at Fort Dix, New Jersey, told Military.com that the force has put out programs for soldiers without access to gear.
The two-mile run is the most failed event, according to Army data obtained by Military.com. Rice said the run is something that can be trained for in most environments. For the other events, he says a soldier can go a long way just mimicking the movements, such as backward runs for the sprint-drag-carry. He also said that, when it comes to the test itself, soldiers are finding success with a few tricks such as eating orange slices between events.
"Equipment is necessary to obviously conduct the test and optimization of training, but isn't necessary," Rice said. "To get an adequate score, the Army has put out training programs on how to prepare without any equipment. The things people are struggling in, like the run, those are easy to simulate without equipment."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.