Nearly 10 years in the making, the Army plans to implement its controversial new fitness test later this spring. But a new batch of critiques about gender discrimination and the sheer logistical challenge of administering and training for the new test could imperil that deadline.
Creating the new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, has been a monumental undertaking for the service. The mission: rework how the force judges whether someone is physically fit enough to serve and fight America's wars. This is the first time since the 1980s that fitness has had any major overhaul in the Army.
Army leaders tested their new fitness standards in 2019, initiating a campaign to gather data that would decide which events ended up becoming a part of the final test, and how they would be scored. The goal was to have all soldiers judged by the new metrics in October 2020, but the ACFT immediately hit turbulence.
First, the pandemic shut down gyms and severely limited how soldiers can work out. Second, Army leaders looking to implement the test had to navigate a myriad of obstacles, including skepticism from Capitol Hill and the secretary of the Army over lopsided underperformance by women, and questions over whether a cyber warfare soldier needs the same fitness test as an infantryman on a test some say is more akin to a CrossFit workout than a precise tool to grade fitness for combat.
"There's something seriously wrong here," Kyle Novak, a data scientist who crunched ACFT data for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., ahead of her introducing a law delaying the test, said in an interview. "There's gender bias built into the ACFT."
Novak said the Army used poor data and methodology to figure out what to put in the ACFT, specifically not using enough women in early trials. For example, a study at Fort Benning, Georgia, to measure what physical abilities are needed for combat used 136 male soldiers and only 16 women, according to Army documents.
That led to an overemphasis on physical activities the average male is inherently better at than the average woman, such as the power throw and leg tucks. Army research, however, suggests those events have little correlation with combat. On top of that, Novak said other potential events that measure balance and flexibility, much needed physical attributes in battle, were sidelined.
Those challenges spurred lawmakers to delay using the ACFT across the Army and tasked Rand Corp. with investigating the test's impact on soldier retention and troops' ability to train for the evaluation in different environments. The study is set to be released this month, according to a Rand spokesperson, pushing Army officials to make final decisions on whether to keep the test as is, tweak it, or scrap it altogether.
The test also initially faced scrutiny from the rank and file because of the same issues that drew the ire of Congress, as well as the new test’s complicated logistics, and the fact that all major new programs draw some resistance in the military, a group generally known to be slow to change.
Regardless, leaders have had to pitch the test to the entire force, all the way down to the youngest soldiers. It isn't just the ACFT itself; the Army is moving toward a holistic health initiative aimed to get soldiers to eat better and take care of their mental and spiritual health. It's part of a wider campaign to combat a national obesity crisis that some have pointed to as a national security concern.
"Getting a new idea in the Army is the only thing harder than getting an old idea out; introducing anything makes everyone go nuts," a senior Army official told Military.com.
"The [ACFT] is the best thing to ever happen to the Army, but only if we get the entire Holistic Health and Fitness program going. It isn't a la carte," the senior official added. "The obesity issue in the past decade wasn't really around when I got in. This is a societal problem. … The test isn't built to kick people out, it's built to get people fit."
Women Struggle on the Test
Soldiers who fail the test currently face no adverse actions or consequences, but if the Army hits its April 1 target to make the test official, how soldiers perform on it will have massive impacts on their careers. Failing the test could lead them to be booted from the service.
Data obtained by Military.com in May 2020 showed nearly half of women in the Army wouldn't have passed the test. While women have made progress since soldiers began actively training for the new standards, passing the test isn't enough for most troops. High performance on the test gives soldiers an edge when it comes to promotions and opportunities to attend elite courses such as Ranger School, which can themselves lead to job opportunities. The ACFT grades soldiers on a 600-point scale, with a 360 being the minimum needed to pass and 500 and above largely considered very good scores. As of May, only 66 women had scored above 500 in trials of the new test, versus nearly 32,000 men.
Some senior leaders urged Military.com to ignore that data, saying it is old and that soldiers are performing better on the test in recent months. None of them would speak on the record, citing concerns that most leaders have not yet fully reviewed up-to-date ACFT data or Rand's findings, and that the force isn't sure yet how the Army wants to talk about the test to the press and soldiers.
The Army is trying to juggle dueling goals of creating a stronger force while also creating more opportunities for women. Yet service officials acknowledge men and women ultimately have different physiologies, with the average woman likely having to work harder than the average man to deadlift heavy weight. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, women were found to have 40% less upper body muscle than men, and 33% less in the lower body.
In March, the Army kicked off a new scoring system -- breaking the two genders into tiers. In practice, this could mean men and women still would have to meet the same standards but would not be compared to one another. A soldier's percentile ranking could be reflected in their record; for example, they might be described as being in the top 10% of fitness ability among their gender across the Army, but the top 10% of men will likely have higher scores than the same tier of women.
The test's fate ultimately falls to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who has already raised significant concerns to Capitol Hill about how easy the test appears to be for men to pass, and excel at, while women are apparently just scraping by.
"I have concerns on the implications of the test for our ability to continue to retain women," Wormuth, the first woman to serve in the role, told lawmakers at her confirmation hearing in May.
At a separate hearing that month, Gillibrand, citing Military.com's reporting, pressed key brass about whether they were concerned by the early data and if changes needed to be made.
"We fully acknowledge that the initial limitation of the test did show that there was a large disparity, one of which was a little bit troubling between genders," Army's G1 Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gary Brito said.
The Army Is All-In on the ACFT
Most soldiers interviewed by Military.com believe the force is too committed to the test to consider scrapping it. Leaders have been touting the test for years, and the force has spent more than $63 million on exercise equipment from Sorinex specifically to support training for the new standards. However, a spokesperson for Sorinex told Military.com that the Army has not made any new significant orders for more gear since its initial purchase in 2019, despite many units still seemingly not having easy access to equipment critical for physical training. New sales to the force are mostly focused on repairing and replacing equipment such as hex bars and bumper plates.
"It has become part of the culture now, even with the flaws. Too many mostly male soldiers and male leaders love the test and made hard sales pitches on it to the soldiers and [press]," another senior Army leader told Military.com on the condition of anonymity. "You'll [see] some tweaks, maybe even getting rid of an event or two, but we can't walk this back now."
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston has repeatedly said an exciting effect of the test was having soldiers rethink fitness. The test itself, which some -- mostly male -- soldiers interviewed by Military.com agree is easier to pass than the previous fitness evaluation, is less important, he said. Having to do deadlifts, sprints and ball throws has added much-needed diversity to their workouts.
Whatever the ACFT looks like come April, if there is a new test, one thing is clear: The previous test, the Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, is dead.
"You will no longer take another APFT; it's good news," Grinston said at a panel in 2020. "I think it's good news for me. I'm ready to move on."
While soldiers remain skeptical of the ACFT, most agree it's a huge improvement overall to the APFT, replacing what some described as a dull string of two-minute series of push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run.
"I love seeing myself and my soldiers train for this; it's fun," Staff Sgt. Nicole Pierce, who is stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, told Military.com
But, for Pierce, it's still a tall order to perfect the test.
"I'm 5'5 and 115 lbs.. Most men can pick up the deadlift like it's nothing. I know 140 lbs. is probably my max for now. I go into ACFTs not sure if I'm going to get past the first event," she said. "I was able to do a leg tuck by six months postpartum. I pushed myself because I wanted to pass. I've always been physically fit; I ran up until the day I gave birth. I know every woman can't do that, but that is what helped me."
Fitness Tests Change When Women's Roles Advance in the Army
The APFT was a much simpler event requiring no equipment. It was introduced in 1980 following the so-called "running boom" of the 1970s, in which jogging and long-distance running became a fitness sensation.
Dozens of soldiers and senior leaders interviewed for this story all agreed that the APFT was a poor measure of fitness. The Army itself found in a 2019 study that the old test had no "scientific evidence" that it appropriately measured fitness for combat and that the scoring was arbitrary.
The APFT was largely a reaction to the Pentagon dissolving the Women's Army Corps, integrating women into non-combat units in the 1970s. In 1975, before the APFT, all soldiers took a fitness test, but men and women had completely different events.
Men were graded on an inverted crawl, a run/dodge/jump event, climbing a ladder, sit-ups and a 2-mile run. Women were tasked to run 80 meters; do push-ups, sit-ups, and a run/dodge/jump event; and run one mile.
A report from the Government Accountability Office in 1976 recommended the force develop a fitness test that "has genderless performance standards to enhance performance," and is "easy to administer and required minimal equipment." The APFT became the test of record in 1980 and, while there were gendered standards, it required only a stopwatch and a flat space to run.
Fast forward to the 2010s, where CrossFit – workout routines that consist of constant diversity of functional movements performed at a high intensity, usually involving squats, deadlifts and kettlebells – hit the mainstream and gathered what some have described as an almost cult-like following.
In that same time period, talks about integrating women into combat arms, allowing them to serve in jobs such as infantry and cavalry scouts, gained traction. In 2013, the Army began the development of the ACFT, leading up to the 2015 move to open up all military jobs to women.
National Guard and Reserve Struggle for Gear
The new test and its gear-heavy approach to fitness has created trouble for many soldiers, who have struggled to find the necessary kit. Even on active-duty installations, not all gyms have the space or gear for soldiers to train for the test.
In many cases, gear is locked up in storage containers. Just setting up a test can take an hour or more, with troops having to measure lanes for the sprint/drag/carry event, find a place to conduct the 2-mile run, and move thousands of pounds of weights.
"This has easily become the most annoying thing," one active-duty company commander told Military.com on the condition of anonymity. "I'm Team ACFT, but the logistics do not incentivize testing, or practice. By the time everything is set up, the test is complete, and gear is packed up, that's like half my day."
But the issue is compounded in the National Guard and Reserve, where most armories that units operate out of do not have any ACFT gear, and in many cases lack the space to conduct the test. In most cases, equipment is stored in other locations, such as a battalion headquarters, which can be on the other side of a state, making testing and practice virtually impossible.
In a June story, Military.com spoke with Guardsmen and Reserve soldiers who were spending hundreds, in some cases thousands, of dollars on expensive gyms and personal equipment. On paper, troops can train at a cheaper gym, but most of those facilities do not have the space or gear the ACFT demands. The Army has said that troops do not need the gear to train for the test, a claim some soldiers scoff at, arguing that their only time doing an exercise for real should not be during an event that dictates their career.
"I've had the money for a hex bar and such to train, but I can't imagine how most can do it," one senior Guard official told Military.com. "National Guard and Reserve were probably an afterthought. People underestimate our constraints. We're all over the damn state, and if I need to take a test, there is no simple meeting at a high school track."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.