The Army unveiled its controversial new fitness test on Wednesday, a dramatically revamped set of requirements for soldiers that replace standards created in 1983 after years of limbo and broad skepticism from many in the service, including the secretary of the Army.
Now Army leaders are ready to start measuring troops with the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, which is finally set in stone following numerous tweaks and modifications. Soldiers will begin taking tests for their record for the first time in years, starting in October.
“I’m really proud we’re moving forward, we’re there, we’re doing it,” Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the service’s top enlisted leader, told reporters Monday. “This is the test.”
The final version of the test goes live on April 1 with soldiers not having scores impact their record, a grading that can have effects ranging from promotion to expulsion from the Army, until Oct. 1. However, the Army will not immediately boot failures out of the force. Part-time National Guard and Reserve soldiers have until April 2023 before scores are entered into their record.
The most significant changes to the six-event ACFT is that it no longer is meant to prepare soldiers for combat but instead built as a general fitness assessment. It will also have different scoring standards for men and women across different age groups, in most cases lowering them, following a congressionally mandated report from Rand Corp, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, that found nearly half of the service’s women could not pass earlier standards for the test.
For example, a female soldier between 17 and 21 years old now has to deadlift between 120 and 210 lbs. while a male soldier has to lift between 140 and 340 lbs. In that same age group, female soldiers have to run two miles between 23:22 and 15:29 minutes while male soldiers must perform that exercise between 22 and 13:22 minutes. That minimum run time for male soldiers is a minute longer than the previous version of the ACFT that the Army previously trialed, following data showing the run is by far the most failed event for both genders.
Leg tucks are totally eliminated as the event to measure core strength, with planks taking their place. The rest of the test still includes the deadlift, hand-release pushups, the standing power throw, two-mile run and the sprint, drag, carry. Test designers were concerned that the leg tuck doesn’t strictly measure core muscle strength but also requires that a soldier spend a lot of energy on upper-body and grip strength. Previously, the plank was introduced as an alternative event during the ACFT’s beta phase when it was discovered women were struggling with the leg tucks.
“If I don’t have the grip strength, but have the core strength, I can’t do a leg tuck,” Grinston said. “That was the reason for taking that out; we wanted to measure core strength.”
The Army has spent a decade thinking up ways to replace the old three-event test, the Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, which has been used to measure fitness in the force since 1983. The APFT, which also had gendered and age-specific scoring, was largely a reaction to the Defense Department dissolving the Women’s Army Corps and integrating women into units with men.
Steam picked up for Army planners to create a new test around the time when combat arms jobs such as the infantry and cavalry were opened to women in 2015. The force initially sought to create a gender-neutral test and attempted to juggle dueling goals of creating a more inclusive force while also creating a fitter force.
But damning findings from Rand Corp. and concerns over the retention and recruitment of women crushed that ambition. Researchers at Rand found that only 52% of enlisted active-duty women were able to pass the original design for the ACFT, compared to 92% of men in their congressionally mandated study released Wednesday. Only 42% of women in the National Guard and 41% in the Reserve could pass.
Pass rates among officers are slightly higher with 72% of women passing, compared to 96% of men on active duty. 57% of female officers in the National Guard and 49% in the Reserve passed the ACFT during Rand’s study, which compiled scores from 2019 to September 2021.
Some women interviewed by Military.com over the past year suspect the enlisted-officer divide can be partially attributed to officers having more freedom to work out on their own time and having more money for workout gear, personal trainers and high-quality gyms.
Women with the highest pass rate included civil affairs specialists with an 89% pass rate, though that data only included 45 soldiers. Other jobs with the highest pass rate, but similarly few soldiers in the data, were engineers at 67% and cavalry scouts at 66%. The jobs which enlisted women performed the worst on the ACFT were mostly in the medical field, mechanics and cooks.
Enlisted men performed the best in special forces with a 100% pass rate. Men who are cooks or in the medical field performed the worst, but those pass rates were still above 80%.
Out of 23 proposed exercises, the original six chosen for the ACFT, including leg tucks, were supposed to best prepare soldiers for combat-related tasks, such as carrying a casualty to safety, or assaulting an objective. But Rand’s study could not find evidence that the events were predictive of performance in combat.
“The evidence to support the ACFT is incomplete,” Chaitra Hardison, who authored the Rand study, told reporters during a round table ahead of the report’s release. ”Some events have not been shown to predict performance on combat tasks or reduce injuries, two of the principle goals of the test.”
Now, instead of the initial aim of having the ACFT built for combat, part of the rationale for changing the fitness standards and, in many cases, lowering those standards, the force said the test is now a measure of general fitness. Yet, Army officials are not rebranding the test and keeping the word “combat” in its name.
“The Army decided to implement the test as a general physical fitness assessment, as opposed to one designed to predict performance on a set of tasks,” Brig. Gen. Scott Naumann, director of training for the Army, told reporters.
Meanwhile, the test’s heavy focus on gear has created major hurdles in the force, particularly in the Reserve and National Guard. On paper, part-time troops had more gear, with 15,854 sets issued to the National Guard, compared to 10,829 sets given to active duty. But in many cases, kettlebells, sleds and bumper plates, all of which are needed to conduct the test, are locked away and not easily accessible to many part-time troops.
Many civilian gyms do not have the adequate space for equipment to properly train for the test. Tests can also take hours to set up and administer, taking up the bulk of a drill weekend – something that has stirred ire among commanders who are already spread thin with the limited time they have their troops each year.
To lessen the burden on Guardsmen and Reservists, Army officials hope those units can coordinate with recruiting offices and ROTC units on college campuses, who all have been issued ACFT gear.
“One thing we probably didn’t communicate well early on is that if you are in the National Guard or Reserve, there’s some coordination that needs to be done to go to ROTC detachments or recruiting stations - all of which are fielded with that equipment,” said Brig. Gen. John Kline, commander of the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training. “Any unit can also order their own equipment.”
Timeline For the ACFT:
April 1, 2022 - The Army will implement the new version of the ACFT. The leg tuck will no longer be a tested event and scoring will be based on gender and age. Testing will be diagnostic only for all active duty, Guard and Reserve troops. Scores will not be used for favorable or unfavorable action. While tests are not for record, soldiers can hold on to their scores and put them into their record on October 1.
Oct. 1, 2022 - Active-duty soldiers and full-time Guardsmen and Reservists will begin taking the ACFT for record. Tests will continue to only be diagnostic for part-time Guard and Reserve soldiers. Active duty will take two tests per year, separated by no less than four months.
Soldiers must pass the ACFT to their initial military training. Soldiers seeking to reenlist must have a passing score. Troops who fail the test but want to continue service can extend their contracts by one year to give themselves a chance to pass. If active-duty soldiers fail, the soldier gets to retest between 120 and 180 days. But no active-duty soldier will be removed before April 2023.
Soldiers who took the ACFT between April 1 and October 1 can submit passing scores for record. They do not have to retake the test. ACFT scores cannot be used for promotion points.
April 1, 2023 - Part-time Guard and Reserve soldiers will now start taking record tests. All regular Army and full-time Guard and Reserve soldiers must have a record test on file. Part-time soldiers who had a passing diagnostic ACFT before April 1 can now have that count as a record test. Scores can now be used for promotion points for active troops. Failure can lead to punitive action, such as not allowing that soldier to reenlist or be promoted. Guard and Reserve soldiers will test once per year, separated by no less than eight months.
If the second test is failed, commanders can initiate separation from service for active-duty soldiers.
Officer candidates must pass the ACFT to be commissioned. Guard and Reserve soldiers must have a passing score to reenlist, but can extend one year to get a chance to pass. If a Guardsman or Reserve soldier fails, they get 180-240 days to pass. If that second test is failed, commanders will initiate removal from the service. However, part-time troops will not be separated before April 1, 2024.
April 1, 2024 - All Guardsmen and Reserve soldiers must have an ACFT score on file. Commanders can begin separating failures. The ACFT and all of its policies are fully implemented.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.