5 Reasons the ACFT Is Better Than the APFT, According to a Military Fitness Expert

Army Combat Fitness Test
Cadet Xavier Newson of Bowie State University ROTC, attempts as many hand release push-ups as possible during a diagnostic Army Combat Fitness Test on the morning of Nov. 17, 2020 on Fort Meade, Md. (Vanessa Atchley/U.S. Army)

When the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) was launched, weightlifters rejoiced, as did people who hated the sit-up test. Gone were the days of push-ups, sit-ups and two-mile run.

Well, not quite.

While there are many critics of the new test, I believe the things that changed, changed for the better. What was added is also better, and what remained is a good standard for cardio endurance (the two-mile run).

The Old Army PFT: Push-ups: 2 minutes; sit-ups: 2 minutes; timed run: 2 miles

The New Army CFT: Hex bar deadlift; standing medicine ball overhead throw; hand release push-up; sprint, drag, carry; leg tuck (or plank pose option); 2-mile run.

Here are the reasons that I think the ACFT is better:

1. Better Shoulder and Posture Development

The hand release (HR) push-up has multiple benefits and will not only test muscle stamina (strength-endurance) but also develop and test chest and shoulder flexibility, mobility and upper-back strength.

A hand release also eliminates the vague "good push-up or not" rules. You go all the way down to the ground, release your hands off the floor (flexing your upper back muscles) and straighten your arms every repetition. Soldiers benefit from a better shoulder and upper body posture that counterbalances the internal rotation nearly all Army personnel were battling from doing endless push-ups and carrying loads.

2. You Still Need Muscle Stamina

The muscle stamina exercises of push-ups and sit-ups were replaced with a different but better push-up, and a much more challenging hip flexor, core and grip strength test with the leg tuck.

Maybe sit-ups are bad for your back, but so are countless miles of rucking, sitting for hours a day, not stretching and not doing strength training. The leg tuck came in like a wrecking ball and caused many to object and request the plank pose option that the Marines and Navy have adopted.

Related: At 53, I Took the Tough New Army Combat Fitness Test. Here's How It Turned Out

The plank is a fine replacement for the sit-up and a good test of core stability, strength and stamina. The leg tuck, however, is by far a more superior movement that requires soldiers to hang from a bar to demonstrate grip strength and at least to do a few pull-ups or half pull-ups to demonstrate arm strength. The movement also builds core and hip strength with lower back flexibility.

Soldiers who want to get the maximum score will have to turn a strength exercise into an endurance exercise. This is much like the challenging pull-up exercise that causes many to struggle in other military branch PT tests.

3. Testing Strength and Power

The deadlift and power throw are good tests of strength and power and demonstrate skills that are necessary for a soldier with a physically demanding job. This is a welcome addition for soldiers who do regular strength training on their own time. However, those who are more endurance or PT driven might find lifting activities to be a challenge if they are not part of their unit's programming.

Gone are the days where you can just go for a run and do some PT to stay in PT test shape. You now must invest time into activities you never may have done before. The process of improvement will be a combination of technique coaching and conditioning by putting in some consistent time under the load of the new events.

Related: Strength Training for the Tactical Athlete.

4. Testing Speed, Agility, Fast Movement with a Load

Sprint, drag and carry will challenge soldiers to work and train different energy systems. This exercise requires sprinting 50 meters (down and back 25 meters), dragging a sled 50 meters (down and back 25 meters), lateral run 25 meters down and back, carrying two 40-pound kettlebells 50 meters (down and back 25 meters) and repeating the 50-meter sprint (down and back 25 meters). The goal is to do this as fast as possible as you test a combination of strength, speed, agility, grip, endurance and anaerobic capacity.

5. Two-Mile Timed Run is Here to Stay

Whether you love or hate running, the two-mile timed run is not going anywhere, because it is a good measure of cardiovascular endurance.

Once you've done all the other testing, you will need to refuel properly. The elements of the ACFT will burn significant amounts of blood sugar and glycogen stores from the body.

Related: Prepping for the ACFT? The Two-Mile Run Is Here to Stay

You will need to consume something that agrees with your body for that extra kick if you need to push yourself to max or even just to pass the two-mile run standards. A non-caffeinated sports drink, such as Gatorade, has been my personal go-to that helps prevent bonking on the last event of most fitness tests.

The new events will require soldiers and new recruits to get in the weight room, but they also still will require strength athletes to work on endurance and muscle stamina. When we discuss the term "tactical fitness," improvement in all the elements of fitness is the goal.

The new test hits those elements: strength, power, speed, agility, muscle stamina, endurance, mobility, flexibility and grip. The old test is a good test for muscle stamina and endurance.

A soldier's job requires many elements of fitness. Like it or not, soldiers will train for this test and become better, more well-rounded "tactical athletes" because of it.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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