By Thomas Brading, Army News Service
WASHINGTON — Major changes are coming to the Army Combat Fitness Test, officials announced Sept. 27, with changes that will affect every Soldier.
The changes, locked in for fiscal year 2020, include the official testing standards for all Soldiers, each one tailored to an individual’s military occupational specialty. Also, all Initial Military Training (Officers and Enlisted) will take the ACFT as a graduation requirement, and the arm-extension pushup will replace the hand-release pushup.
The ACFT is expected to be the standard fitness test for all Soldiers by October 2020.
The latest adjustments come on the heels of the Army’s initial message that the age- and gender-neutral ACFT will replace the nearly 40-year-old Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT. Since then, Army officials have assessed ACFT standards, making tweaks and changes as needed, to ensure the fitness test precisely targets readiness and combat-related skills for a new era of Soldiers.
However, one thing that remains is the emphasis on physical fitness leading to combat readiness.
“Physical fitness is fundamental to sustained Army readiness,” Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston said. “We must have highly trained, disciplined and physically fit Soldiers capable of winning on any battlefield. The ACFT, specifically linked to common warfighting tasks, will help us assess and improve the individual readiness of the force.”
In the beginning, Army leaders based their standards on “scientific data, and the need to revolutionize the culture of fitness in our force,” said Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commander of the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training. Now, as new data becomes available, the Army is “looking at ways to refine how scores meet what Soldiers are accomplishing in the field.”
The new changes are part of a two-part decision-making process based on science and results, said Dr. Whitfield East, EdD, Research Physiologist for CIMT.
Specific Battalions were selected to provide a sample from across the Army, with Soldiers from nearly every MOS, who represented the Active Duty, National Guard, and Army Reserve components, Hibbard added.
In fiscal year 2019, data was compiled from 63 battalions, or roughly 17,000 Soldiers, who took the ACFT during its initial implementation phase. That information was then evaluated for the changes that will be carried out next year.
PHASE TWO OF IMPLEMENTATION
As the ACFT nears its second phase of implementation on Oct. 1, all Soldiers are scheduled to complete the modernized fitness test. However, according to officials, they will not be held to any of the standards during the service-wide diagnostic testing phase.
“The diagnostic test gives leaders a chance to make even more informed decisions,” Hibbard said.
Although the new ACFT standards are “locked in for next year,” Megan Reed, Spokeswoman for U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training said, they “are viewed as a living document, and are subsequent to change after the larger and more diverse phase of training” in fiscal 2020.
The larger service-wide test consists of every Soldier, with active-duty members taking the test as a diagnostic twice, six-months apart, and Reserve and National Guard Soldiers scheduled to complete the diagnostic test once.
The strategy, Maj. Gen. Hibbard said, will expose Soldiers to the ACFT, help them strategize the best way to train themselves, and give the Army a wider demographic of data for decisions in fiscal year 2021.
“We’ve compiled good empirical research on what’s required to do high physically demanding, common Soldier tasks,” East said, regarding last year’s field test. “When you look at the six events (of the ACFT), they cover major components of fitness: muscular strength, muscular endurance, explosive power, and a lot are anaerobic power or anaerobic endurance.”
Next year, Soldiers in Basic Combat Training, Advanced Individual Training, One Station Unit Training, Warrant Officer Basic Course and the Basic Officer Leader’s Course, will take the ACFT as a graduation requirement. Doing so allows IMT Soldiers to “train realistically and develop physically in the earliest phase in their career,” Hibbard said. “This sets them up for success.”
This game plan optimizes readiness, by placing an “ACFT-trained Soldier” at their first duty assignment, Hibbard added, where they’ll be able to promote readiness among their fellow Soldiers.
One of the major changes is the arm extension pushup. To complete the exercise, Soldiers start chest down and do a traditional pushup. Then, while back in the down position, they will move their arms outward, followed by going in to do another pushup. Soldiers will repeat as many times as possible, enabling additional upper-body muscles to be used.
Along the same lines of the hand-release pushup, the arm extension pushup tests muscular strength and shoulder endurance, Hibbard said.
“We found it very difficult to grade the hand-lift (pushup) due to a myriad of factors, including shoulder mobility,” East said, adding, “Instead of lifting their hands, Soldiers hyperextended their lower backs and lifted their chests off the ground, and then never got back to the start position.”
Changing pushup events is also a willful effort to help the noncommissioned officers, who will be administering the tests in the field, Hibbard said.
“The test has to be implemented across the Army, and graded by our Level 1 Certified Graders,” said Hibbard, adding that during initial testing, the hand-release pushup provided too much ambiguity to the grading process.
With the arm extension pushup, Soldiers taking the test “extend their hands all the way out” and eliminate any uncertainty to grading, Hibbard said. “Especially at 5:30 in the morning when they’re trying to figure out if (a Soldier’s) hands actually come off the grass 4 inches or not.”
Another factor for substituting the hand-release component was to help “establish a cadence and reduce the number of repetitions,” East said.
HOLISTIC HEALTH AND FITNESS
Although the ACFT tests Soldiers physical fitness, being physically active is only one aspect of training for the test, officials said. In fact, the ACFT is just one part of the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness system (H2F) that empowers the force to be strong, well-rounded Soldiers: mentally, spiritually, and physically.
The non-physical elements of H2F are vital for Soldiers to succeed on the ACFT, Hibbard said. These components include sleep- and nutritional-readiness, as well as spiritual- and mental-readiness. They all work together into a single, comprehensive health system.
On the physical side, the ACFT will determine a Soldier’s fitness level through high-intensity repetitions.
By reducing the number of repetitions, Soldiers reduce the potential for injury, East said, and the ACFT prompts a 40-50% reduction of repetitions versus the APFT.
“Each repetition requires a greater force to push a greater resistance,” East said. “That means we’re able to get the same work volume with fewer repetitions.”
For instance, he said, “Soldiers could run 10 miles at a 10-minute pace, or they could run 2 miles at a 6-minute pace” and save strain on “their knees, hips, and everything else for 8 miles.”
The ACFT is a part of an overall modernization focus on near-peer competition by measuring explosive power and speed, while also focusing on events such as dynamic balance, flexibility, and agility — things the current test “got away from,” East said.
The science behind the ACFT is a systematic study to imitate real-life scenarios, but it also helps prevent injuries, he added.
“Overuse injuries have been a tremendous problem in the Army, with a significant number attributed to musculoskeletal injuries,” East said. “As we increase strength, and reduce the number of repetitions (with the ACFT), we should see some concomitant decrease in injuries.”
For this reason, Army leaders have accounted for these types of injuries.
Moving forward, “we need to train the Army, not only how to take the test, but also how to train for the test,” said Hibbard, adding that it’s important for Soldiers to train with and without equipment.
“When Soldiers do physical training, they tend to focus on what’s on their test,” Hibbard said, adding that the ACFT will change how Soldiers PT, emphasizing the importance of flexibility, mobility, agility, and core strength.
How Soldiers train for the ACFT will impact how well they’ll do, Grinston said.
“I would encourage all Soldiers across each component to begin training for the ACFT now — if you aren’t already,” Grinston said. “We have already released an ACFT training guide with exercises from Field Manual 7-22 to help Soldiers successfully prepare for the test with or without equipment.”
To decide test scores, every MOS in the Army will be given a color code — either gold, gray, or black — to correlate with the frequency of the high physical demands within their respective careers. The three categories will then determine ACFT passing scores, regardless of age or gender.
The standards, broken into color-coded categories is similar to the Army’s Occupational Physical Assessment Test, or OPAT, which is administered to all recruits to assess their fitness for various careers, with black typically reserved for combat arms careers.
Based on feedback received from Soldiers, Hibbard said Soldiers are “excited” about the ACFT, because every Soldier in their career field will compete along the same standard, adding “that standard is what is necessary for them to be successful in their occupational specialty.”
By Oct. 1, Maj. Gen. Hibbard, who is responsible for transforming more than 130,000 civilians into Soldiers annually, is preparing to produce Soldiers who can pass the ACFT at the minimal gold standard right out of Basic Combat Training.
“As units in the field begin transitioning to the ACFT, Soldiers arriving can already pass and are grounded in the fundamentals of the test,” Hibbard said.
“Like our new chief of staff (Gen. James C. McConville) said, the Army’s greatest asset is its people,” he added. “As we look at how we’re implementing holistic health and the (ACFT), it’s about training and educating our Army’s newest Soldiers, so they’re ready for the demands that are going to be placed on them.”