By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceSeptember 18, 2017
FORT LEE, Va. -- After finishing the Army Combat Readiness Test, a six-event assessment designed to reduce injuries and replace today's physical fitness test, Spc. Efren Gandara and others in the pilot program were physically drained by the full-body workout.
About 120 Fort Lee Soldiers, including Gandara, had one of the first looks last Wednesday and Thursday at the test, which gauges Soldiers on five components of physical fitness -- muscular and aerobic endurance, muscular strength, speed/agility and explosive power. Since 1980, the current Army Physical Fitness Test has only measured the first two components.
Developed by the Army Center for Initial Military Training, the new test aims to better prepare Soldiers for their warrior tasks and battle drills, as well as other physically demanding tasks.
"In combat you're going to be lifting things, moving stuff around and all your gear is going to be on," Gandara said afterward. "I don't think the regular [test] actually gauges that. I know people who can run, but as soon as you put weight on their shoulders, they can't. What will happen when they get into combat?"
While the ACRT still keeps the 2-mile run as its final event, it introduces five others to provide a broad measurement of a Soldier's physical fitness.
"The Army has always used a physical fitness test as a tool for commanders to determine whether their Soldiers are prepared to do their mission," said Whitfield East, a research physiologist with CIMT. "[This is] a better assessment. It's better because it's more comprehensive."
-- Deadlift: With a proposed weight range of 120 to 420 pounds, the deadlift event is similar to the one found in the Occupational Physical Assessment Test, or OPAT, which is now given to new recruits to assess lower-body strength before they are placed into a best-fit career field. The ACRT will require Soldiers to perform three deadlifts (only one in OPAT) and the weights will be increased. The event can simulate picking up ammunition boxes, a wounded battle buddy, duffel bags or other heavy equipment.
-- Standing power throw: Soldiers toss a 10-pound ball backward as far as possible to test muscular explosive power that may be needed to lift themselves or a fellow Solider up over an obstacle or to move rapidly across uneven terrain.
-- T-pushup: In this event, Soldiers start in the prone position and do a traditional pushup, but when at the down position they move their arms outward and then back in to do another pushup. This allows for additional upper body muscles to be exercised.
-- Sprint/drag/carry: As they dash 25 meters five times up and down a lane, Soldiers will perform sprints, drag a sled weighing 90 pounds, and then hand-carry two 40-pound kettlebell weights. This can simulate pulling a battle buddy out of harm's way, moving quickly to take cover, or carrying ammunition to a fighting position or vehicle.
-- Leg tuck: Similar to a pullup, Soldiers lift their legs up and down to touch their knees/thighs to their elbows as many times as they can. This exercise strengthens the core muscles since it doubles the amount of force required compared to a traditional sit-up.
-- 2-mile run: Same event as on the current test. In the ACRT, run scores are expected to be a bit slower due to all of the other strenuous activity.
Test scoring hasn't been decided yet, but it could be up to 100 points for each event like the APFT, officials say. There will be a minimum score required in each event to meet Army standards.
Using empirical data gained from earlier testing with Soldiers on more than 20 physical fitness exercises from heel hooks to bench press repetitions, researchers were able to cut the number of exercises based on how well they improved Soldier readiness.
While there have been several attempts to change the current test over the last 10 to 15 years, East said, this attempt has more scientific firepower.
"The thing that's different about this attempt is that we went back to the baseline and we set up a scientific process very similar to the process of the Physical Demands Study for the OPAT," he said.
Together, the OPAT and ACRT physical fitness tests will be integral to the Army's Holistic Health and Fitness concept, which is currently being developed and will encompass all aspects of human performance to optimize individual readiness.
There are also plans to have both the OPAT and ACRT in the latest rewrite of Field Manual 7-22, which sets the standards for physical fitness. The newest version is set to be done by the end of this year. It is a ground up revision, not just a rehash of old programs.
Lt. Col. David Feltwell, who works at the Center of Initial Military Training as the primary developer of FM 7-22, stressed that the ACRT remains a proposed test at this time. If approved, the test could go to initial operational capability as early as next summer before being fully implemented in fiscal year 2020.
"It will be up to senior leaders in the Army to decide exactly when and how it's executed," Feltwell said. "There will be a transition phase from current efforts to when it becomes fully executed for record testing. In between now and then, the Army and Soldiers will have the time and resources to prepare for it."
Next month, the ACRT pilot is slated to head to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, which like Fort Lee is another hub for initial entry training. In August, the pilot was held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to test the Army Rangers and elements of the National Guard.
Up to 2,000 Soldiers could get the opportunity to participate in the pilot and give feedback in surveys after they complete the test.
At Fort Lee, Sgt. Bruna Galarza found the test to be tough, but appreciated the emphasis on muscular strength during the events.
"This is actually what you're going to be doing," she said. "I know when I went to Afghanistan I had to carry the [M249 squad automatic weapon] as well as ammunition and my vest."
Staff Sgt. Joel Demillo, who was one of the graders, called the ACRT a better "yardstick" at measuring one's fitness over the current test.
When he deployed to Iraq as a wheeled vehicle mechanic, Demillo said he faced many physically demanding tasks when he had to recover vehicles.
"You never get to the battlefield and you're 100 percent fresh," he said. "So how much more can you push your body? Doing that 2-mile run after those five events is taxing your body from head to toe. I think it correlates to something you might have to deal with in combat."
While the events are difficult now, future training guidelines aim to better groom Soldiers to tackle them. In turn, injury rates -- particularly lower back problems -- may decrease and more Soldiers could be able to deploy.
"We literally spend billions of dollars every year on musculoskeletal injuries," East said. "So whatever we can do to strengthen the lower body and strengthen the core, we're going to prepare Soldiers not only to do their job, but we're going to help them to do it safely and effectively."
As a professional bodybuilder and an Army master fitness trainer, Sgt. 1st Class Floston Arthur knows firsthand how proper training can prevent injury. He graded Soldiers taking the test Thursday, and kept a close eye on how it exerted the body.
A well-rounded approach to physical training, along with ensuring Soldiers use the correct form when lifting heavy objects, he said, would be a game-changer in lowering injury rates.
"There are certain muscles in your body that if you're not using or strengthening, you're just going to be weak," said Arthur, who works at the Combined Arms Support Command's headquarters. "If you work on your shoulders and back and you don't work on your legs, you're just going to have this heavy upper body."
Now is the time to make a shift toward that holistic approach, according to East. He said the Army can head to either a buy, build or break model when it comes to Soldier fitness, the latter of which the service is currently in.
"We've been more or less in a break model for a long time," he said. "It's the way our health system works.
"The bottom line is that we want to move the narrative back over to the build stage, and having an assessment like this would be really important in terms of driving training," he added. "But we'll also see, we believe if done properly, a significant reduction in musculoskeletal injuries, which ultimately lead to all kinds of downstream costs and attrition."