By Douglas Holl, USAPHCJanuary 27, 2020
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Is the new Army Combat Fitness Test stressing you out? There are all of these new exercises--dead lifts, power throws, hand release push-ups, sprint-drag-carry, and the leg tuck. How do you build the needed core fitness strength? Is it possible to train for the ACFT without hurting yourself?
Army Public Health Center experts say the key is to think like a Soldier-Athlete and "train smart" --
• Gradually increase the challenge to your body over time
• Use proper training form and technique for any new exercises
• Do not 'overdo it' with the amount of weights or time training
• Seek advice for alternatives when something doesn't feel right
• Be confident - your performance will progress
Maj. Timothy Benedict, an APHC physical therapist, recommends Soldiers start training now and do as much as they can to gain control of their fitness and training plans.
"I would recommend that Soldiers and leaders come up with a pro-active plan sooner rather than later," said Benedict. "If Soldiers wait until the last minute to start training for the ACFT, it is more likely they will try and perform at a level their body is not yet accustomed to and be at risk of injury. In addition, as Soldiers become more familiar with the tests, their confidence will increase -- which may also help reduce their chance of getting hurt."
Benedict, who is also an Army Master Fitness Trainer, says the number one strategy to reduce the likelihood of injury with the ACFT is time. Many injuries are the result of doing too much, too soon. The more time Soldiers give themselves to train, the more their bodies will adapt to the forces and perform better on these new tests. The ACFT website (www.army.mil/acft/) provides recommendations for how to train for the ACFT events.
"Just like you can't cram for a marathon, you can't cram for the ACFT." said Benedict. You need to give your body time to adapt to the new test. The good news is the human body is incredibly resilient and can adapt to some of the most extreme challenges with adequate amount of time and preparation."
Any new exercise or activity has the potential to contribute to injury.
"Go out there and get familiar with your baseline performance," said Benedict. "Know your standards to pass. Set a realistic goal after becoming familiar with each event. Depending on how close you are to your goal, you need a minimum of six weeks for your nervous system and muscles to adapt to the new activities."
Benedict recommends a 12-week training program where each week Soldiers gradually increase their weight or effort for each event. He also recommends slightly decreasing the weight and increasing relative rest every fourth week.
"You have to give your body enough time to adapt to increasing loads as you train for your goal," said Benedict.
Benedict suggests slightly decreasing the weight and increasing rest time every fourth week. He also has some advice for Army leaders.
"Give your Soldiers plenty of time to get familiar with all the ACFT activities," said Benedict.
He recommends leaders provide a relatively stress-free environment for the first diagnostic ACFT to give Soldiers a chance to test their bodies out. This tactic will help leaders figure out which events Soldiers need the most work on, and come up with a plan to gradually improve the performance for each event.
Army Wellness Centers also offer resources to help Soldiers and leaders.
"At the Army Wellness Center, our NCCA Certified health educators can work with Soldiers to evaluate their baseline fitness level and create free, individualized exercise plans to help them to train for the ACFT, and improve their overall performance," said Joanna Ward-Brown, Army Wellness Center project officer at APHC. "Over 30 years of Army injury data have identified Soldiers at the highest risk for musculoskeletal injury are men and women with the slowest two-mile run times. These high risk Soldiers can go to the AWC to receive a fitness test that will gather their baseline endurance level, strength, and flexibility."
Ward-Brown explained the AWCs can develop a training plan specific to that Soldier's current fitness level and goals to help them improve their overall fitness, and can also serve as an accountability partner to ensure the Soldier is making the appropriate progress towards their goals.
There have been concerns that the ACFT could introduce new injuries, at least at first. APHC has previously described some specific injury concerns at https://safety.army.mil/MEDIA/Risk-Management-Magazine/ArtMID/7428/ArticleID/6421/The-Army-Combat-Fitness-Test-Are-You-Prepared. However, these concerns are being weighed with the potential reduction in injuries that may occur with a more physically fit force. To ensure the health of the force, APHC is monitoring Soldier injury rates associated with the ACFT across the Army.
"As with any program in the Army, our leaders are looking at key indicators and are going to make adjustments as needed to ensure Soldiers are ready for combat," said Benedict. "Leaders should also be pro-active and monitor profile rates in your units. If you see any spikes in profile rates, investigate how your unit is training and consider making some adjustments."
Benedict also recommends taking advantage of unit or installation physical therapists as a great resource to review a Soldier's ACFT fitness plan.
"Many units now have athletic trainers and strength coaches that you could consult," said Benedict. "There are a lot of online programs and videos demonstrating good techniques as well as how to train and progress for each event."
One way for Soldiers to remember they are not in this alone is find a battle buddy to train with, said Benedict.
"Have a leader or fellow Soldier video-tape your performance for each event," said Benedict. "If you see coordinated, smooth, efficient movement, this is a sign that your body is moving in the right direction and is able to handle the loads and weights that you are trying to move. If you see a lot of shaking or moving in many directions as you perform the event, this is a sign that you should reduce your weight or have a buddy help you or focus more on your form so that you are more efficient with your movements."
These strategies will reduce the likelihood of getting injured as well as improve performance.
Yeah, but what about that leg tuck?
"The number one thing you can do to improve your performance on the leg-tuck is to increase your upper body strength, followed by core strength," said Benedict. "Spend some time working on pull-up progressions. There are great progression plans on the internet for individuals who have difficulty achieving the minimum standard."
Benedict thinks this is an exciting time to be a Soldier, because the new ACFT reinforces the vision of the professional Soldier-Athlete.
"Professional athletes train hard and prepare their bodies for the multi-directional stressors they face in competition," said Benedict. "Soldier-Athletes should be no different. We shouldn't be overly afraid of the new fitness test just because it is new or just because it involves lifting weights. Instead, we should meet the challenge that I'm confident all Soldiers are capable of achieving."
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.