By W. Wayne MarlowFebruary 12, 2020
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- Medicine balls thud to the concrete floor while grunts of determination reverberate from the walls. Soldiers gathered in this unheated gym on a winter morning have no trouble keeping warm, owing to their incessant activity.
An Army Combat Fitness Test is underway in "The Trench," First Army's unofficial gym adjacent to its headquarters building. The ACFT is slated to become the Army's test of record this fall. But, success requires much more than undertaking a 90-minute event. The training for it has begun in earnest and Soldiers of the First Army United States Army Reserve Support Command are taking a diagnostic ACFT at each of their quarterly battle assemblies to get ready.
The ACFT comprises six events completed in this order: a three-repetition deadlift; hand-release push-ups; standing power throw; sprint-drag-carry; leg tuck; and a two-mile run. The idea behind the new test is to simulate what would be required in combat. The standards are the same for any age or gender, with the only difference based on military occupational specialty. Besides 40-pound kettlebells, the test also requires a 90-pound sled, pull-up bars, hexagonal deadlift bar and free weights.
Coordinating the tests for the Support Command has been Master Sgt. Heidi Lee, a master fitness trainer. While all the equipment necessary to conduct an ACFT has yet to arrive, Support Command leaders are conducting the diagnostic tests with the best gear they can assemble.
"We were able to substitute," Lee said. "For instance, we had 45-pound kettlebells instead of 40-pounds. Or we had all the gear for the sprint-drag-carry but didn't have turf or grass so we did it on concrete."
While the gear and conditions are a work in progress, Soldiers are still able to ready themselves for the test and get an idea of where they are proficient and where they need work.
"This month we're hoping to see improvement from the Soldiers who took it three months ago," Lee said. "And last time, we did not test the graders so we're testing them this time on another day so they can see where they are." She added that the practice runs are also benefiting those in charge of the test, as they seek to refine the process.
Compared to the Army Physical Fitness Test, the ACFT doubles the number of events and permits less time between each one. And with no consideration for age, some long-time Soldiers like 51-year-old Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Weber are learning to adapt.
"It was excruciating, it was a lot different than the APFT," he said. "It definitely works you from head to toe. I'm an older Soldier, and it's the same standards that a 19-year-old has to do."
Still, he is not shrinking from the challenge. "I'm just trying to work toward it, to train for it as much as I can," Weber said.
Weber and other Reserve Component Soldiers are working out on their own time and between battle assemblies to be ready for the challenge.
As Soldiers prepare, they become more familiar with the nuances of the test. After many repetitions, Capt. Jeffrey Frederick realized the standing power throw is about more than raw strength. Rather, he said, it's about "finding the best point to release the ball at, and you have to practice on your own and figure out where that release is and how to move your body as you're throwing it."
Frederick added that his throwing technique is only one of many tasks he has to become familiar with.
"It's different," he said. "For so many years I've done the APFT, so it's just a mind thing that I have to get past."
His workouts have included some he coordinated with his Active Duty counterparts and trainers at Augustana College in nearby Rock Island, Ill.
"I'm doing more core body workouts some calisthenic workouts and have worked some different muscles. It was a good workout," Frederick said.
While Weber and the 50-year-old Frederick are learning to adjust, 25-year-old Spc. Jacob Beck is making a smooth transition. "I like the change," he said. "I think the events better reflect the demands that come with being in the Army."
Echoing those sentiments was Capt. Erin DeMoss.
"It's going to prepare Soldiers better for real-life battlefield situations," she said. Her personal experience with the new test has been positive.
"So far, so good," she said. "I work out six days a week. I have specifically trained for the leg tuck because I know that will be difficult. I've also worked on kettlebell swings and deadlifts to increase my score."
Likewise, Beck has plans to alter his gym routine.
"The workouts definitely have to change," he said. "I don't deadlift much, and that's going to be a big difference. Some of the events, such as the leg tuck and hand-release push-up, are mainly the same as the sit-up and push-up, but it's a little more demanding so you need to turn up the intensity of your workouts. And with the sprint-drag-carry, you've really got work on your cardio because you've got to turn around and do a two-mile run. I'm going to keep working and see how much better I can do between the diagnostics and the first record test. I think I'm in a good position but I always want to do better."
Lee said Soldiers who embrace that attitude and work ethic will likely see the payoff when they take their first record ACFT this fall.