The energy was electric at Target Hill Athletic Field Saturday as 1,036 U.S. Military Academy cadets, mostly the 3rd and 4th Regiments from the Classes of 2021 and 2022, enthusiastically streamed through to kick off the new era of Army physical fitness assessment, the Army Combat Fitness Test.
Cadets tested in the ACFT last semester and during Cadet Basic Training and Cadet Field Training over the summer prior to it becoming the test of record. When the Army’s Field Manual 7-22 publishes today (Oct. 1), the Army Combat Fitness Test will officially become the Army’s physical fitness training test of record, replacing the 40-year-old Army Physical Fitness Test as the measuring stick of Soldier fitness in the Army.
What will this mean for the current cadets and Soldiers and the next generation to come as they physically train for the 21st century Army? Col. Nicholas Gist, director of the Department of Physical Education, said the ACFT is an opportunity to change the Army fitness culture and aptly prepare the cadets and Soldiers for today’s and future battlefields.
“With the APFT, the Army Physical Fitness Test, over the last 40 years, if a Soldier, unit or leader trained for the test, they were training a very narrow range of fitness — pushups, situps and two-mile run. It’s muscular and aerobic endurance only,” Gist said. “The Army Combat Fitness Test, if, and I say a big if, you were to just train solely for the test, you’re going to train in the domains of muscular strength, muscular endurance, power, aerobic endurance and aerobic fitness as well as some aspects of agility, balance, coordination and speed. The test kind of drives a culture to change how we train our Soldiers and how we train our organizations and units.”
In turn, training the whole body consistently through the tenets of the ACFT, Gist explained, will lead to a reduction of attrition and injuries when Soldiers perform their duties in a garrison-like or combat environment.
“If we are a stronger force, if we are a force with greater power, greater anaerobic and aerobic endurance, then we are going to reduce attrition,” Gist said. “There are a lot of arguments to be made if you look at the scientific literature based on fitness as fitness protects against basically all causes or the many causes of injuries. To go with that, the transition is if we’re training for the test appropriately as well, then we’re going to reduce our rates of injury.
“Overall, those things will lead to a more ready force, so less attrition, less injuries and enhanced fitness leads to greater Army readiness.” he added. “If we are training the right way and if we apply all the principles of exercise, those training principles of progressive overload, of regularity, of proper recovery … then the specificity of your MOS or your branch, then each of those things, if applied appropriately over a period of time, then we’re going to enhance that individual readiness and optimize performance and that in turn enhances the unit’s readiness and performance.”
Meeting the standard and beyond
The ACFT is a six-event test of physical fitness: the three-repetition deadlift, standing power throw, hand-release pushup, the sprint, drag and carry, leg tuck and two-mile run. To achieve the minimum standard, participants must reach 60 out of 100 points in each event, with the possibility of hitting 100s on each event to reach a perfect 600.
“Ultimately, we want to optimize our performance. If you look across the six events, there certainly is an overlap, but generally, you have six different domains with those six events,” Gist said. “You will want to mitigate your weaknesses. For example, if I do great on five events but my deadlift is poor or maybe it is below that gold standard, then I know where I need to focus my training — I need to focus my training on strength.
“Like anything else, you want to set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based, so strive for whatever, and as I told my department the other day when we took the ACFT on (Sept. 22), ‘OK, we have a mark on the wall, now set your new goals and then train toward those new goals for the next time we take this,” Gist said about the ACFT, which they will generally take every six months. “Again, you want to optimize performance, and for some people that means striving for 600. I would never want to advise or lead an organization toward meeting a minimum standard, a certain standard. I would always strive for optimal performance by applying exercise training principles as well as the non-physical aspect of holistic fitness (such as eating right and proper sleep).”
No matter if your Army duties fall under moderate, significant or heavy physical demands and achieving that level of PT fitness falls in line with your duty expectations, Gist suggests that training and being physically active five-to-six days a week will help toward your goals of maximizing your fitness — especially balancing out your workouts — and chiefly for your duty demands.
“In those five-to-six days, you want to achieve the balance for yourself, but generally speaking you want to hit two-to-three days of strength training, two-to-three days of aerobic training and then in between in the strength and endurance continuum,” Gist said. “You are going to hit body weight activities, you’re going to do resistance training, you might do high intensity interval training, you might do low intensity steady state training — there is almost an infinite number of possibilities to train.”
Within the infinite number of ways to train, the goals should be tailored toward what the mission is for your organization.
“What we try to teach in our curriculum and continue to evolve with the guideline of Field Manual 7-22, is that they are a guide for a leader to plan his or her training,” Gist said. “But you’re programming should drive toward whatever goals you set for your organization. Your goals should be based on the physical demands associated with your MOS, your branch and, most importantly, your mission.”
Evolution and Adaptability
The genesis of the new ACFT goes back to around 2014 through the field test, research and a study from U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) of how to optimize a Soldier’s ability to stay in the fight and healthy in combat and changing from the seemingly archaic APFT was a focal point. At USMA, the ACFT has been administered in some fashion since October 2018. It was administered to 2,162 cadets in March before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the rest of the Corps of Cadets from taking it at that time.
Now, the ACFT 2.0, as it is currently called within its second iteration due to the COVID-19 stoppage, is fully operational. It now includes a modified two-minute plank exercise if someone can’t perform the leg tuck.
At this time, while the ACFT is now considered the test of record, during the initial official phase there will be no ramifications or penalties toward anyone who can’t pass the ACFT for at least a year while information gathering takes place to understand if the scoring and such is practical for everyone taking the test.
“In terms of how it applies to a grade, a promotion or your evaluation, or even perhaps to commissioning, that is still to be determined,” Gist said. “The Army has still yet to formally publish that policy and they’re working through those elements and as we are at West Point because we’re going to stay shoulder-to-shoulder with the Army on that — we’re not going ahead of them.”
As the way ahead, the evolution and adaptability to prepare Soldiers for the rigors of combat started with the Baseline Soldier Physical Readiness Requirements Survey (BSPRRS) that was completed by several researchers, including former DPE Director of Instruction and the Primary Investigator for that research, Dr. Chip East. East worked to identify the combat tasks, warrior tasks and drills seen out in the Army every day at the squad, company, brigade and division levels, across all MOSs and branches, Gist said.
“What the study allowed us to do is to scientifically validate the test events against those combat tasks,” Gist said. “In other words, (the events) weren’t plucked randomly out of thin air, they were scientifically validated as matching the physical demands that correlate very strongly and positively with combat tasks and the warrior tasks and drills.”
The drawbacks of the ACFT could be that it is a more resource-intensive test in terms of time, the people it requires to administer it and the equipment needed, the space to do it and the storage space of the equipment, Gist explained. However, Gist believes despite the drawbacks, including equipment that will need to be replaced at the end of its life cycle, this is the right long-term investment to put into the Army’s Soldiers.
“I think it’s the right investment of resources in order to, in a very physically demanding profession, both assess and train our organizations and our people in a manner commensurate with the demands of their profession,” Gist said.
However, what may seem impractical to people in terms of cost, resources and spacing is the fact that the ACFT is turning into a great team-building exercise where it is less individualistic than the APFT.
“The Army Combat Fitness Test allows for more camaraderie during the test,” Gist said. “You typically go through the test with a group of four, and you’re allowed to cheer each other on and you’re right there with your peers, Soldiers in your unit or cadets in your company. There’s a esprit de corps aspect to it.”
Another positive aspect is, Gist said, that ultimately as the Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville says, “Winning matters.”
“Oftentimes, winning doesn’t need to be defined by one team against another,” Gist said. “Winning can be defined by an individual outperforming his or her last iteration of the ACFT.”
Periodization and reaching the heights of 600
As the transition from the APFT to the ACFT becomes more solidified over time, it is important to go through a period in fitness training called periodization.
“Periodization is just another word for programming your exercise, routine and regimen,” Gist said. “Programming your regimen, you’re going to put together these macro and micro cycles of training that incorporates frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise in such a manner that you crawl, walk and run.
“Initially, and I say this every summer with Cadet Basic Training, we’re going to focus on quality first and then we will get to quantity,” Gist added. “We want quality movement patterns for a number of reasons, one is because there is a standard movement pattern that we know is safe and efficient, which also mitigates the risk for any kind of injury, both acute injuries or longer term, chronic injuries. There’s definitely a method to the madness with the crawl component.”
New cadets in future years will be introduced to the ACFT during the summer and then PE215, the Fundamentals of Personal Fitness, during their first academic year at West Point. As Gist explained, it is about them being acculturated to the physicality of being a cadet and a future leader in the Army.
All the Corps of Cadets are now embracing the ACFT as several cadets have made significant improvement since their initial attempt back in the spring, and there is confidence that all will continue to strive for physical fitness excellence, Gist said. Before Saturday, only four cadets, including the Brigade Physical Development Officer, Class of 2021 Cadet Tony Genaro, maxed the ACFT with a 600 score. However, 15 cadets, with more scores still being tabulated, added their names to that group Saturday by reaching 600, but seeing maxed PT scores will not happen as often as it did with the APFT.
“It won’t be like the old APFT where we had 10-15% of many of formations scoring 300 or better,” Gist said. “It’s going to be very few and far between to score that 600, but it is something to strive for.”
Nevertheless, Class of 2023 Cadet Andrew Dawson of Company E-4 achieved 600 on Saturday, although not officially confirmed by DPE yet, and is now a part of that list of about 20 who have reached those heights at West Point. Dawson and his roommate, Class of 2023 Cadet Liam Dowd, both missed out on the ACFT during CFT because of COVID-19 positive matters, but each came out Saturday determined to maximize their scores.
“It feels really good (to reach 600),” Dawson said. “I know I’ve been working hard at this for the past couple of months. We are both (including Dowd) on our E-4 Company Sandhurst team and we’ve been getting our workouts in, usually two or three times a day. It has been an experience … everybody (in our company) is super happy that we (did well).”
Dowd can attest to his roommate’s hard work to achieve his goal and all the while, he achieved a 575 for himself even though there were bumps in the road.
“I did much better than I did during training,” Dowd said. “I think with something like the ball throw, you just have got to get the reps in. The ACFT is hard, but it is a very trainable event — you can do well if you put in the work.”
Even though they both did great, Dowd said the standing power throw and Dawson said the hand release pushups were the toughest part of the tests for them. Yet, in terms of strength and endurance exercises, the sprint, drag, carry is where the exhaustion hit them most.
“The lactic acid gets built up in the first couple events, then it hits you during the sprint, drag, carry event,” Dawson said. “It’s not too hard to max the event but at the end your legs are very tired. Then, you move directly into the leg tucks and you basically have no rest time until the five-minute rest before the two-mile run. In that time, you have to stay active and keep moving or else your lactic acid is going to continue, and your legs won’t do well in the run.”
But with the purpose behind the Army fitness overhaul is to prepare Soldiers, and for cadets futures as Army officers and leaders, for the day they are in combat and these movements from the ACFT will allow them to best perform under the duress of combat.
“The ACFT will create a much more well-rounded body type, especially when you add the endurance factor,” Dowd said. “I know a lot of cadets who can individually max these events, but when you add them all into one test — that endurance just gets to you.
“I know cadets who can max the run normally, but when it comes to the ACFT, it just becomes much harder,” he added. “I think it just shows how good of a test this is in preparing you for the rigors of combat with that endurance factor.”
Additionally, Maj. Gen. Lonnie G. Hibbard, commanding general for the Center for Initial Military Training, TRADOC, visited West Point to observe the ACFT on Saturday. Hibbard and TRADOC CIMT are the Army’s proponent for ACFT development and implementation.
He had the opportunity to speak with many cadets and had a very positive experience, stating, “West Point is setting the standard for the ACFT execution.”