Evolving Body Composition Standards in the U.S. Army: A Science-Informed Approach

By Maj. Christina DeehlFebruary 23, 2024

The Army Body Composition standards have been a controversial topic for many decades; embraced by some, hated by others. While some Soldiers attribute the development of eating disorders, unhealthy weight-loss habits, and heightened stress to the dreaded “tape test,” commanders see it as a useful tool to identify less fit Soldiers and send them to the appropriate resources for improvement. However, amid recruitment and retention challenges, the question arises: Are these body composition standards valid and still relevant?

Originating during the Civil War, the military initially developed height and weight screening to address malnutrition and diseases that left draftees underweight and physically unfit for Army demands. However, over the past 150+ years, improvements in healthcare and nutrition have shifted the focus from underweight concerns to the prevalence of excess fat. The standards evolved to include maximum weight limits in 1960 and changed from initial screening criteria to a standard that a Soldier must meet every 6 months throughout a Soldier’s career.

In 1981 a DoD Directive mandated body fat assessments as well as maximum standards of 20% body fat for men and 26% body fat for women. However, these thresholds were problematic as they did not account for age-related increases in body fat, and the DoD did not study these changes well. Each service then developed their own circumference-based test with varying degrees of accuracy and success. In 2002 the DoD directed age- and sex- specific body fat standards between 18-26% body fat maximum for males, and 26-36% body fat maximum for females. The measured circumferences were the neck and abdomen for males, and neck, waist, and hips for females.

In recent years, the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) has increased focus on developing power and strength, causing concerns from female Soldiers regarding the hip circumference as it measures the largest protrusion of the gluteal muscles (muscles needed for deadlifting, sprinting, and conducting the standing power throw). Various ethnic groups voiced concerns stating the tape test is biased based on their body types and does not fairly test a diverse population.

Addressing these concerns, the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) conducted a comprehensive study in 2021 involving 2,690 Soldiers (study currently pending publication). The study compared various validated body composition methods, such as dual x-ray technology (DXA), bio-electrical impedance (BIA), and a 3-D body scan. The researchers found that the number of correctly screened Soldiers was 90% when using height/weight tables, but body fat percentage equations varied in accuracy based on body type. Therefore, the DoD developed the single-site tape test and validated for accuracy.

Notably during this study, a correlation between ACFT scores and body fat percentage emerged, with higher body fat associated with lower ACFT scores. Additionally, higher body fat % is correlated to higher risk of musculoskeletal injuries and resulting profiles, while lower body fat % is correlated with lower risk of injuries. In fact, Soldiers passing the Army body composition standards demonstrated a 30% risk reduction in duty-limiting injuries compared to those failing the standards. Lastly, research shows higher ACFT scores are associated with a lower risk of musculoskeletal injury.

So, if being overweight increases your risk of injury, but being more fit with a higher ACFT score protects you from injury, where is the sweet spot? This USARIEM study determined that a total score of 540+ with 80+ on each event, was protective of injury even if the Soldier had higher body fat. Thus, the Department of the Army published guidance to exempt Soldiers from the tape test if they can achieve this score, representing a holistic fitness approach.

In response to the study's findings, Army Directive 2023-11 mandated the phasing in of a single-site tape test (abdominal circumference), acknowledging its accuracy compared to the previous multi-site test. Furthermore, Soldiers failing the body composition test now have the option to request a supplementary test, utilizing advanced technology such as the Bodpod, BIA Inbody 770, or DXA, so Soldiers can rest assured they have had every opportunity for an accurate test. These supplemental tests may be found at Armed Forces Wellness Centers or Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) Facilities. Health and fitness professionals are available at these facilities to assist Soldiers meet their fitness and body composition goals.

In conclusion, the journey of Army Body Composition standards reflects a commitment to scientific rigor and adaptability. As we face modern challenges and embrace new fitness paradigms, these standards are more valid and relevant than ever. Informed by science, they contribute to Soldiers' health, reduce injury risks, and enhance overall readiness.  These physical standards help ensure Army Soldiers possess the stamina and endurance to fight in any condition, on any battlefield, and win.

Maj. Christina Deehl is an active duty Army Officer currently assigned to the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division at Fort Campbell, KY, where she serves as a Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) Director and Performance Dietitian. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.