The Looming Army Fitness Test Disaster

Government

U.S. Air Force photo

Here is all you need to know about the new Army physical fitness test: the two-mile run is easier than that of the Air Force. I could stop right here, my point made, but the dormant paratrooper in me has a lot more to say. The Army recently announced that the Army Physical Fitness Test will soon be no more. Soldiers will instead take the Army Combat Fitness Test, a name that is peak Army, and the same sort of thinking that brought us the universal black beret, combat uniforms at airports, and a goth-like obsession with the color black in uniforms and advertising. Gotta remind everyone that the Army does combat, too!

The ACFT consists of six events:

  • Strength Dead-Lift (weight range: 120-420 pounds)
  • Standing Power Throw (toss a 10-pound medicine ball)
  • Hand-Release Push-Ups
  • Sprint-Drag-Carry (sprint then drag a sled then lateral shuffle then carry two kettle-bells)
  • Leg Tuck (while hanging from a pull-up bar, bring your knees or thighs to your elbows)
  • 2-Mile Run (20 minute maximum)

The test is designed to better simulate combat situations and reduce injuries. Only Mother Green could say in one breath, “We need to get rid of sit-ups because they might lead to lower-back injuries,” and in the next: “So we are adding dead-lifts to the fitness test.” And, hey, they sure found a way to make the test as expensive as possible! The ACFT requires a dead-lift bar and weights; medicine ball; a sled; two kettle-bells; a pull-up bar; and a stopwatch. I’m surprised they’re not requiring each unit to purchase a half-dozen $2000 Peloton bikes, too.

NEVER SEND THE COMPUTER GUY TO GET THE AMMO

Here is a head-scratcher. The purpose of the Army Combat Fitness Test is to test a soldier’s physical readiness for combat. For example: the kettle-bells are supposed to simulate picking up two cans of ammunition and running with them. That is good! But the passing standards are based not on gender and age, but rather, on MOS. Are we to assume, then, that if a cook is suddenly thrust into combat and dashing for ammo, he or she should run slower than an infantryman? Seems like in a combat situation, we all need to be able to run the same speed with the ammunition. That is the point of the test, after all!

The current Army Physical Fitness Test is beautiful in its elegance and simplicity. Push-ups. Sit-ups. Two-mile run. The only thing you need is a stopwatch. The APFT can be given easily and in large numbers; you are limited only by the number of graders. Logistically, such ease is an inducement to give diagnostic tests your company or platoon. But if a unit has to haul out multiple sets of gear (plus weights) and maintain strict accountability before, during, and after the test, including the run (because God knows accountability is going to be the top concern) and return the gear afterward and get it signed off by supply… diagnostic tests are less likely to be given… leading to a weaker soldier.

And that is the problem. Either a soldier is physically fit, or is not. MOS has nothing to do with it. There’s no such thing as “information-technology-platoon-fit” or “transportation-company-fit.” It boggles the mind that such a thing even needs to be said. Only a committee could have come up with such a notion. I see a 20-minute two-mile run, and all I can think of is that Onion headline: “Presidential Fitness Test Now Awarded To Any Kid Who Can Eat Without Sweating.”

LOWER STANDARDS?

Two things are worth remembering: a female soldier, eighteen-years-old, who maxed out her test scores… had to do about the same number of sit-ups, push-ups, with about the same running pace as the minimum required of a male soldier. This is not an indictment of women in the service. On the contrary: a woman who scores a 300 on her APFT is in damn good condition, and looks the part of a squared-away soldier. A male soldier who ekes by at 60-60-60 looks like a duffel bag.

Why? Because the almost-forty-year-old test very accurately measured overall physical fitness. Are you lazy or are you strong? When I read about the female soldiers who meet the physical fitness requirement to go to Ranger school, I am in awe because, relative to their physiology, they are absolute beasts. Anyone with that kind of drive and mental focus deserves a shot at earning a tab.

But the new Army Combat Fitness Test has one standard, whether you are a man or woman, an 18-year-old onion dome in basic or a love-handled, middle-aged First Sergeant. In setting universal requirements, does this test ask more of each soldier, or less? The Army isn’t one for raising standards of late. Again, that run time is shocking. You could walk one of those miles and still finish in twenty minutes! Twenty minutes isn’t a run. It’s not even a jog. It’s an amble!

One thing I’ve always appreciated about the APFT is that a soldier can train for it any time, anywhere. And once you finally get through to a soldier that he or she can improve, can raise those numbers, it is deeply inspiring to see him or her out there pounding pavement. And it is addictive, raising that score. As the numbers go up, the waistline goes down. Every single time.

THE BAD KIND OF DIVERSITY

I have no doubt that when perfectly executed, this new test will accurately prepare one physically for combat situations. The 82nd Airborne will do a first-rate job with it. Their paratroopers may well come out of it in the best shape of their lives. I’m not worried about them. It’s the National Guard supply platoon in Duluth, Minnesota that I’m more concerned about. More than half of the U.S. Army is comprised of reserve and guard forces. I’m not convinced your average active duty company will be able to execute this properly, though at least they will be on a post with soldiers who can, and who can enforce standards. Once you get into the weeds, many guard and reserve units will have a hard time preparing soldiers and accurately maintaining standards.

Worse, they may begin maintaining standards that are second-rate, but “good enough.” It doesn’t take Jillian Michaels to spot a badly executed push-up or sit-up. But once you break out the kettle-bells, sled pulls, and lateral shuffles, you’re going to see some badly executed but “passing grade” tests. The lateral shuffles alone will lend themselves to the most diverse standards imaginable. It’s going to look like an interpretive dance competition at your local guard unit. This isn’t to pick on the guard; I don’t think this test is scalable to all of active duty, either.

If I hadn’t seen so many soldiers get in shape with the old test, I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. But the Army is fixing something that isn’t broken. Physical fitness is not about grabbing ammo cans or dragging simulated bodies. Those are a separate sort of activity altogether, and as such, the ACFT would be a fine complement to the APFT. You show me a soldier who can score a 60 on the run, and I’ll show you a soldier who can be taught and motivated to one day score 100. You show me a soldier who aims to move two miles in twenty minutes, and I’ll show you a soldier who, at best, probably has legs.

David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.

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