Getting Started With (I) – The US Army Combat Fitness Test

The GSW series presents focused applications of Analytic Fitness™ with a 2.500-word cap (excluding theory and analysis, kept in asides and footnotes, with no set limit) for an estimated reading time under 15 minutes.

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Getting started with the US Army Combat Fitness Test

If you ask me, the most important piece of fitness news of 2018 was the inception of the US Army Combat Fitness Test.

Granted, shoving unsolicited opinions in other people’s face is an asshole thing to do (multiple-level pun intended). But my take on the ACFT is not so much an opinion as it is a logical consequence of arguments I’ve presented in this blog already. And so I figured that I could submit it to your appreciation.

ACFT events (from the official US Army website for the ACFT)

I’d have only good things to say about the ACFT as a military test, especially compared to its predecessor the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT: a 2-min max sit-up test, a 2-min maxi push-up test, and a 2-mile run). But this post is not concerned about the history of the US Army physical fitness culture. If you are curious about how the ACFT fits in this history, I’d recommend this post by Cpt. Will Fuller and Cpt. Sally White [1].

Rather, I’d like to defend the proposition that anyone training for general strength and conditioning could use the ACFT as a benchmark for progress. Given what the ACFT includes and leaves out, I’m not expecting instant agreement. But I’m going to dodge that bullet early since training for the ACFT is not the same as training the ACFT.

In fact, you can train for the ACFT and still bench, squat and overhead press, or even power clean if that’s your thing. But that’s really a marginal topic, so I’ll keep it for the margins. With a 2500-word cap, I’ll stick to the essential, according to the following plan:

  1. Military vs “General” Fitness. How the military-specific tasks tested by the ACFT relate to “general” strength and conditioning.
  2. Training the ACFT? Be it for military or civilian purposes, the best way to train for the ACFT is not the ACFT itself.
  3. How to be ACFT-functional. The ACFT implies a definition of “functional fitness” worth training for and there are many ways to do that.

I’ll conclude on how to extend the current ACFT standards to the civilian population in practice because they sure don’t apply to those populations in principle.

Military vs. “General” Fitness

The ACFT tests a wide array of physical qualities contributing to performance in non-specific combat tasks, which makes it an equally valid civilian fitness test.

By “non-specific combat tasks” I’m not referring to any official US Army nomenclature but to the fact that the ACFT does not test physical qualities specific to combat roles (medic, communication, EOD, etc.). The US Army official YouTube video below showcases how the ACFT events relate to combat applications and illustrates their non-specificity (in the above sense).

The Army approved a new physical fitness test for all Active, National Guard and Reserve Soldiers that is highly correlated with combat readiness. The Army will execute the test through U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training. Learn more at: https://www.army.mil/standto/2018-07-09. #ACFT #ArmyFit (From the YouTube description box.)

Let’s go one step further, and note that there is nothing exclusive to military fitness in the ACFT. The notion that some physical tasks would be “exclusively military” is questionable but of marginal concern here (but see below Exclusively Military Fitness). The physical qualities tested by the ACFT are indeed the following:

  • Full-body maximal strength (3-repetition maximum deadlift [MDL]).
  • Full-body power and coordination (standing power throw [SPT]).
  • Muscular endurance (hand-release push-up and leg tuck [HRP, LTK]).
  • Mobility, speed, stability & anaerobic fitness (sprint-drag-carry [SDC]).
  • Cardiovascular endurance (2-mile run [2MR]).

The above correspondence between test events and physical qualities somewhat differs from those of the US Army’s website but the differences are marginal and easily explained (see Nitpicking). The take-home message is that for each ‘military’ application of physical attributes tested by the ACFT there is an equally relevant ‘civilian’ application of the same attribute. An exhaustive list would be an unnecessary use of words, but you can think of lifting a car to free a crash victim (MDL), playing ball and monkeying around with a bunch of kids (SPT, HRP and LTK), carrying heavy grocery bags in a parking lot without worrying about asshole drivers because you can jump out of their way (SDC) and climbing stairs without spitting your lungs out after reaching the second floor (2MR).

If you ask me, being able to do all of the above is as close as it gets to being a “functionally fit” individual. Accordingly, I’d take the ACFT to be an almost perfect test of “functional fitness” (be it military or civilian), where “almost” registers no serious issue, but merely reflects some practical compromises in the test design (see next section).


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Training the ACFT?

As good as the ACFT is as a test of functional fitness it would actually make a rather poor workout.

[The APFT] was less a test of comprehensive soldier fitness than it was a measure of how often one performed pushups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. 

Cpt. W. Fuller and Cpt. S. White.[1]

Some of the discussions surrounding the ACFT gravitate around the notion that “the test is the workout”, a remnant of the philosophy behind the ACFT’s predecessor, the APFT. The quote from Fuller & White sums up quite well the consequences of this earlier philosophy. Then again, the APFT and the ACFT still have in common to be poor workouts overall even if the latter is a terrific test of functional fitness and the former potentially dangerous crap not so much.

Now, I need to clarify and nuance the latter claim in at least two ways. First, the ACFT would be a much better workout than the APFT ever was. Without getting into too many details, the APFT was ill-conceived and potentially dangerous, while the ACFT is well-designed and safer to perform (for details, see Meet Push-Up and Sit-Up Dumb and Dumber).

Second, training ACFT events is not the best way to train for the ACFT. Actually, I’m about to go out on a limb here and propose that, with a one-and-fifth exception, if the goal is to max out the test, training the ACFT events is less efficient than not training them, the exception being MDL and a fifth of the SDC (Kettlebell carry). The reasons differ on an event-by-event basis and in the case of SDC, on a component-by-component basis. Assuming that the events are not trained as part of the same ‘”mock test” workout and that they are trained with more volume but at the same intensity as in the test[2], they sum up as this:

  • Some events are trade-offs. HRP, LTK, and 1/5 of SDC (side shuffle) are not optimal for the aptitudes they are testing but require less skill, specific training, and/or equipment than better options.
  • Some events are too easy to accommodate to. The SPT 10-pound med ball (4.5 kg) and the SDC 90-pound sled (about 45 kg) are too light to yield a training effect by ramping up the volume only.
  • Some events are best not trained ‘as is’. Throwing med balls overhead and practicing sprints, side shuffles, drags, and carries in anaerobic conditions are not the to train SPT and SDC (respectively).

The first bullet point is already covered (for details, see Meet Push-Up and Sit-Up Dumb and Dumber again). The second bullet point should be rather obvious for anyone familiar with the Law of Adaptation and, in the case of SDC, warrants some cool parallels with old school strength (see Learning from the Legion). Finally, the third bullet point is a direct consequence of the greater efficiency of aglycolytic training for anaerobic fitness (see the conclusion of AFD – Energy Systems). The latter deserves more than an aside, however, and is developed in the next section.


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How to be ACFT-functional

Designing a program to train for the ACFT would be an interesting intellectual exercise, but there are better things to do.

The first section suggested that adequate performance in the ACFT is tantamount to being a “functionally fit” individual. How “adequate performance” should be defined is an analytical sideshow but it basically amounts to assuming that the US Army minimum is a good starting point for minimal general civilian fitness within certain age parameters (I’ll come back to age groups in conclusion).

ACFT scoring system as of July 2018
(source: armycombatfitnesstest.com, right-click and open in a new tab for easier reading)

Even assuming this guesstimate, the variety of opinions about “functionality” keeps this section open to too much nitpicking. So let’s relativize “functionality” to the ACFT and refer to it as ACFT-functionality. With that done, we can ask: “what minimal constraints should a training program satisfy in order to guarantee ACFT-functionality?” This question is more general than: “what would be a good training program based on the ACFT?”.

As of today, there are already adequate answers to the second question but (to my knowledge) no satisfying explicit answer to the first [3]. However, there are at least two partial answers related to one another. Both answers are conditional on the following assumption:

Carry-Over Assumption (COA) Any program optimized for rucking with a load greater than 1/3 of the rucker’s bodyweight will improve performance in the ACFT.

The grounds for (COA) are that rucking performance under that kind of load depends less on aerobic capacity than on strength, mechanical stability, and lactate threshold. With an appropriate selection of exercises, improving lactate threshold (which is specific, see the AFD – Energy Systems) also improve muscular endurance in the body parts trained by the exercises selected. If you are already a reader of The Older Avocado, the above should suffice to jog your memory. If you are not (or need a refresher) there’s a digest on rucking.

On the surface, (COA) merely increases the range of available answers to the question about programs that can increase ACFT-functionality: to ACFT-specific programs (cf. footnote [3]), we can add rucking-specific programs. Then again, some rucking programs are based on an analysis of the constraints a training program must satisfy to improve ruck performance under a load over 1/3 bodyweight. Therefore, by (CAO), “analytic” rucking programs implicitly answer the question about the analysis of ACFT-functionality. Two examples of such programs would be:

  1. Mike Prevost’s Rucking Programs based on an analysis of: (1) basic movement patterns: upper body vertical & push upper body pull, hip hinge, squat, and loaded carries) and: (2) types of work: Strength, Metabolic Conditioning (cross between power and lactate threshold training) and Endurance.
  2. The Roman Legions physical training based on load-bearing marches, castrametation and/or public work, and weapon & tactical training.

Of course, (1) is based on systematic and explicit analysis, while (2) was based on reasoned practice and tradition. Then again, late-Empire author Vegetius (4th century CE, see OSS (II): Nemo Metuit Facere...) compiled recommendations for military training based on practices of the Republican era that are evidence of older systematic approaches to combat readiness. I conclude this section with one of Mike Prevost’ sample rucking programs based on a 2-week alternating template, for comparison with the US Army ACFT prep programs (cf. footnote [3]).


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Wrapping up: Setting a civilian standard

The ACFT is a fantastic test of general fitness but its civilian applications require some careful thinking.

Thanks to the breadth of physical qualities the ACFT tests for, and the extensive research the US Army has carried prior to selecting the ACFT events, the ACFT has the strongest claim to being a science- and evidence-based test of general strength and conditioning any fitness test has ever had.

However, the test is responsive to contextual parameters set so as to reflect the reality of tactical deployment, hence it’s being age-, gender- and anthropometry-neutral (again, because incoming bullets are). But by the same token, the US Army research does not support civilian applications of the ACFT, in particular, because civilian populations vary more in age and anthropometry than military ones, and the US Army research does not consider extensions to those populations.

Then again, the ACFT standards are normative, context-sensitive and empirically motivated, and so the methodology underlying the design ACFT can be extended to obtain “civilian” standards sensitive to parameters military standards must be blind to (cf the analytic sideshow). Sure, this methodology has still to be so extended, leaving us to our educated guesses. But given what we know about the US Army methodology, they are higher-education guesses.

At the beginning of How to be ACFT-functional, I promised that I’d come back to age parameter in the conclusion, and here we are. Well, it’s time for a higher-education guess. Here go the premises:

  1. the 18-55 civilian demographic matches the class of tactically-deployable Army personnel;
  2. the Army minimum is a minimum for able-bodied (aka tactically deployable) military personnel in Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) with low physical demand.
  3. army personnel who pass the test with the Army minimum can help lift a car to free a crash victim, monkey around with their kids, carrying heavy grocery bags in crowded parking lots while dodging asshole drivers, and climb stairs without spitting out their lungs.

By (2) and (3), the Army minimum for personnel in MOS with low physical demand is actually desirable for a civilian. By (1) and (2) able-bodied army personnel in MOS with low physical are within the 18-55 demographic. Therefore, by (1), (2) and (3), the Army minimum for personnel in MOS with low physical demand is desirable for civilians within the 18-55 demographic.

That was easy, wasn’t it? So much for higher education, then. Now, what of young punks and old farts younger people and older ones?

Well, it’s not much harder: reaching the Army minimum would correspond to physical maturity (young) and maintaining it would correspond to physical autonomy (old). In the latter case, one could also devise longitudinal studies to refine the Fitness Hypothesis using the ACFT as a standard fitness test within the 18-55 demographic to predict performance in toned-down variations of the ACFT appropriate for the 55+ demographic.

That would be quite an improvement upon testing leg extension and grip strength.


Notes

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