How to Train for the ACFT: Thoughts After Taking It For the First Time
Bottom Line Up Front: I just took the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) for the first time. After having the experience of seeing it in person and how I performed on my current training program, here are my current recommendations on individual and unit training plans for the ACFT.
I knew a few months prior that I had to take a diagnostic ACFT as part of a military course. I was excited for the opportunity to see how I would perform without trying to train for it deliberately. I did purchase a trap bar (hex bar), which I wanted anyway, so I did use it for a few months. I had not used one in more than a decade.
The diagnostic ACFT was mostly meant to show us how the event would be run and also to let us know if we had any glaring physical gaps so we could address them over the next year until the ACFT becomes the test of record. My goal was to try pretty hard on every event but not to get hung up on minor details. Given the max was 600, and I was 100% sure I wouldn’t max the run, I really wanted to see how I would do on the events I had never actually done – ball throw; sprint, drag, carry; T push-ups: and two-mile run at the end of all the other events. I knew what I would get on deadlift and leg tucks. Although I could have done it easily, I never actually did two straight minutes of max effort T push-ups.
How Did I Do?
My goal was 540, which is an average of 90 points in each event. I scored 545, but I could have score around 560 with little more effort. I did an easy 300 on the deadlift knowing I could do the 340 max. I have done it multiple times at my house. My plan was to warm up to 240, then do 300 then 340 for scores. After I hit the 300 (94 pts) and no one else around me went over 200, I felt like I was showing off for no reason, so I took my 94 points with little effort. With no technique work, best I could do was 11.3 meters on the ball throw, which is 89 points. With minor tweaks to form, this is a probably 95+ pts. Maxed sprint, drag, carry. It was harder than I thought, but it was pretty easy for me to get under 1:40. I am good at this type of event. Got 55 T push-ups (92 pts). FYI/SA, some places say hand release and some say T push-up (which is where you put your hands all the way out to the side in a T shape each rep). We did the T, which is where the Army is going to end up according to the graders. The max on it now is 70, but I think when they make it T vs only hand release, it will go down since the T takes longer for each rep. I was moving the whole two minutes and got to 55. I think 60 is probably a good max score. But I left it all out on the field on this one with the 55 I did. I did 18 leg tucks (96 pts) and got no-repped twice. As I was hanging by the bar debating two more for the max, I decided to drop and rest a little before the run. Should have done 20 though. The first four people in front of me did zero (failing obviously), so, as they were watching me get through 15 with little effort, I made them feel even worse. This motivated me further if I am being honest. Then I ran the two-miles mostly as fast as I could. It was after 9 AM in August heat in Kansas when I was running and that took a toll on me. I was also surprised how much the cumulative fatigue of the whole test and specifically the leg tucks right before the run affected me. Scored only 74 points. So with a little more effort on the run in better weather, doing the max deadlift weight, practicing some ball throws, and paying attention to my knee tuck form better, I think my max score today is 560-570, which is in the upper end of the likely scores in my assessment. Overall it was harder than I thought it would be, but I had no issues with anything and wasn’t hurt or sore the next day. For most of my classmates, this was not the case. This test ruined some weekends.
My Current Training
In order to achieve this score, I have been following this basic framework for about a year:
- A) Upper Body Strength, Power, & Hypertrophy: Lift heavy things (sometimes explosively) with my chest, back, shoulders, and arms
- B) Lower Body Strength, Power, & Hypertrophy: Lift heavy things (sometimes explosively) with my legs, lower back, and chassis (core/abs)
- C) Stamina: Put together a series of diverse movements, then repeat them back to back, over and over
- D) Cardiovascular Endurance: Usually sprint intervals on a rower, but sometimes running or jumping rope. Long, slow runs on occasion.
- In addition, I do a lot of rucking. Most mornings, I walk for 30-60 minutes with a 40-pound pack on (GoRuck Rucker).
- I rotate each session in this order over and over. If I train six days in a week, I would get through all of them and then restart at A and get through workout B.
- I don’t decide on specific workouts or details until the day I do the workout. I only know I will do a Stamina workout and based on how I feel I do more or less work and choose specific movements. This is in line with my Framework Exercise Program concept to keep my on track with diverse elements of fitness yet not be overly restrictive or complicated.
- I recognize years spent doing “functional” training also contributes to my level of physical fitness now. It is easier to maintain fitness gained, harder to obtain it initially.
Thoughts on Training for the ACFT (Combat?)
I would recommend the basic framework I have been using to anyone interested in general physical preparedness (GPP). You can tailor this program to the ACFT more by simply incorporating the events into it for practice (train as you fight). For example, on lower body strength day, do heavy deadlifts in the 1-5 rep range using a trap bar. Also do “heavy” aka max effort sets of knee tucks on lower body strength day. On upper body or lower body strength & power days, throw in some max ball throws. Incorporate T push-ups, sprints, drags, and carries in your stamina workouts. Perform running intervals for cardiovascular endurance (combinations of 400m, 800m, one mile, or two miles maximum).
The above is easy to perform IF YOU ARE TRAINING YOURSELF. What about if you are a company commander or platoon sergeant and you are trying to get your Soldiers ready for combat (and the ACFT as a test of combat fitness)? A lot of this is going to be difficult due to space limitations, equipment shortfalls, lack of experience in complex lifts, and weather. I have been thinking a lot about training units for this test and here is how I would do it.
The Unit Training Framework
This is the ultra minimalist approach using what equipment and resources any average unit in the Army would have. It also assumes diverse levels of fitness, both genders, and large disparities in age between those in the group. Finally, this is built around conducting PT five times per week in somewhere with diverse weather (all four seasons). There are places where one could get more advanced, which I will note. Goal is to complete Sessions A, B, C, and D in one week, but the sessions can be done in any order.
Session A: Stamina
- Physical Fitness Goal: The ability to repeatedly execute diverse physical movements under fatigue.
- General Structure: Choose two to five movements, perform them for time and rotate through the cycle for a total time cap.
- Rationale: By performing movements for time, it allows everyone to start and finish at the same time. It also allows everyone to work as hard as they can in that interval letting everyone work at their individual intensity. You can also separate a group of 20 people into smaller groups of four or five, then rotate through limited equipment.
- Example: Perform one minute of body weight squats, one minute of T push-ups, one minute of jumping pull-ups, and one minute of burpees. Rest one minute. Repeat cycle five times. Total working time = 20 minutes.
- Notes: Broadly ensure movements are across the total body spectrum, i.e. some squatting, some lunging, some jumping, some upper body pulling (pull-ups, rows), some upper body pushing (push-ups, chest press, or overhead press), or other complex movements like burpees, bear crawls, high crawls, etc. Just don’t repeat all push-ups and sit-ups variations like everyone always does because they have no idea what they are doing.
Session B: Strength & Power
- Physical Fitness Goal: The ability to apply force (strength) and the ability to apply maximum force quickly (power).
- General Structure: Choose one movement targeting each of the major movement patterns (push, pull, hinge, squat, lunge), lift something heavy in the 3-12 rep range for 3-5 sets each for strength. Rest one to two minutes between sets. Perform dynamic, explosive movements for the same movement patterns in the 1-3 rep range for power. Can be a combination of both strength and power in the same session.
- Rationale: In order to get stronger, you should generally perform 3 sets of 1-5 repetitions. However, given we won’t have maximal weights, we can still get stronger with higher reps and more sets although it’s not optimal. Dynamic effort, low rep, high speed movements are optimal to develop power.
- Example: Perform 3 sets of 3-8 repetitions of Deadlift, Overhead Press, and Pull-ups. Rest in between every set. Perform 5 sets of max effort single reps of ball throws (many variations, pick one) and standing long jump. Rest in between every rep and set. Each rep is meant to be a max effort, max power output.
- Notes: You will need some equipment here to deadlift and to press overhead. Kettlebells are easy to find these days. If you can’t get ones that are heavy for the stronger members of the unit, have them make them “feel heavy” by performing super slow reps (5 seconds up, hold 5 seconds, 5 seconds down, repeat). Do the best you can with what you have. You can use heavy tire flips for deadlifts. Ideally we’d get the trap bar here and rotate through with the group. Perform the max effort standing long jump and ball throws as single reps with rest in between, at least 30 seconds if not longer. Intent is to express max power and not to be fatigued while you do it (this isn’t a stamina workout but for power).
Session C: Cardiovascular Endurance
- Physical Fitness Goal: The ability of the body to deliver oxygen and operate for long duration at low intensity.
- General Structure: For 20-40 minutes, perform repeated high intensity, short duration intervals with little rest and/or low intensity, long duration intervals using monostructural movements: run, bike, swim, or jump rope.
- Rationale: Interval training done with little rest between sets produces significant cardiovascular benefits. Long duration, low intensity work also generates benefits if done at 70% of max heart rate or higher. Combination of both is ideal for overall conditioning.
- Example: Sprint 30 seconds, walk 30 seconds. Repeat for 30 minutes.
- Notes: Recommend a one-to-one or one-to-two work-to-rest ratio for cardiovascular endurance benefits (30 sec sprinting, 30 sec walking is one-to-one work-to-rest). I prefer more interval work as I believe it generates better improvements to endurance than long, slow events such as a timed 30-minute run. I would do two interval workouts for every steady-state one. You can do this on any “cardio” machine, but running is the easiest as it requires no equipment.
Session D: Loaded Carries
- Physical Fitness Goal: Ability to move diverse objects over varied terrain and develop structural/core strength and stability.
- General Structure: Carry objects in either short distances repeatedly or long distances using various methods (suitcase carry, overhead carry, front rack carry, or on your back, a.k.a. rucking).
- Rationale: Loaded carries develop the entire body including grip, core stability, and ligaments and tendons. Rucking is very simple and requires only issued equipment. Weight can be scaled so it is challenging for each individual. To perform shorter carries, generally selecting a short piece of terrain (30 feet, 100 yards, a quarter mile, etc.) and carry something. Rest, repeat.
- Example: Using a 50 yard lane, perform down and back carries of: two five-gallon water jugs, fireman’s carry (battle buddy on your back), one five gallon water jug (left hand down, right hand back), water jug overhead. Rest in between each time down and back. Repeat as many times as possible for 30 minutes. Remember, this isn’t a stamina workout or an endurance one. We aren’t trying to string these together and be out of breath the whole time. Pretty easy with a group to have some people carrying, some people resting at all times.
- Notes: You can vary this easily with the length of the carry and the type of object that is carried. One of my favorites is to carry a sandbag overhead around a quarter-mile track. You can rest, but you have to stay stationary when resting. Do some short heavy carries (buddy carry) and some longer, lighter carries. Rotate these types of carries with ruck marches over time. Vary the rucks as well – 35 pounds for 90 minutes one time, 70 pounds for 30 minutes others.
Session E: Open. Work on skills that need more attention, play a sport, do a unit morale run, do some job-specific tasks under fatigue (stress shoot or medical tasks after 50 burpees), etc. Unstructured, open day for flexibility. If you worked the team hard, give them this day off if you can. Four hard days of training is more than enough – as long as it was done with the requisite intensity. We used to do field training every Thursday when I was a company commander and we would start at 0700, so we wouldn’t do unit PT that day. Perfect day to schedule your “open” day and not do any direct PT.
The Way Ahead
These are my current thoughts on how I would structure unit PT and some advice for individual PT that will contribute to success on the battlefield and also success on the Army Combat Fitness Test. I will keep thinking it through and take feedback before I put out a formal training plan with more specificity a unit leader could take and apply in his or her formation. Goal is to provide a real template with 30 days of training out to the junior leaders out there well in advance of the effective date of the test.
Let me know what you think and your recommendations. Post to comments below.