Initial Thoughts on Training for the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT)

Bottom Line Up Front: As the US Army has published more information on the new PT test, I have been thinking of how to train for it. Here are my initial thoughts on training for the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT).

Soldier from 2/75 Ranger performs T push-ups during ACFT trials at JBLM (Army Times)

I have already explain my initial thoughts on the ACFT and compared it to the APFT here. Good primer going into this post, so read it if you are interested.


Individual vs Unit Training

As I think about the ACFT, two things keep hitting me in a strong way: 1) This is the kind of test for which I have been preparing for a decade, and 2) Training individually for it will be much easier than training a unit.

Since I joined the Army I had a dissenting view of the Army Physical Fitness Test (read more if interested) and embraced the concept of PRT. I knew from day one at basic training that push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run didn’t measure the demands for combat fitness. The problem I ran into over and over again was the hyper-focus on the APFT and running specifically as measures of a Soldier’s physical fitness. It prevented my fellow Soldiers from seeing the utility of swinging a kettlebell, doing box jumps, or doing combatives for physical training; they felt it was a waste of time because it didn’t prepare you for the APFT although we all knew it would prepare you for combat. This made my head hurt.

I was able to meet all the demands of what a battlefield would entail – which is to say unknown, unpredictable, and both mentally and physically demanding – with my own program that focused on being physically fit. By doing this, I didn’t have to directly “train” for the APFT because it was just one measurement of my physical ability. I have never had a problem being in the top 10% in APFT score in any unit, routinely scoring 290+ on a 300-point scale. The reason I was able to do this is because I trained myself individually. Even when I had to do unit PT (variations of push-ups, sit-ups, and running), I would go to a gym after or in the evening and weekends to prepare myself optimally. Doing this for a large group of Soldiers is highly problematic for the following reasons:

  1. It requires lots of coaching and teaching. You can’t just grab a bar and start doing heavy deadlifts with someone who has never deadlifted. Same with kettlebell swings (and 100+ other movements). Even if you spend months with people teaching proper form, a few other things happen (list within a list!): a) The coaches can’t do PT during PT because they have to coach continually, b) People are constantly coming into and moving out of units so you are always starting over with someone new, to the detriment of the group. c) Competent, available coaches, are required for every session. We absolutely do not prepare our junior leaders to be strength and conditioning professionals nor should we think we can. There are people who do this for a living who do nothing but this. Is it fair to expect a 23-year-old sergeant to teach and coach like a 40-year-old exercise physiologist/strength coach?
  2. It requires serious equipment, both in quantity and type. Even if you had a group of people, say, 30 as in a platoon, who all knew everything I knew, there is not a place on an Army post where you can take 30 Soldiers at once almost at any time of day (certainly not during morning PT hours) to train using even basic equipment (kettlebells, squat racks, barbells, boxes, pull-up bars, or even just indoor space like a gym floor). My home gym has everything I need to train for the ACFT. What I can do in half my garage cannot be replicated on Fort Bragg for one infantry battalion (750-1000 Soldiers) at one place without shutting everyone else out, and even then probably not. There are 50,000+ Soldiers on Fort Bragg. Wrap your head around that.
  3. It requires space. Even if we give all the equipment that a unit would need to train for combat properly (aka do well on the ACFT), where will it all go? For the sake of argument, let’s pretend we can find somewhere to store it all. You want to break it out from November through March in North Carolina, New York, Missouri, or Oklahoma? How about if it’s raining? Just rain would destabilize a plan to do sled drags and kettlebell swings for a unit. 
  4. It requires a thorough warm-up. You can pretty much do zero prep and go right into push-up intervals or some silly “ab” circuit. You can even not warm-up and start running as long as you don’t start off at a dead sprint. Both of these things are warm-up type activities (at a low intensity), which could assist in preparing you for complex activities like deadlifting, dynamic ball throws, or heavy carries. We are asking for injuries if we tell a platoon to grab their deadlift gear and get after it early in the morning, outside, and in the cold. You can go outside in the freezing rain and just start slowly jogging immediately. Can’t do the same with deads.
  5. It requires proper rest, recovery, and nutrition. We give lip service at best to the performance triad – sleep, nutrition, activity. It is something most Soldiers have never heard of and it is something that is absolutely not a priority. You know what is a priority? Annual dental exams and running. King for a day, I eliminate all fast food from every post. I get rid of bread, french fries, hamburgers, potato chips, sugary “performance” drinks, soda, etc. from every dining facility. I make it downright unpleasant to get an unhealthy item just like we make it downright unpleasant to miss morning PT. I make caring about sleep and teaching sleep hygiene a priority from day one at basic training. If I could have Soldiers who eat well, sleep well, and move throughout the day but who do only simple physical training tasks I would. Better than people who eat like trash, sleep horribly, and sit around all day other than their 45-minute PT session. If we are going to ask for combat physical readiness, we need to ask for the most important parts – nutrition and sleep. We could just do normal military training, ruck march, and bodyweight exercises and be fine. Let’s put 25% of the effort we put into five-mile runs for the past 30 years into what our Soldiers eat and we’d be far better off than buying everyone barbells and sleds.

The idea that we should test combat fitness with the ACFT is excellent. Even the test itself is good enough. Minus my negative thoughts about how hard it is to execute, I am ultimately fine with spending a whole day a few times a year doing this if it means our Soldiers are actually training for combat. Where I think we are missing the boat is how difficult training this way is for large groups of people and how much is required to do it. You can’t just pretend like everything is the same except the physical fitness test.

The Way Ahead

Don’t bring problems without solutions, right? Here are a few recommendations – some that will never be taken, some that may be.

  1. We should do physical training in the afternoon. Just being awake and moving around will prepare your body for the demands of higher intensity training. Many performance coaches will tell you the afternoon is optimal time for training. I would remove the 6:30 to 7:30 AM time most Army units do PT in favor of 2 to 4 PM. Know what else this does? Lets people prep and recover (in terms of setting up and putting away equipment) from the more complex training they will need to do. Know what else? Lets them sleep longer! Work call should be at 8 AM. You get four hours in the morning to do whatever, then the afternoon becomes about physical training. That’s it. Do less silly things if you can’t work this out with your schedule. This requires a complete culture change, I know. I can’t think of anything more fundamental than physical fitness for a Soldier. Seriously, think about it. You can be disciplined, dedicated, and tactically proficient, but without the physical body to do the actions you want, you have nothing. Prioritize it.
  2. We should do unit physical training three days per week. Here is some time back for you field grades. Have your training meeting at 1300 on off days. Spend the whole day doing squad movement tactics or go to the range. No problem. Individuals/staff/small groups can do whatever they need to do. I am talking about squads, platoons, and companies here. Three days per week is more than enough time. Spend the rest recovering.
  3. We should all follow the same physical training program. This isn’t hard to do. Have some professionals take into account the varying physical abilities, equipment, time, environmental considerations, etc. of a typical infantry company and develop a physical training template. Then give it to everyone to do. We leave PT up to our leaders to plan and execute but give them very little training on how to do it. We do not do this for rifle marksmanship. I have spent way more time at ranges or handing weapons than learning about physical training in my military education. 
  4. We should spend serious time training all our NCOs and officers on strength and conditioning. I would take an entire work week during all officer and NCO professional military training (BOLC, CCC, ILE, and all NCOES schools) to teach exercise science, physiology, nutrition, and performance training. Two weeks if I could get it. Same block each time to each audience. Hearing it multiple times is good. Again, is this more important than something they already learn there? Yes, it is. I taught captains career course for two years and have attended all of the officer courses. There is more than enough to remove to make time for this priority. Teaching physical training DURING morning physical training isn’t what I am talking about here. I am talking about academic courses with hands-on portions. We should then mandate minimums in each unit for those who have attended the more thorough Master Fitness Course. At least five per company. We added in weeks of mandatory combatives training and mandated certain numbers of level two and three instructors, completely changing the culture around this identified need. We need to do this for physical fitness training.
  5. We should put strength and conditioning professionals in each battalion. We are doing something like this now, just not sure the scope. It needs to be pervasive enough to have these people around each company during PT coaching and answering questions. Five per battalion. Too expensive? Stop wasting money on silly things. Money isn’t the issue. Prioritization is.
  6. Dining facilities need to fuel for performance not enjoyment. I know we can’t possibly get everyone to eat like a pro athlete, but we can damn sure not put bad food choices in the dining facilities we control and at which we force our junior Soldiers to eat (or pay for with their meal card), the one eatery that is physically located in the unit footprint. I don’t care if it’s unpopular. So is a rotation at the National Training Center. So is a 12-mile ruck march at 0500. So is forcing junior Soldiers to live in the barracks, but we do them. There will be only things with one ingredient (beef, chicken, eggs, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, apples, rice, potatoes, etc.). You have three options for drinks: milk, water, or coffee. We already have all these things in our dining facilities, but we also have a bunch of unhealthy crap that people choose instead of or in addition to these good choices. No bread, no pasta, no ice cream, no Powerade, no “energy bars”. Want something fun? Go find it like you go find alcohol – on your own, off duty time, as a discretionary expense, as a periodic indulgence.

I will address how I would go about preparing a unit for combat and to score well on the ACFT in an upcoming post. I will discuss an actual movements, sets, reps, and equipment needs so you leaders out there can start to think of how this can be done in practical terms. 

Post comments, thoughts, disagreements, questions below for collaboration.