Thoughts on the Army Physical Fitness Test, Current and Proposed
Bottom Line Up Front: The United States Army’s Physical Fitness Test (aka APFT aka PT Test) is potentially undergoing a revision after decades of failing to measure combat readiness. This post will cover the current APFT, a critique of the new Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT), and a proposed test I came up with. These are my thoughts on the Army Physical Fitness Test, current and proposed.
The APFT Sucks
I will be brief in my disdain for the current APFT. It is not an effective measure of physical readiness needed for combat (never has anyone ran with tennis shoes in shorts without a weapon for 2 miles in combat). It is not easy to grade (I have seen a total of 0 units who can grade the push-up well). The emphasis on the test by senior leaders has taken physical fitness preparation away from the skills needed for combat to preparing for the APFT itself (this is why everyone thinks running is so important).
So it would appear someone in the Army leadership had these same ideas (or was convinced by someone who did) and they are fielding a new proposed test. I personally was assigned to a unit testing it.
The Right Test
Before we get into the possible test, here is what I think makes up a good test:
- Easy to administer. An elaborate test like they administer at the NFL combine may be what we need to truly assess physical fitness, but this just isn’t realistic. We need to be able to give these on short notice to one person with one person grading them.
- Easy to grade. We don’t have time to make sure every Soldier is a strength and conditioning coach. Events must be simple enough to explain in under a minute to both the executor and grader. It ensures uniformity across units when subjectivity is eliminated.
- Zero additional equipment required. Any issued gear is fine (ruck, weapon, boots, etc.) but there is no need for a kettlebell, barbell, quarter-mile track, or even a pull-up bar.
- Tiered grading. You can score certain levels based on performance. It is a hybrid between Go/No-Go scoring and points per rep/second.
- No age, gender, or MOS differences. Combat doesn’t have different requirements for 20-year-olds than those that are 35. The scoring shouldn’t either. If women can serve in any job, they must be held to the same standard as the men. The test also can’t be different for a supply technician than a tanker.
- Measures demands of a light infantryman. When people talk about “combat fitness” they fail to qualify what that means. I spent a year in Afghanistan in combat and never had to sprint to safety, shoot at anyone, or move a long distance under load. Yeah, I was a staff officer. This was very different from the physical demands of my time in Iraq in 2005 as a convoy security team leader. To level the playing field, we can assume the basics of combat are what a light infantrymen would need to do. If you can do those, you can do the other jobs all the way from infantryman clearing rooms to military intelligence analyst far from the front lines. After all, every Soldier must be expected to be able to fight dismounted if called upon.
The ACRT (the new test)
First, let’s explore the ACRT’s six test events:
T pushup: A modification of the traditional pushup, where Soldiers lower themselves to the ground extending the arms into a “T” position before returning to the starting pushup position. This is repeated for the duration of two minutes.
250-meter sprint/drag/carry: A Soldier begins in the down, or prone position, stands up and sprints 25 meters and back, followed by walking backwards while pulling a weighted sled to the line and back. Once back at the starting line, they grasp two 30-pound kettles, returning to the far line and back. After returning, this exercise requires them to sprint the 25 meters to the far line and back. This is a timed event.
Leg tuck: Soldiers must grasp the bar with an alternating neutral grip in the dead hang position before flexing with elbows, hips and waist to bring knees up, touching both elbows, before returning to the dead hang position and repeat as many times as possible.
Standing power throw: Soldiers must face backwards holding a 10-pound medicine ball, lower it to touch the ground, rises up and throw the ball backwards over their head as far as possible. Soldiers are allowed a practice throw and two record attempts.
3-repetition deadlift: Soldier steps inside a trap bar, feet shoulder width apart and bends at the knees and hips while reaching down to grasp the handles with arms fully extended; stands up and lifts the bar by extending hips and knees until becoming fully upright, pauses, returns bar to the floor while maintaining flat back and without leaning forward. This is repeated two more times for a total of three repetitions.
2-mile run: Soldier runs a 2-mile running course that is solid with no more than a three percent uphill grade and no overall decline.
Now the comments:
- Way too much equipment required. I can’t even begin to see how a company of 125 Soldiers would do this test in less than a whole duty day. How many plates and bars would we need for the deadlift? Where will all this equipment be stored? How painful will this be in bringing it to a field somewhere? Who will maintain all this stuff?
- Too complicated. How many graders and scorekeepers, timekeepers, etc. will this require? I need a company to test a company it seems. What if I need to give a quick test to a guy who got a last-minute Airborne school slot?
- Weather is a nightmare. You can get by doing the current APFT in almost any weather. I have done it at 6 AM in the freezing Missouri weather in the middle of winter, also in the Spring rain. My scores weren’t ideal like on a clear Fall morning, but they were close enough. How well will these events go outdoors (I assume this will have to happen outdoors) on a wet or snowy field? You know what holding a freezing wet pull-up bar feels like? Or wet cold kettlebell handles? Or slipping as I try to pull the sled in my tennis shoes?
- This is asking for injuries. Let’s be honest. No one warms up for anything properly. It’s one of the good things about the current test, that it really can be done without any warm-up on a cold day without a ton of injuries. A 3RM deadlift requires a real warm-up that will take time. I would hate to have to do a 3RM deadlift at 6 AM on a February morning outdoors. This reminds me of when we did max day during training for high school football on the squat, deadlift, and bench press. We barely warmed up for fear of using energy on any reps other than our max efforts. We used poor form struggling to get more weight. Our coaches didn’t really know or care about proper form, just the amount of weight we lifted.
- Deadlift is such a bad idea. While the trap bar kind of makes you use better form than a barbell, just having the deadlift event is going to exponentially increase back injuries (real and fake). Every third person will have a profile against doing it. Another third will hurt themselves pushing too hard with poor form (in the test or training for it). The other third will be fine. And the strength discrepancies will be huge between Soldiers. This will just make it take such a long time. You would be better off just picking a weight and having them do max reps of it. Say 150 pounds?
- There is no moving with a rucksack. Most fundamental soldier task I can think of, even more than firing a rifle, is walking with a pack of gear on your back. More will do this than actually fire a rifle.
- There still IS unloaded running in tennis shoes. Cardiovascular endurance is important, yes. We should run long distances, yes. We shouldn’t be tested on it before rucking though, which also tests cardiovascular endurance.
- I love the concept. While I don’t think they did it right, the concept that the test should involve more elements of physical fitness is great. I love ball throws, sled drags, kettlebell carries, and deadlifts. These things are just not applicable for mass consumption and an untrained population.
- T Push-ups are a welcome change. The regular push-up is not possible to grade well. Adding this small adjustment will be a big improvement.
- This will encourage more deadlifting, sprinting, sled dragging, carries, and leg tucks which is so awesome! Potential issues arise though when Soldiers will need access to this equipment for training for the test, not just to administer it. Again, where will all this stuff be? A company of 125 could easily need 10 sleds, thousands of pounds of plates, 50 kettlebells, and 10 trap bars just to run morning PT and let each platoon have a minimum amount of this equipment. Poor weather (rain, cold, snow) will drastically affect training. It’s much easier to do push-ups and sit-ups under an overhang than to run 30 people through a deadlift training session which would take hours we don’t have at morning PT.
I hate the APFT because it doesn’t measure combat fitness. I hate the ACRT more actually even though it’s a much better test of combat readiness because it’s so damned complicated. All problems and no solutions isn’t helpful, so here you go.
Event 1: Max reps in 1 minute of T Push-ups. This is a pretty foundational movement that requires upper body strength and core strength to hold a good body position. It’s easier to grade than a regular push-up and the Army is used to push-ups (and seems to like them). We can do this in one minute. Doesn’t take two like we do now.
Event 2: Max reps in 2 minutes of Shuttle Sprint. Using a 20m course. Should test short-term work capacity and speed. 2 rounds of 1 minute each with 1 minute of rest in between rounds. Must be done on dry pavement (not grass or dirt). Each fully completed lap (20m is one lap) counts. Total score includes laps completed in each of the 2 rounds.
Event 3: 4-mile Ruck w/35lbs for time. 12-miles under 3 hours with a 35lb pack is the Army standard. We don’t need to go 12 miles for this test, however. 4 miles is enough. As much as I want to, I left the weapon out of it because drawing weapons is a pain in the ass that is not worth the effort. Trying to get the most bang for my buck. Coming in at 0500 to draw weapons before the test is not good for anyone.
Scoring system: Tiered based on levels of achievement. We’d need to develop a scoring chart and then there would be tiers such as red – base level, white – moderate, and blue – advanced. You’d need to achieve red level in each test, which is the minimum. Then you could get a total score based on the average of your 3 events for an overall level achieved.
- No equipment required here. You can use anything to mark the shuttle sprint course (reflective belt, vest, jacket, etc.) although cones are nice.
- Doesn’t take very long.
- Easy to grade. Only the T Push-up even requires subjectivity.
- Assesses explosive power, short-term work capacity, long-term endurance, cardiovascular endurance, and speed – all elements of a potential dismounted infantry fight.
- There is no reason for a specific “core” exercise assessment here like a sit-up or a knee tuck. The core is used in all of these. A strong one will be useful in scoring highly on any of the three events.
- Tiered scoring eliminates trivial differences in scores and still focuses on achieving or maintaining levels of performance. A score of 287 or 294 are in effect the same, but individuals (and unit command teams…) currently do not feel this way. If 287 were a Blue level score and so was a 294, I may care a lot less as long as I was still in the advanced level.
Another Alternate Test
Rob Shaul at MTI whom I respect a great deal recently posted a similar ACRT critique and included a recommendation for an APFT replacement. His test is better than the ACRT but is still too complicated. For example, he includes weighted pull-ups (wearing body armor). The majority of Soldier can do about 0 weighted pull-ups. While this would encourage people to train for it, which I love, it is impractical to do in bad weather. Rain, cold, icy all will kill this event. Same with the heel taps. These are both good events but not for the general population. He has shuttle sprints, but it requires wearing body armor or a ruck and should be done on grass, which I don’t think will work out well in execution. I agree completely that it’s more related to combat than my unloaded variation. But, again, bad weather can drastically affect a score with slipping and sliding around. He calls for a 6-mile ruck (I think 4 will be enough) with a weapon. I already talked about how just drawing a weapon will complicate the event significantly. Could use rubber weapons that weigh the same, but now I need to have them on hand. I would guess way less than half the units in the Army have these in sufficient numbers. We could buy them and maybe we should. Overall I like his test and it’s better than mine in assessing physical fitness, but I am striving for the bare minimum test with the most reward for the smallest effort. If I can get 90% of the effect with 50% less effort, I will take it.
QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts on what would be in the ideal Army Physical Fitness Test? Post thoughts to comments.