Hawaii ANG captain performs hand-release pushups during ACFT trial run

Capt. Lehuanani Halemano from the Hawaii Army National Guard performs hand-release pushups during an Army Combat Fitness Test trial run in May at Camp Parks in Dublin, Calif. Halemano was attending an ACFT certification course in which Army leaders are trained how to administer and grade the new physical readiness assessment that becomes the official test of record for Soldiers a year from now. (Army National Guard photo by Spc. Amy Carle)

WASHINGTON – Notable changes are coming to the Army Combat Fitness Test, officials announced Sept. 27, with some that will affect every Soldier.

The Army will assign a color code to each military occupational specialty and use that to determine ACFT passing scores, regardless of age or gender. All officers and enlisted going through initial military training will take the ACFT as a graduation requirement. Lastly, the arm-extension pushup will replace the hand-release pushup.

The ACFT is still on track to become the “for-record” fitness test for all Soldiers by October 2020. It will replace the nearly 40-year-old APFT that evaluated strength and endurance, but not the full range of physical prowess needed on the battlefield. To ensure the new test meets all needs, Army officials are making tweaks and changes as needed. It’s important to ensure the evaluation precisely targets readiness and combat-related skills for a new era of Soldiers.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston reiterated the connection between physical fitness and combat readiness. “It is fundamental to sustained Army readiness,” he said. “We must have highly trained, disciplined and physically fit Soldiers capable of winning on any battlefield. The ACFT, specifically linked to common warfighting tasks, will help us assess and improve the individual readiness of the force.”

During the initial ACFT rollout, Army leaders based their standards on “scientific data, and the need to revolutionize the culture of fitness in our force,” said Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commander of the Army Center for Initial Military Training. After the collection of additional data, the Army is now “looking at ways to refine how scores meet what Soldiers are accomplishing in the field.”

The aforementioned changes are the end result of a two-part decision-making process based on science and results, confirmed Dr. Whitfield East, a research physiologist for CIMT. In fiscal 2019, data was compiled from 63 battalions, or roughly 17,000 Soldiers, who took the ACFT during its opening implementation phase.

Soldiers should be focusing on the second phase of implementation that began Tuesday. All military members will complete the modernized fitness test this fiscal year, however, they will not be held to any of the pass/fail standards.

“The diagnostic test gives leaders a chance to make even more informed decisions,” Hibbard emphasized.

Although the new ACFT standards are “locked in for next year,” said Megan Reed, a CIMT spokeswoman, they are “viewed as a living document, and are subject to change after the larger and more diverse phase of training” in FY20.

Active-duty members will take the diagnostic test twice, six-months apart, and Reserve and National Guard Soldiers are to complete the diagnostic test once. The strategy, Hibbard said, will expose Soldiers to the ACFT, helping them strategize the best way to train themselves, and the Army will get a wider demographic of data for decisions in FY21.

“We’ve compiled good empirical research on what’s required to do physically demanding common Soldier tasks,” East said in reference to last year’s field test. “When you look at the six events (of the ACFT), they cover major components of fitness: muscular strength, muscular endurance, explosive power, and a lot are anaerobic power or anaerobic endurance.”

Next year, Soldiers in basic combat training, advanced individual training, one station unit training, the Warrant Officer Basic Course and the Basic Officer Leader Course, will take the ACFT as a graduation requirement. Doing so allows IMT Soldiers to “train realistically and develop physically in the earliest phase in their career,” Hibbard said. “This sets them up for success.”

That game plan also optimizes readiness by sending more “ACFT-trained Soldiers” out into the operational Army, Hibbard added, where they'll be able to promote readiness among fellow Soldiers.

Another adjustment will help Army leaders categorize ACFT performance requirements. Every military occupational specialty in the Army will be given a color code – gold, gray or black – to correlate with the frequency of high physical demands within their respective careers, Hibbard explained. The three categories will then determine ACFT passing scores, regardless of age or gender.

The scoring methodology is similar to the Army’s Occupational Physical Assessment Test, which is administered to all recruits to assess their fitness for various careers, with black typically reserved for combat arms.

Getting back to actual test performance, the CIMT staff shared further details on the change to the arm extension pushup. To complete the exercise, Soldiers start chest down and do a traditional pushup. Then, while back in the down position, they will move their arms outward, followed by going in to do another repetition. Soldiers will repeat as many times as possible, enabling additional upper-body muscles to be used. Along the same lines of the hand-release pushup, the arm extension pushup tests muscular strength and shoulder endurance.

“We found it very difficult to grade the hand-lift (pushup) due to a myriad of factors, including shoulder mobility,” East said. “Instead of lifting their hands, Soldiers hyperextended their lower backs and lifted their chests off the ground, and then never got back to the start position.”

Changing the pushup event should also help test scorers. The hand-release pushup provided “too much ambiguity to the grading process.” With the arm extension pushup, Soldiers taking the test “extend their hands all the way out” and eliminate any uncertainty to grading. “It can be tricky, especially at 5:30 in the morning when they’re trying to figure out if (a Soldier’s) hands actually come off the grass four inches or not,” Hibbard said.

Another factor for substituting the hand-release component was to help “establish a cadence and reduce the number of repetitions,” East added. The other benefit of performance over volume is a reduction in potential injury. Overall, the ACFT brings a 40-50 percent reduction of repetitions versus the APFT.

“Each repetition requires a greater force to push a greater resistance,” East said. “That means we're able to get the same work volume with fewer repetitions.”

Using another example, he said, Soldiers could run 10 miles at a 10-minute pace, or they could run 2 miles at a 6-minute pace and save strain on their knees, hips and everything else for 8 miles.

“Overuse injuries have been a tremendous problem in the Army, with a significant number attributed to musculoskeletal overexertion,” East said. “As we increase strength, and reduce the number of repetitions (with the ACFT), we should see corresponding decreases in injuries.”

Continuing on that thought, Hibbard said Soldiers need to be trained on not only how to take the test, but also how to prepare for it both with and without equipment. “When Soldiers do physical training, they tend to focus on what’s on their test,” he observed. “The ACFT will change how Soldiers approach PT, emphasizing the importance of flexibility, mobility, agility and core strength.”

“I would encourage all Soldiers across each component to begin training for the ACFT now – if they haven’t already,” Grinston said. “We have released an ACFT training guide with exercises from Field Manual 7-22 to help Soldiers successfully prepare for the test with or without equipment.”

The ACFT is part of the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness System that empowers the force with well-rounded Soldiers who are strong mentally, spiritually and physically. The non-physical elements of H2F are vital for Soldiers to succeed on the ACFT, Hibbard said. These components include sleep- and nutritional-readiness, as well as spiritual- and mental-readiness. They all work together into a single, comprehensive health system.

“Like our new chief of staff (Gen. James McConville) said, the Army’s greatest asset is its people,” Hibbard observed. “As we look at how we’re implementing holistic health and the (ACFT), it’s about training and educating our Army’s newest Soldiers so they’re ready for the demands that are going to be placed on them.”