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Army tinkering with new Combat Fitness Test as trials begin

Soldiers assigned to 1st Stryker Brigade executed the proposed Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT) on Ready First Field, April 17. Soldiers are assisting the Army with this pre-decisional testing that is pending senior Army leadership staffing and approval. (Sgt. Kelsey Miller/U.S. Army)

Army officials are evaluating potential adjustments to the new Combat Fitness Test that could make grading simpler as field testing begins this month at 63 battalions.

The Army has yet to determine the standards soldiers must meet to pass the new, six-event evaluation set to become its physical fitness test in October 2020, officials with the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training at Fort Eustis said Tuesday during a demonstration. As officials receive feedback from those testing battalions, they could decide whether adjustments might be necessary, said Whitfield East, the research physiologist at CMIT who is leading development of the test.

For example, he said, the Army is testing two versions of the hand-release pushup to determine which will be used in the final Combat Fitness Test, an evaluation that will replace the long-standing, three-event Army Physical Fitness Test.

In one version of the new pushup, soldiers simply raise their hands off the ground at the bottom of the exercise. In the other, dubbed an arm-extension pushup, soldiers must lift their hands and then extend their arms to the side, creating a “T” shape with their bodies, East said.

“There are some issues relative to the ease … and objectivity of grading,” he said of the potential change to the pushups. “The point is to ensure they are totally resting on the ground. We don’t want them in a low hover over the ground. We want to see their body fully supported on the ground.”

The hand-release pushup is the third of the six events performed in the Army Combat Fitness Test.

The Army spent six years developing the ACFT to better align fitness standards to the physical skills soldiers need in combat, compared to the four-decade old APFT. The new, 50-minute test requires a soldier to perform three repetitions of a deadliftthrow a medicine ball backward over his or her head, perform as many hand-release pushups as possible in two minutes, complete a sprint-drag-carry course, perform as many leg tucks while hanging from a pullup bar as possible in two minutes, and complete a two-mile run in less than 21 minutes. Each of the exercises, Army officials said, correlates directly with common activities that soldiers perform on the battlefield.

The change to a hand-release pushup from the traditional pushup has not been particularly popular among soldiers, said Army Lt. Col. David Feltwell, the CIMT’s command physical therapist.

In testing, so far, soldiers on average have dropped the maximum number of pushups that they can do in two minutes by 30 to 50 percent, compared to their performance of traditional pushups in the old test.

However, Feltwell said there’s good reason for the change — a decreased potential for injury by performing fewer repetitions.

“Longer movement recruits more cells in the muscle, so it’s harder to do. That’s what we want,” he said. “Faster, highly repetitious exercises generally become more injurious over time. By focusing on proper form and doing it slower, we reduce the number of reps but we generate more force.”

Soldiers with the 128th Aviation Brigade at Fort Eustis participating in the ACFT demonstration Tuesday struggled as graders watched closely to see that they fully released their hands from the ground.

Others struggled with the leg tuck, which requires soldiers to hang from a pullup bar and raise their knees to their elbows using their abdominal muscles.

Staff Sgt. Jessica Smiley, an Army master fitness instructor who was one of the graders Tuesday, had to repeatedly decline to count repetitions as some soldiers swung their legs upward, using momentum from their last repetition.

“You have to be completely under control for the rep to count so that we have a really good indication of abdominal strength,” Smiley said. “It can be a little difficult to gauge how you feel, so one thing we like to use … is videoing soldiers to show them the deficiencies that I’ve noticed as I’m grading your exercise. Show them what right looks like.”

For Staff Sgt. Misty DiChristina, a drill sergeant at Fort Eustis, the sprint-drag-carry was more difficult than anticipated. In that exercise, soldiers must sprint up and down a 25-meter lane, drag a 90-pound sled up and down the lane, slide-step heel-to-heel up and down the lane and carry two 40-pound kettlebell weights up and down the lane. The slide-step is another change to test since the Army rolled out the new assessment in July. Originally, soldiers were to perform the sprint portion twice.

“Sprint-drag-carry was a smoker,” she said. “I think with all the events [in the ACFT] together, it will be more challenging than our old APFT. More challenging but more realistic.”

Soldiers have had mixed reactions to the new test, Feltwell and East said. However, they said the relationship between the new test and combat should convince them that the Army is making a good decision.

Staff Sgt. Stephen Sykes, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter mechanic with the 128th Aviation Brigade, said he is not entirely convinced about some of the test, especially the sprint-drag-carry portion, where he said he has seen several soldiers fall down.

But after completing demonstrations of the test several times, the 37-year-old Sykes said he’s convinced the new evaluation makes sense for the Army.

“I’m completely sold on the why, because it makes sense if you’re going to deploy to go to war … I can tell you a pushup, a situp and a run is not going to prepare you for war at all. It’s not,” he said. “And when you can use a PT tests like this that they’ve developed … it can increase that predictability in terms of battleground survivability. That’s why you want to do this PT test.”


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