Choosing a new fitness test has become the Army’s new forever war.

The Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, has undergone a never-ending series of changes since it was first introduced in 2017, and now lawmakers could require the Army even further adopt changes to the fitness test of record or even revert to the test that the ACFT was supposed to replace.  

The six-event test was meant to better gauge how prepared soldiers were to perform tasks in combat than the Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT,  which the ACFT replaced in October 2022, two years later than the Army originally expected. The initial version of the ACFT held male and female soldiers to the same physical fitness standards, regardless of age, but in 2019 initial testing showed that 84% of women who took the ACFT had failed it.

The following year, results from a field test showed that women were scoring up to 110 points lower on the ACFT on average than men. Female soldiers especially had trouble passing the leg tuck event, in which soldiers were required to pull their legs up to their elbows while on a pullup bar.

Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.

Over time the Army introduced separate scores for soldiers’ age and gender. In March 2022, the Army also dropped the leg tuck event from the ACFT after a study from the RAND Corporation found that the exercise was not a good test of core strength.

But separate proposals in Congress have left the ACFT’s future unclear. The House version of next fiscal year’s National Defense Authorization Act would require the Army to adopt gender-neutral standards for combat arms soldiers on the ACFT, reverting to its original concept.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the NDAA would direct the service to restore the APFT, as the service’s test of record while allowing the Army to continue to make changes to the ACFT, said a congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Senate measure is meant to be a compromise to the provision in the House version of the NDAA, said the staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Army Combat Fitness Test
A soldier completes the leg tuck event of the Army Combat Fitness test for the Headquarters, Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition on Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, Sept 19, 2020. (Spc. Kivahzi Bell/U.S. Army)

Needless to say, the Army is less than thrilled at the prospect of going back to its old fitness test.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told reporters on Monday that reverting to the APFT would be a step backward. He noted that the ACFT measures 10 components of fitness while the APFT only looks at two.

Grinston recalled that he routinely received the highest score when taking APFT, but he has yet to max out his score on the ACFT.

“I think it would be highly not recommended to go back to the APFT,” Grinston said. “I kind of equate this to saying: ‘I really don’t like the M4, and let’s go back to the M16 rifle already after we put a scope on in it.’”

Going back to the APFT at this point would “take us into chaos,” said Grinston, who added the Army has already changed its regulations for promotion points to incorporate soldiers’ ACFT scores.

The Army needs to train differently than it has in the past to fight wars in the future, Grinston said. Soldiers will have to be quick, agile, and flexible to meet the demands of combat.

“If you take away that test, my fear is we’ll stop training for what I would say the future of warfare is going to look like,” Grinston said.

Army Combat Fitness Test
Two soldiers complete the sled drag portion of the sprint drag carry event during an Army Combat Fitness Test at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Feb. 10, 2022. Sgt. 1st Class Mary KatzenbergerU.S. Army)

It’s understandable that the Army has faced difficulties in adopting a new fitness test that is intended to ensure that all soldiers are prepared for combat, said Taren Sylvester, who researches military and veterans issues for the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the service has found that it needs to set different standards for soldiers’ fitness levels based on their gender and military occupational specialty (MOS). .

“Women have a harder time with upper body strength; people who are in more support MOSs like cyber don’t necessarily focus on the same kind of fitness as people who are in combat MOSs,” Sylvester said. “So, trying to strike a balance between those competing priorities is not easy. Incorporating any kind of new science or standards into a military service is, by definition, going to take a while just because of how bureaucracy works.”

One major lesson from the Army’s initial attempts to create a gender-neutral combat fitness test is that equal standards are not necessarily equitable, Sylvester said.

Army Combat Fitness Test
A soldier performs a dead lift during a diagnostic Army Combat Fitness Test at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, March 6, 2020. (Spc. Nicholle Salvatierra/U.S. Army)

“Just because the standards are different for women does not mean that their fitness is not up to requirements,” Sylvester said. “For example, women’s lower center of gravity means they tend to excel better at fitness aimed at core and lower body strength, which the new combat fitness test is more geared towards.”

Retired Army Sergeant Major Faith Laughter said she believes some women can meet the same physical standards of their male counterparts, but the real issue is whether male and female soldiers can meet the physical demands of their MOSs.

Women who want to serve in the infantry, for example, should have to meet the same exact standards as men to make sure that all soldiers in combat arms and related specialties are ready for war, Laughter, who previously served with U.S. Army North’s public affairs office, told Task & Purpose.

“The current findings have clearly shown that even after additional training and subsequent testing, our force’s women continue to see a higher failure rate,” said Laughter. “I’m concerned about how blanket gender-neutral standards may disadvantage our sisters-in-arms careers’ and furthermore, affect future female retention and recruiting.”

At the same time, going back to the Army Physical Fitness Test would be a waste of time and resources, Laughter said.

“We’ve also seen that the ACFT tests the physical capability of our force much better than the standard APFT,” she said.

 The latest on Task & Purpose