Physical Fitness Training Series: Army Combat Fitness Test

The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is scheduled to replace the old Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) in October 2020. The ACFT is a more challenging test of muscular strength, muscular endurance, power, and cardiorespiratory endurance, so you’ll need to do dedicated, structured training to get ready. Learn more here about the basics of each section of the test and related training principles to help you prepare for the ACFT.

Muscular endurance

Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to move or contract for long periods of time. The push-up test and leg tuck are the ACFT components that test muscular endurance and core stability because they require you to do a maximum number of repetitions in a set period of time.

Muscular endurance is often used as the base component of muscular fitness. The lighter weights used make it easier to get the form down before you move to heavier weights and train to improve muscular strength and power. To improve your muscular endurance, the National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends lifting 67% or less of your 1-rep max (1RM) for at least 12 repetitions per set, with less than 30 seconds of rest between sets. Training for muscular endurance is one of the few times when limited rest is beneficial because it stresses your muscles’ energy systems, forcing them to adapt to that stress.

When training to increase your muscular endurance, focus on one muscle group at a time, rather than doing “supersets” of muscle groups. (A superset is where you perform a group of exercises one right after the other, such as your calf muscles, then quads, then hamstrings, then rest. While supersets are efficient for time, they build in too much rest for each specific muscle group to fully train for muscular endurance.)

The ACFT’s push-up and leg-tuck events actually require similar forms of muscular endurance because they both require you to maintain an active and rigid core to support your torso through the exercise. The difference is the direction you need to support your core in relation to gravity. For both exercises, start with a base core-strengthening program, then for the leg-tuck, progress to vertical core training.

You’ll also need to work on chest and arm muscle endurance to do the push-ups. You’ll want to maintain the bent-elbow position for the leg-tuck. Exercises to help train for push-ups and leg-tuck include arm curls and extensions, bench press, and chest and shoulder flies. If you have an Army Master Fitness Trainer in your unit, ask him or her for more specific guidance on how to perform those exercises.

Muscular strength

Muscular strength is the ability of a muscle to exert a maximal or near maximal force against an object—or how much weight you can push, pull, or lift. This component of fitness is important for the 3-rep max deadlift and sprint-drag-carry events of the ACFT, focusing on both upper- and lower-body strength. Visit HPRC’s page on muscular strength to get more specifics on how to train for this.

People who don’t regularly weight train can expect to see good strength gains with focused training in as little as 2 weeks as your muscle activation—your body’s ability to fire more of the muscle fibers that make up a muscle—improves. As you continue working out, after about 4–6 weeks, you should start to see muscle mass gains.

Depending on your ACFT goals (just trying to pass or trying to ace the test?), you should plan to dedicate 12–16 weeks for training. If you “crash” prepare, you should still start training no less than 10 weeks before the test so you have time to learn how to do the lifts safely and get a little bit stronger than you already are.

Muscular power

Muscular power is producing force over a short period of time, such as lifting a weight quickly, or jumping for maximum height. The standing power throw and leg-tuck test for muscular power.

To build power, you need to have a good base of muscular strength. Ideally, as you train year-round for the ACFT, you can dedicate 12 weeks to improving muscular strength before you start more focused training of upper- and lower-body power.

Training to develop power requires you to lift using different intensities—higher intensity (75–90% of 1RM) to build strength, and low intensity (30–85% of 1RM) while performing the lifts at higher speeds. You can also train to improve your power with speed training, plyometric exercises, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Speed

Speed, or covering a distance in a short period of time, also requires a high degree of muscular power to move fast. Speed will be important for the sprint-drag-carry event, especially the sprint and lateral shuffle components of it.

Training for speed has considerable overlap with training to improve your muscular power, especially when you use resistance training. Varying your run training is also important to improve speed. Although training with only distance runs will help your 2-mile time, it can help only up to a certain point because 2 miles is still a short distance.

Cardiorespiratory endurance

Cardiorespiratory endurance (CRE) is the key fitness component of the 2-mile run. Although you’ll be tested on your ability to run 2 miles within the standard, activities like tennis, hiking, swimming, and cycling can help improve CRE, and can make training more enjoyable if you don’t like running. Adding variety can also make it easier to train if you have bad hips, knees, or ankles because it reduces the forces on those joints. If you have nagging pain or injuries but you don’t have a profile exempting you from the 2-mile run, swimming, biking, and rowing are great ways to keep up your CRE. You should still run occasionally, but it doesn’t need to be the focus of your training.

Different types of run training to improve speed are also good for improving CRE. When designing your training program, try not to get tunnel vision and think that speed workouts are only for speed and add another 2–3 miles of running on top of the short distances in the same workout. This could limit your progress in both speed and distance training.

To see improvements in CRE, you should train at least 2 times a week, aiming to work out at 60–80% of your maximum heart rate (maximum heart rate = 220 – your age). Keep in mind that if you’re doing speed workouts in your 2–3 CRE training sessions per week, your heart rate will likely get up higher than 80%, and that’s okay.

Fueling for the ACFT

As always, make sure you’re well hydrated in the days leading up to the test. Don’t wait until the day-of to drink up. Since the whole test should take less than an hour of total activity, you should be fine with water, rather than a sports drink.

You should have a light, 200–300 calorie, high-carbohydrate snack, like a bagel and some fruit, 1–2 hours before the start of the test so you stay energized through every event. You probably won’t need much, if anything, between events, but if you feel yourself starting to crash, small snacks or sports drinks with small to moderate amounts of carbs can help improve your endurance. For more information on nutrient timing, read Chapter 9 of the Warrior Nutrition Guide.

Bottom line

Preparing for the ACFT should be a months-long training evolution. With the new emphasis on muscular strength and power, you won’t be able to “crash train” in the 2–4 weeks leading up to the test. To get the most out of your physical training, get help from a Master Fitness Trainer, Health and Holistic Fitness (H2F) strength and conditioning coach, or another fitness professional.

For more information about the test, read HPRC’s review of the test and its standards, including some specific exercises recommended in the foundational movement series.


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References

National Strength and Conditioning Association. (2017). NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning (B. A. Alvar, K. Sell, & P. A. Deuster Eds.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Suchomel, T. J., Nimphius, S., Bellon, C. R., & Stone, M. H. (2018). The importance of muscular strength: Training considerations. Sports Medicine, 48(4), 765–785. doi:10.1007/s40279-018-0862-z

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Retrieved 7 July 2020 from https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf