The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is a challenging test designed to assess muscular strength, muscular endurance, power, and cardiorespiratory endurance. Learn about the basics of each section of the test and related training principles to help you prepare for the ACFT.
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to move or contract for long periods of time—or to contract as many times as possible in a set period of time. The push-up test and plank 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, and hold a static position for maximum 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 one-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.)
ACFT’s push-up and plank 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. For both exercises, a base core-strengthening program will be effective.
You’ll also need to work on chest and arm muscle endurance to do the push-ups. Exercises to help train for push-ups include arm extensions, bench press, and chest and shoulder flies. Be sure to also include back exercises to balance your workout. If you have an Army Master Fitness Trainer in your unit, ask them for more specific guidance on how to perform those exercises.
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, standing power throw, 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.
Those 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 vs. trying to ace the test), 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 is producing force over a short period of time, such as lifting a weight quickly or jumping for maximum height. The standing power throw is the ACFT’s assessment of 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—high 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). The clean and overhead press exercises from the foundational movement series are good exercises to help prepare for the standing power throw.
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, particularly its sprint and lateral shuffle components.
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.
Anaerobic endurance, also called anaerobic capacity, is your ability to sustain high workloads for a relatively long period of time, usually from 30–90 seconds up to about 3 minutes or so. This is long compared to maximal strength and power exercises, which usually last only a few seconds. Exercises that train anaerobic endurance stress your body’s ability to produce energy using the phosphagen and fast glycolysis energy systems. The sprint-drag-carry event of the ACFT is used to test anaerobic endurance.
Training to improve anaerobic endurance overlaps greatly with training to improve strength, speed, and power. HIIT with goals to improve strength, speed, or power will be an effective training program. Just be sure to work in appropriate rest periods.
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 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 twice 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 the event 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.
Plan to 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 Warfighter Nutrition Guide.
Preparing for the ACFT should be a months-long training evolution. With the 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, read HPRC’s review of the test and its standards, including some specific exercises recommended in the foundational movement series.