I recently got the chance to speak to Dr. Whitfield East, the research physiologist for the US Army Center for Initial Military Training (CIMT). You’ve probably never heard of him, but he is responsible for leading review and analysis of military physical fitness training for the Army. More importantly, he’s a key player in developing the Army’s new Combat Fitness Test.
During this interview, we cover several important topics including the history of combat fitness testing; how military physical training evolved over time; how the new ACFT came to be; and what a training program for the average guy like you or me might look like if we were looking to maintain a solid base of fitness like this test requires.
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I want to start by stating the obvious: maintaining a strong and capable military, much less a general population, is not a new challenge. Even though modern media likes to act like we’re in some grand crisis where so few of our nation’s youth are physically qualified to join the military, this really isn’t new.
That said, we do have a long history to look back over to compare ourselves against. In his review of military fitness history, Dr. East talks about the legendary Spartans.
To put it bluntly, fitness is a force multiplier. The capability to move faster, carrying more weight, and the endurance to keep up the fight enable forces to do far more than numbers would indicate.
That’s always been true.
But how did that actually look for much of military history?
During the interview, Dr. East relays how military gymnastics played an important role in developing modern militaries. These exercises are similar to what you expect when you hear the phrase “gymnastics.” There was lots of climbing, body weight exercise, and balance work.
This was all done in an organized fashion so that militaries could produce “industrial-sized” capacity.
By the late 1800s, the French and British militaries adopted the practice. The American’s followed soon after through the work of Herman Koehler, who served as the Master of the Sword and director of the first physical fitness program at the US Military Academy in West Point.
An important note here, is that the emphasis on fitness was not on strength and power as we think of today, but rather on overall health and wellbeing.
During the interview, Dr. East points out that mortality rates from infections and injuries were far higher in the early 1900s than now. Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle helped prevent complications from such maladies.
But things began to shift by WWII.
War and Mechanization
By WWII, the load carried by soldiers began to increase. Not only that, but so did the pace of combat and mobility required to survive. This was no longer trench warfare, but the dawning of Maneuver Warfare.
At the same time, the US Military saw that the general population was simply ill-equipped to handle the physical demands of warfare. This beget a change in thinking, resulting in much more strength and endurance-based training, as well as physically demanding testing.
By the end of the war, we vowed to never let ourselves fall into such a slumber again.
This was why we saw the effort for Universal Military Training. In the same path, we saw President Eisenhower form the Cabinet-level Presidential Council on Youth Fitness. That program later became the President’s Council on Physical Fitness under President Kennedy.
Take a look at this video about La Sierra High School’s Physical Fitness program in 1962. What does that remind you of?
But eventually that motivation began to fade away. Dr. East points out that some of that could be from a belief that we would never fight a ground war again in the era of nuclear weapons.
Of course, history didn’t work that way.
The Gradual Decline
So what happened? How did we end up with a physical readiness test so far removed from actual combat requirements?
That has a lot to do with the work of Dr. Kenneth Cooper in 1968, a former Air Force Officer and researcher largely responsible for the aerobics craze. During the Cold war, as our focus turned back to overall health and wellness over actual combat preparedness, Dr. Cooper’s work heavily influenced physical fitness testing.
In 1980, the Army again rewrote it’s combat-oriented fitness test to the three-event test so many of us are familiar with now. A significant reason for this new test was that it was gender neutral. There was no specialized equipment required, and the test could be performed by anyone in any place in the world.
It was simply…convenient.
On top of that, it was very clearly an objective measurement. In a way, the objectivity of the physical readiness test also made it a convenient human resources tool, where commanders could weigh the fate of soldiers based upon their fitness scores and nobody could argue.
It was the same in the Air Force, all the way up until the day I left. But that’s besides the point.
The takeaway here is that this HR tool became a focus for career development even the actual exercises weren’t predictive of combat success.
In the late 1990s, another research administered the WWII combat-oriented fitness test to contemporary soldiers, and they did poorly on it.
Developing the New Army Combat Fitness Test
The new Army Combat Fitness Test is not the first attempt at replacing the three-event version. There was another effort in the mid 2000s, but the team simply ran out of time, and funding, to field it. That test was also limited by the same requirements of no equipment.
The new test stemmed from studying all of the common soldier tasks and battle drills and distilling them down into five main categories.
- Move under load to contact
- Build a hasty fighting position
- Move over/under/around/through obstacles and terrain
- React to contact
- Extract & evacuate a casualty
The new ACFT includes six exercises, with each one relating to some combination of these tasks.
Three-Rep Maximum Dead Lift
From the Army’s information site, this activity corresponds to:
- Lifting and moving heavy loads from the ground (personnel and equipment)
- Extracting a casualty on a litter
My concern, shared by many others, is that the deadlift is still a technical maneuver that is fairly easy to “mess up” and get yourself injured. The use of a trap bar helps, but there’s still a lot of room for error.
Of all of the new exercises, I think this is going to be the most challenging to learn and grade.
Standing Power Throw
This is an explosive power exercise. It roughly correlates to the following activities:
- Throwing equipment onto or over an obstacle
- Lifting Soldiers up; assisting a buddy to climb up a wall
- Jumping across and over obstacles
- Employing progressive levels of force in man-to-man contact
Of note, Rob Shaul at the Mountain Tactical Institute recently critiqued this movement as part of the Air Force’s Battlefield Airmen fitness test. Though his critique was not that the power throw didn’t measure upper body strength, but that it wasn’t directly related to job performance.
Hand Release Pushup
This is obviously an upper body strength and endurance test. It relates to the following activities.
- Moving obstacles
- Pushing an opponent away during man-to-man contact
- Pushing a disabled vehicle
- Getting to and from the ground during evasion and maneuver
- Reaching out from the prone position when shooting, taking cover, or low crawling
I found the switch to hand release pushups to be very interesting. Dr. East mentioned to me that it represents a 40% increase in intensity over the traditional military pushup I performed, and they expect to see fewer repetitions performed during the test.
The claimed benefit is that this encourages proper repetitions, and minimizes subjectivity from grading pushups.
Sprint Drag Carry
This represents anaerobic intensity. It relates to the following activities:
- Reacting quickly to direct and indirect fire
- Building a hasty fighting position
- Extracting a casualty from a vehicle and carry them to safety
- Carrying ammunition to a fighting position or vehicle
Next to the deadlift, I think this is going to be hard to grade over time. It’s a worthwhile event for measuring work capacity, though.
This replaces situps as the main test of core strength. Again, this is a much higher intensity movement, and it correlates to:
- Surmounting obstacles and walls
- Rope climbing, descending or traversing
The 2-Mile Run
There’s not much to add here. Running has been part of. military fitness testing forever, and I don’t see that changing.
Your Own Fitness Journey
To round this out, I asked Dr. East about what an exercise regime might look like for non-military folks who want to stay fit. The answer, rather unsurprisingly, is that it isn’t all that different from what’s expected of a soldier.
Any exercise program should include a. mix of strength, muscular endurance, power generation, anaerobic, and aerobic training. That looks pretty much just like the kind of program I discussed in my article on tactical fitness.
The key difference is that we civilians can, and should, use the power of recovery time to our advantage.
The two biggest mistakes we can make are:
- Putting in junk miles and repetitions
- Not following a plan- Random training gives you random results
This was a. great interview, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
The big takeaway for me is that fitness is a lifelong pursuit, and the maintenance of good physical conditioning across a large population is not a new problem. Societies and militaries have been facing it for a long long time.
Whatever comes of the new Army Combat Fitness test, I’m glad to see that there is progress towards real combat-oriented training regimes.