Bottom Line Up Front: In this article I will first go over my overall philosophy, then the physical skills required for the ACFT, and, finally, I will explain what this means for training programs broadly and specific movement selection.
Principles of Program Design
For any program I design whether it’s for general physical preparedness (GPP), the ACFT, a marathon, or the Best Ranger Competition, I adhere to the following enduring principles:
- Simple. I am not trying to dazzle anyone with complexity. Good programs aren’t complicated. They are simple in design. If a workout is too hard to remember, it’s not simple enough. Far too often I see Insta-famous trainers and CrossFit affiliates try to impress people with creative movements and complex schemes. How about putting tried and true exercises in a logical order to a clear endstate. Don’t get it twisted – a simple session isn’t easy to complete just easy to explain.
- Understandable. My programs are all easy to understand in terms of their construction, their focus, and their intent. One could be new to strength and conditioning yet still fully appreciate the combination of training sessions and movements in the program. You should be able to look at a program holistically and see the vision for it.
- Scalable. Everything I put together can quickly be increased or decreased to accommodate different levels of physical fitness. 10 rounds of 10 push-ups and 10 burpees too hard? How about 5 rounds of 5 and 5? Good. I can take my personal training program and make it useful for a 65-year-old grandmother by scaling down intensity and difficulty while preserving the intent of the session.
Physical Skills of the ACFT
The Army Combat Fitness Test was created to test the physical skills required for ground combat. In one article, Army representatives list them in few different ways: “muscular strength, muscular endurance, explosive power, and a lot are anaerobic power or anaerobic endurance”, “power and speed, while also focusing on events such as dynamic balance, flexibility, and agility”, and “flexibility, mobility, agility, and core strength”.
These are all good physical attributes to have! The ACFT has, however, some very precise physical requirements that are not reflected directly in those more broad physical skills and also some skills that are not particularly useful.
Grip Strength & Endurance. This is tested directly in the deadlift, sprint/drag/carry (SDC), and leg tuck. You may have strong glutes and hamstrings, but if you can’t hold the bar, you aren’t going to max the deadlift. During SDC, you are holding either the sled straps or the kettlebells for half the event. Then you get to the leg tuck where you have to stay on the bar as you pull your knees towards your body. So not only must your grip be strong, it must be able to endure through multiple phases of the test.
Durability. If you look at all six elements of the test in isolation, they are different than doing them all in a row. On my first ACFT, I was surprised how fatigued I was when I began the two-mile run. The cumulative effort of all the previous events affected me more than I would have thought. I maxed the SDC event, but it was definitely physically challenging. My legs were still tight and I was recovering when I was on the bar for the leg tuck. After performing 20 repetitions (two were no-repped!), I was soon beginning the run…after 0900…in Kansas…in August. The ability to persist under these varied and repeated stressors will result in a better score. You maybe able to do 20 leg tucks or run two miles in under 13 minutes if you go do one by itself while you are fresh right now. As events five and six, not so much.
Glute/Hamstring Strength & Power (a.ka. Hip Extension). Deadlift, power throw, SDC are posterior-dominant events with powerful hip extensions. There is no other muscle group with the same requirements. No other areas of the body are more used than the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings on the ACFT. Good news is this is probably the case in combat too.
Upper Back Strength. Dragging the sled will use some upper back to stabilize the straps, yes, but the real new skill is the leg tuck. The title is misleading. It seems like it’s purely about bringing your knees up. However, there is a partial pull-up each rep, which I believe is a killer for the unfit and the Army in general where we almost never do pull-ups (it wasn’t on the APFT!). It is not easy to bring your knees to your elbows for most people who are new to the movement. But the need to pull yourself into a partial pull-up each rep is the sleeper on the whole ACFT. Grip, biceps, and upper back are vital to a good score here.
Lack of Upper Body Pushing Strength Requirement. Really strong upper body pushing (pressing such as bench press or overhead press) isn’t very helpful on the ACFT. Only true upper body event is the push-up, but given it is an endurance event, being really strong isn’t as valuable as having good stamina. Ball throw is dynamic where powerful shoulders would help, but it’s such a light ball and so brief, it probably isn’t a huge requirement. Usually people who are very strong do not have good stamina. I am pretty sure I can do more push-ups in two minutes than the strongest benchers in the world. They are pressing over 1000 pounds yet they would not be able to complete 50 T push-ups faster than me.
Lack of Moving Under Load. Most fundamental to any military training is simply moving from point A to B with a ruck on your back. This really requires a conditioned upper back, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Hours and hours of moving with 60+ pounds is probably the skill I would want most from anyone involved in ground combat. This is not tested on the ACFT. Being good at a two-mile run in running shoes is not even close to a multi-hour movement with a heavy ruck, in boots, on varied terrain. There should be a ruck march requirement annually, but, alas, there is not. Units must do this independently to ensure readiness.
Translation to Program Design
Given the above physical skill requirements for success on the ACFT & combat generally, here are the considerations that go into program design:
- A significant amount of low intensity, long duration cardiovascular exercise is NOT required. This means any more than one time per week of running (or any monostructural cardio variant) is unnecessary. This is culture change stuff for the Army, which is why I put it first. You do not need to be breathing heavy every day to train properly for combat. In fact, you probably should not be breathing heavy most of the time.
- Sprinting is important. Be able to move a short distance quickly and sometimes repeatedly in a short time window.
- Hip extension is the most useful movement pattern to train. Kettlebell swings, deadlifts, lunges, squats, and jumps should be the foundation of the program.
- Having a strong grip is vital. We must deliberately work to increase grip strength through specific grip work such as hanging from a pull-up bar and carries.
- Being able to perform any of the ACFT skills while fatigued is key. Can you do the SDC as fast after deadlifting, throwing the ball, and push-ups as you can when you do it by itself? Same with leg tucks and the run events. We must train these events early in a session to maximize performance but also late in a session to do them while fatigued.
- Performing many physical skills over time and persisting under stress is probably the most functional physical attribute you can possess. This is durability. Durable Soldiers continue to fight when they are uncomfortable, tired, cold, and hungry. We must program periodically difficult and uncomfortable sessions to train this skill. Ever done 1000 box step-ups or 500 burpees? Takes mental and physical fortitude.
All of these factors go into designing a physical preparation program aimed at performance in ground combat and the ACFT. It will serve as the basis for all of the programs available on this site.