'This Is an Opportunity to Work My Butt Off': Female Soldiers Want to Excel Under New Fitness Standards

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Army Combat Fitness Test team building event.
The 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Women’s Mentorship Group hosts an Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) team building event aimed at improving deadlift and leg tuck scores on Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, April 14, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sarah D. Sangster)

The Army announced its new fitness test Wednesday, reverting back to gendered scoring standards, like its nearly 40-year-old predecessor test, after alarming data showed nearly half the women in the force were failing during a trial period for the new standards.

But eight women who talked to Military.com balked at the idea that the gender neutral approach used in the trial was a fair measure, given the test relies on soldiers lifting heavy weights and most women are smaller than their male counterparts and would have to work significantly harder than men just for mediocre scores.

"It was disheartening on a PT (Physical Training) test that I was just trying to meet the standard and not be able to exceed it," a female non-commissioned officer told Military.com on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. "The Army was saying this was neutral, and repeating that so much. It can't be neutral when one person can wake up and take the test, and the other has to lift weights every day for months just to catch up."

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The fallback to grading soldiers based on their gender is a major reversal over the original intention of the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, to measure fitness based on either military occupation or a totally neutral fitness assessment -- the idea being that combat doesn't discriminate and all soldiers need to be held to the same fitness standards.

That move for a gender neutral test coincided with combat arms jobs, such as the infantry, opening up to women after nearly two decades of the U.S. waging wars in the Middle East and Africa in which there were no traditional frontlines and women's footprint in the force significantly grew.

The Army was stuck having to choose between keeping a fitness test that would lead to a significant number of women being unqualified for the service, or reintroduce gendered scoring. The latter could create a situation in which high scores some women earn could be dismissed by males due to the lower requirements during a critical period for the force as the Army aims to create a more inclusive environment.

Now that the standards have shifted for women, achieving high scores has become possible, according to female soldiers.

"I'd have to work twice as hard as a man to just hit the minimum, and that's frustrating. I don't want to just get by on the promotion side, I want to do well," a junior enlisted woman told Military.com. "It was demoralizing to see my score will just be OK. But this is an opportunity to work my butt off and do really well. Now I have a chance to max. I still have to work hard, but now I know that it is possible and that's really motivating."

Army leaders agreed that the previous test, the Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, was a poor measure of fitness. That three-event test, consisting of push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run, only measured endurance. Critics argued it took minimal physical effort to pass or even perform well on that test, which was introduced in 1983. The ACFT is built to be a more comprehensive test to measure endurance, strength and agility.

Army planners started crafting its replacement, the ACFT, when CrossFit's popularity was skyrocketing in the U.S. Some soldiers, particularly women interviewed by Military.com, saw the Army as going too far in its perceived ambitions by replacing its decades-old test with a fitness assessment more akin to a CrossFit routine, for example requiring women to deadlift 340 lbs. to get a perfect score. Now the maximum deadlift for women between 17 and 21-years-old is 210 lbs.

The shocking data of high failure rates among women was compounded by findings that women who did pass struggled to achieve high scores. This spurred Congress to delay the test and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth to express concerns about the recruitment and retention of women, who make up roughly 16% of the Army.

"The six-event test, now with plank, will be gender & age normed in a fair manner that enhances our recruiting & retention across the Total Army," Wormuth said in a statement Wednesday coinciding with the release of the updated standards for the new test.

The new ACFT goes into effect on April 1. But scores will not impact an active duty soldier's records until Oct. 1. National Guard and Reserve soldiers have until April 2023 before taking a test for their records.

But some see returning to gendered standards as a step back for women, especially in combat arms, where the culture has been slow to adapt and women are just starting to become integrated.

"I get what the Army had to do here, and those standards were insane. I'm 120 lbs, I'd have to work so much harder than a man just to hit the minimums," a non-commissioned officer woman told Military.com. "But this also sucks because it just gives men more ammo for reasons they think we shouldn't be here."

Meanwhile, some women argued that regardless of the standards, some men will continue thinking women don't belong or that anything they achieve is because of grading on a curve.

"Women are always going to face, 'Oh, you're weaker,'' another female non-commissioned officer said. "People always suspect the standards were lowered. It's always going to be like that."

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Gendered Scoring, No More Leg Tucks: Army Unveils New Fitness Test. Here's What You Need to Know.

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