The ACFT Is Already Working. It's Time for Leaders to Get on Board

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Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
Master Sgt. Joseph Daugherty (left) and Capt. Adam Dorney, both assigned to the 174th Infantry Brigade, conduct the 90-pound sled portion of the Sprint-Drag-Carry (SDC) event during the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) on May 27, 2021, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. (Armando R. Limon/U.S. Army)

Capt. Alex Morrow is a former instructor at the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School, where he certified Master Fitness Trainers to apply strength and conditioning fundamentals to improve units' physical readiness training. He publishes Army-oriented fitness content at @mops_n_moes.

Despite still being in the implementation phase, the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, is already improving lethality and readiness across the service. While there are valid discussions happening about failure rates, logistical challenges and promotion policies, we should not overlook the significant improvements in the Army's fitness culture that have already taken place.

Fundamentally, ACFT failures do not indicate a problem with the test itself. Instead, they reveal a lack of physical readiness among troops that the ACFT's predecessor, the Army Physical Fitness Test, allowed us to ignore. As a result, leaders are focusing on physical training in a way they did not need to previously.

Walk into any gym on any Army installation, and you will see physical training being conducted of a higher quality than ever before. Compound, structural exercises that increase whole body strength are more frequent. Evidence suggests that this has the potential to reduce acute injuries by one-third and overuse injuries by half. For those who argue that this is dangerous without proper training, our noncommissioned officer corps has demonstrated the ability to conduct effective training on far more complex tasks.

The dreaded leg tuck (no longer the most failed event, according to recent U.S. Army Forces Command data) means that soldiers' constant push-ups are now balanced out with upper-body pulling training, which will help mitigate our high rates of shoulder injuries. Rather than indicating a problem with the test itself, soldiers' initial struggles with this event highlight leaders' failure to follow existing Physical Readiness Training doctrine. The leg tuck has been part of prescribed climbing drills for more than a decade.

A brief search of "#ACFT" on Instagram shows how many soldiers, units and even private organizations have stepped up their efforts. From individuals celebrating leg tuck progress, to units conducting familiarization training, to gyms and trainers offering workout ideas, the entire Army community is making physical training a priority like never before. Active-duty units spend five to eight hours a week on PT, but it took the ACFT to get us to take it seriously.

The Master Fitness Trainer Course has also seen a surge in interest, with MFTs across the active-duty, Reserve and National Guard components updating their units' programs. They are certainly involved in training ACFT graders, but their greatest impact comes from developing challenging, balanced and safe programs that will increase fitness levels and decrease injury rates. Continuing education for MFTs has become a priority, with installations offering opportunities to pursue strength and conditioning certifications, or hosting summits that bring in medical providers and human performance experts.

Prior to the ACFT implementation, MFTs were consistently sidelined in favor of workouts based more on tradition than evidence. Suddenly, many of these NCOs are reaching out to the Physical Fitness School because they are being asked to do the job for the first time in years. This comes with plenty of challenges and a steep learning curve, but it reinforces that the new test is driving greater leader involvement in physical training than ever before. This is an extremely positive development that will pay dividends in terms of increased readiness, reduced injuries, and a dramatically improved fitness culture.

A major component of the increased social media activity is the formation of communities focused on supporting each other. Recently created Facebook groups include "ACFT Training Community," "ACFT Training for Army Women," and "ACFT Training for Pregnant and Postpartum Soldiers" -- plus many local versions of these pages for specific installations. In these groups, soldiers are sharing best practices, as well as providing motivation and accountability for each other. There are certainly individuals expressing their frustration but, more often, successes are celebrated and progress is encouraged.

While some have expressed concerns about the $30 million price tag for fielding the ACFT, it should be viewed as a small investment in the Army's primary weapon system -- the soldier. At the same time as the service rolled out the ACFT, it also released lists of program cancellations and reductions that total roughly $2.1 billion. A reduction in laser designator upgrades offsets the entirety of the ACFT fielding, while a delay in Bradley fighting vehicle upgrades saves the equivalent of seven times the entire ACFT. If we're going to live up to the "People First" ideal, investments in individual soldier readiness are critical.

Several installations have also made significant investments in soldier physical performance. ACFT-oriented functional training facilities have appeared at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Richardson and Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Many locations are revitalizing human performance programs, such as the Mountain Athlete Warrior at Drum; Lightning Athlete Warrior in Hawaii; and Big Red One Performance/Readiness Optimization at Fort Riley, Kansas. Army Wellness Centers are providing individualized assessments and programs, and MWR facilities are offering tailored functional fitness classes.

As we approach October, the question is no longer "will the ACFT work?" but "how can we capitalize on this momentum?" If units haven't embraced the ACFT yet, they are already falling behind. Leaders need to empower their Master Fitness Trainers and modernize their physical training programs.

The old standby of long runs three days a week with a couple days of "muscle failure" push-ups and sit-ups is no longer sufficient, and the overuse injuries that come with it are no longer acceptable. We are beginning to treat our soldiers like tactical athletes, and the resources provided are already showing a return on investment.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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