I thought I’d given up playing Army around age nine. But in July, I found myself alone at a high school track on the outskirts of Las Vegas, trying to pass the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT).
I worked my way through five exercises: a set of three deadlifts, a behind-the-head medicine-ball throw, two minutes of hand-release push-ups (rest your torso on the ground and lift your hands at the bottom of each rep), a timed sprint-drag-carry, and pull-up leg tucks. The test wrapped up with a two-mile run. I hit a button on my stopwatch and sprinted into the Mojave Desert, finishing in 13 minutes 10 seconds. Each exercise is worth a maximum of 100 points, and I scored 547 out of 600. Not bad. For infantry the minimum to pass is 420. But the soldiers with the hardest jobs—Rangers, Night Stalkers, and Green Berets—often score close to 600, according to multiple sources within the military. To find out if I was Special Forces material, I hatched a plan to train for four weeks and crush the test.
The Army is currently experiencing a fitness crisis. New recruits are often in bad shape, and more than half of U.S. soldiers are injured each year, often because they grind through boot-camp workouts without formal exercise training. As a result, the branch is now rethinking its approach. Step one: overhaul the test.
The ACFT’s predecessor was established in the early 1980s and consisted of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run. It required no equipment and could be performed anywhere. “But it was only 40 percent predictive of how you’d perform in combat tasks,” says Army major general Lonnie Hibbard. The exercises simply didn’t translate to the physical realities of modern warfare. The new version of the test is about 80 percent predictive, he says, because it evaluates agility, explosive power, and upper- and lower-body strength, not just muscular endurance. By October 2020, all recruits will take the updated exam when they enlist and every six months after that. Top Army officials would also like to roll out new on-base gyms staffed by certified trainers. If a soldier fails the test at any time, they’ll be placed in a program to improve their fitness.
To prepare I called my friend Doug Kiessewetter, who serves in the Special Forces and helps run Soflete, a company that trains soldiers for Special Forces selection camps. When I mentioned the idea of a perfect score, he reined me in: “Your goal is to get the highest score possible, without getting injured.” Seeing my weak push-ups score, Kiessewetter assigned me a handful of exercises to build muscular endurance in my chest and arms and instructed me to practice the test’s other four exercises to build efficiency. Each week I did an easy five-mile run, keeping my heart rate below 150, and a day of intervals at the track. In total I was working out about five days a week. Come test day, I felt ready.
First up: the deadlifts. Three hundred pounds was easy, so I added 20 more to the bar—good enough for 98 points. (See “Test Yourself,” below.) I maxed out the medicine-ball throw, sprint-drag-carry, and hanging leg raises, and managed 40 push-ups before my arms felt like they were full of battery acid. I failed at 50, earning 90 points. Then I flew through the two miles in 12 minutes 29 seconds for a final score of 588. I might’ve kept on running to the recruiter’s office, but the endorphins wore off before I left the track.
Here’s what it takes to pass the ACFT—or get a perfect score on each exercise.
Lift the heaviest weight you can three times.
Max (100 points): 340 pounds
Pass (70 points): 180 pounds
Launch a ten-pound medicine ball over your head and behind you.
Max (100 points): 13.5 yards
Pass (70 points): 8.5 yards
Perform as many reps as possible in two minutes.
Max (100 points): 70
Pass (70 points): 30
For 50 meters each, sprint, drag 90 pounds, side-shuffle, farmer’s-carry 80 pounds, then sprint again.
Max (100 points): 1 minute 40 seconds
Pass (70 points): 2 minutes 9 seconds
Pull-Up Leg Tucks
While hanging from a pull-up bar, hoist yourself until your arms are at 90 degrees while bringing your knees into your chest, then lower. Complete as many as you can.
Max (100 points): 20
Pass (70 points): 5
Finish as quickly as possible.
Max (100 points): 12 minutes 45 seconds
Pass (70 points): 18 minutes