The new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, is a total departure from the way fitness has been measured and tested in the military—and it's got a lot of people feeling nervous.
Army lifers who could pass the old test (2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2-mile run) in their sleep are having to train for events that they have to Google to see performed, using equipment they don't have easy access to. And for new cadets without any real background in strength training it's an even more daunting challenge.
Trust me: You can pass this test—and you don't need six months or a year of prep to do it. But don't count on it happening without smart, strategic training to help you crack the toughest events.
These are my training rules for a no-doubt passing score on ACFT test day. If you want to put them into action, check them out in my new program Combat Fit: 8-Week ACFT Training Plan, exclusively in BodyFit.
1. Build Your Base First
How do you prepare for an intense physical test—one that your professional livelihood depends on passing? Your first impulse may be to say, "By practicing the test." And sure, that's part of it. But so is building up the fundamental skills and strengths that will help each and every one of those practice tests be more effective.
That's why the Combat Fit program consists of two four-week phases:
- Combat Fit Phase 1: Base Training Phase
- Combat Fit Phase 2: Peak Training Phase
Why start with base training? Because smart training means not just leaping into a challenge, it means gradually increasing the intensity of your training to ensure that you continually improve, while minimizing the risk of injury or overtraining. A solid base training phase doesn't just "get you in shape," it familiarizes your body with the demands of consistent training, as well as ACFT-specific exercises. It also increases muscle tissue and increasing connective-tissue strength before those muscles and tissues get severely tested by training and the test itself.
You can spend as little as four weeks in a phase like this, but ideally, you'll spend more like 6-8 weeks. That's why I recommend aspiring ACFT-takers plan out far enough ahead (if it's an option) to perform Phase 1 twice.
Once you've got that base in place, you're ready for a peaking phase.
2. Don't Over Peak
For the ACFT, a peaking phase accomplishes two goals:
- Familiarizes your body with lifting heavier loads in order to increase motor unit recruitment and force output on test day.
- Increases your event-specific conditioning.
You may think all the lifting and cardio you've done in your life—or in a base-building phase—is enough to prepare you for the sprint-drag-carry medley. And it might be. But it also might not be enough. No matter how conditioned or strong you are, you'll definitely do better—and feel better—if you trained for that specific event than if you didn't.
As I mentioned, it's fine to spend a little extra time in a base-building phase. In fact, if you're just starting out with regular challenging exercise, or if it's been a while since you've done any strength training, it might be necessary.
But this doesn't apply to a peaking phase. A well-designed peaking phase isn't the sort of place you want to spend extra weeks and months in. Put another way, if you're tempted to just make an ACFT peaking program like Phase 2 of Combat Fit your "go-to" program from now on, don't.
Spending too much time at the highest level of intensity in a program will inevitably cause your performance to drop. Just ask any powerlifter who went too hard and bombed out on meet day!
My advice: Peak for four weeks, or if absolutely necessary, repeat the fourth week one time for a total of five weeks. Then, give yourself 7-10 days off from doing the final workouts in Phase 2 before your ACFT testing day.
Don't worry, you definitely won't fall "out of shape" during this time! On the contrary, this way your body (and mind) will be full rested and ready to crush the test.
3. Don't Lift Too Heavy, Too Fast
A nice thing about the ACFT is that there's no secret about the performance standards you'll need to meet. The information is out there right now, and if you want to know how your trap bar lift measures up, there are tools like Bodybuilding.com's ACFT calculator to tell you.
However, given how easy it is to find out what you'll need to lift to pass at your standard—say, 200 on the trap bar—it can be easy to start lifting with that weight right out of the gate. For many people, this is going to be too much, too soon.
If you're a beginner, or if it's been a while since you've done any strength training, I recommend spending the first four weeks of your base training phase using weights that allow you to maintain good control and create only mild muscle fatigue at the end of each set. In other words, choose a weight for each set that allows you to complete all indicated reps, with another 2-3 reps in the tank. And don't be afraid to lighten the load on the second or third sets if needed!
On the other hand, if you've been weight training consistently for a while, it's OK to use a weight load that allows you to achieve the indicated number of reps in each set—but no more. In other words, at the end of each set, you should not be able to perform any more reps than indicated while maintaining proper control and technique.
This approach is referred to as taking each set to "technical failure" because your muscle fatigue prevents you from maintaining proper technique. But once you hit that failure point, don't just drop the weight. Be sure to maintain control in the eccentric (lowering) portion of each rep.
4. Think Beyond Straight Sets and Supersets
Many gym workouts are built around either straight sets or supersets. An example of straight sets is 3 sets of 10 reps of curls, doing all 3 sets before you do a different movement. A superset would be 3 sets of 10 curls, alternated with 3 sets of 10 triceps push-downs, with little to no rest between.
There's nothing wrong with either approach, or doing both together. But for the ACFT, I like to use two slightly different schemes: paired sets and trisets. These two approaches give the benefits of supersets—allowing you to accomplish more work in less time—while delivering a greater balance of strength, muscle growth, and conditioning.
For example, here's one of the paired sets from Week 3 of Combat Fit:
- Trap bar deadlift (or barbell hybrid deadlift): 3 sets, 8-10 reps (rest 1-2 min.)
- 1.5-rep push-up: 3 sets, max reps (rest 1-2 min.)
The only major difference between this and a superset is the extra rest time you get between movements. Sure, you may look at those two movements and think, "They use different muscles. I don't need to rest 2 minutes." But try it, and you'll notice a difference in the second and third sets. By the time you get to your third set of push-ups, it's been several minutes, leaving those muscles plenty of time to fully recover and get ready to exert maximal intensity with every set. And because each set is more intense in paired sets, you also still get a serious cardiorespiratory effect, which improves your conditioning levels.
There's still a time and place for short-rest, pump-style movements, though. In Combat Fit, I like to perform those as trisets (three movements performed back to back, often using the same piece of equipment) at the tail end of a workout.
By performing 2-3 exercises that work different muscle groups—say, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors—you're constantly changing where your body must increase blood flow. This makes sure your heart and lungs are continually challenged, which helps you improve your conditioning while also increasing your strength and muscle in the targeted groups.
5. Train Both Generally and Specifically
A lot gets written online about the difference between training for aesthetics—like muscle gain and fat loss—and so-called "performance." To be clear, the two aren't as clear-cut as many people portray them. But one major difference is that the goal of exercise programming for performance is to maximize training "transfer."
Think of it this way: Some exercises provide obvious and direct transfer to improved performance in a specific sport or test. These are "specific" exercises. Others provide less obvious transfer—that is, "indirect" transfer. These are more "general" exercises.
For the ACFT, specific exercises are the exercises and drills that are part of the test itself, or very close. "General" exercises are essentially conventional strength-training exercises and may include compound or isolation movements using free weights, cables, or machines.
That doesn't mean they can't help you better perform come testing day. In fact, general exercises offer general transfer into improvements in human performance by increasing muscle hypertrophy, motor-unit recruitment, bone density, and connective tissue strength, which can improve overall health and reduce injury risk.
In Combat Fit, you'll do both types of exercises—and you'll feel, look, and perform better because of it.
6. Split Up Your Strength and Conditioning Workouts
Many of the world's best powerlifters have certain days where they focus on their maximum strength, others where they lift very heavy, and other days where they lift lighter weights but at high speeds using bands. Likewise, the world's best speed coaches have certain days where their athletes focus on their linear speed, and other days where they focus on their change of direction speed. Having these different "themed" days emphasizing certain physical qualities is a long-proven training approach.
Since the ACFT equally challenges your strength, power, and conditioning, splitting up the training into separate strength-focused and power-and-conditioning-focused workouts is a no-brainer.
Here's how it looks in the first four weeks of Combat Fit:
- 2 strength workouts per week, focusing on 3 ACFT events and accessory work
- 2 power and conditioning workouts per week, focusing on 3 ACFT events and accessory work
Remember: You achieve what you emphasize. Emphasizing certain physical qualities each day makes it easier to focus on learning them and improving your performance on them. This, along with the occasional practice test to tie it all together and give you the "feeling" of the test, is a time-honored recipe for success.
7. Front Load Your Workouts
Take a look at the workouts in Combat Fit, and you'll see that exercises specific to the ACFT are placed earliest in all of the workouts—right after a full-body warm-up. This is when you're freshest, so you can devote the maximum amount of physical and mental energy toward them.
For example, max rep push-ups and trap bar deadlifts are two of the exercises in the ACFT. So, on the two strength days in Phase 1, you'll do variations of those. When it comes to the push-ups, you'll even do multiple variations depending on the day:
- 1.5-rep push-ups to help you improve your strength coming out of the bottom of the push-up
- Band-resisted push-ups to help improve your strength at the top portion
- Mechanical dropsets by removing the band and banging out more reps, to improve push-up endurance
Max-rep sets of those movements are seriously tough. It's customary to place these types of neurologically demanding exercises earliest in the workout because they require the most coordination and concentration, and are the most negatively affected by mental and physical fatigue. On the other hand, isolation exercises, which require the least coordination and concentration, are placed last in the workouts.
8. Don't Do Too Many Practice Tests
It can be incredibly tempting in a test like the ACFT to spend most of your training simply seeing "where you're at" with the test—maybe even multiple times a week. This approach has, unfortunately, caused countless people to underperform or straight-up fail at important physical challenges over the years.
It's also one reason why you won't see any practice tests in Combat Fit until Phase 2, the peaking phase. And even then, it's only one test a week.
Make no mistake, you'll still be working hard during Phase 2—harder than ever, in fact. You'll do a lower-body strength day and an upper-body strength day, each of which involves more exercises and total sets than in Phase 1. You'll also have a conditioning day to improve your overall power and endurance, including one of the best, most proven conditioning methods ever used: 300-yard shuttle runs.
These require power because you're trying to finish each lap as fast as possible. And they require superior endurance because the constant change of direction makes your legs and your lungs burn. If you're in shape enough to perform the mile run in a respectable time after doing several 300-yard shuttle runs (spoiler alert: that's what the workouts will ask of you), you surely are in shape enough to crush the 2-mile run on testing day.
After this challenge, you have two full days of recovery before your weekly practice test. When you're fresh and recovered, practice tests will not only prepare your body for the specific demands of the ACFT, they will also prepare you mentally. You'll learn how to pace yourself, how to manage your fatigue, and simply what to expect through the entire ACFT.
This instills confidence because there will be nothing new to you on testing day. It'll be business as usual. You'll be ready and you'll crush it.