A RAND report followed, and the Army made changes, easing standards for women. But while the Army was selling the ACFT as gender neutral as recently as last year, it’s really always just been a scaled-down version of a test developed for young, in-shape men. It’s another example of the gap between the inclusive way the military perceive and promotes itself and the way it behaves in practice. (To take one example, a so-called “woke” series of ads highlighting soldiers of diverse backgrounds from last year was unpopular enough for the Army to turn off its comment section.)
Still, the new ACFT, imperfect as it is, may hint at a more complete picture of fitness than its predecessor. “You don’t need to go run a 10K in combat,” says Mark Divine, a retired Navy SEAL and the founder of SealFit, a tactical fitness company that advises the military, “nor do you sit there and do a lot of sit-ups. What you do is haul 70 or 80 pounds on your back and run short distances.” These maneuvers, Divine says, require “a lot of core strength,” and what he calls “durability,” or resilience—staying injury-free. By forcing recruits to train movements closer to those repeated in combat—like sled drags, deadlifts and throws—the ACFT may cut down on injuries sustained in the field, so long as the compound movements are done the right way.
Some of these movements may be familiar from powerlifting and CrossFit, programs that elite military units have been leaning on for a while. “Training methods always trickle down from elite groups,” says Divine. Elite groups like Divine’s SEALs and the Army Green Berets have been squatting heavy and dragging sleds for years—and taking their branch’s baseline fitness standards as a given. (The Green Berets, for example, suggest a perfect score on the Army’s two-minute test as a baseline for entry.)
These high physical standards are, in part, about keeping things difficult and exclusive. “You don’t want to give everyone the secret sauce,” says Divine, “if they’re not willing to research and figure it out themselves.” A candidate who enters the SEALS’ 24-week training course having already trained to squat 400 pounds has a better chance to thrive, in other words. To stay in shape, elite units and SOFs—slang for special operation forces— try just about anything that works. Some adopt their routines from abroad, like Russian kettlebell training, some use heavy weights, some go deep on “getting their mind right,” through mental approaches like breathwork. These workouts, over time, get declassified, and research spreads out: Programs trickle down to reservists, rank and file, and finally to desk-bound civilians looking to shake up their days.
The best example comes from CrossFit: The Murph, a punishing circuit workout named after fallen SEAL Michael Patrick Murphy. He designed it as a slapdash way to maintain his strength and endurance while deployed, the circuit—one-mile runs bookending 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 air squats, done in under 75 minutes, wearing a weighted body armor vest. The workout was adopted by CrossFit in the 2000s, and has become a Memorial Day competition at just about every gym each year. (Women compete wearing lighter-weight vests.) Simple and punishing, the Murph might be CrossFit’s most renowned WOD, or workout of the day. Even for folks who want nothing to do with combat, it’s a thrill. If feels like a precursor of the new ACFT, but that simplicity has been lost in translation: Murphy’s low intervention workout was designed closer to the old push-ups and sit-ups test. It doesn’t require any special equipment, and it’s tested through time, and not weight. Unlike the Army’s new test, it’s about making do with what’s around.