This story originally featured on Task & Purpose.
I took the Army Combat Fitness Test on Friday. I would have written this article sooner, but to be honest with you I couldn’t feel my arms.
Okay that’s dramatic. And honestly after taking the ACFT I could feel my arms (and shoulders, and back, and legs, and core) too much. Every move I made, I felt everywhere. But I couldn’t not take the ACFT after writing about it for so long—and ultimately I earned 306 points, 54 points short of the required minimum to pass.
The ACFT has been one of the hottest topics in the Army since it was unveiled in 2018. Army leaders have praised it as a significantly better indicator of total fitness than the Army Physical Fitness Test, while lawmakers and advocacy groups have argued that it’s harmful to the force and will have a disproportionately negative impact on women.
I’ve been writing about one development after the next, so when the opportunity to actually take it presented itself, I couldn’t pass it up. The way I saw it, what kind of reporter would I be if I didn’t take the test that the soldiers I talk to have been training to take for so long, and the one I’d been writing about over the last two years?
The answer to that question is “a less sore reporter,” but I digress.
On Friday I got up at 5 a.m. and dragged myself to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, to take the ACFT with two other reporters and a group of soldiers, as well as the sergeant major of the Army and the vice chief of staff.
I’d had a three-week head start from when I agreed to take the test to the day I actually took it; I’d planned on training and doing more weights with the hopes of not totally embarrassing myself in front of Army leadership. I exercise regularly, doing what I can at home as I stopped going to the gym last year because of the novel coronavirus.
When I was thinking about the ACFT I was most concerned about the hand-release push-ups and the run. I was out of practice running, though I figured it wouldn’t be impossible, and as for the push-ups … well, let’s just say that upper body strength isn’t my forte and when we moved to that part of the test I asked what would happen if I couldn’t even correctly do one.
“You fail this event,” was the simple response I got. Right! Of course.
My “training” was essentially just a continuation of the workouts I usually do—the occasional run, mixed in with different days of weights focusing on arms, legs, and core strength. I brought up the issue of push-ups to my sister, an exercise physiologist who gave me tips on how to improve, which seemed to boil down to: do more of them. Who knew!
The morning of the test, I was less than inspired. I am not a morning person—just ask my editors, God bless them—so while I was trying to be my most-awake self, all I could think was, “Why in the hell does anyone think doing PT at 6:30 in the morning is a good choice? What’s wrong with a respectable 8 a.m. workout?” But there we were in the dark, filling out our scorecardsand stretching.
Both Gen. Joseph Martin, the vice chief of staff, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston appeared more awake than I could ever hope to be at that hour. This was, of course, not their first rodeo.
We were starting with the deadlift, something I hadn’t done since high school, and certainly not with the minimum weight requirement of 140 pounds to pass that event. I did a test deadlift to see if it would even be possible, and to make sure my form was correct. To my (extreme) surprise I was able to do it, and when the test began I was more than pleased with the minimum 60 points I received from completing that event.
Meanwhile, Grinston, who is 53 years old and was in a lane with myself and the two other reporters, was breaking his personal record of deadlifting 340 pounds, maxing out his score.
After the deadlift we moved on to the standing power throw which frankly, I hadn’t thought much about—I watched a video a few days before the test to get familiar with the form, but otherwise hadn’t practiced it.
During the event you get one practice throw and then two recorded throws, of which the grader takes the best distance. My test throw was … not ideal. I had my hands on the side of the medicine ball instead of under it to launch it over my head, so on my first attempt it slipped right out of my hands and hit the ground behind me. Grinston, who was standing nearby, patiently helped correct my form and my next throw was slightly better, reaching 4.9 meters—just over the minimum requirement of 4.5 meters.
By the time we moved on to hand-release pushups I was feeling okay. The good thing about the ACFT is that you have time to rest between events while the other people in your lane are testing. So while Grinston was blowing through his push-ups like a well-oiled machine (he maxed out this event as well) I was contemplating how I could explain my way out of not being able to do one real push-up, let alone 10.
But not trying simply isn’t an option—both in the Army’s eyes, and my own—so down I went on the damp grass to give it a go. One repetition of these push-ups requires you to start with your chest on the ground, come up and all the way back down again, stick your hands out to your sides and then bring them back to your push-up position.
Shockingly, I did one. Then I did another, and another, and another. One of the tips we’d gotten ahead of test day was to move our arms slowly out to our sides on the release portion if we needed a small break; don’t stop moving, but move slowly if you need a breather. I kept that in mind and ultimately I did 12 before my arms gave out.
I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think my sister could either when I told her later, though she acted like she’d known all along I was capable. She’s wonderful.
Next was the sprint-drag-carry. When I watched a video breaking down this event it reminded me a bit of exercises we did in school during basketball practice—sprinting to half-court and back, then shuffling down and back—only with the added events of dragging 90 pounds and then carrying 40-pound kettlebells.
Grinston warned us that this event was the one that could get us; it’s one that often surprises people when they take it, he said.
He was right. The second I started dragging that 90-pound sled down the 50-meter lane my body was wondering what the f–k was going on. Grinston’s spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Will Reinier, who was grading me and the other reporters on each event, told me ahead of time not to turn around during this portion even though I might want to because then I’d be using the muscles on one side of my body more than the other. I’d taken note of the advice, but couldn’t help myself as I was going down the lane—where the hell is the end of this thing? When do I turn around?
Read the rest of the reporter’s sweaty journey and see the video at Task & Purpose.