ACFT Army Combat Fitness Test For Dummies
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If you walked into a gym right now, you’d most likely see rows of machines dedicated to training just one muscle at a time. Those are great for bodybuilders but not necessarily for the average soldier. Because most military occupational specialties (MOSs) have at least minimal physical demands, and because those demands require real-world movement, many of the machines at the gym are great supplements to your training. However, you definitely need movement training, too.

Distinguishing muscle training from movement training

Improving athleticism, which is what the Army is really testing with the ACFT, requires a combination of muscular and movement-based training. Movement training is unlike muscle training. It harnesses your natural human kinetics—the way you move—and makes your movements stronger, more stable, and safer.

In standard muscle training, you have to isolate a muscle (or a group of muscles) to focus all your work there. Your intent is to put force in just one region of your body, like your chest, while the rest of your body is stabilized and still, and your goal is to see just how much force you can send into that region and still execute a movement, such as a chest press. You don’t want to “cheat” by using momentum because that means other muscles are pitching in to help you execute the movement. That’s fine if that’s the type of training you’re doing.

But when you need motor skills you can use outside the gym, and if you need to be efficient with your movement (like you do on the ACFT and on the battlefield), you need your muscles to work together to accomplish a result. Whether you’re putting together a GP Medium or carrying one of your squad members to safety, your movement training kicks in. Movement training is about improving motor tasks that take you outside the linear plane. Movement training integrates your whole body.

And with the ACFT, the Army is testing your ability to pull off complex movements—not just your ability to use your pecs and a few smaller muscles to push yourself off the ground. That means you have to cross-train, use three-dimensional movements and your planar movements, and use weight training to complement everything you’re doing if you want to perform well on the ACFT.

These 3D movements come with a wide range of other benefits, too, such as improved

  • Aerobic capacity
  • Coordination
  • Joint health
  • Resiliency in multidirectional movements outside the gym
  • Tensile strength in your connective tissues

The more momentum you can harness while controlling your form, the more efficiently you work. Your brain automatically wants to execute all your body’s movements in ways that are easiest to accomplish—but not necessarily in ways that prevent injury (think about the last time you did bicep curls and threw your back into them, or picked up a box from the floor without bending your legs).

Planar movement

With physical training, you can do your work in one or more of the three planes of motion: the sagittal plane, the frontal plane, and the transverse plane.

If you’re working in the sagittal plane, you’re moving two-dimensionally—up and down or back and forth. In the frontal plane, you’re making side-to-side movements. Finally, in the transverse plane, you’re using twisting or rotating movements. Work in any of these planes can be unloaded, which means you have only your body weight, or loaded, which means you’re using an external mass while moving. An external mass can be anything from a barbell loaded with weight to your Improved Outer Tactical Vest, or IOTV.

Most exercises in the three planes of motion fall into one or more of four main categories:

  • Unloaded linear movements: Linear movements are in the sagittal plane or the frontal plane. You’re running, cycling, or performing some types of strength training. Linear exercises move only horizontally or vertically.
  • Unloaded 3D movements: Movements that cross over the borders between the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes are 3D movements. Things like sports (tennis, football, baseball, and a number of others), dancing, and many types of martial arts use unloaded 3D movements.
  • Loaded linear movements: Loaded movements keep you in the sagittal or frontal plane and involve external weight. Running while carrying a litter, squatting with a bar on your back, and doing everyday bicep curls are loaded linear movements. The external weight can range from resistance bands and barbells to the flywheel of an adjustable stationary cycle or full battle rattle.
  • Loaded 3D movements: Working through different planes with an external weight means you’re doing loaded 3D movements. These movements, like agility drills, modified exercises (such as shoulder extensions with a trunk rotation), and lateral lunges with a plate reach involving rotation.

Strictly training in loaded linear movements can easily result in overuse injuries. Working in 3D allows other muscles, connective tissues, and joints to pitch in to complete a task, which “shares the load.”

The 4Q model

The 4Q model allows you to group exercises together by type: unloaded linear, unloaded 3D, loaded linear, and loaded 3D. (Check out the preceding section for more on these types of movements.) The figure shows the 4Q model, as well as some of the exercises that belong in each quadrant.

The 4Q model. The 4Q model

Training in all four quadrants is essential for optimal results. If your goal is overall strength and endurance, you can’t leave one (or more) out.

Unloaded training

Unloaded training—commonly called body weight training—refers to exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. Despite what you’ve heard, body weight training isn’t inherently easier than loaded training is. The Leg Tuck on the ACFT is a perfect illustration of that; it’s all body weight, but for many people, it’s one of the most difficult exercises to perform.

Loaded training

Loaded training requires you to add external mass to movement. Any mass counts, whether it’s a 1-kilogram plate alone or a bar loaded with 400 pounds. How much mass you need to move to make gains and improve your fitness level depends on your current level of physical fitness. Your body will adapt to larger loads over time, provided that you use something that challenges you and forces a change in your muscles. When your body adapts to a certain amount of weight, it’s no longer going to force your muscles to adapt, so if you want to become stronger, you have to increase the mass of the loads you’re working with.

Loaded movements are movements that involve an external mass that’s not part of your body. Running is an unloaded linear movement, while running while wearing your IOTV is a loaded linear movement. Throwing your rucksack over a wall is a loaded 3D movement, and climbing up the wall after it (if you’re not wearing your kit) is an unloaded linear movement. (If you’re wearing your kit, it becomes a loaded linear movement.) Going over the top of the wall to come down on the other side is a 3D movement; it’s unloaded or loaded depending on whether you’re wearing your kit.

Loaded multi-planar (3D) training for the ACFT

Loaded multi-planar training is relatively new—at least in the gym. Classic strength training isolates muscles with the purpose of strengthening only those muscles, as evidenced by people hitting the gym for “chest day” or “cardio day.” (Everyone knows what happens when “leg day” isn’t part of a weekly routine.)

But loaded multi-planar movement falls into the upper-right quadrant in the 4Q model, and training there is absolutely essential for passing the ACFT. The bottom line is that functioning in and out of the Army requires the human body to move mass while in motion, and most of the time, you have to move that mass in a way that asymmetrically loads your body or puts it in a weird position. If you’re only training to carry something by using both biceps evenly at the same time, without any help from your back or legs, you’re not going to perform as efficiently or as safely as you would if you practiced loaded movement training that integrated your whole body.

ACFT events in the 4Q model

The table shows whether each of the ACFT events falls into the loaded linear or unloaded linear quadrant of the 4Q model. The test is mostly about linear movement, but training to perform well on the test requires you to work in all four quadrants. Each event gives the Army a good look at how you perform 3D movements, such as surmounting an obstacle or extracting a casualty from a vehicle, which are hard to grade. Some of the events require a combination of muscular strength and endurance plus cardiovascular endurance, such as the drag and carry shuttles of the Sprint-Drag-Carry.
ACFT Events in 4Q Quadrants
Loaded Linear Movement Unloaded Linear Movement
3 Repetition Maximum Deadlift (MDL) Hand Release Push-Up – Arm Extension (HRP)
Standing Power Throw (SPT) Sprint-Drag-Carry (SDC)
Sprint-Drag-Carry (SDC) Leg Tuck (LTK)
Two-Mile Run (2MR)
Note that the Sprint-Drag-Carry falls under two quadrants: loaded linear movement and unloaded linear movement. That’s because this single event comprises four individual activities. The sprints and laterals are unloaded linear movements, while the drag and carry are loaded linear movements.

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