One of the first topics of this blog was a discussion on how you can’t seriously discuss certain things with military folk. Physical training is one of them. The source of the problem – I think – is that since every single soldier does PT every day (a questionable assumption), every single soldier has developed some level of experiential expertise on the subject.
I’ve very rarely heard anyone say anything good about the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which consists of two minutes of push-up, two minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. The idea behind the event is to get a general idea of a soldier’s fitness through a maximum effort test.
From FM 7-22, Appendix A (Army Physical Fitness Test):
The APFT provides a measure of upper and lower body muscular endurance. It is a performance test that indicates a Soldier’s ability to perform physically and handle his or her body weight.
The problem, as has been written about at length, is that the test doesn’t accurately measure the types of fitness that will likely be required in combat. Typical jokes include “I’ve been on 3 deployments and not once did I ever have to run 2 miles.”
Back in February, Jim Gourley explored the current struggle with embracing different fitness programs in the military at The Best Defense. In it, he captures some of the issues with the current APFT:
Palkoska admits that some aspects of the “legacy doctrine” persist in the form of the Army Physical Fitness Test. “One of the problems of the old fitness model is that units trained to the test, and that resulted in overtraining to certain aspects of fitness.” More than generating injuries in a large population of individual soldiers, it created an unbalanced paradigm of fitness in the Army at large. Efforts to change the APFT to reflect the new model of fitness have been going on since General Peter Schoomaker’s tenure as Chief of Staff. Though the old APFT remains the standard, Palkoska says that new initiatives aim to update it in the next few years.
Without question, there is pressure to do well on the current APFT – not just as an individual, but as a unit. The quantifiable score that comes out of the APFT becomes the easiest measure of “success” for a young platoon leader trying to impress his Commander. Raising the platoon’s APFT average is a simple, quantifiable means of “doing well.” The problem, as the argument goes, is that this often results in physical training regimens that train to the test, emphasizing the ability to do 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and run 2 miles as fast as possible at the expense of other, more “combat focused” physical training.
And it is true, that just because a soldier can score a 300 on their APFT doesn’t mean they can perform their physical job better than someone who scores less.
When I was in basic training, I was the first in my platoon to score a 300 on the APFT. Nonetheless, I was one of the weakest foot marchers in the platoon. I only weighed 140lbs at the time, and my ability to do a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups and breeze through the run didn’t help me much when I was carrying a heavy rucksack, a weapon, and walking up and down Sand Hill.
It wasn’t until I started weight lifting and packing on some muscle that carrying a rucksack became less of a burden. Preliminary research from StrongSwiftDurable also correlates upper-body strength with rucking ability.
So I am in agreement that the APFT is not an absolute measure of physical ability. And I am sure there are a host of really fantastic fitness tests out there that could eek out a better way of identifying where individual soldiers stand when it comes to their physical ability to actually perform their jobs.
However, what those tests lack – and I’ve seen a number of the proposed tests – is practicality and feasibility.
Soldiers in the active duty Army are supposed to take two “record” APFTs a year. In all of the years I’ve been in the military, the only time I’ve ever seen that enforced was when I was in a TRADOC environment, and taking APFTs was part of the course. In the operating force, it is a miracle to get a whole platoon doing physical training on a regular basis, and usually takes signficant prioritizing to get everyone together for an APFT.
The beauty of the APFT is that it requires no special equipment or space and can be completed for most elements during normal PT hours (usually between 0630 and 0745). All of the proposed fitness tests either require a bunch of extra equipment or space, and in some cases need to be tested over multiple days.
Additionally, there is evidence that performing well on the APFT generally corresponds with success in physically demanding courses, such as Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The below is from USAREC’s notes on how to adequately prepare for and succeed at SFAS. In it, they make a direct correlation between APFT score and ability to pass the course.
Again, having a high APFT score does not mean you are in great physical shape for everything, but it does correspond to being in good shape generally.
Lastly, while it’s true that I’ve seen soldiers who could adequately do their jobs yet still perform average or even poorly on the APFT, I have never seen the opposite. That is, most soldiers I know who score well on the APFT generally are able to perform their jobs well and do not “suck” any more than other soldiers.
The APFT in its current form provides a good baseline measure of physical fitness while being relatively easy to administer. For those reasons, we should be very careful about discarding it altogether simply because it is not the perfect measure of combat fitness.