Army Not Tweaking Fitness Test After Uncertainty Over Gender Standards

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April 27, 2023
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The Army is unlikely to change its new physical fitness test despite Congress recently passing a law pressing the service to establish gender-neutral standards, according to two sources with knowledge of the plans.

The annual defense authorization bill passed in December directed the Army to set the same fitness standards for men and women by June. Last month, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the service had already established gender-neutral expectations for troops, but was vague about the specific standards to which she referred.

The service won’t be making additional changes to the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, which was officially rolled out in October, the sources said.

“The language in the bill talks about gender-neutral standards for military combat occupational specialties,” Wormuth said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “We have standards in [an Army policy pamphlet] that lays out the requirements for all the combat [jobs] that are gender neutral.”

The defense law passed in December required the Army to “establish gender-neutral physical readiness standards that ensure soldiers can perform the duties of their respective military occupational specialties,” but did not specify the service had to make tweaks to the ACFT.

The Army fitness test was originally meant to have gender-neutral standards, but service leaders reversed course, setting different standards for men and women, as previous tests have done.

The ACFT became the Army’s official fitness test in October after going through a beta period that began in 2019, allowing the service to tweak specific events and standards. It’s widely considered to be an improvement in measuring a soldier’s fitness compared with the earlier Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, which had been in use since the 1980s.

The new test, which was first conceived roughly a decade ago, consists of a deadlift; hand-release push-ups; a plank; a two-mile run; an event in which soldiers toss a 10-pound medicine ball as far as they can; and another event in which soldiers sprint back and forth, switching between carrying 40-pound kettlebells and dragging a 90-pound sled. The old test measured only push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run.

Army planners initially aimed for a gender-neutral test that would grade soldiers based on their job, the idea being that an infantryman needed to carry more weight and run faster than a mechanic.

But the test’s development almost instantly hit turbulence once soldiers started taking it in 2019.

There were initial concerns on Capitol Hill over the test, particularly from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who passed an amendment to delay the test’s implementation in 2020. Gen. James McConville, the Army’s top officer, told Congress in 2021 that he was committed to testing men and women on the same scale.

Military.com published a report that found half of female soldiers were failing the test. Much of the difficulty was attributed to the leg tuck, an early event — later scrapped — in which soldiers had to do a pull-up and touch their knees to their elbows. It was replaced with the plank.

Shortly after this publication’s report on the data, Wormuth expressed concern during her Senate confirmation hearing that gender-neutral standards could hurt the service’s ability to retain women.

Meanwhile, the Army is developing a new fitness test totally separate from the mandatory ACFT.

Units are piloting a fitness assessment for the expert soldier, infantryman and field medical badges. Those badges involve a gantlet measuring a soldier’s competency in basic combat tasks, such as land navigation and weapons handling.

The fitness test being mulled includes a one-mile run, push-ups, 100-meter sprint, an event where soldiers stack sandbags, a 50-meter farmer’s carry with two 40-pound water jugs, a 50-meter lane in which soldiers crawl and sprint, and an additional one-mile run. The whole circuit will be conducted in body armor.

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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