Before overhauling its fitness curriculum, the Army used relatively basic tests. Running and bodyweight exercises, such as pull-ups and push-ups, were the extent of the testing. Over time, it became apparent that more needed to be done to properly test a soldier’s readiness for combat. The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) was revamped to ensure that soldiers are truly battle-ready, and that means your training needs to be top-notch.
With this renovation, the Army hopes to better prepare soldiers and encourage physical preparedness in many areas. It also means that training for the test is more complex, and to perform well, you need a specialized training program.
In this article, we'll guide you through the ultimate game plan for tackling the ACFT. You’ll discover the secret sauce behind the most effective exercises and find out which muscles to focus on to conquer each event like a pro.
Want a more personalized touch to your training? We've got you - kickstart your journey to elite warrior status with our 14-day free trial.
What Are the 6 Events of the ACFT?
Each event in the ACFT is designed to assess the soldier's physical fitness in a different area, including muscular strength, power, endurance, and agility. The 6 tests in the ACFT are:
- Deadlift: maximum weight lifted for three reps
- Standing Power Throw: a powerful backward toss with a weighted medicine ball
- Hand-Release Push-Up: a push-up variation with strict form requirements
- Sprint-Drag-Carry: a mixture of sprints and heavily weighted carries
- Plank: the ultimate test of core strength and endurance
- Two-Mile Run: a classic event that tests your cardiovascular endurance
If you have a bit of familiarity with the ACFT, you might be wondering where the leg tuck test is...
Is the Leg Tuck Still in the ACFT?
In the updated ACFT, the Leg Tuck has been replaced by the Plank. Unlike the leg tuck, which requires some upper body strength, the plank solely evaluates core strength and endurance. It's now the mandatory exercise, with no option to perform the Leg Tuck instead.
3 Tips Every Military Athlete Should Know For The ACFT
"Our country, and our army, need people that embrace struggle and fight for improvement. That’s what makes organizations move forward." - Laura Hanshaw
Laura Hanshaw, a member of the Montana State University ROTC Program and regular at the MTNTOUGH Lab, is a certified badass. She crushed the latest iteration of the ACFT, scoring in the top 1% among females and the top 10% overall. We had the opportunity to catch up with Laura about the test; she shared valuable insights to help every soldier not only pass the ACFT but score their personal best.
1. Take the Test
Go take the test. When you’re done, look at your score and identify any weak areas you may have. Research ways to address your weaknesses, and plan out how to overcome them. Stick to your training plan until your weaknesses become your strengths.
2. Strive for Continuous Improvement
Take your big goals and break them down into manageable chunks. That way, you won’t get overwhelmed. Focus on the basics and the results will come. For example, I struggled with the SPT (Standing Power Throw) in my first ACFT. To remedy my deficiency of power, I added in just one extra power-focused workout or accessory movement per week.
In addition to my normal workouts, I did extra box jumps, wall balls, Olympic lifts, or just practiced the actual SPT. I carefully adjusted the training system I was already doing to incorporate this new element, and after a couple of months, I reached my goal. Along the way, I learned the importance of power as a tactical athlete.
3. Embrace a Growth Mindset
This test is challenging, but it’s also an amazing opportunity to develop yourself as a functional, well-rounded athlete. We can’t control what policy decisions are made to change the tests, but we can control how we train for them. Focus on what you can control: physical fitness and mental preparedness.
MTNTOUGH constantly humbles me, not only with brutal workouts but by building mental toughness and pushing me to achieve more in all areas of life. I’m very optimistic about the improvements in my fitness test scores, and how much I’ll improve as an athlete. Our country, and our army, need people that embrace struggle and fight for improvement. That’s what makes organizations move forward.
When it comes time to take the ACFT, treat it as just another day. Train hard and with purpose, so that when it comes time to take the test, you can crush it. The goal is not to simply meet the minimum requirements, but to demolish them and keep moving forward.
Creating A Workout Plan to Demolish the ACFT
We specialize in building the body and mind pushing them to the limits. Take the MTNTOUGH military pack test for example. It begins and ends with heart-pumping runs and throws in weighted pack carries, hefty dumbbell farmer's carries, and lunges when your grip starts to give out. Sounds intense, right? That's because it is.
But if you want to "demolish" the ACFT like Laura and other elite military athletes, you'll need this kind of full-body endurance workout to skyrocket your overall fitness. On top of that, you need specific exercises to power you through each test. The best results start with a plan - one that addresses your weaknesses head-on. The first step in this is learning how to structure your workout properly.
Designing the Workout Structure
Remember, you're not hitting the gym for glamour muscles - you have a greater purpose in mind. So every workout needs to serve this higher goal. The ACFT is going to challenge your fitness in multiple dimensions, meaning you can't afford to leave any stone unturned. A key point here is not only training specific fitness attributes but also conditioning the right muscle groups for the ACFT.
So, let's break it down and dive into the muscles you'll be putting to the test in each ACFT component:
- Deadlift: glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, lower back, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, forearms
- Standing Power Throw: glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, lower back, deltoids, biceps
- Hand-Release Push-Up: chest, triceps, deltoids, abdominals, hip flexors
- Sprint-Drag-Carry: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, trapezius, rhomboids, forearms
- Plank: abdominals, hip flexors, deltoids
- Two-Mile Run: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes
Conquering the ACFT: Building Endurance and Conditioning
The ACFT is no walk in the park - but you knew that already. It's a long, demanding test that'll push you to your limits. You need top-notch conditioning just to make it through the day, especially when your legs feel like jelly during that challenging two-mile run.
Endurance is crucial - not only for the two-mile run but also for the sprint-drag-carry, where your cardiovascular system will be put to the test. And let's not forget the importance of muscular endurance for the plank and hand-release push-up events. For any soldier in the field, conditioning matters. You might trek for miles with a hefty pack, and this is one way to make sure you can handle it.
But don't forget, building endurance isn't just about physical training - it's a mental game too. That's where the MTNTOUGH military pack workout comes in, preparing you for the ACFT and whatever challenges lie ahead. All you need for this workout is your pack and a pair of dumbbells.
For this workout, you’ll start with a 1.5-mile run. Then, throw on a heavy pack and grab a pair of dumbbells to begin your 1-mile walk. When your forearms get tired and you feel like you can’t hold the weights anymore, put them down. Then, take 20 lunging steps away and 20 back before picking up the dumbbells again. Once you’ve completed the mile walk, take off your pack before running another 1.5 miles.
You're going to feel this one, which means it's working. Let's have a closer look at each component of the military pack workout:
1. Distance Run
This is a standard distance run, which will prep you for the ACFT 2-mile run. You can complete it on a treadmill or outdoors.
Muscles Worked: As you might imagine, running works your leg muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Note that in the actual ACFT, you might not be running. Some testing sites opt for a rower, stationary bicycle, or swim instead.
So, if you know that your facility won’t use a run, you can swap it out for the form of cardio that you’ll do in the test.
2. Weighted Carry
It's time to throw on a heavy pack and grab a pair of dumbbells (25 lbs in each hand minimum for women, 40 lbs for men). This weighted carry will build your cardiovascular endurance and get you ready for the drag-sprint-carry. You’ll walk a mile holding the weights, putting them down as needed.
Muscles Worked: Your legs do the bulk of the work in the exercise, but they won’t give out first. Typically, the forearms are the first to fail. Your trapezius muscles and deltoids are also going to work while you carry the dumbbells to help you maintain your posture.
3. Weighted Lunges
When you put your dumbbells down, it’s time to start the lunges. You’ll take 20 lunge steps away from the dumbbells, and 20 back. That means the only resistance you have is the weight of the pack on your back. Ideally, you’ll only have to do 400-650 lunges throughout the workout.
Here’s how to do them:
- Step 1: Start standing with your feet together
- Step 2: Take a big step forward with one foot
- Step 3: Bend both knees and drop your back knee down until it almost touches the ground
- Step 4: Maintain an upright torso as you go down and up
- Step 5: Push off the back foot and step it forward to the front foot
- Step 6: Switch legs each rep
Muscles Worked: You’ll use the quadriceps a lot in this movement, both in the front and back leg. The glute muscles will also work to drive you up from the bottom of the lunge. Your lower back and abdominal muscles will help stabilize your torso and keep your posture upright.
Unleashing Your Power: Speed and Strength for the ACFT
Power is that explosive combo of speed and strength, setting it apart from endurance, which focuses on sustaining a pace over time. It's the ability to exert as much strength as possible in a short period. Picture a shot put launch or a basketball dunk - those are prime examples of power movements.
In the ACFT, the standing power throw epitomizes this concept, testing your ability to hurl a weighted ball as far as you can with a forceful, jump-like motion. The drag-sprint-carry also demands power, as you'll need to rapidly move the sled and sprint a short distance.
Integrate the following power-focused exercises into your existing workout routine, or create a new workout centered around them. If adding them to your current routine, perform them early on, when you're fresh and primed for speed.
1. Pack Hang Clean
This exercise will help you build power and get better at handling a heavy pack - a crucial skill for any soldier. The pack hang clean focuses on hip power, similar to the barbell hang clean. Ready to give it a go? Here's how:
- Step 1: Grab a heavy pack and hold it sideways
- Step 2: With your feet hip-width apart, push your hips back and slightly bend your knees
- Step 3: Lean forward over the pack
- Step 4: Perform a quick jumping motion, snapping your body upright and pulling the pack up towards your shoulders
- Step 5: Land, bending your knees and hips, dropping your shoulders towards the pack
- Step 6: As you land, drive your elbows up so that your arms create a shelf for the pack
- Step 7: Stand up to complete the rep
- Step 8: Drop your elbows and push your hips back to lower the pack to the starting position
Muscles Worked: Your hips are the primary target of this movement, specifically the glute muscles. Your hamstrings and calf muscles also play a big role in creating power from the hips, while your quadriceps play a smaller role.
The lower back muscles protect your spine and help you lift your torso to drive the weight up. Your trapezius and rhomboid muscles stabilize your upper back. The deltoids and biceps help bring the pack up and hold it steady at the top of the movement.
2. Bar Push Press
The standing power throw challenges both hip and shoulder power. The bar push press is a dynamic movement for building explosive power by engaging your hips and shoulders in unison. It looks a bit like a cheating version of the military press, but it's intentionally designed to initiate the movement with your legs and complete it with your shoulder muscles.
- Step 1: Hold a barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart
- Step 2: Set it on top of your shoulders, with your elbows pointing straight forwards
- Step 3: Bend your knees slightly, and push your hips back
- Step 4: With a powerful jumping motion, press the bar off of your shoulders and up over your head
- Step 5: Land with your knees bent and hips slightly back, with the bar overhead and both elbows straight
- Step 6: Stand up fully to complete the rep
- Step 7: Lower the bar back to your shoulders
Muscles Worked: Similar to the hang clean, you’ll use the powerful glute muscles to drive the weight up. This movement works the quadriceps more and the hamstrings less than the clean.
Your deltoids and triceps will do the bulk of the work for your upper body. The core muscles, including the abdominals and lower back, play a big role in stabilizing your torso, helping you hold the bar overhead.
3. Kettlebell Swing
This is a classic power-building exercise. You’ll use your hips to swing a heavy bell as hard as you can. When done explosively, this movement builds strength as well as power. When used correctly, kettlebells can be incredibly effective for full-body workouts. Few movements do this better than the kettlebell swing.
- Step 1: Place a kettlebell on the ground and stand behind it
- Step 2: Squat down and reach forwards with both hands to grab the bell
- Step 3: With a flat back, hike the bell back into your groin
- Step 4: Snap your hips forward and lock your knees out as you stand up tall, swinging the bell forwards
- Step 5: When the bell is shoulder-height, brace your core and begin pulling the bell back down
- Step 6: Guide the bell into your groin as you push your hips back, bending your knees slightly and leaning forwards with your torso
Muscles Worked: Similar to the hang clean, your hips power this movement. Your glutes are the most important muscle for this movement, but the hamstrings help as well. Your quadriceps play a smaller role.
Your lower back muscles help you swing the bell up, and your abdominal muscles help you pull it back down. The forearm muscles help you hold the kettlebell, and your upper back muscles prevent your shoulders from rounding. Otherwise, the upper body muscles should be mostly uninvolved in the kettlebell swing.
Boosting Upper Body Strength for the ACFT
Even though most ACFT events target your legs, don't make the mistake of overlooking your upper body muscles. A powerful upper body is essential for handling a rifle, carrying your pack, and tackling rugged terrain. So of course your upper body will be put to the test.
The hand-release push-up shines as the ACFT's ultimate test of upper-body strength. Your upper body is an undercard in the standing power throw, deadlift, plank, and sprint-drag-carry, but it's the main event in the push-up test.
Incorporate the following exercises into a standalone workout or mix them into your existing routine. We've included two exercises to help you ace the hand-release push-up test, and one back-focused exercise to prep you for the deadlift. Feel free to add more general upper body exercises to round out your workout, but keep these essential moves:
1. Diamond Push-Up
A regular push-up uses the triceps to extend your elbows. This variation of the push-up cranks up the intensity of your triceps and strengthens them even more. Master this and you can be confident that your triceps won't be a weak link when you face the ACFT.
- Step 1: Start in a push-up position with your feet slightly wider than normal
- Step 2: Your hands should form a diamond, with the tips of your index fingers and thumbs touching and palms flat on the ground
- Step 3: Perform a regular push-up, dropping your chest to the center of the diamond that your hands form
- Step 4: Press back up until your elbows are straight to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: Similar to the regular push-up, you’ll use your triceps, chest, and shoulder muscles. Plus, your abdominal muscles keep your torso straight, and your hip flexors and quadriceps keep your hips and knees in line with the rest of your body.
2. Tempo Push-Up
Controlling your upper body muscles is one of the keys to mastering the hand-release push-up test. Proper form plays a significant role in this event, so maintaining control throughout the movement is essential. After all, you don't want any of your hard-earned reps to be discounted.
- Step 1: Start in a push-up position with your hands under your shoulders and feet hip-width apart
- Step 2: Lower your body for a count of 4 seconds, at the end of which you should be just above the ground
- Step 3: Explosively press your body back up to the top of the push-up position to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: This movement works the same muscles as a regular push-up, but with a slower descent to emphasize control. You’ll use the chest, triceps, and shoulder muscles for this movement, as well as the abdominal muscles to stabilize your core.
3. Incline Bench Rows
Back muscles play a major role in several ACFT events. While you won't be tackling the pull-up bar, you'll rely on your back strength for the deadlift test and sprint-drag-carry. With chest support in this exercise, you may find that you can lift heavier weights compared to other row variations - which is a nice bonus.
- Step 1: Incline a bench to roughly 45 degrees and place a dumbbell on the floor on either side of the bench
- Step 2: Lie stomach-down on the bench, with your head above the top of the bench and feet planted on the ground
- Step 3: Grab one dumbbell with each hand
- Step 4: Pull the dumbbells up towards your chest, avoiding the bench as you lift them
- Step 5: Pinch your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement and press your chest into the bench
- Step 6: Lower the weights until your arms are straight to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: You’ll use most of the important back muscles in this exercise. That includes the latissimus dorsi, which is one of the largest muscles in your upper body. Also used are the teres major, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles.
Fortifying Lower Body Strength for the ACFT
Your legs are like wheels, carrying you wherever duty calls. From hauling a heavy pack to sprinting across challenging terrain, a soldier's legs are their most valuable asset. Building both strength and endurance unlocks your ability to lift heavier weights and cover greater distances.
The ACFT gauges leg strength with the deadlift, hip power with the standing power throw and sprint-drag-carry, and leg endurance with the two-mile run. You'll need diverse lower-body training to excel in these events.
Incorporate a dedicated lower-body workout into your routine each week, or even twice, depending on your leg strength. The following three exercises will strengthen your legs in all aspects, eliminating any weak points:
1. Bulgarian Squat
This single-leg exercise forces the front leg to bear most of the weight, strengthening one leg at a time. Single-leg exercises are useful for addressing any strength imbalances between legs and enhancing sprint speed, as they replicate the leg movements during running.
- Step 1: Stand to the side of a bench, facing away from it, holding a dumbbell in each hand
- Step 2: Lift one foot and reach it behind you, placing it on top of the bench (you can dig your toes into the bench or lay the top of your foot flat on the bench)
- Step 3: Bend both knees, dropping your back knee down as close to the ground as you can
- Step 4: Don’t let your front knee go in front of your toes as you descend
- Step 5: Stand back up to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: The Bulgarian squat is similar to a regular squat, but it puts more pressure on the legs and less on the lower back. It uses the quadriceps and glutes a lot and a little bit of the hamstrings.
You’ll still use your lower back muscles to keep your posture upright, but they don’t need to work very hard. Your forearms will work from holding the weights, as well as your trapezius and deltoid muscles, which prevent the weight from swinging.
The RDL, or Romanian deadlift, is a variation of the conventional barbell deadlift. It’s incredibly useful for building the hamstring and glute muscles, which aren’t targeted as much by exercises like the squat and lunge. The RDL will help you lift a lot of weight on the deadlift test because it strengthens similar muscles.
- Step 1: Stand in front of a barbell. Make sure there are plates on either side to raise it off of the ground
- Step 2: With your back flat and feet no wider than hip-width apart, drop down and grab the bar
- Step 3: Lift the bar, keeping your chest puffed out and back flat
- Step 4: Once you’re standing, you can begin the exercise. Push your hips back and keep your back flat to lower the bar
- Step 5: As the bar goes below your knees, gently bend them
- Step 6: Continue to lower the bar, stopping before you hit the floor, until your back is tempted to round or you feel a stretch in your hamstrings
- Step 7: Stand back up straight, keeping your back flat, to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: This movement is heavy on the hamstrings and glute muscles. It also works the lower and upper back. The latissimus dorsi, lower back muscles, rhomboids, and trapezius all work to prevent rounding of the spine. Your forearms also work hard in this exercise to help you keep hold of the bar.
3. Lateral Step-Up
The lateral step-up separates itself from other leg workouts with its side-to-side movement rather than forward-to-back. This is extremely helpful for the drag-sprint-carry, where you need to side shuffle at top speed. If you want to get a better time, focus on building your hip strength.
- Step 1: Stand next to a bench or box, facing parallel to it
- Step 2: Put your foot on top. Your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with the top foot slightly above the bottom foot
- Step 3: Step up, using your top leg to pull you up, and lean your upper body towards your top leg
- Step 4: Once you reach the top and can safely put the other leg on the bench, step back down with the same foot and repeat
- Step 5: When you step down, make sure you step slightly behind the top foot
Muscles Worked: Since this is a lateral movement, you’ll work similar muscles to a traditional leg exercise but with a few others that you might not know since they’re less popular. The quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes all help you stand up from the bottom position.
Your adductors, the muscles in your inner thigh, help pull you to the side. The gluteus medius, a muscle on the outside of your hip, stabilizes your pelvis and prevents your hips from dropping to either side. If you’re holding weights, your forearms, trapezius, and deltoid muscles will also work.
Building Core Strength for the ACFT
Your core muscles are involved in almost every movement. When running, they help your trunk rotate and drive you forward. The abdominals and lower back also work together to protect the spine while lifting heavy objects or carrying weight over distances.
In the ACFT, core muscles are directly tested in the plank, but you'll need them in other places too. Your core safeguards your spine during deadlifts and maintains a straight torso during push-ups, a key component of proper form.
You can add core exercises to any workout - they pair well with the middle or end of a lower or upper-body strength workout. They can also be performed as a superset with other exercises – like doing a set of squats followed by a set of core exercises. Here are the top 2 core exercises you should focus on to excel in the ACFT:
1. Ab Rollout
This is a tough abdominal exercise, so use caution when attempting it for the first time. The key is to make your core muscles as stiff as a board, then maintain that stiffness throughout the movement. Your arms are allowed to move, but everything else should remain rigid, forcing your abdominal muscles to act as a stabilizer for your spine.
- Step 1: Kneel on the ground behind an ab roller
- Step 2: Grab the roller with both hands
- Step 3: Round your spine and tuck your pelvis, engaging your abdominal muscles
- Step 4: Roll forwards, reaching your arms overhead and dropping your chest towards the ground
- Step 5: Get as low as you can without touching the ground
- Step 6: Keep your core stiff and pull the roller back under you, lifting your upper body back to the starting position as you do so
Muscles Worked: This core movement is targeted at the abdominals. There are four abdominal muscles: the transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and rectus abdominis. All four will work in this movement.
In addition to your abs, your arm, and back muscles also play a role. The latissimus dorsi and teres major will help pull your arms back down. The triceps also help by keeping your elbows straight as you go through the movement.
2. Plank Jumping Jacks
This movement is a more extreme version of the plank. Doing it will make the plank test seem like a cakewalk. It’s helpful not only for performance on the ACFT but for strengthening your core to protect your lower back.
- Step 1: Start in a front plank position on your forearms with your knees off the ground
- Step 2: Make sure your hips aren’t sagging down or raised up too high, your body should be in a straight line
- Step 3: Tighten your core muscles, then hop your feet wide apart
- Step 4: Tighten your core muscles, then hop your feet together to complete one rep
Muscles Worked: This exercise targets the same abdominal muscles as the ab roller. All four abdominal muscles will brace your core and prevent your hips from sagging as you hop your feet in and out.
Your hip flexors, the muscles in front of your thighs and hips, will also work to keep your hips up. At the same time, your quadriceps will help you hop your feet, propelling them off of the ground. In your upper body, the only muscles truly working are the deltoids, which stabilize your upper body as you hop with your feet.
We want you to not only succeed but reach a level of success that few can match. There are a few tried-and-true training principles that will help you do just that.
Embrace progressive overload, this is where you push your limits over time by doing a bit more each week. Whether it's more reps, increased weight, or additional sets, it's all about challenging your body to go the extra mile.
Don't forget the principle of specific adaptation to imposed demands. This is just a fancy way of saying that your body will adapt to the challenges it faces, so be mindful of the activities you include in your training. Want to become a better runner? Focus on running, not swimming. The same goes for strength exercises – doing pull-ups won't necessarily make you a pro at push-ups.
When it comes to structuring your workouts, the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Strength and Conditioning Manual has you covered with an optimal approach to structuring workouts. It goes something like this:
- Kick things off with a dynamic warm-up.
- Follow with power or explosive exercises.
- Then, dive into strength or sports-specific training.
- Time to cool down - static stretching could be beneficial here.
Use this flow as your blueprint for your workouts for maximum benefit. You'll notice that every MTNTOUGH workout follows a similar principle. It works - so don't reinvent the wheel here.
3 Common Mistakes to Avoid
Boosting your performance also means steering clear of common training pitfalls. And there are certainly some common errors when it comes to training for the ACFT. Among the many options to pick from, the 3 are certainly the ones we see most frequently.
If you struggle to recover from lack of sleep, inadequate nutrition, or insufficient rest between workouts, then you need to ease up at the gym. Overtraining can lead to illness and injury, this is a good time to listen to your body.
2. Bad Form
Resist the urge to rush through workouts or perform exercises without a solid understanding of the correct technique. Pain or discomfort during an exercise is usually a red flag for poor form, which can result in injuries that derail your training and impact your ACFT performance. Stay vigilant and careful in the gym.
3. No Warmup
Skipping this essential step not only increases your risk of injury but can also hinder your workout performance. A thorough dynamic warm-up primes your body for peak performance, allowing you to push harder and achieve more. So, always make time for warm-ups, even if it's just a quick jog before diving into your workout. Get the blood flowing and the lungs working a bit.
Always Study for the Test
Nobody likes to take a test more than they have to, so acing the ACFT should be your goal. This means preparing thoroughly and shooting for the highest possible score. Just like studying for a test in the academic sense, the harder you train the better prepared you'll be.
The ACFT evaluates multiple key aspects of fitness, such as strength, endurance, and power. Your prep needs to address each area, honing in on your weaknesses and ensuring balanced improvement. Strength or weakness, don't skip any category - it could come back to haunt you. So as you get ready for the ACFT, look at it through the lens of being the ultimate well-rounded fitness soldier, rather than the strongest or most endurance.
Our comprehensive guide above covers all the bases. By following it, you'll enhance your endurance, power, and strength across the board. Don't try to tackle this alone. Remember that countless individuals have successfully navigated this test before you, and we've helped many reach their personal bests and ace the ACFT. Now's the time to start training.