Few tasks in American soldiers’ lives are judged as deeply as their performance on the Army’s required semiannual physical-fitness test: Push-ups, situps and a timed two-mile run are used to gauge physical readiness and also, supposedly, readiness for combat. But that long-predictable standard will soon change — radically. By October 2020, all soldiers will instead take the new Army combat-fitness test — a six-event exam that includes heavy deadlifting, a backward medicine-ball toss and dragging a 90-pound sled.
“This fitness test is hard — no one should be under any illusions about it,” Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, said last October, as information about the new examination ricocheted through the service’s ranks. “We really don’t want to lose soldiers on the battlefield. We don’t want young men and women to get killed in action because they weren’t fit.” The exam emphasizes conditioning specific to combat as well as practical fitness designed to prevent injuries. Its introduction is a critical move for the Army, which in 2018 failed to meet its recruiting goals, partially because of the dwindling pool of potential new recruits who can meet the physical standards. The scoring scale, not yet finalized, is expected to make no age or gender distinctions. Passing scores will vary based on a soldier’s specific job or unit and its physical demands.
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To some, the combat-fitness test, which has been in development since 2013, represents a sharp transition toward a more forward-thinking approach to practical physical training for soldiers. But much of the same has been said at the unveiling of new fitness standards throughout the Army’s history — standards that, viewed in retrospect, often seem to have arisen from a hodgepodge of cultural pressures, traditions and fitness fads.
Enlisted men going through an obstacle course at Daniel Field in Georgia in July 1943.CreditU.S. Army Signal Corps, via Library of Congress
Throughout most of the 19th century, the Army’s attitude toward physical training, beyond the basics of marching and close-order drilling, was haphazard at best. One reason was that regular soldiers were expected to participate in frequent assignments requiring hard physical labor, like digging ditches or laying rail ties. Such “fatigue duty,” as it was called, was not intended as exercise, but it made outside physical conditioning seem superfluous or even dangerous. Even in the early years of the 20th century, many believed that excessive training could inflict permanent injuries on the heart, make soldiers “muscle bound” at the expense of agility or wear the fighters out before they got to combat. “Underdoing is rectifiable,” West Point’s physical training manual asserted; “overdoing is often not.”
A shift was already underway by the turn of the century, when Theodore Roosevelt became president and advocated “the strenuous life” to Americans, in the service of progress and empire. In 1908, after a short speech at the Army War College on “the desirability of officers keeping in fit condition at all times,” he invited the distinguished attendees — including the secretary of the interior and the Army’s top-ranking general — to “join him on a stroll.” That stroll stretched into a double-time march for miles across dense forested hills, through a rushing creek and up a 200-foot crag. There were no stragglers, The New York Times reported, but many “shivering walkers finally went home in cars to wonder about rheumatism and pneumonia.”
When the United States entered World War I, the Army opened training camps where the influx of draftees were introduced to a regimen of calisthenics and mandatory sports. Group exercises had the explicit aim of keeping new inductees busy, tired and far from alcohol and prostitution. Organized calisthenics became common by 1919, but the exercises were suggested rather than mandated, and involved as little as 30 minutes of exercise twice a day. Most of a recruit’s day consisted of other kinetic activities: marches and tactical instruction. Unit cohesion and team-building, which received lengthy treatment in 20th-century training manuals, were taught through outdoor games like dodge ball or “swat the kaiser,” recognizable today as duck, duck, goose.
Some fitness-related matters got more attention than others. Even at the height of World War II, instruction in “posture” and “bearing,” terms often used interchangeably, received earnest coverage in Army manuals. (“You wouldn’t build your house in a zigzag manner,” recruits were told in the 1943 Women’s Army Corps training text. “Neither is it wise to let your body fall into a zigzag shape.”) The correct alignment of body carriage, it was believed, would improve organ functioning, boost a soldier’s morale and visibly inspire other comrades. In emphasizing “grace” and “poise,” the Women’s Army Corps manual prescribed something called “stork stand” as a measure of physical fitness for servicewomen; it timed how long a woman could stand on one foot. The parade of varying approaches reflected the mores of the time but also revealed a wide-ranging and inconsistent understanding of Army fitness goals. To really standardize physical training, the Army needed a standardized physical test.
The Army first experimented with fitness tests (as well as intelligence tests) to help sort new soldiers during World War I, and soon afterward settled on an exam that reflected the rigors of trench warfare. It consisted of a 100-yard sprint, a grenade throw, a running broad jump, a wall climb and an obstacle course — tasks that were essential to combat in that conflict and could mean the difference between life and death for field troops. Unit leaders used the test primarily to determine if their charges needed more physical conditioning, but poor performance didn’t result in soldiers being judged unfit for service or promotion.
The Army’s first real attempt to enforce baseline physical standards came during the Cold War, when the looming Soviet empire made military action feel imminent and unavoidable. In 1959 the service mandated that each soldier take a physical-fitness test and meet a minimum score. The initial implementation was a little rough: The policy permitted either of two fitness tests, and it didn’t set minimum passing marks for individual events; a soldier could conceivably fail multiple events but achieve a high enough overall score to pass. In the years that followed, tinkering with the scoring to better account for scientific research, job requirements, the motivational effect of high or low scores, age and gender became a main preoccupation of Army fitness policy.
For another two decades, a motley assortment of fitness evaluations and standards proliferated throughout the Army. At various points in time there were specialty tests for combat and support forces, as well as indoor and outdoor exams. Women, who still served separately in the Women’s Army Corps, didn’t have a fitness requirement, but could “self test,” while soldiers over 40 didn’t test at all. Running wasn’t held in high esteem — until a mile-long run was added in 1959 most soldiers didn’t sprint more than 300 yards in a test, and even then, running in place was an acceptable variation on some versions — and women did push-ups on their knees.
When the current Army physical-fitness test was introduced in 1980, unifying the service under a single mandatory examination, it replaced no fewer than seven specialized physical-fitness assessments. Its creation was in part a reaction to radical social shifts: In 1978, Congress dissolved the Women’s Army Corps and integrated women into noncombat units in the regular Army. The test became the Army’s first physical-fitness assessment with scoring adjusted for gender as well as age.
Commanders were warned not to allow the test to completely dictate their training regimens. It was designed to reflect the baseline conditioning a soldier needed to begin tactical training, not to be a total fitness program. But the Army steadily increased the minimum and maximum scores, tying promotions to high scores and prescribing involuntary discharges for repeat failures. Tactical training, like road marches and obstacle courses, slipped as graded events took priority. Leaders gave their soldiers every opportunity to succeed in their careers, even if it hurt combat readiness.
By 1985, soldiers didn’t even have to wear their field fatigues and combat boots to their fitness tests — a standard that had been in place since the Cold War-era test in 1959. This was largely in response to America’s jogging craze. In 1974, Nike began selling its groundbreaking Waffle Trainer, which opened up running to new body types and popularized running as a fitness activity for everyone. American soldiers clamored to take advantage of the new “go fasters,” which were hyped with claims that they prevented injuries and lowered running times by minutes. The move to sneakers and shorts melded well with the tracksuit era, but it further distanced the test from the battlefield. Multiple iterations of “physical-fitness uniforms,” standardized exercise attire, rolled out across the Army starting in 1986, when the garish yellow “banana” jogging suit was added to the uniform regulations. By 1998, testing in “boots and utes” was no longer allowed. The measure of a soldier became less about their participation on a functional team and more about running two miles in 16 minutes.
After three decades in thrall to a physical-fitness test that had little to do with the rigors of deployment, the Army set out to build its newest fitness test on a foundation of data and experience. Six years of research and development have already been devoted to making it more strenuous and reflective of combat. The two-mile run remains a part of the evaluation, but five new events will now test 10 “components of physical fitness” that include power, speed, agility and balance, along with the muscular and aerobic endurance that are the focus of the test the Army is replacing. Combat-related tasks, like hauling ammo cans and dragging a wounded platoonmate to safety, will be practiced with kettlebells and weighted sleds — a sort of middle ground between the trench-warfare exercises of World War I and the general fitness that has dominated the Army’s evaluation for so long.
In spite of all the science and seriousness, the new combat-fitness test is not immune to the influence of cultural attitudes and fads. Just as past training regimens reflected their eras’ enthusiasm for group calisthenics or college athletics, the new test reflects the principles of CrossFit and rucking — equipment-based, practical-fitness activities popular with service members and social-media mavens. The shared ingredients include the emphasis on movements with weights, a variety of exercises and their value for building a sense of purpose and camaraderie. The key difference, of course, is that encouraging someone to excel at the gym or out on a course may not be the same as preparing them to excel in combat.
The military has not settled on what to do with soldiers who fail the test, although Army Secretary Mark Esper indicated that involuntary separation wasn’t off the table. “If you can’t pass the Army combat-fitness test, then there’s probably not a spot for you in the Army,” he told reporters in August. “At the end of the day, we need soldiers who are deployable, lethal and ready.”
Of course, it’s hard to predict what a soldier on the battlefield in 2030 or 2040 will need to be “lethal and ready” — as hard as it would have been for a Cold War-era Army fitness planner to anticipate long asymmetric conflicts supplanting major wars and kipping pull-ups replacing jumping jacks. We know that the Army combat-fitness test will be a challenge for an Army population full of older troops who are strong and seasoned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who also have a lot of injuries and might find the new test a tough adjustment. It will also make it harder to attract and retain new recruits from a civilian population that’s more sedentary than ever. We know that the test will remain an individual crucible, with scores tied to career progression. We know that soldiers who have tried out the new test generally agree that it’s comprehensive and requires serious preparation. But we don’t know how long it will be before a medicine-ball throw, in its turn, looks like a faddish fitness anachronism, ill suited to what soldiers actually do.
Perhaps the most valuable purpose the combat-fitness test serves is to show how the Army wishes to see itself in the coming years: strong, yes, but flexible enough to meet whatever missions remain unforeseen for a force that has churned through two decades of inconclusive war. The next decade and its conflicts will tell us which portions of the Army’s new test save lives — and which ones, like the stork stand, end up as historical oddities.
Miranda Summers Lowe is a curator of modern military history at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, and an officer in the Army National Guard.