A soldier performing push-ups. Photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Carden

U.S. preparing recruits for a new kind of war

New Army physical fitness test pushes soldiers farther, faster

Some time after a deadlift and sprint-dragging a heavy sled, a sweat-drenched Capt. Gabriel Pszonowsky, a member of the Ohio Army National Guard, realized he was in painful new territory.

“I’m really starting to feel it,” Pszonowsky thought as he pushed through the Army’s new Combat Fitness Test, widely considered to far more demanding that the service’s current 40-year-old physical fitness test.

Members of some 63 Army battalions — about 50,000 soldiers — are joining Pszonowsky this year in practice rounds of the new test. They are expected to report to leadership their experience of the six-event program, before the test officially becomes an Army standard in October 2020.

The new fitness standards may make the challenging job of recruiting qualified soldiers more challenging, although officers interviewed for this story were uniformly confident that most soldiers will be able to pass the new test with time and training.

What the tests reveal, though, is how serious the Army is about changing regular Army and the National Guard so they are ready to fight the kind of battles which could occur in the decades ahead. Gone are the expectations that they will be fighting insurgencies. Now, the expectation is back that they will have to be ready to combat a peer land-Army.

“We’ve got to get this Army ready to meet the rigors of sustained land combat operations,” said Maj. Gen. John Harris, adjutant general of the Ohio Army National Guard and the Ohio Air National Guard.

The old test featured familiar exercises nearly everyone grew up performing: Two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and a two-mile run. Higher repetitions and a faster run time yield better scores.

The new test — which the Army calls “gender and age neutral” — is more complex.

Soldiers will be expected to begin by performing a deadlift of 140 to 340 pounds, depending on the soldier’s job.

They’ll be expected to throw a 10-pound medicine ball backward over one’s head for a minimum distance. That old Army standby, push-ups, are still required, but the form will be different. Soldiers will have to go through a full-range of motion with hands closer to their bodies.

They’ll be expected to sprint, then drag a heavy object backwards a certain distance, then move in a “lateral” fashion in two directions while slightly crouched.

“The sprint-drag carry is the event where you really start to feel the cumulative effect,” Pszonowsky said. “After you do that first sprint, you grab a sled with 90 pounds on it. You drag that down and you’re dragging it back.”

Participants must perform “leg tucks” while hanging from a bar — and when it’s all done, a timed two-mile run awaits.

That run must be completed 21:07 minutes or faster. The events must be completed in order, and the Army says it should take 45 to 55 minutes to finish in total.

The whole test is capped off at 70 minutes, although warm-up time is not counted against participants.

Pszonowsky calls the new test “a good gut check” — yet it’s a regimen most soldiers should be able to pass with a few months of training, he believes.

“There’s something on there that gets everybody,” he said.

A new national security stance that emphasizes readiness for land combat with “near-peer” adversaries — namely, Iran, China and Russia — imposes new fitness expectations on the regular Army and citizen-soldiers of the National Guard, Harris said.

The military has been focused on counter-insurgency work against terrorists and radicals since Sept. 11, 2001. But the world has changed, Harris and others say.

Counter-insurgency operations are dangerous and physically demanding, as well. But those operations tend to be more focused on smaller formations, on influencing populations and operating out of forward-located bases in foreign locales, Army officers say.

“Sustained land combat forces you to operate out of your vehicles in a very austere environment or on foot out of your rucksack,” Harris said.

In a world where cyber attacks or electronic-magnetic pulse interruptions can disrupt communication, it may not always be possible to call for help in land combat situations, Pszonowsky said.

“We may have to send a runner,” he said.

“The more complex this all gets, the more we need to be able to rely on our fundamental skills,” Dr. Whitfield East, an Army research physiologist who helped devise the new test, told the Dayton Daily News.

“And fitness is truly a fundamental skill of all soldiers,” East added.

Col. Daniel Shank, assistant adjutant general and commander of the Ohio Army National Guard’s more than 11,000 soldiers, agrees that a new defense strategy demands new skills and strengths.

When armies move, soldiers must move, he said. Soldiers of the future will likely be in the field, without the option of returning to a forward operating base contained “within a huge circle of wire” in the evening, Shank said.

“You have to go fast,” he said. “You have to go for long durations, as well.”

The new test is meant to be comprehensive, gauging not just muscle power but aerobic endurance.

“What we’ve seen so far is we have individuals who do very well at aerobic events and very well at strength and power events ― we need soldiers to do well in all events,” East — who was part of a team that crafted the test at the Center for Initial Military Training at Fort Eustis, Va — told the Army Times last year.

Pszonowsky, 40, a member of the 1st Battalion of the 148th Infantry Regiment in Walbridge Ohio, will train in Indiana in coming weeks to become a master fitness trainer. His job will be to prepare soldiers to take and pass the test.

The hand-release push-ups are more tiring than classic push-ups, he warned.

Participants start at the bottom of the range of motion with one’s chest on the ground, hands positioned under the shoulders and elbows tightly tucked in, with the body in a straight line. Soldiers then must push up to full extension, then return down, without resting at the bottom. (Participants can only “rest” in the arms-extended up position.)

That’s one push-up.

“It takes some adjustment to understand the differences,” he said.

The toughest part for Pszonowsky was the two-mile run at the end. “After doing everything else, that last mile was pretty long.”

It is challenging, he acknowledged. But he feels there is no reason for any recruit or soldier to panic.

“We have plenty of time to train every soldier to be successful at this test,” he said.

“Anytime you change a culture, you go through this period where have to adjust to the new culture,” said East, who has served as director of guidance for the U.S. Military Academy’s department of physical education in West Point, N.Y.

East said the study that led to the new test sought to answer three fundamental questions: What physical demands do soldiers face? Did the current test measure a soldier’s ability to meet those demands? If not, can a new test do better?

He believes the new test, by adding new events and changing others, offers a better overall measure.

“One of the things we couldn’t do is have a 30-item test,” East said. “We still have a million service members that we have to test. It still needs to be a field-based test.”

Researchers knew all along that strength, power and speed were critical for soldiers to be able to do their jobs, he said.

He thinks the new test does a solid job of usefully measuring endurance, core strength, lower body strength, along with power and aerobic abilities.

The leg tuck is a good example, East believes. Training for that event helps boost lower body core strength, helping to reduce lower back and carriage injuries down the road. Soldiers will often have to carry heavy equipment — or in certain situations, each other.

“The stronger you are, the better your relative work capacity is,” East said.

The prior test has been in place since the late 1970s.

“Soldiering is clearly a young person’s game,” East said. While older officers and non-commissioned officers may be initially wary of the new test, East says that after trying it, they adopt a different attitude.

“It’s like Christmas morning,” he said. Many of them find the new test is tough but achievable.

“The response is pretty universal: Well, that wasn’t too bad,” he said.

“In general, the younger soldiers think this is pretty cool stuff,” East added. “This is right in their wheelhouse.”

Pass or fail, however, the bottom line is readiness for the rigors of certain kind of warfare.

“Twenty-four/seven operations in austere environments, against a peer-competitive adversary,” Shank said. “Tired and exhausted — for days, weeks and months at a time in that environment.”

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