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Beginning October 1st, 2020 the U.S. Army has transitioned from the previous Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) to the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). Since 1980, the APFT was used to grade and score soldiers’ endurance and strength with 3 simple events; 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run. Now, 40 years later, the ACFT expands this fitness test to 6 more complex events. Surprisingly, kettlebells are used in one of the new events while also recommended as a training tool for several others.

As a web designer, I’m extremely impressed with the layout and design of the ACFT web page. Information is concise with icons, images, and videos placed for training and review purposes. It’s easy to follow and I can tell a lot of care and effort was done to balance visual appeal with accessibility. I especially appreciate the explanation of how each event relates to real-life situations that might arise during combat. These tests aren’t designed to torture soldiers, but rather prepare them for potential life-saving techniques.

So how do kettlebells fit into the Army Combat Fitness Test? Are they effectively used to provide the maximum benefit for training in the specified events? Well, I hope to provide those answers by reviewing and assessing the usage of kettlebells in the ACFT. I will say that I’m thrilled that the U.S. Army sees the potential that kettlebells offer for improving physical fitness. Also, I want to make clear that this article isn’t meant to criticize or judge the implementation of kettlebells in the ACFT. Instead, I’m just as eager to discover whether additional kettlebell exercises may aid in the training for the test.

Breaking Down The 6 Events

As a kettlebell enthusiast of 2-plus years, I’m certainly no expert on all of their benefits. I’ve lost over 80 pounds, built muscle, improved my cardio, and have developed a passion for kettlebells because of those results. However, in reviewing each event, I’m making assumptions on what I believe might assist in improving the target muscle groups and cardiovascular respiratory fitness. From my experience, I believe I have a decent grasp of what kettlebell exercises may offer additional benefits for each individual event. Although, like you, I want more information as to why.

To get these answers I’ve asked kettlebell coach and instructor Ryan Jankowitz to chime in with his thoughts. Ryan is a RKC II certified trainer who also frequently posts on the Kettlebell Training Facebook Group. Before we begin analyzing each event, Ryan shares his overall thoughts on the ACFT:


Ryan Jankowitz

“I love the new standards that the Army implemented for their physical fitness testing and see a massive carryover into performing tasks a soldier may be required to do. The 6 events are a great way to test overall athleticism or a term known as General Physical Preparedness (GPP). Essentially, you should be able to perform many physical tasks well.

The ACFT website does a great job of breaking down each event and providing ideas for training for each event. Ryan Faucher’s analysis is also spot on. My goal is to add another perspective and one or two more kettlebell exercises that might help someone prepare for each event.”

Note: Since the videos featured on the ACFT web page are all publically available on YouTube, those that feature kettlebells are embedded below for observation. I would encourage everyone to open the army’s page for reference with the below talking points from Ryan and myself.

Event 1 – 3 Repetition Maximum Deadlift (MDL)

Hex Bar Lifting

Goal: Lift hex bar & plates weighing between 140 and 340 pounds 3 times.
Kettlebells Used: Training exericises only.
Combat Application: Lifting and transporting heavy loads from the ground. Extracting casualties on a stretcher.

The first event is all about strength. Points are earned for the successful completion of 3 deadlifts between the above weights. The heavier the lift, the more points earned. Soldiers are allowed two attempts to perform the 3 consecutive deadlifts of the same weight. While the lifting movement of the hex bar looks similar to traditional straight bar lifting, participants should find it easier to lift heavier weights since there is little to no horizontal displacement.

Out of the 3 training exercises for this event, two of them feature kettlebells. One is a sumo deadlift with what looks to be a heavy kettlebell. The other is a forward lunge with two lighter kettlebells. Neither of the two exercises is very technical or advanced. Soldiers with little to no experiencing using kettlebells should have no problems performing the sumo deadlift or forward lunge.

Sumo Deadlift

Forward Lunge

My Assumptions

Fortunately, there are several variations of kettlebell deadlifts that one can utilize to simulate the lifting of the hex bar and plates. In my opinion, the closest type of deadlift resembling this event is the double suitcase deadlift. Using two heavy kettlebells, the squatting and lifting movement looks virtually the same. Of course, there are monster kettlebells weighing anywhere from 100 to 200 lbs for those who really want to push strength. Personally, I would go on the lighter side with two 70 lb. kettlebells to achieve the minimum score with 140 lbs.

At that weight, you wouldn’t need to spend a small fortune and still can build strength by increasing reps and sets. Plus, it’s more realistic to progress to more technical kettlebell exercises with less risk to injury at 70 pounds. I’m not a strength-focused guy so this won’t apply to everyone, but I would never try to do anything OTHER than deadlifts when working with 100+ lb. kettlebells. Safety first!

Ryan Jankowitz Says

The best way to train for this event is to deadlift with a hex bar. However, the Kettlebell Double Suitcase Deadlift closely mirrors the hex bar deadlift. It may offer some additional advantages since the kettlebells are not connected through a bar, so each arm works independently. This may help increase grip strength, especially for the non-dominant hand. Additionally, you can also perform a Single Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift for some variety and to get more engagement from your core and hips.

Event 2 – Standing Power Throw (SPT)

Medicine Ball Event

Goal: Throw a 10-pound medicine ball overhead backward as far as possible.
Kettlebells Used: Training exericise only.
Combat Application: Throwing equipment over structures and obstacles and assisting fellow soldiers climbing up walls.

From one extreme to another, the second event has soldiers hurling a medicine ball weighing only 10 pounds directly overhead and behind them. Two throws are recorded with the longest throw awarding the score. A third throw is allowed only if faults are recorded on the prior two throws. The goal is to record a distance of at least 4.5 meters or receive a perfect score of 100 with the ball landing 12.5 meters or further. For perspective, the latter is roughly 41 feet or ~13.5 yards.

Two of the recommended training exercises for this event require no equipment at all; the power jump and tuck jump. The 3rd and final exercise is the push press with two kettlebells. Again, this exercise should be quite easy for those unfamiliar with kettlebell training. Even though this test requires throwing a 10 lb. medicine ball, participants will likely want to use two kettlebells weighing at least 20 pounds each.

Overhead Push Press

My Assumptions

Watching the body movements of the Standing Power Throw, the kettlebell swing seems like an obvious choice for training purposes. Although the Russian-style swing would do wonders I’m sure, I think the overhead style of the American swing is as close as one can get to the actual event. As far as explosiveness, I’m not certain whether a squat or hip-hinge variation of the swing would yield better results.

Another aspect of the SPT to consider is if it makes more sense to jump at the end or keep the feet planted. From a raw power standpoint, I would think that jumping provides a little extra oomph on the throw. However, one might achieve greater backward flexibility if the feet stay on the ground. This may offer a more advantageous trajectory instead of one that is of a higher arc.

Ryan Jankowitz Says

I think the Overhead Push Press is great to train for this event but stay with me here as I’m going to go down the rabbit hole of kettlebell exercises. I believe the Kettlebell Swing would be a great complement to the Push Press. The Swing teaches you how to use your hips (the strongest muscles in your body) to explosively move an object. For a beginner, I would stop there – Push Press and Swing. Keep it simple.

However, you can also use the Kettlebell Snatch to train for this event. The Snatch teaches you how to explosively move an object from the ground or around your legs to an overhead position. A great superset would be Kettlebell Snatches followed by the Double Overhead Push Press.

Event 3 – Hand Release Push-Ups (HRP)

Push-Ups

Goal: Perform as many HRP’s within a 2-minute period.
Kettlebells Used: Training exericise only.
Combat Application: Pushing opponents or obstacles away and maneuvering quickly in the prone position.

There’s quite a scoring gap between the low-end number of repetitions (10) needed to pass this event vs. the maximum number of reps (60). A soldier would need to perform a rep every 2 seconds to achieve the highest score possible, an almost impossible task. Consider that with standard push-ups you may keep your hands on the ground at all times to quickly progress through reps. The HRP forces participants to completely stop to lift their hands up using up precious seconds.

This change in technique stands in stark contrast to the original push-up event in the APFT of yesteryear. Those who were able to blast their way through might find it much more difficult to reach their previous best score in reps. While frustrating, the hand-release push-up is perhaps more appropriate for combat training. It’s doubtful that many scenarios exist that soldiers would need to quickly lift themselves in rapid succession. However, moving from prone with a weapon in hand from one spot to the next probably happens quite often.

This event is the only one in which 4 training exercises are recommended. For the lone kettlebell exercise, the U.S. Army suggests performing supine chest presses with two kettlebells. That’s where the trainee lays flat on their back and fully extends both arms upward while gripping the kettlebells.

Supine Chest Press

My Assumptions

Why make things complicated? A double kettlebell push-up might just be the ideal training exercise. Using two kettlebells of equal weight, place them on the floor approximately shoulder-width apart. Then, when holding the handles perform the push-up motion. This video shows not only good technique of the double kettlebell push-up but also common errors to avoid. Like the description says, the benefit of a deeper range of motion is possible as the body is able to descend past the top of the handles. For this exercise, competition kettlebells of a medium weight would be best for stability.

A similar kettlebell exercise, the renegade row, is another great choice for developing core and upper body strength. It’s a little more advanced and if you’re having difficulty with the double kb push-up, I wouldn’t try it. Essentially, you’ll start in the same position at an inclined plank, arms fully extended holding two kettlebells on the floor. Instead of dipping down, raise one kettlebell to your side while using the other for support and alternate with the other arm after returning the kettlebell to the floor.

Ryan Jankowitz Says

The best way to train for this event is to get really good at pushups, plain and simple. If you were to add a kettlebell exercise to help strengthen the pushup muscles, then the Floor Press or Supine Chest Press are great complements.

Event 4 – Sprint-Drag-Carry (SDC)

Sprint Drag Carry Event

Goal: Complete 5 50-meter shuttle runs of various tasks.
Kettlebells Used: Event & training exericises.
Combat Application: Carrying ammunition across the battlefield, extracting casualties, and reacting quickly to enemy attacks.

The appropriately named Sprint-Drag-Carry event is all about speed and endurance. In the 5 50-meter runs, the starting and ending runs are sprints with the middle 3 differing from the rest. Soldiers will need to also drag a 90-pound sled, carry two 40-pound kettlebells, and move laterally across the field. Out of all the events, this is my favorite as it resembles something you’d see at the CrossFit Games with the various multiple tasks strung together. A time of 93 seconds or less results in a perfect score meaning each run averages at least 18.6 seconds!

At the end of the event, the participants will have traversed 250 meters or roughly 273 yards. That’s like running a football from endzone to endzone nearly 3 times in a row. I believe that the kettlebell portion of the event is supposed to simulate the carrying of ammo canisters and such. So it’s not surprising to see not one but two kettlebell training exercises recommended.

The first kettlebell exercise is described as a straight leg deadlift using two kettlebells. I hesitate to call it a hip-hinge deadlift as the demo video does indeed show the instructor keeping their entire leg straight. However, a deadlift technically means that the weight is starting in the “dead” position or on the floor/ground. That’s not the case in the video which shows subsequent reps lowering the kettlebells to the ankles. The other kettlebell exercise is the bent over row, also with a pair of kettlebells.

Straight Leg Deadlift

Bent Over Row

My Assumptions

The one kettlebell exercise identical to this event’s counterpart is the farmer’s walk. It’s perhaps the easiest kettlebell exercise there is, albeit, not a very exciting one. To spice things up take one kettlebell on an adventurous hike. This will allow you to switch hands and give the other arm a break when necessary. A light or medium-weight kettlebell should suffice as you may regret bringing a heavy kettlebell at some point in the journey!

Being a practical guy, I always want to keep in mind the purpose of these events. If I were in a combat situation and needed to lift heavy loads quickly and safely, what would I do? The old mantra lift with the legs and not the back comes to mind. Thus, I think the kettlebell squat deadlift is a good choice for less strain on the back. If you click on the link and watch the video, you’ll see how kettlebell trainer Taco Fleur keeps both single and dual kettlebells between the legs. I imagine soldiers need to move ammunition and equipment quite frequently, especially in combat, throughout the day. Therefore, the squat deadlift makes perfect sense.

Ryan Jankowitz Says

This is a very dynamic event, but you still want to keep things simple and get the biggest bang for your buck when training. I think the standard Kettlebell Deadlift is a great place to start. It will strengthen the backside of your body, which is what you use to pull objects (sled drag). The Kettlebell Swing is also a phenomenal exercise for strengthening your pulling muscles and developing explosive power that you would need for sprinting.

Sticking with the backside, Kettlebell Bent Over Rows are great for strengthening the upper back and grip. Lastly, the Kettlebell Farmer’s Walk is a part of the event, so it must be trained. If variety is something you need in training, then you can perform Suitcase Carries, which is just a single-arm version of the Farmer’s Walk.

Event 5 – Leg Tuck (LTK)

Leg Tuck Event

Goal: Complete up to 20 leg tuck reps in succession.
Kettlebells Used: None.
Combat Application: Climbing ropes, walls, and other obstacles.

Not quite a pull-up, the leg tuck has soldiers hold the mounting bar in an alternating grip with the feet parallel to the bar. Once off the ground, arms and hips must be fully extended while hanging with legs uncrossed. Next, the soldier will raise their legs so that the knees or thighs touch their respective elbows for each side to complete the rep. Only a single rep is necessary to get the minimum score of 60 points. Other than the 3rd and 4th rep which count for three points, 2 points are awarded for each completion.

Speed is not a factor in this event. In fact, it is encouraged that rest is taken and grips adjusted if necessary after each rep. To prepare for the LTK, a couple of leg raising exercises and a pull-up exercise are suggested. Interestingly enough, that pull-up exercise has two other people assisting the trainee with one person supporting the feet and the other acting as a spotter. I can see how that might pose a problem for those who wish to train on their own accord.

My Assumptions

Grip strength is super important for this event. The majority of kettlebell exercises feature a grip of some sort, so it’s a bit surprising to see none recommended. One such exercise I believe would aid greatly with grip strength is the bottoms-up clean. Unlike a regular clean where the kettlebell is placed in a rack position, it is held by the handle with its base above. Admittedly, the bottoms-up clean is an exercise I should be doing more often!

On the flip side (pun intended), several variations of kettlebell presses may help build strength in the shoulders and arms. The strict press and push press are my go-to choices but there are so many more. I couldn’t possibly detail them all in a short summary. Instead, check out this 45+ minute video from Cavemantraining demonstrating all kinds of presses.

Ryan Jankowitz Says

The best way to train for the Leg Tuck is to do Leg Tucks, again keep it simple. However, a few assistance exercises that would help prepare for this event include pull-ups, hanging leg raises (bent knees and straight legs) and tactical pull-ups. Tactical pull-ups require you to hang a kettlebell on your foot while doing pullups. The advantage of hanging a kettlebell from your foot is that it really engages your core and adds weight which will benefit your grip, arms and upper back.

Event 6 – Two-Mile Run (2MR)

Two-Mile Run Event

Goal: Run a two mile course on flat ground for time.
Kettlebells Used: None.
Combat Application: Moving quickly during infiltration missions and ruck marches.

Making its return from the Army’s Physical Fitness Test, the two-mile run is yet again the final event. Soldiers will have a 10-minute break after the Leg Tuck event to recover before competing for the best time possible in the 2MR. There’s a lot of flexibility as far as what surface is acceptable for the run. Both indoor & outdoor tracks and even smoothed surfaces such as sidewalks or roads may generally be approved. The purpose of this event is to test the ability of one’s endurance for continuous movement on foot for ground operations. Furthermore, the two-mile run will help gauge how quickly the body is able to recover and perform other physically demanding tasks with little to no rest.

Unsurprisingly, there are no training exercises for this event. After all, what better way to improve time for running than performing this event on your own time? Most U.S. high school tracks usually measure around 400 meters or roughly one-quarter mile. That would mean 8 laps are necessary to complete a full two-mile run. Considering that the best scoring time for this event is to finish within 13 minutes and 30 seconds, a brisk and steady pace is necessary. An average of 71 seconds per lap on one of these tracks will earn the top score. That doesn’t seem too bad for the first couple of laps but certainly no cakewalk to sustain for the entire two miles.

My Assumptions

Obviously, you need to have strong legs and great cardio endurance to succeed in the 2MR. Which one of those is more important? I’d argue that aerobic endurance should get the most attention as that seems to be the first to go in my case. No, I’m not a runner. I do enjoy sprinting, however, training with kettlebells has opened up a new world for me and improving endurance is on my short list of goals. Participating in certain kettlebell challenges and performing several grueling cardio kettlebell workouts has been an eye-opener of sorts. There’s one bodyweight exercise that when combined with a kettlebell move has left me gasping for air but also improved my completion time of reps when performed regularly on a daily basis.

I’m talking about the CrossFit Burpee. A couple months ago, Cavemantraining created a 28-day Burpee and Swing Challenge, and the results are impressive. For this challenge, I and others would perform 50 burpees and then move on to 100 kettlebell swings. It was a rough start but I ended up shaving off nearly a minute and a half from my worst and best time. In fact, everyone who completed the challenge saw similar results and it only required less than 10 minutes a day!

If you really want to target cardio and leg strength in one workout, the CTCF 100 Challenge will not disappoint. Also designed by Cavemantraining, this is not a multi-day challenge but rather asks participants to grind out 100 CrossFit Burpees and 200 dead snatches for time. It’s simple really. Perform the burpee followed by a dead snatch with each arm and repeat the circuit 100 times. It’s one of the few kettlebell workouts I love to hate because of its difficulty but rewarding benefits. The up and down movement of the burpee and dead snatch keeps the heart rate elevated while also working the legs continuously. I’m always a sweaty mess using my 16 kg kettlebell but afterward, feel a sense of great satisfaction.

Ryan Jankowitz Says

This is another straightforward event. If you want to improve your ability to run, then you must run. However, I think the standard Kettlebell Swing is a great complement to running. Running works the front of the legs, while Swings emphasize the back of the legs. This creates symmetry. Swings and other weight-bearing exercises will also strengthen tendons and ligaments, which tend to take a pounding from running.

ACFT Workout Program

To help you prepare for this test Ryan Jankowitz put together a sample training plan that addresses each event while still allowing for recovery days.

Day 1:
1-mile warm-up run

Double Overhead Push Press x 5 reps
Heavy Deadlift x 5 reps
Farmer’s Walk 30 seconds
x 3 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

Squat (kettlebell or barbell) x 5 reps
Pull-ups x 80% max effort
Plank x 30 seconds
x 3 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

1-mile cool-down run

Day 2:
2-mile run

Swings x 10 reps
Pushups x 10-20 reps (based on your current fitness level)
Leg Tucks x 10-15 reps
Double Kettlebell Bent Over Rows x 5 reps
x 3-5 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

50-meter sprints x 3-5 sets
Rest as long as needed between sets

Day 3 (recovery day):
Optional easy 1-1.5-mile run

Day 4:
Heavy Deadlift x 5 reps
Double Overhead Push Press x 5 reps
Leg Tucks x 10-15 reps
x 3 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

Lunges (kettlebell or barbell) x 5 reps/leg
Pull-ups x 80% of maximum
Farmer’s Walk x 45-60 seconds
x 3 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

Swing x 10 reps
Pushup x 10 reps
x 5 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

Day 5:
1-mile run

Pushup x 10-20 reps
Pull-ups x 80% maximum
Leg Tucks x 10-15
Swing x 10 reps
x 3 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

50-meter sprints x 5 sets
Rest as long as needed between sets

Day 6:
2-mile run

Push-ups x 10-20 reps
Pull-ups x 80% maximum effort
Farmer’s Walk 30 seconds
x 3 sets, rest as long as necessary between sets

Day 7:
Off day and work flexibility

Contacting Ryan Jankowitz

Ryan loves sharing his passion and knowledge for kettlebells. He’s a level 2 certified kettlebell instructor through Dragon Door’s Russian Kettlebell Certification program or RKC II for short. He uses online kettlebell programs to help busy guys lose 10-15lbs., shed their spare tire and build lean muscle so that they can fit better in their clothes, look better naked and move like they did in their 20’s. You can visit his website, www.rjkettlebell.com, or schedule a free chat with him here.

My Final Thoughts On The ACFT

Again, by no means do I think I know more than the U.S. Army when it comes to training for combat situations. Perhaps there would be one day where I will have the opportunity to test my abilities in these events, even if it’s just for fun. The fact is, the Army sees the potential of kettlebell training and how they can improve the overall fitness of soldiers. As kettlebells begin to get further recognition here in the states, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some tweaks to the ACFT.

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing a fellow kettlebeller by the name of Jay Ryan Martin who serves in the army. Both of us belong to the same online private kettlebell workout group, although he is definitely more active than I am in participating. In the interview, he told me how training with kettlebells has helped him improve tremendously with cardio, strength, and endurance. In fact, his dedication to kettlebell training inspired some fellow army buddies to follow suit and make it their main form of fitness training!

So if you’re getting ready to take the Army Combat Fitness Test, I’d highly recommend getting a few kettlebells and practicing the basic moves. Whether you’re a soldier, instructor, or other army personnel I would love to hear your feedback! What are your thoughts on each event? Do you find that kettlebells are helpful for training and preparing for combat situations? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Ryan Faucher

I'm a web designer and kettlebell enthusiast on a quest to lose fat, build muscles and live a healthier lifestyle. I truly believe that exercising with kettlebells in conjunction with dieting is the most effective and efficient way to reach this goal. If you have the will and motivation, there is no reason you can't do the same.
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