Does the Standing Power Throw Deserve to Be in the ACFT?

By Alex Springer, MTI Contributor

As a civilian engineer for the Army, I spend a lot of quality time with active-duty soldiers. Throughout the day, our conversations range across every topic you can imagine. In the wake of the implementation of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), I’ve heard many soldiers’ varying opinions on the test and every event. As a civilian, I cannot speak concretely to the efficacy of the ACFT or any specific event, but I hope to be able to shed some light on the controversy surrounding one event in particular: the standing power throw (SPT). As someone who has never had any part of his career defined by his ability to throw a ball backwards over his head, I will refrain from hardline opinions, pointing the reader instead to research to encourage them to form their own educated opinion on the event’s efficacy and whether it really earns its place in the ACFT.

Why was the SPT included in the ACFT?

The Army outlined three main objectives of the ACFT: “ensuring physical fitness needed for combat, reducing preventable injuries, and transforming Army fitness culture.” [1] Each event was chosen to address all three criteria in a way unique to every other event. In the case of the SPT, the event was chosen to evaluate upper and lower body explosive strength by engaging the quads and hips and following through with the lats, shoulders, and arms. Interestingly, although upper and lower body power were identified as being useful in various warrior tasks and battle drills (WTBDs) such as hand-to-hand combat, maneuvering through obstacles, and manipulating heavy objects, the SPT and the two-mile run were the only two events “not designed to approximate combat tasks” with the caveat that “events should not be thought of as direct proxy measures of [combat] activities.” [1] Instead of tying the SPT to any WTBDs, the SPT and its evaluation of explosive strength was chosen as a general predictor of physical ability. It was, however, also included to encourage injury prevention by strengthening the upper back, shoulders, and hips and engaging the entire range of motion of those muscles in one dynamic movement. Finally, to address the fitness culture element, the SPT utilizes the full body; training for it should encourage soldiers to use compound movements like squats, power cleans, and thrusters.

That’s all theory, though, and theory rarely survives first contact with reality.

The SPT was included to evaluate explosive power, but does it?

We already know that there were issues with the initial implementation of the ACFT: the leg tuck, for example, was dropped quickly after the RAND report on the ACFT was released.  Let’s see what other research says:

In 2001, a study was conducted with volleyball players (male and female) to assess the correlation between the backward overhead ball throw and maximum full-body power output as measured by performing a countermovement vertical jump [2]. Amongst these athletes, there was a significant correlation between the backward overhead throw and the ability to produce power on the countermovement vertical jump, suggesting that the SPT just may be a good assessment of explosive power.

In 2005, however, a similar study was conducted with 40 Division II collegiate football players [3]. As in the volleyball study, the players’ maximum distance on the backward overhead medicine ball (BOMB) throw (truly a better name than SPT, but I digress) was used to calculate how well the BOMB throw correlated to maximum power output on the vertical jump. There was a statistically significant correlation, but the correlation was moderate at best. Once body mass and lean body mass were accounted for, there was no significant correlation.

In 2010, another study attempted to correlate BOMB throw performance with other dynamic, explosive movements: the snatch and the clean and jerk [4]. The findings were similar to the 2005 study in that power performance had a moderate, statistically significant correlation with BOMB throw performance until body mass and lean body mass were accounted for.

Other Factors That Play Into the SPT?

With disparate results—two studies suggesting the SPT is hardly a good predictor of athletic power output, the other suggesting a high correlation—it’s hard to draw a conclusion. Are there other factors at play between the Olympic lifters, the football players, and the volleyball players?

In 2022, researchers found that hand length and leg length are highly correlated with SPT performance [6]. Perhaps, if it had been measured, this finding or similar may have explained the difference in results from the various athletes studied; did the volleyball players benefit from longer legs than the Olympic lifters? What about the football players—do they have larger or smaller hands than other athletes? Differences in body shapes and sizes will always factor into any physical activity, so I will leave it up to the community to discuss these findings and their implications for the ACFT.

One question I have been asked is whether every unit utilizes the same medicine ball for the SPT. The national stock number (NSN) for the 10lb medicine ball specified to be used in the ACFT is 6930-01-684-6435 [5]. That’s not very helpful to the average reader, so I googled it. Unsurprisingly, many suppliers offer 10lb medicine balls that fit the NSN and meet the requirements of the ACFT: “[a medicine ball] made of hard, durable rubber; firm and non-malleable; a textured grip surface to make it easy to handle; maintains its shape and can withstand impact from landing on the ground after being thrown; inner material cannon shift; it cannot be sand or similar loose material; weather-proof; color is non-specific; manufacturer is non-specific.” Google “ACFT medicine ball” or “ACFT equipment kit,” and the list of options grows! Could the studies have varied from each other in terms of medicine ball grip, malleability, or any other parameter? Could one unit benefit from having access to better medicine balls, while another suffers from worn-out or less effective equipment?

Does the SPT Meet the Other Goals of the ACFT: Injury Prevention, Combat Preparation, and Fitness Culture?

It’s well known among athletes of all types that hip strength and mobility, back strength, and shoulder mobility all play into an athlete’s ability to remain bulletproof and injury resistant. The question lies in whether explosive power—if that’s the goal of the SPT—is the right metric of an injury proof body. In its review of the ACFT, RAND selects three events to review in their ability to predict how well an individual will remain injury free. Unsurprisingly, the deadlift is well coordinated with lower body injury prevention, but the SPT was given a “moderate” score for upper body injury prevention. Per the RAND study, “Upper body power was found to have a limited association with injury rates and thereby provides limited support for the standing power throw as a predictor of injury.” Could there be an event that more accurately predicts injury prevention than the SPT?

As indicated earlier, the SPT was not specifically designed to address any combat maneuvers or activities. That being said, RAND found that, among women, there was a strong positive correlation (0.63) between SPT performance and the ability to complete a standardized set of WTBDs. The correlation for men, though less strong (0.39), was also positive [1].

As for fitness culture, I think the Army community at large will answer that question over time. How can/will soldiers adjust to the requirements of the SPT event in their training? Will they implement more full body explosive movements, like the clean and jerk, or will they focus their training on the more obviously rewarding events like the deadlift and run?

Final Thoughts

This is a topic that has interested me since the introduction of the ACFT. As an athlete with a history in CrossFit, trail running, and obstacle course racing, I predictably viewed the ACFT with optimism. After all, many of the movements mimic the type of training I’ve done for years, and I am convinced by my own experiences of their efficacy. Yet after many conversations with soldiers and my own research detailed here, I’ve come to appreciate much of the discussion and controversy surrounding its inclusion in the ACFT; the ACFT is, after all, much more to a soldier’s career than just a physical fitness test. As I said, I’m going to refrain from making any conclusions, but I invite all of you to hop in on the conversation and do your own research on the SPT and the ACFT.

Alex is a civilian who works for the Army as an aerospace engineer and is a competitive Spartan Race athlete.

Sources:

[1] Hardison, Chaitra M., Paul W. Mayberry, Heather Krull, Claude Messan Setodji, Christina Panis, Rodger Madison, Mark Simpson, Mary Avriette, Mark E. Totten, and Jacqueline Wong, Independent Review of the Army Combat Fitness Test: Summary of Key Findings and Recommendations. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1825-1.html. Also available in print form.

[2] STOCKBRUGGER, BARRY A.; HAENNEL, ROBERT G.. Validity and Reliability of a Medicine Ball Explosive Power Test. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 15(4):p 431-438, November 2001.

[3] MAYHEW, JERRY L.1,2; BIRD, MICHAEL3; COLE, MARY L.1; KOCH, ALEX J.1; JACQUES, JEFF A.4; WARE, JOHN S.4; BUFORD, BRITTNEY N.3; FLETCHER, KATE M.3. COMPARISON OF THE BACKWARD OVERHEAD MEDICINE BALL THROW TO POWER PRODUCTION IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 19(3):p 514-518, August 2005.

[4] Palozola, Mathew V; Koch, Alexander J; Mayhew, Jerry L. Relationship Of Backward Overhead Medicine Ball Throw With Olympic Weightlifting Performances.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24():p 1, January 2010. | DOI: 10.1097/01.JSC.0000367188.24892.73

[5] Army Techniques Publication No. 7-22.01. Holistic Health and Fitness Training. Change 2, August 2022.

[6] Agostinelli PJ, Linder BA, Frick KA, Sefton JM. Anthropometrics Impact Army Combat Fitness Test Performance in Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadets. Mil Med. 2022 Jul 7:usac202. doi: 10.1093/milmed/usac202. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35794778.