Mini-Study Results: Fully Equipped Beats Limited Equipment Programming for ACFT Improvement

By Rob Shaul, Founder


MTI has two training plans specifically designed to train for the Army Combat Fitness Test, the Fully Equipped Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) Training Plan, and the Limited Equipment ACFT Training Plan.

We conducted a 4-week Mini-Study using remote lab rats to test the effectiveness of each training plan to increase ACFT Results. The Fully Equipped Lab Rat Group improved overall ACFT scores an average of 6.06% compared to the Limited Equipment Group, which improved ACFT scores an average of 3.06%.

Remote lab rats were recruited for this mini-study, then randomly divided into (1) Fully Equipped and (2) Limited Equipment Groups.

Both groups completed the study over 3.5 weeks in September/October 2020.



The Army began the work to develop a new fitness test to replace the current push up, sit up, run APFT in 2013.

The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) was developed to more closely measure “combat-readiness” after it was found that more battlefield evacuations were performed during the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan due to musculoskeletal injuries than were due to the ongoing fighting. 

The ACFT consists of six events, and has an overall max score of 600:

  1. Three-rep trap bar deadlift of between 140 pounds (64 kg) and 340 pounds (150 kg)
  2. A 10 pounds (4.5 kg) backward and overhead medicine ball throw
  3. Hand-release push-ups over a period of two minutes
  4. 250 meters (820 ft) shuttle run referred to as the “sprint-drag-carry”
  5. Hanging leg tucks over a period of two minutes
  6. 2 miles (3.2 km) run

The Army began widespread testing of the ACFT with Army Reserve and National Guard Units, and cadets at the US Military Academy, in 2019. Soon after announcing the ACFT, MTI received requests to build fully equipped, and limited equipment training plans to prepare for it.

At the time we began receiving training plan requests, most line units did not have ready access to a trap bar, plates, sleds, medicine balls and other equipment required for the test – and in response, we developed two training plans.

The “Fully Equipped” training plan requires access to a trap bar, plates, regulation-sized medicine ball, and regulation sled/kettlebells or dumbbells for the Sprint/Drag/Carry event and pull up bar for the leg tuck exercise.

MTI’s “Limited Equipment” plan deploys sandbags (40-pound for women, 60-pound for men) as the primary strength training implement, and for the sprint/drag/carry event, as well as a homemade 10-pound medicine ball, and pull up bar.


Mini-Study Design/Deployment

Data collection for this Mini-Study was conducted in September/October 2020.

MTI advertised for Lab Rats via our weekly newsletter, Beta, which has 35,000+ weekly subscribers for both periods.

The  Lab Rat volunteers were randomly divided into two groups, “Fully Equipped” and “Limited Equipment”, and given access to the appropriate MTI training plans.

Both Groups began their cycles with a full ACFT on the first Monday of the mini-study.  The “Fully Equipped” Group then continued with MTI’s fully equipped training plan, and the “Limited Equipment” pivoted to MTI’s Limited Equipment ACFT Training Plan.

After 3 weeks of programming, both groups re-completed the full ACFT on Monday of Week 4 of the plan and the results were compared.

Please note that as designed, both the Fully Equipped Army Combat Fitness Training Plan and the Limited Equipment Training Plan are 7-week plans, but for the purpose of this Mini Study and comparison, just the first half of each plan was completed.


Results and Discussion

A total of 12 individuals completed the entire training cycle, 6 in each GroupBelow are the individual lab rat results.

The Fully Equipped Lab Rats outperformed the Limited Equipment Lag Rats nearly 2:1 in ACFT improvement over the 3.5 weeks of this Mini Study – a 6.06% overall improvement compared to a 3.06% overall improvement.

It should be noted that there are some quirks in the ACFT scoring which affect these percentage changes. For example, the top score for a 3RM Trap Bar Dead Lift ends at 340 pounds, so a load above 340 pounds does not improve the athlete’s overall ACFT score and would not be reflected in the overall average ACFT score improvement.

From a strength and conditioning coach’s perspective, the major disadvantage of training for the ACFT from a limited equipment perspective is not having a trap bar and plates for the athletes to train with. The 3RM Trap Bar Deadlift event is a strength event, and it’s difficult to increase strength without access to the  barbell and plates used for the event.

MTI’s Limited Equipment ACFT Training Plan deploys a max rep sandbag back squat event and follow-on progressions to train total body strength, with the hope it will transfer to the Trap Bar 3RM Deadlift events. The Mini-Study results (below) show this worked, as the Limited Equipment Group increased their 3RM Trap Bar Dead Lifts by an average of 4.99%.

However, the Fully Equipped Group saw an average 3RM Trap Bar Deadlift increase of 7.06% … which impacted the overall ACFT score improvement – and demonstrates the advantage of access to strength equipment.

Importantly, soldiers training for the ACFT without regular access to a trap bar and plates will be at a disadvantage to those who have ready access to this equipment. We suspect, however, if and when the ACFT is fully implemented, access to this training equipment for line-unit soldiers will be severely restricted at the unit level, resulting in many soldiers being forced to fight over limited equipment and space in large base training facilities during the busy morning PT period with all the other soldiers preparing for the assessment.

Ideally, from a training perspective, each squad would have access to 2 or 3 trap bars and plates to train with. We just don’t see this happening given our experience with regular Army units.


Next Steps?

This Mini-Study points to the need to test other limited equipment methods to increase the 3RM Trap Bar Deadlift events. One proven MTI complex that comes to mind is the Leg Blaster Complex, which in a previous study proved to be just as effective as heavy front squats to improve 1RM front squat results. Perhaps the Leg Blaster or another similar complex could do the same for the 3RM Trap Bar Deadlift.

Programming for the medicine ball throw also needs to be explored. Both current MTI ACFT plans deploy medicine ball throw repeats to train for this event. However, there may be an accessory exercise or complex which could transfer to performance on this event.


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