Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Response to the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is certainly polarizing, but it appears the ACFT and its logistical tail has reached cruising altitude and will touch down soon at an installation near you. If you’ve reluctantly chosen to move forward and train for the ACFT, or if you’re still miffed over the straight bar snub, this article is for you!
Here’s what you’ll learn in this post:
We’ll introduce a simple hypothesis for the Army’s hex-bar preference
We’ll review deadlift bro-science and the real peer-reviewed facts
We’ll tell you exactly what to do with all this information to improve yourself and your unit
We’ll even offer practical recommendations for how to train for the ACFT 3-repetition maximum deadlift (MDL) without any equipment at all
Have you completed the last Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) you’ll ever take?
On 1 October, 2020, the ACFT goes live. While the Army will still compel you to complete 2 minutes of push-ups and run 2 miles as quickly as possible, the sit-up will take its rightful place in history beside the strange knee rotation that crusty operations sergeant major still does every morning before PT.
Aside from replacing the sit-up with a meaningful measure of upper-body pulling strength and trunk stability, the six-event ACFT also introduces a non-trivial amount of equipment ($63.7M to be exact). After a contract dispute delayed initial delivery, mounds of hex-bars, bumper plates, kettlebells, and sleds are currently arriving to units nation-wide.
BUT, with only a few months left before Leg Tuck Armageddon the official APFT wear-out date, response to the ACFT still varies...
Team Sean or Team Eric?
Even the gym-rats and CrossFitters aligned with Eric above maintain their reservations. Most notably, why does the Army show preference for the hex-bar over the presumably more available straight bar!?
First, some obvious differences between a conventional or straight-bar deadlift and a hex or trap-bar deadlift:
The conventional deadlift features a load that must be lifted in front of the body with a pronated or mixed grip.
The hex-bar or trap-bar deadlift is lifted while standing inside the “hex” with a neutral grip.
The change in position of the load relative to the performer’s body fundamentally changes the bar’s path, ultimately impacting the mechanics of the lift and the muscles used to move the load.
Traditional weight-room wisdom (aka “bro-science) posits this change in positioning reduces stress to the low back when lifting with the hex bar as compared to the conventional deadlift. In fact, Al Gerard, a champion deadlifter and engineer, invented the “trap-bar” to avoid the low back pain he experienced as a result of the conventional deadlift. When combined with the notion that the conventional deadlift is a more technical lift, with a higher degree of expertise needed to prevent injury, it becomes apparent why the Army selected the hex-bar.
Above: Conventional Deadlift. Below: Hex-Bar Deadlift (apparently using high-handles - not ACFT standard)
Why does the Army use the hex-bar instead of the straight-bar during the ACFT?
The hex-bar is more appropriate for novice lifters because it is a less technical lift
The hex-bar deadlift reduces strain on the lumbar spine, which could reduce the risk of injury during the MDL
Here’s another possibility: the Army is on the cutting-edge of a “best practice” from the strength and conditioning field. Many elite strength and conditioning professionals have abandoned the conventional deadlift and the squat due to the hex-bar’s effectiveness.
What was NFL superstar Christian McCaffrey’s go-to lift last season? The hex-bar deadlift.
How does elite NFL combine trainer Ryan Flaherty increase his athletes’ draft stock? The hex-bar deadlift.
But what does the peer-reviewed research suggest?
An increasing body of evidence suggests the hex-bar could be a secret weapon. Much of the actual science supports early bro-science:
The hexagonal barbell does reduce stress on the lumbar region of the spine
The hexagonal barbell is a more quadriceps-dominant movement than the conventional deadlift
And here’s the finding that supports the hex-bar’s use for enhanced athletic performance:
So What? It depends. What are you training for?!
If you love the conventional deadlift, and your goal is to lift as much weight as possible on the ACFT’s 3RM MDL, keep on keeping on. Evidence suggests that with at least some exposure to a hex-bar, experienced deadlifters are likely to move more weight with the hex-bar than the straight-bar.
If you are a novice lifter, every bit of this is great news. The hex-bar is likely a safer alternative, it requires less expertise, and it translates better to athletic performance. If your primary goal is to improve for the purposes of scoring well on the ACFT, use the hex-bar. If your primary goal is to improve your performance as a tactical or recreational athlete, use the hex-bar.
Don't forget to check out: How to Train for the ACFT's 3-Repetition Maximum Deadlift (3RM MDL) without Equipment
Tim Ferriss interview with the “Savant of Speed” Ryan Flaherty