The Air Force has revamped its strength test for new recruits for the first time in more than 20 years as it tries to diversify a host of traditionally male career fields.
Prospective airmen are now judged on their ability to perform a series of increasingly heavy deadlifts, rather than the power clean-and-press motion that was used for decades, the Air Force confirmed in an Oct. 4 email.
How much weight a person can lift determines whether they can join the Air Force and what jobs they are qualified to do in uniform.
Air Force Recruiting Service spokesperson Maj. Genieve White told Air Force Times the change was implemented in January. Gen. David Allvin, the service’s acting chief of staff, publicly noted the decision in written testimony submitted to the Senate in September.
“We updated Strength Aptitude Test requirements to better reflect the actual demands of the career fields, thus expanding career field opportunities, especially for our female recruits,” Allvin said.
Recruits are evaluated at Military Entrance Processing Stations to prove they are physically strong enough to join the Air Force and to handle the daily tasks of a military job. Airmen may also take the test when they change careers.
Also known as the “X Factor” test, the assessment pits people against what the military calls an “incremental lifting machine” — a set of weighted handlebars that move up and down on a track.
Now applicants must deadlift at least 40 pounds to qualify to join the Air Force. The minimum weight needed to pass the test has not changed.
Then the weight increases in 10-pound increments until the recruit decides to stop, or when they lift the maximum allowed weight of 110 pounds. The most weight required by any Air Force job is 100 pounds.
The Air Force argues that the Strength Aptitude Test helps reduce the likelihood that airmen will be injured on the job, which helps the service save money on retraining troops into new jobs and keeps airmen from leaving the military.
In addition to more accurately vetting what airmen may be asked to do on the job — like picking heavy objects off the ground — deadlifts are seen as a safer movement for beginners. And because deadlifts rely on larger muscles than those used in overhead presses, it’s easier to lift more weight earlier on.
“The lifting techniques in the Air Force are now more in line with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance for lifting, which suggests a neutral position (when the hands are directly in front of the body and there is minimal twisting at the legs, torso or shoulders), which promotes safe techniques while affording individuals an opportunity to lift more weight compared to a traditional clean-and-press movement,” White said.
Most jobs in the Air Force require airmen to be able to lift at least 50 pounds, according to a 2018 study by the federally funded think tank Rand Corp. Some recruiters encourage prospective airmen to try to lift at least 70 pounds, which is the prerequisite for about one-third of the service’s career fields.
Rand looked at applicants who took the strength test between 2000 and 2012 and found that most men could lift as much as 100 pounds. About half of the male recruits who tried to lift 110 pounds succeeded.
But women typically struggled as the weight increased. While female applicants typically had no problem lifting 40 or 50 pounds, their success rate plummeted from 87% who could lift 60 pounds to 7% at 100 pounds. Fewer than 5% could hoist 110 pounds.
That has disproportionately disqualified women from jobs that require more physical strength, like munitions management (a 60-pound minimum), security forces (70 pounds) and firefighting (100 pounds), Rand data showed.
Rand called on the Air Force to create minimum strength requirements for all career fields and to supplement the basic test with other exercises that could better demonstrate how a recruit would fare in a particular field.
White said that moving from overhead presses to deadlifts has allowed more women to enter professions with higher strength requirements, which typically skew male, but did not provide specific numbers.
“It has increased our applicant pool, but the most significant impact has been to the job specialty qualifications, which are now more gender-diverse,” White said.
The revision is one of several that Air Force officials have shepherded through in an effort to grow the Air Force’s pool of prospective candidates and diversify its workforce amid a historic recruiting downturn.
Other changes to the physical standards that potential airmen must meet — such as body composition requirements and tattoo restrictions — have allowed more than 1,000 Americans who would otherwise be ineligible for service to join the Air Force since January.
“We have maintained the focus on quality and will follow up long-term to ensure that any changes made thus far have not had a negative impact on readiness or fitness of the force,” Allvin said.
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.
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