Assessing the Army’s New Health & Fitness Doctrine (Part 1 of 2)

The Army’s new fitness doctrine lauds strength but mostly fails to include effective strength training. The Army made some positive changes to encourage and enable strength training, but insufficient intensity and frequency and unnecessary complexity and risk aversion plague the Army’s approach.

Assessing the Army’s New Health & Fitness Doctrine

By: Dan Shell, BLOC Staff Coach. Dan served as an Infantry Officer in the US Army from 2011 to 2019.

Bottom Line Up Front

The Army’s new physical readiness training doctrine—FM 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness—acknowledges strength’s importance in improving Soldiers’ physical performance but fails to outline training programs that meaningfully improve Soldiers’ strength. It is as if the Army released a publication hailing the importance of armored tanks in maneuver warfare, then developed tactics curtailing the tank’s impact on the battlefield.

Despite the shortcomings in FM 7-22, it improves over previous physical training programs. At least—to continue the metaphor—the Army has abandoned frontal attacks on horses.

Despite the Army’s recognition of strength’s importance to improve Soldiers’ physical performance, the approach outlined in FM 7-22 fails to deliver the required stress to meaningfully train for strength, lacking frequency and intensity and relying on unnecessary complexity and caution. These deficiencies handicap Soldiers’ strength and power, leaving Soldiers less capable to fight and win in combat.

What’s New?

In 2013, the Army began tests to assess physical fitness programs. The studies found that “muscular strength and power drove 60 percent of the variability in physical demands…in other words, endurance-centric approaches to training did not support all of the baseline requirements of being a Soldier.”

The Army ditched the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) and adopted the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), which includes events that assess Soldiers’ strength and power: specifically, the 3RM hex bar deadlift and the power throw. The Army has also committed to providing more facilities and equipment for Soldiers to use—including barbells and dumbbells—to allow more strength training.

Both steps—testing strength and providing more equipment to train—improve upon the Army’s past fitness approach, one which used no equipment in its fitness test and tested only muscular endurance and running ability. More facilities and equipment enable non-commissioned officers and junior officers to incorporate barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells into organized physical training plans and allows motivated Soldiers to train with this equipment on their own. And, by including the 3RM hex bar deadlift in the ACFT, the ACFT incentivizes Soldiers to train at least this one lift.

The Army plans to hire fitness and health professionals and train its leaders on fitness and health to ensure leader competency and professional expertise—within the Army’s framework. The Army also emphasizes the need for personalized programming and training plans.

FM 7-22 outlines periodized programs, beginning with an introductory phase with bodyweight and lightweight exercises before including barbell movements. Here, the Army explains its approach: “Once fundamental movement competency has been achieved in the initial phase through instruction and training on the Strength Training Circuit, Climbing Drills, and Guerilla Drills, Soldiers will be properly prepared to progress to heavier free weights in the sustaining phase.”

Once barbells are introduced, the Army follows a periodized approach with these phases: base, build, taper/peak 1, combat/peak 2, recovery. This aligns closely with guidelines of personal training and fitness organizations such as the National Strength & Conditioning Association (from which I have formerly held the CSCS certification) with their approach to athletes and their athletic seasons and off-seasons.

Below is a chart that encompasses the Army’s approach to fitness (the Army likes charts almost as much as it likes acronyms).

Before examining how the Army runs afoul of strength improvement, let’s quickly review some terms and concepts that underpin strength training and physical training in general, along with my criticisms of the Army’s approach.

Useful Terms & Concepts

This cannot serve as a comprehensive examination of strength and physiology but should provide an overview to help analyze the Army’s program. I’ll link to places where these topics are covered in greater depth.

Strength

Strength is the ability to produce force. We’re concerned with the force necessary to overcome the earth’s gravitational pull on an object due to its mass. All physical activity requires force, including a 3RM hex bar deadlift, running a marathon, sitting and reading this sentence, and typing this sentence on a keyboard.

Power

Power is the ability to produce force quickly. A term often used to describe powerful athletes in sports is “explosive.” Like a powerful car, explosive athletes do the human equivalent of going from 0 to 60mph fast. The problem with power, however, is that it’s not very trainable. Because power = (force x distance) / time and strength is force production, the best way to improve power is to improve strength. A program that includes some movements that require explosive force, such as Olympic lift variants, sprints, or jumps, may help develop power and enable Soldiers to apply their improved strength quickly.

Stress, Recovery, Adaptation

Physiologically, we stress ourselves, recover, and adapt to improve in physical domains, such as strength, endurance, or power. The stress is the workout. The stress must be sufficient but not overwhelming. Two push-ups do not suffice to help someone complete the maximum reps on the fitness test, but having a prospective Soldier run a marathon when she has never run a mile is too much stress. The stress must also be specific: push-ups are not specific to 3RM deadlift improvement, and high-rep air squats are not specific to increasing someone’s barbell squat from 200 to 300 pounds.

Recovery is the absence of stress—rest—along with adequate and proper food and sleep. The body’s improvement as it prepares itself to better handle future, similar stresses constitutes the adaptation. The adaptation, however, is temporary, so another stress—another workout—must occur to sustain the adaptation or stimulate another improvement while allowing for enough time for recovery and adaptation to occur. If we want to create continued progress—we want to get Soldiers stronger or move toward a fitness goal—we must introduce sufficient, specific stress often enough to keep driving adaptations, with enough recovery to allow the adaptations to occur.

Training Variables

With these definitions in place, how do we describe and examine a training program? We use training variables, including volume, intensity, frequency, and exercise selection. Volume, in a strength context, is reps x sets. Simply, it is “how much?” Intensity is the weight or load; it is “how heavy” or “how fast?” Frequency is how often the stress occurs, usually over a week—“how often?” Exercise selection is, just like it sounds, the exercises included in a program. Does the program include free weights or machine exercises or bodyweight exercises? Does it use barbells or kettlebells or dumbbells? Does it train the hex bar deadlift or barbell deadlift or sumo deadlift? Does it incrementally progress a few exercises or include a huge variety of exercises? Together, these variables define a fitness program.

With these in mind, let’s return to the Army’s new fitness doctrine.

A Dearth of Stress—Intensity & Frequency

So, where does the Army go wrong? Its programs provide insufficient stress to effect strength adaptations, and its approach fails to exploit the rapid progress beginners can make. An introductory phase, without heavy free weights, and an overly complex periodized plan slows the rate of improvement. Low intensity and infrequency of strength workouts mean insufficient stress and, ultimately, lackluster strength adaptations., The result is weaker Soldiers, less prepared to meet the physical demands of combat.

High intensities require rest between efforts. Strength is force production, and a person needs both specific and sufficient stress to create strength adaptations. To get Soldiers stronger, Soldiers need to perform exercises with heavy weights—high intensities. Lifting heavy weights, or high-intensity lifting, is similar to running sprint intervals: both require rest between efforts in order to maintain the level of intensity that makes them useful. Neither can be done effectively as part of a circuit training routine.

High intensities also require heavy weights. At Barbell Logic, we understand that physical training can be productive under less-than-ideal circumstances. We had to quickly adjust many of our clients’ programming as they suddenly lost access to gyms when lockdowns closed gyms in the spring of 2020. We incorporated bodyweight exercises and, by whatever means we could, added resistance (usually weight) to their at-home training. People found logs and railroad pieces; they used bags of dog food and backpacks packed with weight. We trained the best we could and did whatever we could to add resistance and thus intensity. Importantly, we returned the lifters to barbells as soon as possible. Ammo cans and bodyweight exercises may provide suitable alternatives to barbell training in field environments when equipment is limited, but using these when equipment is available is a failure to train even close to optimally.

Strength training must also occur frequently enough to drive strength adaptations. Experience suggests that Soldiers need to train strength at least twice a week (though three times would be better) if the Army wanted to prioritize strength at a certain point in a Soldier’s career or as part of one of the periodized phases. Let’s first look at intensity.

The Army designates which physical component a designated workout primarily trains. For example, the “Strength Training Circuit” supposedly trains power. Medicine Ball Drill 1 and 2 and Suspension Training Drill 1 & 2 supposedly train strength. Circuit training doesn’t allow for sufficiently high intensities, hampering the stress and thus the strength adaptations. Medicine balls and bodyweight exercises lack the weight—and, thus, intensity—for most people to train strength, especially for the lower body.

Leaders in the Army understand this with running and rucking. Jogging at a conversational pace does little to improve Soldiers’ 2-mile run performance. Similarly, strolling with an empty backpack does not help Soldiers carry their combat loads quickly over difficult terrain.

Having looked at intensity, let’s now look at strength.

The programs lack frequency of workouts targeted—even ineffectively—at strength or power. Chapter 6 lists 24 different drills. Only six ostensibly train strength or power and, of those six, only two sound like something I would ever prescribe as a strength coach: Strength Training Circuit & the Free Weight Core and Assistive—and both of these sound like something I would program only AFTER the lifter completed barbell exercises such as the deadlift, squat, bench press, press, or row.

Furthermore, looking at some of the schedules they have, where you can see which exercises and drills the Soldiers complete every day, these are wholly inadequate for strength improvement. Week 1, the Soldiers deadlift twice; week 2, once; week 3, zero times; week 4, once. And, again, it just says “deadlift improvement”—which, despite attempts to supposedly NOT train toward the test, shows that those are empty words. If the Army actually wants strong Soldiers, the Soldiers should be completing barbell training a minimum of two times a week.

So, many “strength” and “power” workouts do little to train strength and power, and “strength” and “power” workouts do not occur frequently enough. Now, let’s pull back from individual workouts and weeks of training and look at the bigger picture.

Complexity & Risk Aversion

Unnecessarily complex periodization, including an initial period without barbell training, limits Soldiers’ strength acquisition: it leaves Soldiers weaker than they could be with better training during the same period of time.

Proper barbell exercise movement does not require a period of bodyweight or low weight exercises, and such a period only delays strength improvement. Countless Barbell Logic coaches—and many other coaches—have gotten people squatting, pressing, and deadlifting who have no, minimal, or poor prior instruction and show up with varied abilities and traits. Many of these people would have failed the military physical requirements. Still, they lifted on Day One. Some required modifications, but the modifications were aimed to train strength and move toward training with barbells.

People do not require an onramp period or series of tests to evaluate their readiness to perform these movements. A short, thoughtful bit of instruction followed by observation and coaching enables people to lift with good form.

Furthermore, how does performing a lift repeatedly lead to improved form over time? I’ve observed Army Physical Fitness Tests. People who have served in the Army for years perform push-ups poorly and fail to meet the standard (whether the reps were counted or not). To improve form, the coach—whether a non-commissioned officer or a certified trainer—has to understand what proper form looks like, must be able to observe and identify errors in the Soldiers, and should have a way to quickly provide information to the lifter as to what they need to change to improve their form.

That last part may seem trivial, but it’s not. During a leader development session on physical training that my boss led, he instructed everyone to get down into the bottom position of a squat. He then came over to me and pointed out to the group that I had what he called “butt wink,” which is lumbar flexion or the rounding of the lower back. He gave me no instructions on how to fix it and, knowing his philosophy, would have likely given me a list of mobility exercises to do indefinitely until the problem (maybe) went away. Not only was the experience a bit embarrassing, but I had no path forward to fix it. All I knew was that I was doing something incorrectly.

Even if the Army developed a method to ensure quality coaching, because of the nature of how humans balance during movement, an air squat and a heavy barbell squat are not similar enough to expect that someone who can perform a “correct” air squat will be able to perform a barbell squat. If the Army has Soldiers perform air squats for eight weeks and then transition to barbell squats, the same amount of instruction will be required to teach the Soldiers the barbell squats as if they had started with the barbell on Day One.

Beyond the initial phase, however, how should training be organized? Advanced athletes follow periodized programs, and many fitness institutions recommend periodization, so should Soldiers follow periodized programs?

It makes sense for Soldiers to prioritize different fitness attributes to prepare for upcoming events. Soldiers may incorporate a bit more of the ACFT exercises during training during the weeks leading up to the ACFT. If Soldiers will attend Ranger School or some special operations selection, they need to spend more time with a ruck on their back and preparing for expected events, including longer runs at relatively fast paces.

Still, prioritization based on events isn’t quite periodization—especially the Army’s artificially-phased periodization—and the nature of Army life dictates that they will often find themselves without the ability to train optimally. Soldiers detrain during field exercises and Combat Training Center rotations when they cannot physically train—or physical training occurs infrequently and suboptimally. Following these events, Soldiers can return to simple training programs where stress is increased linearly. Furthermore, Ranger School and Selection and the ACFT—many of the priorities that arise during a year to focus Soldiers’ fitness—come from tests and schools the Army creates, not combat requirements. 5-mile runs, 12-mile ruck marches, 25-mile ruck marches, schools and selections artificially prioritize muscular endurance over strength. And still, Soldiers who have spent time training strength and arrive at these events with at least moderate strength levels and the concomitant benefits to their muscular and bone tissues will be less prone to injury and better able to complete these physical requirements.

How, then, should one train for strength, or really any physical goal? Common sense probably gets you closer to the right answer than some advanced plan based on percentages of your one-rep max, reps completed on a test, or 2-mile run time. If you have new Soldiers or recruits and had to prepare them for the APFT, you would probably have them complete push-ups and sit-ups and run, because those are specific, and increase the stress incrementally over time. If you have an 18-year-old who has not really exercised before, you might have him run a quarter mile and increase the distance incrementally, or start with jogging 5 minutes and increase the time. Eventually, you might have him work on pace—once he can run a certain distance. This isn’t periodization, though it is incrementally increasing the stress. You understand that jogging for five minutes provides sufficient stress to improve his run performance at first and that you can slowly lengthen the runs to increase the stress.

Strength should be approached similarly. The first session should begin with instruction to get Soldiers lifting moderate weights for moderate volume—five reps, which sits nicely between the extremes of heavy singles versus higher rep sets that train endurance, and also sit at the lower level of the typical hypertrophy range to increase muscle mass. The initial lower volume effort also helps prevent excessive soreness.

Generally, we recommend training the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press in the first session. Once the initial set of five is completed, the Soldier will do 3×5 for the next session, usually at the same weight, though if the weight was especially light, it can be increased. The deadlift is the only exception to the 3×5—we recommend 1×5—because the squat and deadlift overlap so much in the muscles they train and because the deadlift tends to be more stressful than the other lifts, as it trains the greatest muscle mass. For a while, you just add weight—usually 5 pounds—until you can’t anymore. Certain factors dictate how long weight can be added—caloric intake, other physical requirements, sleep, bodyweight—but adding weight every workout—ideally three times a week but at least two—the Soldier can quickly add a large amount of weight to their lifts, increasing confidence, strength, bone density, muscle mass, power, and other physical attributes.

Prioritizing strength—at least for a few months—makes sense. Soldiers can apply their newly-developed strength to muscular endurance activities, anaerobic and aerobic conditioning events, and the needs of carrying heavy equipment for long distances.

The training periods as laid out in chapter 5 of 7-22—base, build, taper/peak 1, combat peak 2, recovery, don’t apply to novices. If you’ve never trained with barbells before, or if you’ve taken a long break, just add some weight to a moderate weight each time with movements that train a large amount of muscle mass.

Readiness & Reality

Let’s look a bit more closely at the reality of training disruptions, how strength adaptations occur over time (if strength training is performed even moderately intelligently), and readiness—the ability of the Army and other services to fight when called upon.

Things may have changed since I went on terminal leave in December 2019, but the goal of the Army was to be ready to fight and win anywhere in the world on short notice. This requires a sustained readiness to ensure competency on individual and collective tasks.

Because the Army has identified that strength and power are critical for Soldiers’ ability to perform the physical demands of their jobs, developing a higher level of strength—while developing other attributes—means Soldiers remain physically capable of meeting the demands of combat now.

Strength adaptations—like any other military skill—follow the law of diminishing returns. So the initial period of training will come with rapid improvement, represented by the initially relatively vertical part of the curve above. As training continues, improvement rates slow—represented by the more horizontal part of the curve above.

Realistically, Soldiers will never reach the more horizontal part of the curve and do not need to. This part of the curve represents a specialization in strength. The reality of field exercises, deployments, and other requirements mean that Soldiers will regularly move left and down along the curve, as they find themselves in situations where they cannot properly train or may not conduct physical readiness training at all.

The program that the Army has developed not only artificially slows the rate of progress but—because too many of the prescribed workouts severely limit intensity—it realistically caps the maximum strength that a Soldier could achieve even without field problems and other regular interruptions. If you look at the graph above, the lower line represents this decreased strength potential.

Because of regular interruptions, Soldiers will likely only attain a relatively low level of strength regardless of either plan. The dotted line in the graph represents a hypothetical—and likely realistic—degree to which Soldiers’ strength could be developed. In other words, this is likely the strength level Soldiers would attain if called upon to rapidly deploy, with the top curve representing a strength plan that foregoes the initial phase without barbells and trains strength twice or three times a week, unless extreme circumstances come up, such as preparation for Ranger School.

The Army, of course, wants to be ready now, to rapidly deploy and win in battle anywhere in the world. You take the Army you have, not the one you want. So, if strength and power development are so critical to a Soldier’s performance, wouldn’t you want stronger Soldiers?

Now, if I look at the Army programs with an unrealistic amount of charity and assume that it comes with a slower rate of strength progression but would ultimately, hypothetically, develop the same amount of strength as a more intelligent program, then you get the graph above. The lower curve represents unnecessarily slow progress using advanced periodization, not a linear progression. The higher curve represents, again, a program using linear progression and training strength 2-3 times a week at relatively high intensities.

Again, you go to war with the Army you have, and wouldn’t you rather have an Army with Soldiers with strength levels on the higher—not lower—curve (i.e., stronger Soldiers)? If I showed the same graph with combat lifesaver skills, marksmanship, or basic Soldier skills, would any responsible commander or non-commissioned officer choose the lower development curve?

Wrapping Up (for Now)

To recap, the Army has published new material, developed a new fitness test, and implemented changes to its fitness approach. The modifications improve upon its older methods but only offer a weak shift toward strength. Ultimately, they discover the benefits of strength and power, intend to improve Soldiers’ strength and power, and then fail to develop physical readiness training programs that realize their goal.

What should the Army do, then, and how should service members and leaders in the Army react? The next article offers suggestions for change. It doesn’t propose cookie-cutter solutions, nor does it outline a single program as THE WAY to prepare Soldiers for combat. Instead, it addresses leaders’ potential concerns, the need for a changed fitness culture, and what has always provided the Army its best solutions—leaders taking the initiative to accomplish their assigned mission with creativity and vigor.

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