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

The Army needs a better physical fitness methodology: legacy approaches and a new doctrine fail to adequately prepare Soldiers for combat. I analyzed the Army’s new doctrine in part 1. To address the issues presented there, Army physical fitness culture must change. To create better physical training, leaders need to implement intelligent training programs within their units.
The Army needs a better physical fitness methodology: legacy approaches and a new doctrine fail to adequately prepare Soldiers for combat. I analyzed the Army’s new doctrine in part 1, HERE. To address the issues presented there, Army physical fitness culture must change. To create better physical training, leaders need to implement intelligent training programs within their units.

Changing Culture and Addressing Concerns

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

The Army needs a better physical fitness methodology: legacy approaches and a new doctrine fail to adequately prepare Soldiers for combat. I analyzed the Army’s new doctrine in part 1, HERE. To address the issues presented there, Army physical fitness culture must change. To create better physical training, leaders need to implement intelligent training programs within their units.

If part 1 is my attempt to show the shortcomings of the Army’s new doctrine, in this article, I endeavor to offer suggestions for how the Army—and leaders at any level in the Army—can develop solutions that realize their goal for stronger, more powerful Soldiers. I don’t offer a specific program with reps and sets and exercises that the Army should adopt. Rather, I offer a pathway for intelligent change.

To end this two-part article, I also address potential concerns that skeptics may have for an approach that relies more heavily on barbell training to increase Soldiers’ strength.

Changing the Culture

The Army’s culture of fitness will have to change to realize the benefits of strength—and FM 7-22 does not represent a significant cultural shift.

Conventional fitness wisdom in the Army hampers the Army’s ability to improve. FM 7-22 still retains much of this conventional wisdom, and too many leaders punish Soldiers trying to do the right thing. Senior members regularly harass Soldiers in the gym who appear to be resting (to give them some credit, many Soldiers, if left to themselves, will do the least and easiest work possible). Similarly, because rest is discouraged, running intervals too often vacillate between a fast jog and a slow run—barely differentiated and lacking requisite intensity to accomplish their purposes. I have found myself performing exercises in between sprints because, well, I was just standing there, do some push-ups! And the unimportant is stressed over what matters: for example, two Soldiers who came in during the morning on an off day and trained in civilian clothes were yelled at for not training in the Army’s physical fitness uniform. This mentality—to push harder, without rest, within a workout and within a workout week—pervades much of the Army.

Similarly, senior leaders are promoting exercises and approaches in interviews or through publications and websites that don’t make sense. No athletes train their 3RM deadlifts by executing kettlebell sumo deadlifts, an alternate staggered squat jump, or a forward lunge with light kettlebells. This displays a staggering ignorance of training methodology and suggests that senior leaders don’t want Soldiers to train strength, despite including a strength event in the ACFT, or they do not understand how to train strength.

Army leadership needs to understand that the new demands it is imposing on its members with the ACFT—strength, power, speed, and agility (albeit with shockingly low standards)—require intensity. Intensity requires rest—between intervals or sets and between training sessions. Appropriate training cannot magically conform to 90 minutes a day for five days a week. Every day cannot require an all-out effort. Improvements in performance occur during the rest periods.

Within this culture, Soldiers and junior leaders are preoccupied with filling up the allotted daily PT time. Leaders both discourage rest between hard efforts and finishing a training session when the planned workout has been completed. Soldiers often must add unplanned exercises to the end training session to fill the time. Admittedly, some Soldiers aim to do the minimal work possible during physical readiness training. Leader oversight, not counterproductive rules, best combat laziness, because if the physical readiness program was planned intelligently and executed as planned, more exercises provide no benefit (imagine if, after your deadlift during LP, someone came up to you and said, “There’s more time, you need to do more”). Furthermore, the precious time would be better served briefly working on other skills, such as drill and ceremony (marching in formation), individual movement techniques (crawling low to the ground or getting up, sprinting, and quickly falling to the ground), or battle drills (such as how to react if the Soldiers are suddenly shot at).

Furthermore, training cycles that wax with garrison physical readiness training and wane with field exercises and other requirements limit how often Soldiers can train and lead to unsteady progress. Despite these regular disruptions to Soldiers physical training, you can’t cram too much stress into the available physical readiness training, just as you can’t make up for lack of calories over a long period with one day or a long period of sleep deprivation by sleeping for 12 hours a few nights in a row.

Physical training in the Army must be approached similarly to other training. It should build methodically on past training. It needs to acknowledge physical fitness deterioration during field exercises and other requirements that prevent quality physical training. It must prioritize physical preparation to fight and win in combat, not passing or excelling on a test.

Still, the Army persists with thoughtless tradition. To illuminate the Army’s continued reliance on poor training methods, I bring you possibly the most infuriating statement in FM 7-22, found in chapter 6, page 6-3, paragraph 6-14. “Physical readiness training has evolved over decades based on military and civilian approaches to physical fitness. While there are parallels to civilian fitness programs in the H2F System, the combat specificity and hazards of the profession demand a different approach. This approach is called readiness. This approach integrates legacy training concepts such as…” And it goes on to list “legacy methods” that the Army will continue to rely on for no good reason.

This is the height of arrogance, not wisdom, and sounds too much like Major General McClellan keeping President Lincoln—that meddling politician—at arm’s length. Keep the generalship to the generals; everything is just fine, despite the repeated failures. What’s needed is not a new strategy but renewed effort and greater resources behind the old approach. Clearly, stars on your chest or collar don’t bestow wisdom or competence or good judgment. This smug surety and sense of military singularity stand in the way of progress.

Bottom-Up Refinement—The Army’s Best Hope

The Army’s best hope to improve its plans and programs lies with its leaders—many of them junior officers and noncommissioned officers. They must understand the importance of strength, then develop and lead intelligent physical readiness programs that include regular barbell training with linear progressions. This means ignoring, to a large degree, the programs found in FM 7-22 and ATTP 7-22.02.

The Army intends, however, to hire fitness professionals as part of this new approach. The typical fitness professional approach, represented by groups such as the National Strength & Conditioning Association, improves upon the Army’s past approach. Despite the improvement, this step may calcify this new methodology, preventing bottom-up refinement and halting improvement of the Army’s.

Government employees pushing specific programs and contracts will prevent bottom-up refinement. I speak from some—albeit limited—experience here. I participated in the THOR3 program at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This program had certified coaches develop fitness plans—or supervise our development of fitness plans—that included barbells and other free weights. This program was better than typical Army physical fitness, as it relied on free weights and involved resistance training three times weekly.

At the same time, however, even in a controlled environment with coaches present, I was disappointed in the program. No assistance or guidance was provided on weight selection. The coaches completed a quick demonstration on the exercises, but form was rarely adjusted or corrected during the workout. On the rare occasions that form was corrected, the adjustments seemed random and the justification given—if any was given—was that it made the exercise harder.

Workouts involved a long warm-up that included foam rolling, which typically took 15 minutes before the actual workout began, and I was rarely able to complete the workouts in the hour provided. The workouts involved many different exercises, as opposed to only a few core exercises, limiting movement proficiency, and again, the instruction was minimal.

Additionally, we had to complete a functional movement screen before we began the workout program. This wasted time and seemed to primarily provide an opportunity for the program to demonstrate its success to the Army. The employees could demonstrate the value to the Army by showing that the FMS scores went up throughout the course of the training, so the program succeeded. The fact that Congress People came to observe the program, and we had to perform an unplanned training session to demonstrate the program, only heightened my cynicism. Finally, when we did develop workouts with their supervision, I began to see a rigid, unthinking approach. This, by the way, was in 2016, before I began deliberately studying and preparing to become a coach.

I developed a workout for my group that began with compound barbell movements, such as squats and bench press, and ended with some lighter movements, such as kettlebell swings. I was told the kettlebell swings needed to come before the squats “because they are explosive.” Having passed the CSCS examination, I now see where this bit of delusion came from, but I remember that this was the icing on the cake for my disillusionment with the program.

While the new Army program does not perfectly follow THOR3, if government employees believe a certain approach is best for Army physical readiness training, then their continued jobs may provide an incentive to stand in the way of a bottom-up refinement of this doctrine. I saw this on other occasions during my service, but those fall outside the realm of this article.

This fear is heightened by some of the guidance in the ATTP 7-22.02 Holistic Health and Fitness Drills and Exercises that describes workouts and exercises. Some bits of “wisdom” include:

  • 14-3 (Some instructions on back squats include): “Initially do not squat deeper than 90 degrees. Progress to deeper positions as strength improves.”
  • 14-6 (On breathing during the bench press): “Inhale on the downward movement and exhale on the upward movement.”
  • 14-3 (On spotting the back squat): “The Back Squat requires a spotter. The spotter maintains the following: The starting position for the spotter is the Straddle Stance behind the lifter with hands close to but not touching each side of the body between the waist and the upper arms.”
  • Chapter 14 includes the “overhead push press” but no “overhead press”—the overhead press is not included as an exercise. Only in chapter 15 is the overhead press included as an exercise to be completed with a machine.

Let’s quickly address why the above statements are misguided.

  • There’s no increased risk of injury to squatting below parallel, and below parallel allows the hamstrings to better contribute to the lift as they lengthen. Range of motion should be a consideration for the lifts.
  • Lifters should be taught to execute the Valsalva maneuver for barbell movements, where they take a breath and hold it and brace their spine.
  • Two spotters provide a much greater degree of safety if a lifter cannot complete a rep.
  • The overhead press better trains the muscle of the upper body. It requires less equipment than the bench press. Not only does the press not require a bench, but it can also be done without a squat rack if the Soldier first cleans the bar to the rack position. Furthermore, why train with machines when more squat racks and barbells could replace the space the machines take up in gyms.

While the above may seem like small points, if equipment concerns and safety concerns shape the Army’s approach, then why is the Army favoring lifts that require more equipment and instructing spotting methods that make Soldiers less safe? It’s because someone is making bad decisions, likely with bad information.

All this means that the best way for Soldiers to actually become stronger is for the leaders who plan and supervise physical readiness training to realize the Army’s end state of stronger Soldiers and then ignore the Army’s battle plan to achieve the end state.

As many leaders have done, they have taken their mission and commander’s intent and—with disciplined initiative—succeeded by ignoring conventional wisdom. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, violence began to tick up, and eventually, it became apparent that an insurgency existed. LTG (R) McMaster (at the time a Colonel, commanding a Brigade Combat Team) implemented a counterinsurgency approach in Tal Afar in 2005 that quickly became recognized as a roadmap for success in other locations throughout Iraq. His approach spread and led to greater success by those who followed it. Hopefully, similarly, leaders will develop intelligent programs that intelligently train strength (while not ignoring other physical requirements, of course).

Potential Objections

Now, finally, to address concerns that may not have been addressed in the course of the article. Below are potential ideas or arguments people may still have.

  • Risk of injury
  • Okay, but nothing improves mental toughness like ____ endurance event
  • Needs of endurance (carry heavy stuff for a long period)
  • Equipment—briefly

Risk of Injury

Strength training is not a high-risk activity. As with any activity, risk management can reduce the risk of injury for Soldiers. Instructing fellow Soldiers on proper spotting and the use of safety equipment like spotter arms can reduce needless injuries. Understanding and instructing Soldiers on basic safety procedures can reduce injury risk.

Furthermore, studies don’t bear out the stereotypes or fears of common injuries because of barbell training. Most people lift with improper form—go to any gym with barbells and look around—yet injuries remain uncommon. The injury rate for powerlifting is 1.0-4.4 injuries per 1000 hours of training, as opposed to 2.5-12.1 injuries per 1000 hours for running—an activity that Soldiers regularly execute. Notice, of course, that we are comparing powerlifting—attempting to lift as much weight as possible competitively—to running, not powerlifting to marathoning or strength training to running.

Mental Toughness

I think military leaders underestimate strength training’s ability to build grit and overestimate endurance events. Even if endurance events singularly build mental toughness, why not simply limit these gut-check events? One opportunity for these would be field exercises, when strength training equipment is limited anyway and Soldiers’ physical fitness diminishes. Schedule and implement long ruck marches and team-building events during these periods. Beyond these times, normal, difficult physical fitness workouts will produce mental toughness.

Endurance Needs

A common concern may be that strength training simply does not build the muscular endurance and aerobic conditioning that Soldiers need. This would require a whole article in itself to address, but let’s at least address this concern quickly, albeit inadequately.

First, many people who would argue this have a skewed notion of just how much endurance Soldiers need. Although, clearly, combat can produce endurance needs—common and rare—most endurance requirements are Army-created, not combat-mandated: 5-mile runs, 12-mile ruck marches, 25-mile ruck marches, Ranger School, Selection, team-building events. Endurance events, not combat realities, skew many ideas of just how much endurance is needed.

Furthermore, combat endurance tends to involve carrying heavy equipment for long periods of time, sometimes quickly but often more slowly. Mike Prevost wrote an interesting couple articles on ruck marching HERE and HERE. His findings include the following: lower body and upper body strength, lean body mass, height, and strength improve ruck performance; unloaded running ability does not help much with performance; and “aerobic fitness is an advantage, but not at the expense of strength.”

These studies, of course, examine carrying heavy equipment, not a lighter ruck for 12 miles, as Soldiers regularly perform.

Running without equipment is simply a task unrelated to combat and seems to continue because of the lack of equipment necessary and institutional inertia.

Equipment

Finally, let’s examine some equipment objections. These mainly seem to be excuses to avoid change, but let’s examine them anyway.

The Army’s commitment to create more training facilities and provide more equipment reduces these objections for Active Duty Soldiers, and Army bases have many physical fitness facilities. The Active Duty Army has no real excuse for why it cannot properly train strength. The Reserves and National Guard, however, do not have access to the same facilities.

National Guard and Reserve Soldiers have the same physical requirements in the older Army Physical Fitness Test and newer Army Combat Fitness Test as Active Duty Soldiers, so they must train in their personal time to meet these demands. The objection, then, is that the ACFT’s demands require more equipment, which costs more money.

Let’s first assume that this is true. Theoretically, National Guard and Reserve Soldiers could prepare for the older APFT by running in their neighborhoods and doing push-ups and sit-ups on the ground or floor. Now, I’d argue first that this is insufficient to prepare for combat, so if someone in the National Guard or Reserves took their fitness seriously, they would require more equipment anyway. Though the physical requirements the Army puts on them are changing, the physical demands of combat have not changed, and they should prepare for combat.

Still, it’s likely that many Soldiers in the Guard and Reserves only trained to pass the minimum requirements, and ultimately the minimum requirements should be requirements that mean someone is at least minimally prepared for combat. I would still argue that gym equipment and gym memberships are not all that expensive and relatively common. Lack of supply because of COVID lockdowns and gym closures have at least temporarily made access to gym equipment harder.

The response to this may be that Soldiers in the Guard or Reserve—especially lower enlisted—may not be able to afford these equipment or facility requirements. To that, I would say that maybe paying for gym memberships, online coaching, or equipment for Soldiers in the National Guard or Reserves makes sense.

Likely Better—But How Much?

The Army has taken a small step to improve its physical fitness program, and the increased amount of equipment and number of facilities by itself will bolster Soldiers’ efforts to get stronger and better prepared for combat.

Ultimately, this program’s effectiveness will be determined by its implementation and refinement. Will the Army allow for bottom-up refinement and an honest analysis of the best methods to better prepare Soldiers for combat? I’m pessimistic, but I hope I’m wrong.

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