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MED for the Military

The following case studies showcase MED programming principles for solving both the strength and logistical issues for two members of the military, demonstrating Barbell Logic’s ability to solve the logistical challenge of scaling individual optimization across the military.

MED for the Military

By: Colin Slade
Colin is a Captain in the United States Air Force, serving on Active Duty as a Civil Engineering officer for seven years and now in the Reserve as a Space Operations Officer. He has deployed multiple times in support of various operations. He is also the host and producer of CommissionED: The Air Force Officer Podcast. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

The United States Armed Forces are experiencing the most significant evolution of their fitness culture since the 1970s. The conversation around the need for a more effective means of preparing military members for combat, as well as increasing overall levels of health and readiness, has been building for years. The increased threat from near-peer rivals and the global COVID-19 pandemic have only served to accelerate those discussions. The Navy has replaced the curl-up (crunch) with a forearm plank and approved a 2-kilometer indoor row as an alternate cardio option. Additionally, the Air Force has permanently removed the abdominal circumference measurement from its fitness standards. According to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen Charles Brown, the Air Force is also “exploring alternative strength and cardio components to [the] current Air Force fitness assessment.”

Most significantly, the Army recently released guidance for what it calls Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) in an updated FM 7-22. Within this document, the Army has specified the importance of “individual Soldiers [optimizing] their individual performance potential and well-being by becoming stronger [and] faster,” because “stronger individuals ultimately produce stronger teams” (FM 7-22 para. 1-1). Strength and individualization are the new orders of the day.

But the Army has a logistics problem. As FM 7-22 acknowledges, the Army has historically employed an “industrial-scale” approach to fitness training, meaning that it has employed systems that favored large-scale implementation at the expense of optimal individual results. The results have shown that when Soldiers are not trained as individuals, their preparedness suffers, and injuries follow. A 2019 overview study on injuries and their strategic impact found that non-combat musculoskeletal injuries (MSKIs) accounted for 59% of limited duty days for the first six months of 2019. Moreover, 65% of medically non-deployable active duty Soldiers were due to MSKIs.

In an effort to better optimize the individual Soldier’s fitness, the Army’s policy is now to use “the best exercise science and best coaching practices to assess each Soldier and customize to his or her needs. Each Soldier, regardless of physical condition, has his or her own program” (ibid, para. 1-6). This bottom-up approach recognizes that the unit is made up of service men and women; by making everyone better prepared, the whole is made stronger.

The logistics problem remains, however. Instead of blanket fitness programs, individualized training requires the expertise and one-on-one interaction of a knowledgeable coach. And there is always the caveat that consistency is king. The best coach can’t outsmart or out-program a person’s failure to show up to the gym. The individual Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airmen, Guardian, or Coastguardsmen still has to do the work.

These are problems that we have been solving at Barbell Logic Online Coaching (BLOC) since its inception. BLOC Staff and Associate coaches do far more than customize programs for each client. They provide feedback within 24 hours on each lift and every workout, as well as cues specific to that individual to help them fine-tune and maintain proper technique. BLOC coaches communicate daily with their clients about their progress and goals, as well as through their struggles and setbacks. It is this relationship with and understanding of the individual lifter, combined with the principles of Minimum Effective Dose (MED) programming, that truly enable the success of the client.

The following case studies showcase MED programming principles for solving both the strength and logistical issues for two members of the military: Dodge Hurley and Keagan Crone are both Marines with the same unit in Hawai’i.

Dodge Hurley

Dodge is a 210 lb., 6 foot tall, 23-year-old male who began his training with BLOC on August 1, 2020. After his test workout, Dodge started on a novice linear progression. His beginning weights were fairly light:

  • Squat 3×5 @ 205 lb.
  • Press 3×5 @ 115 lb.
  • Bench Press 3×5 @ 185 lb.
  • Deadlift 1×5 @ 185 lb.

Like most new clients to Barbell Logic, Dodge started on a standard novice linear progression—four exercises and two workouts, alternating  Workout A and Workout B in a 3x per week schedule.

Workout A

Workout B

Squat: 3 x 5Squat: 3 x 5
Press: 3 x 5Bench Press: 3 x 5
Deadlift: 1 x 5Deadlift: 1 x 5

Because he started light, Dodge made 10 lb. jumps on the squat and 20 lb. jumps on the deadlift while cleaning up his technique for the first few sessions. We added chin-ups to his schedule once per week, in the third week. He would have to perform chin-ups for high reps in the Marine Corps PFT within a few months.

After the first few steady weeks of training, we started making MED changes to Dodge’s programming—small changes responding to his performance in the gym. On week 5, we added a lighter midweek squat session at 80% of his 3 x 5 weights. For the light squat, we used tempo and paused squats, taking the opportunity to work on his form while allowing some recovery between heavier squat days. Week 6, the bar speed of his press slowed slightly, so Dodge switched to 2.5 lb. increments. On week 7, Dodge was able to do more than 10 chin-ups for three sets, so we added weight to the movement. Generally, MED programming prioritizes increases in intensity. Adding weight to the chins supported both Dodge’s PFT prep and his strength goals. On week 9, we made a similar change to his bench press as we had to his press, reducing the weight increases per session to 2.5 lb. jumps. During each of these minor changes, Dodge kept adding weight to the bar and getting stronger. His numbers had improved significantly:

  • Squat 3×5 @ 320 lb.
  • Press 5×3 @ 162.5 lb.
  • Bench Press 3×5 @ 242.5 lb.
  • Deadlift 1×5 @ 325 lb.

Note that here he is still deadlifting 3x/week.

In order to achieve a top score in the PFT, Marines must run three miles at a 6:45 minute-per-mile pace in boots. To help him prepare, we added conditioning to Dodge’s program three times per week.

  • Mondays: HIIT for eight rounds of ten-second sprints with rest periods that decreased weekly, from 50 to 20 seconds.
  • Wednesdays: a long slow distance run for three miles increasing the pace by ~5s each week.
  • Fridays: a timed run, in which Dodge would run as far as he could at a 6:45 pace in boots, aiming to increase that distance each week.

Next, we made standard MED changes to his press and bench press. Both lifts were starting to grind at later reps, and so Dodge starting performed 5 sets of 3 reps. The added conditioning required that we reduce the overall stress from squats. We changed from 3 sets of 5 reps to a top set of 5 with 2 back-off sets at 90%. By week 12, he was squatting 1×5@365, pressing 5×3@175, benching 5×3@255, and deadlifting 1×5@375.

During this period, Dodge missed only a single workout. His consistency and commitment to training, as well as frequent communication with his coach, enabled such MED changes to be made.

Kegan Crone

Keagan Crone (23 years old, 5’10” and 200 lb.) began his training a couple of weeks after Dodge, on August 19, 2020. His starting numbers were as follows:

  • Squat 3×5 @ 260 lb.
  • Press 3×5 @ 110 lb.
  • Bench Press 3×5 @ 165 lb.
  • Deadlift 1×5 @ 320 lb.

Despite already having higher weights for the lower body lifts than Dodge, Keagan started with a basic novice linear progression just the same. He made excellent progress for a couple of weeks until he had to leave Hawai’i for a two-month TDY (temporary duty).

The TDY prompted the first MED change when Keagan requested to switch to a 4-day upper/lower split. With the increased frequency and stress on his upper body, Keagan’s press began to plateau a couple of weeks later at 3×5 @ 125 lb. Ideally, he would have started making 2.5 lb. jumps at this point, but he didn’t have microplates. In this situation, Keagan’s coach relied on the guiding principles for all MED changes, which are to prioritize simple changes over complex ones, intensity over volume, and efficiency over excess. Thus, Keagan was able to overcome the plateau by alternating volume and intensity days, doing 5×5 on Tuesdays and 2×5 on Fridays, adding five pounds weekly. The bench press followed a similar pattern three weeks later at 3×5 @ 205 lb.

Meanwhile, the squat and deadlift continued to increase by five pounds each workout. With the 4-day split, there was no need for the typical mid-week lighter squat session. Reducing the frequency on the lower body allowed Keagan to continue making workout-by-workout progress for seven straight weeks. Although on week three he began to slow on the fourth and fifth reps of his deadlift, necessitating the MED change of 2×3 in place of 1×5, Keagan ended his lower body LP at the beginning of October with his squat at 3×5 @ 315 lb. and deadlift at 2×3 @ 375 lb.

Of note, Keagan added in weighted chin-ups and conditioning at this point, as well. Using a dip belt, he was able to run another LP for his chin-ups, adding five pounds each workout. For conditioning, he would row at the end of his Friday workout: 10 rounds of 30 seconds for max distance, resting no more than 2 minutes between rounds.

His next MED change was to incorporate a volume and intensity split into the lower body lifts, similar to what was already being done with the upper body. Keagan began each workout with an intensity lift followed by volume:

  • Monday: Bench press 2×5, press 5×5, then upper body accessories/hypertrophy
  • Tuesday: Deadlift 2×3, squat 4×5, then weighted chin-ups 3×5
  • Thursday: Press 1×3 and 2×5, bench press 5×5, then upper body accessories/hypertrophy
  • Friday: Squat 2×5, deadlift 3×5, weighted chin-ups 3×5, then conditioning

Keagan continues to follow this alternating intensity and volume day schedule even now in November, though additional MED changes have been made to continue to drive progress. For example, the 4-day upper/lower split was adjusted to four full-body days. Also, the rep and set schemes have been further tailored, such as 3×8 on the squat and press in place of sets of five for additional hypertrophy.

Similar to Dodge, Keagan rarely missed a workout, even during his TDY. When he did have to miss, Keagan communicated directly with his coach, who was able to adjust his program accordingly.

Summarily, this case study demonstrates the importance of applying MED principles to the individual client. Starting out, Dodge and Keagan were nearly identical in demographic, age, height/weight, and even occupation and location. Both also began their training with a basic novice linear progression. However, as time went on and individual circumstances were considered, MED changes were made to continue to drive progress. While definite similarities remain, such as alternating intensity and volume days, Dodge and Keagan’s program are unique to them, customized by their expert coaches to meet their individual needs.

More importantly, this demonstrates Barbell Logic’s ability to solve the logistical challenge of scaling individual optimization across the military. By leveraging Barbell Logic’s expert coaches and online platform, the United States Armed Forces can fully bring about the changes necessary to win future wars.

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