by Maj Ryan Whittemore
“Rip asked me a question which at first I thought rather odd. “What is the worst-case scenario for you in combat?” he asked. Rather than speculate, I figured I would simply recount the worst situation I had personally faced in combat.”
“All the mystery of combat is in the legs and it is to the legs that we should apply ourselves.”
I remember reading this quote by Marshal Maurice de Saxe in the book The Soldier’s Load and The Mobility of a Nation when I was a young lieutenant in the Army. (S.L.A. Marshall, p.8) For many years I misinterpreted the quote to be an affirmation that the physical training (PT) programming which I saw throughout the Army, based around long slow distance running, was right on track. It was during my fourth combat deployment that I finally got serious about physical fitness as part of my duties as a soldier. After years of the same old “Army PT”, I had recently been introduced to CrossFit. Interest in this method of training led me to do lots of reading about fitness, and I soon discovered there was more to fitness than the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). My reading eventually led me to the Starting Strength website as well as the books of strength coach Mark Rippetoe.
As a Field Artillery Officer in the Army, one can never escape the occasional trip to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Having spent the first five years of my career there, I was well aware that Wichita Falls, Texas was a just a short drive down a very lifeless highway. Prior to one trip, I decided to contact Mr. Rippetoe and ask if I could come down and check out the Wichita Falls Athletic Club (WFAC) facilities. Within just a few minutes he called me, not only to invite me down to the WFAC, but also to discuss the military’s physical training challenges.
Upon my arrival at WFAC, Mark Rippetoe and I went immediately into a discussion about
why a strength-focused program works best for soldiers. As the conversation went on, Rip asked me
a question which at first I thought rather odd. “What is the worst-case scenario for you in combat?”
he asked. Rather than speculate, I figured I would simply recount the worst situation I had personally
faced in combat.
On March 23, 2009 in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul, five soldiers and two interpreters from my Military Transition Team were finishing up a dismounted patrol in the neighborhood known as Baghdad Garage. We had conducted a short patrol with our Iraqi National Police counterparts through the confusing back alleys of the neighborhood, in preparation for an upcoming clearing operation in the area. As we arrived back at our vehicles I suddenly felt a tremendous blast. The sky seemed to instantly turn a hazy orange color, and I was knocked to the ground. As I got to my feet and tried to figure out what the hell was going on, I saw that my Iraqi interpreter was on the ground next to the truck. I grabbed him by the body armor and lifted him to his feet. We then sprinted around the truck to link up with another team member. After linking up, we sprinted out to the blast location where two badly wounded Iraqi National Policemen were being treated and prepared for evacuation. I arrived in time to assist in lifting the two casualties into a pickup truck for movement to a local hospital.
The whole ordeal took less than a minute. Much to our surprise, there was no follow-on attack. It took much longer for my brain to process what had happened than it did for my body to act. We soon figured out that it had been a suicide bomber wearing what was later determined to be a vest packed with 25lbs of explosives, who had detonated himself less than 10 meters away from me. As I recounted the story to Rip, he did an on the spot “needs analysis” of my combat scenario. The following is a combination of the tasks he identified and my analysis/commentary.
Task #1: Absorb a blast. With my equipment on, I estimate I weighed about 245 lbs that day. At 5’11”, my bodyweight was about 185 lbs. I had been doing more conditioning than strength training, and had never really done a strength program with the intent of gaining mass. While I was knocked to the ground and suffered a slight ankle sprain in doing so, it is fair to argue that a more massive, stronger body would have absorbed that blast better than a smaller, weaker one. Strength training can put on that necessary mass, as well as enhance the stability of connective tissues and thus improve the ability of a body to absorb blast energy. My much lighter Iraqi interpreter (probably 180 lbs with equipment) did not take the blast as well. He was certainly in no hurry to get up off of the ground.
Task #2: Lunge. While slightly disoriented and burdened with 60 pounds of equipment, this movement would be categorized as some combination of a “get-up” and a lunge in order to get off of the ground, and back on my feet where I needed to be. The “get-up” portion required some trunk stability. The typical Army situp does not get you where you need to be. Deadlifts, squats and presses are a much more effective method of building the requisite strength in a soldier’s trunk. The lunge portion of the movement was an expression of hip, glute, quad and hamstring strength. Squats are almost universally acknowledged as the best method of building strength in these areas.
Task #3: Deadlift. Although my interpreter was not dead, he was certainly deadweight. After getting
to my feet, I reached down, grabbed his body armor with both hands and pulled him to his
feet. Though my mechanics may not have been textbook at the time, this movement was
somewhere in the deadlift family – clearly a strength task, and one that few soldiers perform
on a regular basis. Regular deadlifting within a soldier’s PT program will not only allow the
soldier to pick up heavy things when necessary, but will strengthen the overall musculature of
the back making the soldier better suited to wear heavy body armor, or a rucksack for hours
at a time.
May 19 Training Camp (Deadlift & Clean) : Atlanta, GA
May 17-19 Starting Strength Seminar : Newport, NC
May 25 Training Camp (The Squat) : Chicago, IL
June 7-9 Starting Strength Seminar : Wichita Falls, TX
July 12-14 Starting Strength Seminar : Denver, CO
August 9-11 Starting Strength Seminar : Springfield, MO
September 6-8 Starting Strength Seminar : Brooklyn, NY