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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why Does The Army Want Me Weak?

by Maj Ryan Long


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“Is a 111 pound soldier really an effective member of an infantry squad?  Can that soldier carry the average soldier when wounded on the battlefield?...My strong-but-fat Soldiers were great contributors in combat, and often they were the best performers both mounted and dismounted.  They were more durable and more versatile.  Our problems were with the skinny-fats and the sparrows; they couldn’t keep up on dismounted patrols under load, couldn’t kick in a door, couldn’t evacuate anybody over 140 lbs, and couldn’t intimidate an insurgent.”

As I read about my fellow lifters’ experiences on the Starting Strength forum I encounter a common theme with the active duty military folks: lifting weights isn’t entirely compatible with military culture and combat-related fitness. I feel compelled to share my thoughts on why Starting Strength is exactly what we need.

In my last two years serving as an instructor at the United States Military Academy in the Department of Physical Education I have had time to reflect on my military service. Reminiscing on my service as a troop commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the years of training leading up to that time I know I owed my Troops more. One area in which I could have done better was the physical preparedness of my Soldiers.


Military Fitness Culture

The US Army has a strong focus on low-intensity cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness. Since I understand that there are many fitness buzzwords out there, allow me to define these two. In this context “intensity” refers to the relationship of work performed to the maximum capacity of that “system”, cardio-respiratory or muscular. In this context, low-intensity cardio-respiratory work capacity would be similar to the normal Army 4-mile unit run while high-intensity cardio would be more like a 40m prowler push; low-intensity muscular fitness would be like normal Army push ups while high-intensity muscular strength would be like a 1RM bench press.

In order to prove that the US Army culture is low-intensity-focused one only need observe a week in the life of a Soldier from the hours of 0630 to 0730 all over the world. During this single daily hour of physical training most Soldiers are relegated to 3-5 mile runs and sit-up and push-up improvement programs. Semi-annually soldiers must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) consisting of 2 minutes of pushups, 2 minutes of sit ups, followed by a 2-mile run on a flat road or track. Each soldier gets 10 minutes to rest between events but must complete the APFT in less than 1 hour. See table 1 for passing and maximum performance standards by age and gender. The minimum standards are disappointing while the maximum standards are quite achievable.


Table 1

Physical training (PT) is usually given only minimal attention and is often the first victim of a busy training schedule. Creativity is the exception; resource limitations, lack of skilled personnel, and time constraints often dictate the activity conducted rather than specific combat-focused goals. Additionally, unit commanders are required to regularly brief their combat readiness, one measure of which is APFT performance. As a result, PT becomes APFT-centric and our soldiers rarely improve anything other than this low-intensity domain unless they are personally inclined to train in highintensity areas during their personal time. Most of the current Nintendo Generation is not so inclined.


The fact of the matter is that the ever-increasing loads carried by soldiers and the occasionally frenetic pace of combat require high-intensity capacity. In an effort to protect soldiers our body armor is becoming larger and heavier, slowing us down and causing numerous shoulder and back injuries. Survivability comes at a cost – the extra weight slows us down so much that it prevents us from effectively pursuing the enemy. Most combat operations are not done at the limit of a soldier’s low-intensity capacity, because we don’t go out and do a 6-mile dismounted patrol as fast as we can, at least not intentionally. Rather, there are a lot of stationary guard duties, slow dismounted patrols in which we talk to the locals to gather information, and mounted patrols in which we sit in vehicles for extended periods. Every so often there is a brief period of furious activity as we make contact with the enemy, usually by IED or some type of automatic weapons fire. Combat is usually conducted at either the very low or very high ends of the spectrum. I strongly believe, through personal experience, that high-intensity training is the key to survivability and performance on the battle field.

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