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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A Strength-Based Approach to the APFT

by Lt. Col. Ryan Whittemore


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“When I received word that I had been selected to lead the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Rhode Island (URI), I knew I would finally have my chance to make an impact.  I could finally put my money where my mouth is, and train future Army officers using the strength-based approach of which I had been a proponent. “

There has been much grumbling on this site and others by Soldiers who believe they know a better way to conduct Army physical training (PT).  I have attempted to contribute to the discussion (Combat Worst-Case Scenario, Is it Training or Exercise?).  Much has been written about the APFT being a poor measure of the readiness of Soldiers for the tasks associated with modern combat.  There has been talk and testing of a new APFT for a few years now.  While a better test is certainly needed, the current APFT is significantly important as an assessment tool and measure for career progression that it cannot be ignored completely while preparing Soldiers for combat.  The bottom line of much of the recent writing on military strength and conditioning is that most Soldiers are just plain WEAK!  A stronger Soldier would be much better prepared not only for the Army Physical Fitness test (APFT), but for the rigors of combat.

Soldiers will frequently complain about the policies that “they” put into place throughout the Army.  “They” are unknown, high ranking folks who could change everything if “they” wanted to.  I realize that as a Lieutenant Colonel, I am usually seen as part of “they”, part of the problem and rarely part of the solution.  As a staff officer for the past several years, I was fortunate enough, by virtue of my rank and duty position, to be able to do what I’ve wanted to for PT.  The unfortunate part was that I had little ability to influence the PT programs of others. 

When I received word that I had been selected to lead the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Rhode Island (URI), I knew I would finally have my chance to make an impact.  I could finally put my money where my mouth is, and train future Army officers using the strength-based approach of which I had been a proponent.  I knew I would need to prepare them not only for APFT, but also for the demands of being an Army officer upon graduation.

Looking through Cadets’ records, it was clear to me that the PT program needed help.  Far too many failures, or borderline passes.  In my initial meeting with my Brigade Commander, she also addressed the issue with me.  I assured her that I had a plan to fix it.  Due to the unconventional nature of my plan, I kept the details to myself.

Previous PT Program

The previous PT program had emphasized body weight exercises specific to the APFT.  It consisted of lots of pushups, and sit-ups, and long, slow, distance running.  Cadets with lower scores did PT five times a week, because to the uninformed, more is always better.  The rest of the Cadets were subjected to this waste of time only three days per week.  The previous Commander did not attend PT regularly, and the emphasis was clearly on “passing” the test with the minimum 60 points in each event.

The APFT consists of three events.  Maximum repetitions of pushups in 2 minutes, followed by maximum repetitions of sit-ups in 2 minutes, and lastly a 2 mile run for time. Points are awarded for reps in the pushup/situp tests and for faster times in the run, on a sliding scale that varies with sex and age. Soldiers get 10 minutes of rest between events and the standards for the performance of each exercise are clearly spelled out in FM 7-22 and read to the Soldiers before the test.  For a Cadet to pass the test, he must score a minimum of 60 points in each event, which equates to the following for Cadets in the 17-21 age group:

For each additional repetition, or six second increment on the run, the Cadet receives additional points, up to a maximum of 100 in each event.  Below are the maximum scores for the 17-21 age group:

The APFT was done monthly, the idea being that giving Cadets more chances to pass, would result in fewer overall failures.  Again, more is better, right? Significant emphasis was also placed on allowing Cadets to prepare for and run the Army Ten-Miler in Washington DC.  Adding this additional distance running was counterproductive to the both to the demands of the APFT and to the demands of combat.  The poor APFT scores were a reflection of this misguided approach.

The New Sheriff

My first official act as the new Commander was to kill the emphasis on the Army Ten-Miler.  I informed both the staff and the Cadets that the ROTC program would not fund, or provide transportation or Cadre supervision for, the event.  Cadets were encouraged to sell their bibs if they had already entered.  I explained to them why training for the Ten-Miler was detrimental to the “new PT program”, and participation was strongly discouraged.

Next I began to explain to the instructors what our PT program would look like.  To say they were skeptical is an understatement.  The group averages close to 20 years of service, and had all been told the same thing for their entire careers.  Bodyweight exercises and long, slow, distance running was the key to success.  I explained basic concepts like Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome and very simple periodization models, but I mainly had to take the “do it because I know it will work” approach.  I gained the cooperation of the URI’s Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Rich Johnson, and we were allowed to use the varsity weight room for a few mornings.  I took three sessions to instruct my Cadre on proper technique for the basic lifts.

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