Applying General Adaptation Syndrome to Army Training Design

by Capt James Rodgers | November 18, 2020

canadian military training

Understanding the fundamentals of strength training programming is valuable, even as a tool to solve problems that are not explicitly about strength training.

The basis of the Starting Strength approach to programming is the practical application of Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). According to the theoretical framework of GAS, an organism will respond to an imposed stress in stages. The first stage is that of alarm or shock, followed by resistance when the organism attempts to adapt to its new stress in a manner that will render it capable of resisting future stresses of that nature. Anyone who has successfully followed a Novice Linear Progression will have first-hand experience with the process of continuously increasing levels of imposed stress, forcing an organism (the lifter) to become stronger.

The third stage of GAS is exhaustion, a state of affairs that no lifter wants to find themselves in. In Practical Programming for Strength Training, exhaustion is identified with overtraining, when the imposed workload on a lifter exceeds the capacity to recover. For a lifter, overtraining will look like a drop in performance, chronic soreness, depression, mood swings, loss of explosive power, trouble sleeping, and a chronically elevated heart rate. You do not want to overtrain, and efficient programming and diligent adherence to diet, rest days, and sleep will keep it from happening to you. The important thing to take away is that there is never an advantage in being in a state of exhaustion, since it will make your performances worse in every respect. Unfortunately, there are situations in life where there is no choice but to carry on while exhausted.

I am a staff officer in the Canadian Army. My job is to design the courses that are used to take civilians off the street and turn them into qualified soldiers or officers, and to advance their skillsets throughout their military career. The most recent course I was involved in updating was Basic Military Officer Qualification – Army (BMOQ-A). This course is usually run at the Infantry School, and it constitutes a young officer’s first contact with many physically demanding tasks. Many students arrive woefully unprepared for the demands of the course and fail as a result. Every single Canadian Army officer must complete this course. If you want to wear green and be a Sir or Ma’am, you have to pass BMOQ-A.

Injured personnel are expensive, and injured untrained personnel are especially expensive. Since this is a basic level course, the personnel taking it do not hold any qualifications which would make them gainfully employable in the military while they heal up, attend medical appointments and wait to attempt the course again. They tend to be assigned to some menial task while collecting paychecks. Their career stagnates and they are generally miserable. The cost to the medical system is also quite high and operational units are hamstrung by not getting the trained personnel they need.

Success Rates on BMOQ-A 2016-2020

Outcome Total Male Female
Pass 86.50% 87.60% 79.10%
Fail 13.50% 12.40% 20.90%

Failure Causes

Reason for Failure Total Male Female
Medical 60.30% 59.60% 68.60%
Performance/Academic 14.30% 14.60% 11.40%
Voluntary/Compassionate 21.70% 22.50% 14.30%
Ethics 3.70% 3.30% 5.70%
Other 1.60% 0.60% 1.40%

“Medical” means injury preventing completion of the course, “Performance/Academic” means they failed to meet the standard required on their evaluations, “Voluntary/Compassionate” means that they quit or had a family emergency of some nature, and “Ethics” means an ethical failure like plagiarism, lying, or other unacceptable conduct. “Other” captures reasons that could not be defined as one of the preceding causes. The students are generally between 20 to 30 years old and they are 85% male.

One out of every eight candidates fails this course. “Injuries” account for three out of every five people that fail this course, and “Voluntary/Compassionate” accounts for one out of every five people that fail this course. The tasks and assessments that they have to perform are not very complex, but they are made more difficult because the nature of the course puts the students in the third stage of the GAS, exhaustion. Injuries and morale collapses happen frequently with exhausted people because they lack the physical and mental reserves to withstand the imposed stress of training.

A traditional interpretation of the high failure rate would be to say that the people who fail this course were weak or defective in some manner, that it's for the best that the weak and lazy people were injured out of the course, and that's good because only the strong survived. The failure rate means that the system is working!

That is a false conclusion to draw for two reasons. First, the purpose of training is to teach skills and to improve performance. Haphazardly discarding broken personnel does not accomplish this. This course is training, not selection. Selection should have happened at the recruiter’s office. Second, while the people failing off of this course may in fact be weak and lazy, everyone familiar with Starting Strength knows that that one of those problems can be fixed pretty quickly. The process of becoming strong probably fixes the lazy problem too, although if they become strong they will be more efficient, and thereby become capable of success while being lazy. Subsequent training is far more technically demanding than BMOQ-A, and does a fine job preventing the irredeemably lazy from obtaining any position of real responsibility.

There are two major factors that can be adjusted in a physical training program outside of the actual workouts to alter recovery in a training plan: sleep and nutrition. For many lifters the thing that will harm their ability to progress at the optimum rate will be a failure to sleep enough or to eat the appropriate amount of the appropriate foods. In theory, the provision of adequate sleep and nutrition to the students on BMOQ-A would prevent the exhaustion problem.

Unfortunately the workload required to produce qualified officers and the time available for the course make adequate sleep impossible. All of the coursework needs to be accomplished within about two months, so that Army Reservist students can complete this course as a “summer job” while they are going to University. Allowing for 8-9 hours of sleep a night would render the course unacceptably long, since it would remove some evening and morning coursework. The exhaustion cannot be avoided because the course needs to be completed in 55 days, roughly 10 weeks.

The standard day runs from about 0500 to 2300 so students will get five hours of sleep a night in garrison if they are lucky and will be doing the standard diet of army PT consisting of runs, circuits and forced marches. Sleep during field exercises will be about 1-3 hours a night, broken up by frequent alerts, sentry shifts, miserable weather and pyrotechnics. The problem with the Canadian Army’s approach to PT is similar to that of the US Army.

For most students on this course, this is the greatest physical and mental stress that they have ever been exposed to. It overwhelms their physical and mental reserves, which puts them into a state of exhaustion. If the exhaustion cannot be avoided, then the course can be structured in a manner that will mitigate the damage it causes.

The course teaches a number of different tasks and skills that junior officers need to be able to do and tests them in situations that allow us to evaluate their leadership skills. There are roughly ten parts of the course:

  1. How to teach a class.
  2. How to use the rifle, light machine gun, pistol, and fragmentation grenade.
  3. How to run a conventional firing range.
  4. How to do Battle Procedure – an analytical problem solving process that produces orders.
  5. How to navigate by map, compass and GPS.
  6. A field exercise where navigation skills are tested.
  7. Theory on basic offensive, defensive and reconnaissance operations.
  8. Battle School, where they are taught fieldcraft and practical offensive, defensive and reconnaissance operations.
  9. Offensive and Defensive, where their leadership skills are tested on simple but hard tasks.
  10. Reconnaissance, where their leadership and battle procedure skills are tested on a more complicated task.

A rough outline of the course schedule and the difficulty of the various training weeks is as follows:

Difficulty Level

Very Hard

Old BMOQ-A Structure

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5
Teach a Class Weapons Handling Firing Ranges Battle Procedure Map, Compass and GPS
Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10
Navigation Exercise Tactics Theory Battle School Offensive and Defensive Reconnaissance

The tasks with the highest probability of injuring or failing a candidate were concentrated at the end of the course, after the students were in an exhausted state from weeks of low amounts of sleep and scattershot Army PT. The solution from a course designer is to front-end load the course with the most difficult tasks and those which produce the most injuries so the students will be as fresh as possible and to give the students the best possible chance.

New BMOQ-A Structure

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5
Battle Procedure Map, Compass and GPS, Navigation Exercise Tactics Theory Battle School
Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10
Offensive and Defensive Reconnaissance Weapons Handling Firing Ranges Teach a Class

The hard stuff kicks in at the start of the third week. Also, someone can still pass weeks eight, nine, and ten if they are injured. You can teach a class or run a firing range from a wheelchair if necessary. They will still be exhausted by the end of course, but the heaviest workload will be applied when they are still relatively fresh, which should result in a higher pass rate due to their higher reserves of physical and mental resilience.

It is possible to use Starting Strength’s programming theory to improve training, even without barbells. A practical understanding of how exhaustion affects performance and the susceptibility to injury and morale collapse is very useful to anyone who is responsible for designing or overseeing training programs in fields such as the military, police, firefighters, or paramedics. Take the mindset away from eliminating the weak and focus on making the weak strong. Every effort should be made on the part of program designers to ensure that their students have access to essential recovery resources (sleep and food). If they cannot, they should structure the training in a manner that makes exhaustion less likely to damage to the students' chances for success.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.