The Case for the Starting Strength Method during Initial Military Occupational Training

by Capt James Rodgers | April 28, 2021

base bleed


The general decline in physical and mental resilience among youth has created a problem for the Army’s ability to conduct training in a manner that prepares young soldiers and officers for the physical rigors of military service. Every other aspect of soldier and officer training is rigorously designed, evaluated, and standardized – except for their physical preparation. Any Physical Training (PT) that they do is done under the direction of someone with very little formal training, experience, or education on the subject themselves. Anyone in the Army who knows about how to deliver strength and conditioning training has figured it out on their own initiative, and will have to contend with an institutional bias against delivering effective strength and conditioning training. The Army needs to adopt a proven simple training structure that consistently, efficiently, and safely produces useful physiological adaptations for new military personnel drawn from the general Canadian population. The optimal training program to achieve this end is the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (NLP).

Career Progression

Before we get into the justification for why the NLP is the appropriate approach for training new military personnel, I need to briefly explain the training process of turning someone from a civilian on the street into a soldier or officer in the Army who is fully qualified to do the required tasks in their military occupation. This period of training is their Developmental Period 1 (DP1) time. The DP1 period begins once a person takes their oath or affirmation of loyalty and it ends once they graduate from their final occupation-specific course and are assigned to an operational unit.

Here are two examples of the DP1 career progression for people in my trade, the Artillery:

Course Duration (Weeks) Skills Taught
Basic Military Qualification 10
  • Drill
  • Wearing Clothes
  • Service Rifle
  • Gas Mask & Suit
  • Military Structure
  • Simple Fieldcraft
  • Simple Military Operations (Participate)
    Basic Military Qualification - Army 5
    • Weapons (Machine Gun, Grenade and Short-Range Anti-Armor)
    • Simple Offensive Operations (Participate)
    • Simple Defensive Operations (Participate)
    • Simple Reconnaisance Operations (Participate)
      DP1 Gunner 6
      • Fire Discipline
      • Prepare Artillery Ammunition
      • Gun Detachment Member Duties
      • Howitzer Maintenance
      • Lay the Howitzer
      • Fire the Howitzer as a Detachment Member
      • Fire the Howitzer as a Detachment Member
        Total Training Duration (Weeks) 21

        This is the training process to take someone from a civilian to a trained Gunner.

        gunners firing

        Gunners doing Gunner stuff. [2]

        Course Duration (Weeks) Skills Taught
        Basic Military Officer Qualification 14
        • Drill
        • Wearing Clothes
        • Service Rifle
        • Gas Mask & Suit
        • Military Structure
        • Simple Fieldcraft
        • Leadership
        • Simple Military Doctrine
        • Simple Military Operations (Lead)
        Basic Military Officer Qualification - Army 10
        • Weapons (Machine Gun, Grenade and Pistol)
        • Teach a Class
        • Organize a Simple Range
        • More Doctrine
        • Simple Offensive Operations (Lead)
        • Simple Defensive Operations (Lead)
        • Simple Reconnaisance Operations (Lead)
        DP 1.1 Artillery Troop Commander 11
        • Artillery Gunline Reconnaisance and Deployment
        • Artillery Command Post Firing Procedures
        • Defence of the Gun Area (Lead)
        • Manual and Digital Production of Firing Data
        • Fireplanning (One unit)
        • Artillery Safety Officer
        DP 1.2 Artillery Troop Commander 11
        • Battery Survey and Unique Deployments
        • Multi-unit Fireplanning
        • Plan Artillery Field Firing Exercise
        • Artillery Troop Maintenance and Administration
        • Special Procedure Fire Missions
        • Advanced Defence of the Gun Area (Lead)
        Total Training Duration (Weeks) 46

        This is the training process to take someone from a civilian to an Artillery Officer. There are no cool pictures of Artillery Officers in existence.

        These courses are not usually run back-to-back-to-back, so it is normal to take over a year for someone to progress through all of these courses due to scheduling conflicts, injuries, and semesters at university for officers. Keep in mind that the dead time in between these courses is an excellent opportunity for the development of the young soldier's or officer’s physical capabilities. Their lives are heavily regulated and they have access to lots of nutritious food at the dining hall.

        The Problem: Frail Youth

        The reason that there is an urgent need to run recruits through a rational, safe, effective and efficient strength and conditioning program throughout the DP1 period is that changes to the physical activity and general lifestyle of youth in Western nations over the last 20 years have resulted in a recruiting pool that will contain a larger proportion of people that lack the mental and physical resiliency of previous generations to endure and succeed in the Army’s training system. They are easier to break than past recruits.

        For children to develop into healthy young men and women, they need to be physically active. Physical activity provides the stimulus, or appropriate physiological stress, for them to grow up and be resilient. A lack of stimulus – appropriate physiological stress – will result in them developing into young adults that are unadapted to rigorous physical or mental effort.

        This process has been well studied over the last 20 years. The tendency of youth to grow up with a sedentary lifestyle is resulting in young people who lack physical resiliency. At the same time, due to some cause that has not yet been determined (Ha!), the prevalence of depression among youth is increasing.

        Physical activity levels among youth have declined in recent decades. Organized sports are not the only way that a child can be physically active, but participation rates in organized sports are a useful proxy. According to a Statistics Canada study, participation rates in organized sports declined from 66% to 56% for boys and from 49% to 45% for girls from 1992 to 2005.[3] This trend is mirrored in the United States. According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, the percentage of children who played a sport on a regular basis declined from 49% to 39% for boys and from 34% to 31% for girls between 2012 and 2018. The rate of participation was heavily influenced by household income. Rich kids played organized sports at a higher rate than poorer kids.[4]

        In my experience, rich kids do not join the Army, and if they do they tend to quit because they have career options that do not involve staying awake for a week or lying in freezing mud. I also imagine that the COVID lockdowns of the last year have also done a fair bit of damage to child sport participation rates that will aggravate the problem of low activity rates for children from low income families.

        winter warfare

        This is not an appealing winter activity for rich kids, who would probably prefer snowboarding if given the option.[5]

        A lack of physical activity for a child has consequences. It should come as no surprise to anyone that children who took part in higher levels of moderate to vigorous exercise scored higher on fitness tests (pushups, situps, etc.) than their less active peers.[6] Also, during puberty, participation in weight bearing and dynamic activities results in increased bone density for boys and girls.[7] The implication of this is that a lack of weight bearing and dynamic activities during puberty will result in bones that are not as dense as they could (or should) be. This has serious consequences for the physical resilience of these children once they become adults. They will be less physically capable and will be easier to break.

        At the same time as the decline in the rates of participation in organized sports and the resulting lack of stimulus for acquisition of bone density and muscle mass, the mental health of children and young adults has declined. A study by Weinberger et al attempted to estimate the prevalence (the proportion of individuals within a population with a specific malady) of major depression in the general US population between 2005 and 2015. The increase in rates of depression was much more rapid within the youth cohort than other groups, and especially in lower income groups.[8] This is bad news for the mental resiliency of recruits because once again, rich kids generally do not join the Army.

        A decline in the physical and mental health of children and young adults will obviously have a negative effect upon the physical and mental resilience of recruits. These trends over the last 20 years have been troubling and I expect that these problems will be severely aggravated by the COVID 19 pandemic restrictions shutting down youth sports to all but the most privileged children, stripping away most of their opportunities to socialize normally and driving their parents into insolvency. Gym closures have also prevented young adults from conducting adequate preparation for physically demanding Army courses. This was probably not a consideration for decision makers in March 2020 but it is nevertheless an unintended consequence.

        Rational Training Design

        In theory, military training should take someone who is untrained and then train them so that they acquire the skills, knowledge and general capabilities to perform their assigned duties. There has been a massive amount of time and effort put into the skills and knowledge portion of training and for good reason: there are catastrophic consequences for getting those things wrong. Sometimes the wrong people get shot, artillery rounds impact 4,000m to the left and armored vehicles get sunk in swamps. Knowledge and skills training design is a big deal, and it must be done right.

        The Army has historically counted upon its recruits to be showing up with a baseline level of physical and mental resiliency. However, young people are not as tough as they used to be. This was not a problem at all 50 years ago, it was a tolerable problem 20 years ago and it is becoming a huge problem now. Too many recruits are getting broken on course, standards have to be lowered to compensate for their inability to withstand the strain and the end result is a less capable soldier or officer. This is bad.

        The demographic makeup of the Army is also changing due to deliberate government policy decisions. Right now, it is the Canadian Armed Force’s goal “to increase the number of women personnel by 1% annually, with a target of reaching 25% by 2026.” It’s up to 19% now from about 10% 10 years ago.[9] Making the military a more appealing career choice for women increases the size of the recruiting pool. In my experience I have found my female military colleagues to be smarter and much better communicators than my male ones. But at the same time, military equipment is awkward, heavy, and was designed to be used by men, and the necessarily rugged conditions of training tend to injure women at about twice the rate of men.[10] To successfully train and retain the women that the Army wants to recruit, it must change its approach to physical preparation so that it can rationally prepare women for physically demanding tasks.

        There are several reasons why the Army as an institution has been unable to come to grips with this problem: 

        1. Muddled training goals with regards to PT, i.e. the attempt to train every physical attribute at once and thereby accomplish nothing.
        2. Conservative and traditional approaches to the conduct of PT (ruckmarches, runs, and random thrashabouts), while ineffective and injurious, are “safe” for junior leaders to do, because there is no risk of consequences when injuries happen and they require minimal effort to plan and execute.
        3. Equipment, facilities, time, and competent coaching for strength training are very hard to come by.
        4. Professional development of leaders is severely lacking. The following table is all of the formal training that an officer receives in his or her entire career:
        Teaching Points Time Allocation (Minutes)
        Physical Fitness Policy 80
        Principles of Physical Fitness 160
        Prepare a Physical Training Plan 80
        Physical Training Demonstration 40
        Total Time Allocation (Minutes) 360

        While the Army chases its tail, the problem with a lack of physical and mental resilience among military recruits will continue to get worse. Trying to muddle through with traditional methods will not work because they do not develop the two physical attributes that are most useful for solders: strength and anaerobic conditioning.[11] Using the traditional methods of PT to develop strength and anaerobic conditioning are like trying to eat soup with a knife. You can try hard and get a little bit of progress, but the tool is just poorly suited for the job. The best way to develop strength and anaerobic conditioning is to train specifically for strength and anaerobic conditioning. They will not just show up of their own accord. The simplest, safest, most effective and most reliable way to develop strength and anaerobic conditioning is to run a Starting Strength NLP paired with anaerobic conditioning.

        The Novice Linear Progression – The Easy Button

        Physical strength is the most important athletic attribute for a soldier to have because it makes heavy equipment feel lighter. It makes a hard job easier.

        Physical Resilience: Physical resilience is a difficult attribute to define. It has something to do with the ability to resist physical stresses, and I am sure that there is a specific and detailed explanation for physical resilience that would satisfy a policymaker. At the ground level here is all that matters for physical resilience:

        1. Soldiers and officers need to be hard to break.
        2. You want them to have as much of hard-to-break as possible.

        An absence of physical resilience is frailty, the property of being fragile, easy to break. Strong is the opposite of fragile. Getting stronger fixes the frailty problem and fixing the frailty problem improves physical resilience.

        Applicability: Getting big and strong helps with almost every military task that is physically demanding because military equipment is heavy. It also helps with winning violent confrontations, which is sort of the entire point of having an Army.

        quebec hells angels

        This is a photo of a Quebec Hells Angels chapter from the 1980s. They look to be pretty handy in a fight, but I bet their 5km run times are terrible.[12]

        Simplicity: If you are unfamiliar with the NLP give this a read: Get Started - The Starting Strength Program.

        The advantage of the NLP is its simplicity. It is embarrassingly simple. It is about as basic as you can get. It requires a very small selection of exercises, simple equipment that is nearly indestructible, and the program is modified in the simplest way possible by just throwing a little bit more weight on the bar every single time. The concept of strength training is simple enough that someone without a lot of education can understand it.

        Safety: Properly executed barbell strength training is very safe. It produces an injury rate that is low for three reasons:

        1. The inherent safety of using lifts that are loaded versions of normal human movement patterns that do not include any common musculoskeletal injury mechanisms such as violent impacts, rapid changes in direction or a high volume of repetitive movements.
        2. The programming approach of accumulating small increases in load means that at no point is a trainee subjected to a load that is not 1-5% heavier than what they have successfully done before. A trainee’s failure to progress to a heavier weight also acts as a built-in early warning against exhaustion and overtraining.
        3. Properly executed strength training produces people who are stronger and therefore more difficult to injure.

        Effectiveness: The NLP represents the fastest possible acquisition of strength because its limiting factor of the rate of progression is the ability of the individual conducting the program to adapt to the imposed stress. The NLP works quickly for young men and women. Here are two examples drawn from the Starting Strength Training Log Forum that show what can be accomplished in seven weeks:

        seven week improvement in strength 32 year old male

        Male, 32, 5’6” 160lb, 219% increase in strength performance

        seven week strength improvement male 25 year old

        Male, 25, 5’11” 187lb, 124% increase in strength performance

        The 5RM SBD is the sum of their working weights in the squat, bench press and deadlift on a particular training day. The M25 has less data points because he was doing power cleans on the days he was usually doing bench press.

        Reliability: The NLP will work every time it is correctly applied. This is useful because the painful process of experimentation and optimization has already been completed. If someone from National Defence wants to adopt the NLP but insists on going through the painful process of experimentation and optimization, I will happily offer my services to see the project through at the competitive price of a $37 million consultant fee. I can guarantee that my final results will be delivered sometime in the mid-2030s. I can also clog up my simple and straightforward writing with bureaucracy-friendly phrases such as “Operational functionalities were initialized as a function of operationalizing functions.” Call me.

        Or you could just follow the program as written.

        Mental Resilience: In a properly executed strength training program, the whole body gets stronger. The brain is usually located in the body. The brain’s role in strength training is to operate the body under progressively more demanding and stressful circumstances. This has to do something to the brain, and since the brain is where the mind is located it stands to reason that there will be some sort of impact upon the lifter’s mind. I do not know what it does specifically because I do not have the background or education on this subject, so I will not attempt to describe it. I suspect that this is a groundbreaking PhD dissertation just lurking in the weeds for any psychology or neuroscience student who feels like giving it a shot.

        Properly executed strength training requires that the trainee subject themselves to progressively heavier loads. The weights gets heavy enough to be scary, and they must face the challenge alone. They have to focus on achieving the task at hand under intense amounts of stress, and when they complete the task that they have set out to do, they know for a fact that they are capable of facing down intimidating challenges. This does something to their mental resilience. Also, compare this degree of mental effort with a normal Army PT session which involves shutting off your brain and passively plodding through a distance run or suffering through some random thrashabout.


        The decline in the physical and mental resilience of recruits is a problem that the Army is unable to resolve with its traditional methods of training due to the inherent inability of traditional training methods to produce desirable physical characteristics in a safe and reliable manner. Introducing the Starting Strength NLP and anaerobic conditioning early in a recruit’s career would solve this problem because the NLP is a simple, safe, effective and reliable way to develop desirable physical and mental attributes in young men and women during their DP1 training period.      


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