Trap Bars, Med Balls, and Leg Tucks, Oh My! – An Ode to Training for Strength for Aspiring Military Officers

by Gregory Hess | January 25, 2022

playing with a trap bar

During the last twelve years, I have had the privilege to serve as a physical educator at one of the United States’ direct military officer commissioning sources. My observations within the academy as an educator and athletic trainer, in combination with my increasing knowledge and application of Starting Strength methods, have prompted a reflection on the status of our military’s physical educational and fitness doctrine.

The military culture of physical fitness and operational readiness is a ripe one, where students display a craving for knowledge. Each is hungry to improve physically and mentally for the profession of arms. Within the educational institution itself, there exists an assessment-focused physical fitness curriculum constrained by a lack of available time and a mandate to associate objective grades with acute performances. Many of these performances focus on quantity of movement versus quality of movement execution (e.g., can you execute 125 air squats, as compared to one correctly performed heavy set of 5 squats?). Strength training is acknowledged as a foundational physical readiness component, but there exists an unwillingness and/or inability to invest the resources needed for quality strength coaching and education. This lip-service to developing strength is perpetuated by the other numerous academy requirements, the influence of NCAA Division I Strength and Conditioning novelty exercises, and the premature tendency to program for complexity’s sake. All these influences compete for the staff and student time and energy, which water down the enormous potential for the service member’s novice progression with basic barbell training.

Muscular strength, as defined by Army Field Manual 7-22, is the amount of force a muscle or group of muscles can generate [1]. Obviously, a more appropriate definition would state strength as the amount of force one can produce against an external resistance, since strength is the foundation for all physical interaction with the environment [2]. Increasing one’s baseline strength enables individuals to live more fulfilling and independent lives [3]. A stronger individual and service member will be more easily able to carry a box of ammunition, pick up and move a heavier ruck, or evacuate a time-sensitive casuality, as compared to his weaker counterpart. These examples begin to show the significance of strength for military personnel. This is nothing new or surprising to those familiar with the basic barbell arts, but convincing everyday soldiers and service academy cadets has proven to be a daunting yet rewarding task.

The fitness culture within the “old-breed” military is typically associated with Long, Slow Distance (LSD) events. This is somewhat true, yet LSD activities are not as pervasive as a civilian Starting Strength Coach (SSC) might assume. The fascination with Crossfitty workouts, “functional” training, bodyweight calisthenic “smoke sessions,” and general Esprit de Corps sweating-togethers have transitioned most of the physical fitness focus towards higher intensity anaerobic modes. The relatively recent rollout of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) was in response to the inadequacy of the old endurance-focused Army Physical Fitness Tests (APFT). The APFT only included the sit-up, push-up, and an aerobic two-mile run [1]. This test left a good deal to be desired, when considering actual soldier readiness and well-rounded physical performance.

The new ACFT is an improved attempt at assessing a soldier’s ability to perform in combat, based on assessed warrior tasks and occupational physical needs [4]. The ACFT includes six events, aimed at a holistic assessment of physical preparedness. The events in order of execution are the 3-Repetition Maximum (Hexbar/Trapbar) Deadlift, the Standing Power Throw, the Hand Release Push-up, a Sprint-Drag-Carry, Leg Tucks or Planks, and the Two-Mile Run [5].

Despite the best intentions of this new test, misguided service members continue to solely practice the test without targeting the most trainable aspect of performance. Five of the six events are either directly strength, power, or sub-maximal muscular endurance events. From our understanding of strength as the most general and trainable component of physical ability, which improves all other components of fitness, we can then infer the importance of long-term training for force production. Strength is a necessity for ACFT success, regardless of the test modality nuances [6].

A passionate effort has been made to implement the teaching methods and rationale from SS:BBT and PPST3 into both required courses and elective classes [2] [3]. A required course, dedicated to the foundations of personal fitness using the Army Health and Holistic Fitness (H2F) model, has provided opportunities to embed the squat, deadlift, bench press, press, and even the power clean into laboratory experiences for students. Despite these labs only serving as introductory lift sessions, students have often sought out additional guidance and instruction, due to the clarity and simplicity of the teaching methods. Unfortunately, not all students have been recipients of the same lab experiences from the course. This is due to the existence of over 25 sections of the class per term and few instructors with the knowledge and ability to teach the SS methods.

The elective strength course mentioned does utilize the SS teaching method and includes articles on The Four Criteria, Stress/Recovery/ Adaptation, and The Two-Factor Model of Sports Performance [7] [8] [9]. It is as close to a SS experience as is possible to conduct during nineteen 50-minute class meetings. Peer coaching is a primary objective, while attempting to learn subsequent lifts and adding weight to the bar. Most students completing this course remark that it should be a foundational core course for the entire student population. Typically this results in a head nod, a chuckle, and an appreciative smile from the instructor.

Several additional opportunities have been created outside of the normal duty day for students to get under the bar and learn the barbell arts. Small successes are occurring at a grass-roots level with weekly training and monthly workshops. Inquisitive and dedicated students, many of whom have taken a prior class with one of the SS-minded instructors, seek additional form checks and guidance with program application. Applying the Two-Factor Model with long-term barbell training for ACFT preparation is a primary objective for a select group of female students. These ladies, who had little to no formal strength instruction prior to these sessions, meet twice a week with direct instructor oversight and have been making significant progress on the big four lifts. The true impact of improving general strength for these women’s ACFT scores will only be a matter of time. It will be a better outcome than simply fooling around with trap bars, kettlebells, and medicine balls.

There exists a hope for the future of prioritizing strength and barbells in and around this military-academic setting. A continued effort to embed both the Four Criteria concept and the Two-Factor Model of Sports Performance into core coursework will be made as allowed by military doctrine. An initiative for the dedicated time and resources required for coaching and training students within a general strength program will be maintained. Most important of all, the individual buy-in from peer instructors and professors will be pursued with the intent to create a culture change, at least on a local level. The desired atmosphere will be one where strength is viewed as the first and most important step towards performance and physical readiness. “Physical Strength is the most important thing in life… [3]. This has never been truer for those entering the realm of combat arms, especially when possessing this more-general usefulness results in being harder to kill [3]. Let's get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, and choosing the harder rite of training, not the easier path of acute exercise for what it appears to do.


  1. D. o. t. Army, "FM7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness," October 2020. [Online]. Available:
  2. M. R. &. A. Baker, Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd Edition, Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company, 2017.
  3. M. Rippetoe, Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition, Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company, 2017.
  4. M. W. Boye, B. S. Cohen, M. A. Sharp, M. C. Canino, S. A. Foulis, K. Larcom and L. Smith, "research U.S. Army physical demands study: Prevalence and frequency of performing physically demanding tasks in deployed and non-deployed settings," Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 2017.
  5. U. Army, "Army Combat Fitness Test," March 2021. [Online]. Available:
  6. M. Wolf, "Strength & Barbells: The Foundations of Fitness," 3 October 2012. [Online]. Available:
  7. U. Army, "Army Combat Fitness Test Training Guide," 2018.
  8. G. Bischoff, "Warrior Spirit: A Busy Military Commander Gets Strong in a Net Calorie Deficit," The Aasgaard Company , 11 May 2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 2021].

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