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Military physical training: It’s a problem bigger than obesity, with no easy solutions

Military physical training: It’s a problem bigger than obesity, with no easy solutions

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense physical training bureau chief

At first glance, the recent introduction of new physical training programs in the Army and Marine Corps appears to be in response to emergent challenges to warfighter physiology both in basic training and combat. The military widely acknowledges the growing problem of overweight recruits becoming overweight service members, and it is now coming to grips with the high rate of musculoskeletal injuries resulting from physical training. But while the USMC’s new High Intensity Tactical Training (HITT) program and the Army’s training doctrine in the revised FM 7-22 intend to address the issues of injury and body composition, they approach both issues as symptoms of a much deeper problem.

“We have 18 and 19-year-old kids coming into basic training that can’t skip or perform a forward roll,” says Frank Palkoska, Chief of the US Army’s Physical Fitness Training School. “They have not learned the motor patterns to execute these basic movements. It’s very difficult to get a person through an obstacle course when they’re starting so far behind, and ten weeks isn’t enough to get them up to speed. You acquire most of your basic movement patterns by first grade, and our youth today just aren’t getting the physical education time they need. Lack of fitness is a societal problem. The injury rate is developing into a taxpayer concern in terms of medical care and lost training expenses. And the lack of qualified recruits it is becoming a national security issue.”

Palkoska says that strength training and weight loss are the “short poles in the tent” of soldier fitness, because they will improve with training. The longer pole involves making sure that training is effective; a concept that reveals why injury prevention is also a symptom rather than a root problem. “People get injured because they’re not moving correctly while training. For a long time we’ve held the belief about training that more is better. But more is not better. Better is better.” Many of the exercises in FM 7-22 appear so rudimentary that they seem woefully inadequate for people preparing for the rigors of combat. But in fact the routines are meant to instill the basic movement patterns troops lack.

The USMC’s HITT program– often viewed as “The Marines’ version of CrossFit”– actually mirrors the Army’s philosophy on movement patterns. Ryan Massimo is a Combat Fitness Specialist who has run the HITT program since it began more than four years ago. He says the CrossFit analogy is inaccurate and obscures HITT’s true objectives. “There are three main goals to the HITT program. We want to prevent injury potential by improving movement patterns and flexibility, increase performance that transfers to combat strength, and develop powerful elasticity and increase speed.” Whereas CrossFit often criticizes organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength Conditioning Association, Massimo emphasizes that HITT relied heavily on advice from such groups. “Our program is NSCA approved, and we worked closely with them to develop it. Our staff is certified by the national body. Times change, and science is there for a reason. We wanted to go with the absolute best information available when putting this together.”

Getting on board with science was the key to the Army’s physical training doctrine overhaul. “You have to understand the context of how we arrived at this new manual. The Army has been operating on a legacy doctrine from World War II for years. We developed FM 21-20 in 1980, which was primarily calisthenics-based. We updated it in 1985 and again in 1992, and that’s pretty much what we’ve been working with ever since. The problem with that doctrine is that we developed it according to the ACSM’s definition of fitness, which is a valid model for the average person but doesn’t take into account the unique demands placed on soldiers. So we wound up training to a civilian standard of fitness rather than a military one. We’re getting everyone on the same sheet of music, and the ACSM has been helpful in reevaluating that. Our new doctrine is aligned with AR 350-1 and looks at fitness as the ability to take on any task a soldier might be assigned.”

Ryan Massimo characterizes the new paradigm as “training Marines so they can put their speed and strength on the deck.” The military sees today that even service members who can perform well on the track and in the weight room may still lack the coordination to make full use of their capabilities on the battlefield. “HITT emphasizes explosive power, ground movement and overhead strength. Fitness is warrior-task focused.”

Palkoska likewise stresses the need for drills that train strength and coordination to better prepare the body for the test of combat. But the current state of military fitness testing itself remains a challenge. Palkoska admits that some aspects of the “legacy doctrine” persist in the form of the Army Physical Fitness Test. “One of the problems of the old fitness model is that units trained to the test, and that resulted in overtraining to certain aspects of fitness.” More than generating injuries in a large population of individual soldiers, it created an unbalanced paradigm of fitness in the Army at large. Efforts to change the APFT to reflect the new model of fitness have been going on since General Peter Schoomaker’s tenure as Chief of Staff. Though the old APFT remains the standard, Palkoska says that new initiatives aim to update it in the next few years.

Delays in the process may suggest symptoms of another underlying problem in military physical fitness training. Both Massimo and Palkoska talk about “warrior fitness” and “strength oriented toward combat tasks,” but it’s much more difficult to pin down what that means and how to standardize it than how many pushups a Marine or soldier can do in two minutes. FM 7-22 even deliberately avoids discussing the APFT by design. “We don’t discuss the test,” says Palkoska. “If you can do our program, you can pass the test. It’s both prescriptive and a reference. We recommend it as a program for leaders who have soldiers with those fundamental movement problems to bring them up to speed. But afterward you can modify the routines to continue athletic development. But the commander always owns the training program for his unit, so the decision winds up with him.” Massimo says HITT has the same relationship with Marine units. “HITT is not the official training program. It is a tool to compliment the existing training program. How units train is always up to the commanders.”

Local command authority may still be key to getting troops tuned up for their specific combat mission, since the army and Marines have yet to put out clear guidance on standards for “combat fitness.” Palkoska knows that the 7-22 doctrine is working based on studies conducted by the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine on soldiers in basic training. Injuries are down and APFT scores are up. Getting more refined, numbers-based metrics to establish standards for “combat fitness” is a process that is “an ongoing process of experimentation” according to Palkoska, and could be years in development. Right now, both he and Massimo are focused on improving overall fitness, which is the real challenge. “The training model will evolve over time,” says Palkoska. “The goal of our program isn’t to develop elite athletes. It’s to develop tactical athletes.”

Jim Gourley is a former military intelligence officer. He now works as an author and journalist covering military affairs and sports science. His newest book, about ultra-endurance triathlon, is in stores now. His Twitter is @jim_gourley

Image credit: U.S. Army