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Best Defense

Why the Army can’t get PT right: Everyone’s an expert… and a little lazy

In an era of quotas and numbers, cutting a kid from our program is a last resort, but sometimes it needs to happen.


Introduction from Jim Gourley: “I received an email from CPT Soika initially responding to the introductory installment of my coverage on military physical fitness. The discussion expanded into more recent subjects I’ve touched on. The following is taken from an email CPT Soika wrote (with his permission) regarding the development of new training programs for new soldiers and officers entering the Army.”

By CPT Tony Soika, USA
Best Defense guest columnist

I used to work with Frank Palkoska and he and I tend to be very philosophically in sync with each other. One big frustration we had with the advent of the new army training paradigm is that everyone sees themselves as an expert and thus pushes back against the “new army PT.” These prevent “buy in” from the masses and lend to those leading PT not doing it correctly because they either don’t enforce standards, aren’t familiar with standards, don’t understand the science, or merely aren’t comfortable with change.

In the case of one exercise called a 30/60, soldiers are required to sprint full speed for 30 seconds and then walk for 60. It takes a lot of internal fortitude to give everything you’ve got for 30 seconds and it takes an observant and engaged leader to make sure that level of effort is given. I showed up to command a new unit in 2012 only to find young trainees not giving 100% on the 30-second increment and being told that they would jog, not walk, for the 60. In effect, jog fast for 30 seconds, jog slow for 60.  Then people would complain “this new PT system is stupid” when in fact the workout as executed did not match what was in the manual. It would come as no surprise if a Soldier took the same approach with marksmanship fundamentals, and was unable to hit what they aimed at.

When I was assigned to work with Frank in designing a new PT test, everyone blew up my phone or email with “make sure you add pull-ups because they’re better.” Even the last Sergeant Major of the Army, Raymond Chandler, said he wanted the new run event to be 4 miles in 36 minutes. Why? “Because that’s always been the airborne standard.” WHY is it the airborne standard? What does running a 9-minute mile have to do with falling out of the sky? Where’s the research in a peer-reviewed journal to show the correlation?

When I left Frank’s crew and took command of 250 trainees at Fort Jackson, I had a paratrooper-qualified battalion commander above me who explained that “paratroopers have always been expected to deploy, jump into an objective, fight for 72 hours without rest, and then get relieved. Airborne units tend to run a lot so that can prepare for that level of endurance.” Notwithstanding the fact that this hasn’t happened since 1944, what does running 4 miles have to do with staying awake for 3 days? Which brings me back to my original point: everyone thinks they have the answer and true subject matter experts find themselves not just having to educate the force, but first having to deal with inertia caused by people who have the passion but not the education. This very often is made all the more difficult by the almost cult-like following behind the latest trendy workout protocols. Army Physical Readiness Training (PRT) is functional in nature and over the course of several years, I firmly believe we’ll see a decrease in injuries as well as an increase in athleticism; but it’s enormously difficult to achieve success while having people lobby that our fledgling program sucks and the latest program being hyped in the media is better.

My opinion as someone with a background training elite athletes is that I am less concerned with a soldier being fit than I am with them being athletic. On a football team, the goal is not for you to live to be 100, it’s to win. I believe the military needs the same mindset. This paradigm shift is readily apparent in the rapid growth of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) Program. Each year, hundreds of firefighter, military and law enforcement personnel from across the country converge on the NSCA’s TSAC Conference to see the latest wizardry and hear cutting edge speakers from the top of the fitness profession.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with Brigadier General (Ret.) Maureen LeBeouf, legendary former director of the West Point Department of Physical Education. She said “why do all these non-subject matter experts get a voice in the evolution of army PT just because they’re fitness buffs? I speak English, but you don’t see me showing up in the English Department telling them how to do their job.” This is an excellent point that nobody stops to consider. While it’s important to get buy-in from the force, it’s equally important as a leadership fundamental to empower your Subject Matter Experts.

As for officer candidates, I was just discussing this over lunch with my boss here at Duke. I’m in the unique position of having commanded young army trainees relatively recently as well as now being in the officer trainee world. MOST of our cadets arrive in shape, but we definitely get some who do not. In my opinion, the three mornings per week that I’m allowed to have PT with my cadets, our primary focus is to teach them how to correctly perform PRT — the mechanical details matter — so that when they arrive to take over their first platoon in four years, they can ensure PRT is being executed properly. Certainly they become more fit in the process, but in this environment, that’s a secondary goal to teaching proper mechanics, utilizing the correct cadence speed, having voice projection when in charge, etc. I don’t see it as my responsibility to get an unfit kid fit. Becoming an officer is a challenging and special thing. Showing up unprepared is like trying out to be your high school quarterback when you can’t throw a spiral. The coach doesn’t put the team on hold while he teaches you to throw. He says you’re not good enough and cuts you.

In an era of quotas and numbers, cutting a kid from our program is a last resort, but sometimes it needs to happen. We have people so terrified of the water that it takes literally 25 minutes to talk them off the diving board, much less pass the swim test. Likewise, I’ve got others who show up more fit than I was at their age, and I was a college athlete. So our challenges are unique, but I would posit that unlike the rest of the army, if you show up to an officer training program unfit, the onus is on you, not your leaders, to take ownership of your situation and get fit. I’ll take a kid who’s on the margin and make them better, but as someone once told me years ago: this is the varsity, either you can play or you can’t.

[Jim again: Meanwhile, the commander of the Army’s Recruiting Command told CNN that obesity is a national security issue, and the home of the 101st Airborne Division tied for 8th on Forbes’ list of fattest cities in the U.S.]

Captain Anthony Soika is the Executive Officer of the Duke University ROTC program. He has a background training elite athletes at every level from high school to the NFL and NBA and serves on the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Tactical Strength and Conditioning Certification Committee. The views expressed are entirely his own and do not reflect those of the ROTC program or the United States Army.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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