The Army has a fitness problem, it routinely deploys soldiers who are not at their peak fitness levels. That problem, as described in part one of this two-part series, is driven by eight myths surrounding tactical training and physical fitness. Physical fitness is routinely traded for tactical readiness; maximum combat readiness is never achieved. To maximize soldier and unit combat readiness, leaders at all levels must adopt a new paradigm that integrates tactical and physical training. This new “integration paradigm” can be supported at the institutional level, by field-grade leaders, and by small-unit leaders. Success will require leaders who resist the myths and model disciplined adherence to priorities, coupled with a better shared understanding of the basics of physical fitness and how to plan effective fitness training in a time- and resource-constrained environment.
Recommendations for the Army
Addressing the Army’s physical fitness and combat readiness problem doesn’t end with institutional solutions enacted by the Army, but it does begin there. The following are steps the Army can begin to take.
Embrace the performance triad. In the next physical-training manual, the Army should provide an integrated and wholistic fitness program that incorporates the Army’s entire performance triad—exercise, sleep, and nutrition. Currently, Army doctrine (FM 7-22) focuses almost entirely on physical training while only mentioning the importance of “adequate” sleep and “proper” nutrition. Recommendations on sleep and nutrition are published by the Army Public Health Center, however this nondoctrinal point of reference is unknown to most soldiers, and the principles the organization discusses are seemingly neglected in many unit training cycles. To foster a comprehensive approach from the top down, Army leaders need a single source that integrates these ideas into a coherent program.
Develop shared understanding through doctrine. The Army should update Army Doctrine Publication 7-0, Training and Army Regulation 350-1, Army Training and Leader Development with the specific goal of creating shared understanding of wholistic combat readiness and the Army’s commitment to balancing the importance of the performance triad and the need for tough, realistic training. These documents should clearly define combat readiness, to include both physical and tactical components, and provide clear, concise information on the minimum amounts of sleep and nutrition needed to gain and sustain physical fitness. Currently, ADP 7-0 addresses the importance of sustaining tactical proficiency in a “band of excellence,” but it should also incorporate physical readiness into this framework to clearly articulate the cost of inconsistent physical training. Additionally, together these publications should provide general guidance on when and how often it is worth “sacrificing” fitness for extended periods of time to simulate “realistic” combat conditions and also promote approaches to training that are tough, are realistic, and simulate combat stress without coming at the cost of physical fitness.
Create a “Field PT” training circular. This training circular should aim to serve as a practical “how to” guide for field PT—a resource for junior leaders on how to effectively plan and implement physical training in a field training environment. The first part of the guide should summarize the components of physical conditioning addressed through common field training activities, along with the components of physical conditioning that are inconsistently exercised during field training. The second part should include a menu of “time-condensed” and “limited-resource” workout plans that address all three key areas of fitness—strength, endurance and mobility. West Point’s Department of Physical Education may serve as a useful starting point: in 2018 the department supported cadet summer training by creating a series of ten workouts designed for minimal equipment, limited time (thirty minutes), and austere environments that collectively address the full spectrum of fitness.
Build an online forum. This forum would foster collaboration between fitness experts and leaders—especially at the company level and below—aimed at maintaining fitness amid high-operational-tempo training cycles. This forum would also enable a rapid feedback loop that informs developing doctrine as experts post ideas and leaders provide feedback and identify challenges in implementation.
Make nutrition more accessible. This is especially important for units training in the field. Chow halls in combat zones are routinely stocked with various protein bars and protein supplements. Yet units training at their home station frequently subsist on MREs, while occasionally enjoying a hot meal. The Army should work to establish systems that make it easy for units to request protein supplements as a part of their meal plan for field training.
Recommendations for Field-Grade Leaders
Talk is not enough to overcome current cultural inertia related to inconsistent physical training. Instead of stating that “fitness is a top priority,” field-grade leaders should demonstrate command emphasis on promoting physical fitness, not just in garrison but in the field, too.
Establish time for PT as a “battle rhythm” event—even in the field. Execution of fitness training at the platoon and squad level happens when commanders establish physical training as a “battle rhythm” event on daily training calendars and protect that time from competing requirements. This remains true in the field. Even in the intense training environment of combat training centers, units take frequent “admin” halts for things like after-action reviews to maximize training value. Likewise, it should be the norm to take a brief “admin” halt to maintain physical readiness. Fitness is a priority of work.
Require leaders to include physical training in their overall unit training plan. This should include back briefs during the planning process that clearly demonstrate how time for physical training is accounted for.
Lead by example. Leaders set an example by joining their units for PT in garrison, and they should do the exact same in the field. Deliberately serving as a positive role model is a well-established principle of transformational leadership and is vital to embedding organizational change.
Recommendations for Small-Unit Leaders
Small-unit leaders do not have to wait for institutional reform to pursue an integrative solution. Deliberate planning and disciplined adherence to priorities at every level are required to maximize combat readiness.
Maximize what you can control. Leaders at every level have some degree of discretionary time. Small-unit leaders should deliberately plan physical training into the space they have available. It is important to be proactive and take the initiative, working with higher headquarters or observer-controllers to make the time. This often requires a degree of creativity. Some ideas to keep in mind:
- PT does not have to be at the same time every day; alternate morning, afternoon, or evening to accommodate the training schedule.
- Coordinate to shift a start or finish time for training thirty minutes earlier or later in order to allow time for physical training.
- While executing the troop-leading procedures put PT into the planning and preparation timeline. If necessary, accept a slightly lower quality operations order or shortened rehearsal time to facilitate this priority of work.
- Occupy a patrol base by force some days rather than doing so deliberately. Once occupied, coordinate for an admin halt to conduct PT.
- Rather than maintaining 33–50 percent security every night, practice this “skill” on select nights. On other nights, convert a platoon patrol base to a tactical assembly area that is notionally secured by adjacent units and have only two people awake at a time to keep an eye on equipment. This supports adequate rest to aid recovery.
Expect and overcome resistance. Change is typically met with resistance, even when the change is good. Small-unit leaders should look out for the myths described in a previous article and avoid using them as excuses to skip physical training in the field.
Be just as vigilant and proactive in garrison. Even when units are not in the field, exceptions are often made to skip physical training. One common reason is the requirement to draw weapons and depart for a range. In many cases, through proactive planning and coordination, the timeline can be adjusted to support physical training. If not, leaders at any level can integrate physical training into transition times (e.g., decentralized squad PT when not on the firing line). Even if walking to the range, incorporating a thirty-minute workout later in the day can address other components of fitness.
Train smartly. When planning physical training sessions, leaders should always take into consideration sleep, nutrition, and physical activities already planned for the training day. If your soldiers are only sleeping three or four hours a night due to factors outside your control, do not conduct physical training that will only further deteriorate muscles. If soldiers are doing frequent foot movements, do not add exercise focused on leg muscle endurance. Lower extremity injuries, presumably from too much distance running, are one of the most frequent overtraining injuries that occur in the Army. Leaders should consider modifying physical training from “strenuous” to “moderate” or even “light” based on these factors or focusing mainly on mobility exercises.
Bring the right gear to train in the field. When common sense allows for it, leaders can add running shoes and PT uniforms to a field packing list. In other situations, they should look to transportable but field-expedient materials that may be useful—water jugs, sandbags, litters, rucksacks, or ammo cans, for example. And a scale to weigh rucksacks is often a useful tool to have on hand.
Actively pursue better options for nutrition in the field. Small-unit leaders involved in meal planning should not just default to either MREs or hot meals for every day spent in the field. Meal plans should be deliberate, with requests submitted in advance for supplements such as protein shakes and nutrient bars. It is important to monitor protein intake and time between meals. Even if every meal is not at the ideal time or doesn’t include an optimal nutritional makeup, something is better than nothing.
Principles for Planning: Time Constraints, Scaled Workouts, and Balance
When planning for physical training in the field, keeping in mind several considerations will pay off. First, something is better than nothing. Even thirty to forty minutes can achieve positive results, allowing for a ten-minute active warmup, fifteen to twenty minutes of exercise, and five to ten minutes of recovery. As discussed in part one, some studies have shown that reduced volume of training can be offset with increased intensity. This includes high-intensity circuit training and high-intensity interval training. Sample workouts for each component of fitness—endurance, strength, and mobility—are listed in figure 2 below.
Second, scalable workouts should be planned to avoid overtraining while allowing stronger individuals to push themselves. Most units have soldiers with a broad spectrum of ability levels. One good technique is workouts that are self-paced for time (e.g., max effort or max reps for one minute). Another is adjustable weights on strength days (e.g., lifting rucksacks or water cans with different weights).
Third, a training plan that balances all components of fitness is important. Ideally, this means two to three days of each component per week. Mobility should be included during warmup and recovery every day.
Figure 1 provides a sample “minimum” schedule for a ten-day field training exercise. If more than thirty minutes is available on a given day, additional components can be included (e.g., muscular strength and anaerobic endurance in one day).
Another factor to consider in programming is which components of conditioning are lost the fastest. VO2 max, related to aerobic conditioning, and muscular endurance both decline rapidly. Muscular strength drops at a much slower rate, with limited drops in the first two weeks, though muscle loss is accelerated when coupled with inadequate sleep.
Sample Exercises for Key Components of Fitness
Figure 2 provides sample time-condensed workouts that address each of the components of fitness. Additionally, the link between each component of fitness and its associated event in the Army Combat Fitness Test is included.
While the Army Combat Fitness Test returns focus to full-spectrum combat fitness, it is not enough. Consistency is a critical factor. Due to the amount of time most soldiers spend in the field environment, the consistency needed to sustain maximum combat readiness can only be achieved by integrating physical training into field training exercises. The deep entrenchment of the eight myths that weaken combat readiness will likely lead to formidable resistance. Even the shift from the Army Physical Fitness Test to the Army Combat Fitness Test—simply redirecting the Army from a focus on general fitness to combat-focused, functional fitness—has taken over fifteen years from its first proposal to Army-wide implementation, despite the sound data identifying the need for change.
The consistency goal is realistic, but requires a paradigm shift and a determined effort to overcome the myths engrained deeply into Army culture. To overcome this resistance, any of us who find ourselves in a position of leadership, at any level, must actively engage in making physical training the priority we say it is and adhere to it with discipline. As leadership guru Stephen Covey said well, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Leaders must decide what is important. This active leader engagement must be coupled with an improved shared understanding of the principals of fitness and how to effectively execute physical training in austere and time-constrained environments. As leaders at all levels fight through the friction to achieve integration, the physical and tactical readiness tradeoff will give way to improved combat readiness. Strength through consistency.
Maj. Matt Clark is an Army Special Forces officer and instructor at the United States Military Academy’s Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. He holds a master of arts in social-organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a bachelor of arts in psychology from Cedarville University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Capt. Daniel Parker, US Army