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In the U.S. Army’s culture of fitness, evolution has required revolution. Scrapping the run-heavy playbook of yesteryear, the physical readiness division (PRD) has combined old-school training tactics with a touch of cutting-edge exercise science to crank out brigades of physically fit, battle-ready soldiers.
Save for the epic tale of Phidippides running 25 miles to Athens to report the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, you’d be hard pressed to find such tales of requisite endurance in combat. In contrast, today’s conflicts are usually marked by shorter skirmishes in myriad settings, where dashes to cover, climbing over walls, negotiating uncertain terrain, and hurdling barriers are invaluable job skills. These predominantly anaerobic tasks call for specific, structured training that stands in stark contrast to your grandfather’s run-happy military.
The U.S. Army has taken the lead in developing a training curriculum based on what they call warrior tasks and battle drills, or WTBD, universally crucial skills for combat success and survival.
Frank Palkoska, the division chief for the Army’s Physical Readiness Division (PRD) at Fort Jackson, SC, is the co-author of FM 7-22, the service-wide field manual for prepping soldiers for the physical rigors of war. He believes that Physical Readiness Training (PRT)—which includes jumps, sprints, and more functional exercises—will not only reduce the incidence of injuries with a largely unfit recruiting population but will also produce a leaner, fitter fighting force that provides an instant upgrade to U.S. national security.
“There’s no question this type of training makes us safer,” Palkoska says. “Since the 1980s, we’ve had this three-event test that measures performance in running, push-ups, and sit-ups. Well, people have a tendency to train toward the test—not to train for mission. We had created an overemphasis on sustained running and muscular endurance. But most programs ignored speed, power, and stability.”
Not anymore. Soldiers in today’s Army—all the way from recruit level to Special Operations—are being held to a higher standard, one more closely associated with the regimens of elite athletes than boot-clad GIs.
Palkoska and Steve Van Camp, PRD’s chief of doctrine, decided that it should be the Army’s goal to develop soldiers who left service without injury and who were in far better shape than when they entered. To do this, they’d need to start approaching their preparation with the same structure and resources as professional athletes, something easier said than done with budget restrictions and age-old traditions to contend with.
“Law enforcement, fire, or military, they need to be considered athletes because they are,” Palkoska says. “But there are a few problems. One, they don’t typically train like athletes. Two, they don’t rest like athletes. Three, they don’t eat like athletes. Four, they don’t get paid like athletes.”
Palkoska and Van Camp worked with the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (N.S.C.A.) effort to develop specialized training for these groups. The N.S.C.A. eventually rolled out the Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) curriculum and certifcation that has helped many services better prepare its ranks for the tasks they will encounter on the job.
“If we wanted to rank all of the core elements, training would be last,” Van Camp says. “Recovery and nutrition are more important. If you don’t get enough rest, you can’t perform well and your muscles don’t repair.”
But to spawn a generation of rugged tactical athletes, PRD had to do more than say “run less and rest more.” Just as football receivers practice aggressive plant-and-cut drills to run crisper routes, soldiers rehearse tasks that take place in combat. And when lives count, minutiae matter. Moving under fire, for example, has been broken down into several essential elements. To do it right, a soldier may be called upon to “run fast under load, jump, bound, crawl, push, pull, squat, roll, stop, start, change direction, and get up and/or down.” If you’re deficient in any of these components, your chances of eating a round from an insurgent’s AK-47 rise dramatically.
FM 7-22 addresses each of those indispensable skills through a broad range of exercises that Van Camp and Palkoska have charted out in a very detailed, periodized program encompassing several workouts, each with a purpose that transcends the pursuit of bigger pecs. The conditioning drill laid out here, for example, focuses on power, coordination, and agility, so don’t expect to see any barbell curls. Instead, it calls for sudden sprints to flee small-arms fire, half-squat laterals to gain position on an enemy in a close-quarters fight, and tuck jumps to build the explosive power required to clear a low wall during a foot chase.
And it’s all done without the need for a state-of-the-art fitness facility. Soldiers at Fort Jackson have swapped out posh digs for kettlebells and pull-up bars. They are simple, crude, and effective and are thus a few of PRD’s favorite things. And while there is some machine work present in FM 7-22, a soldier’s body is still his best piece of equipment. Pushups, lunges, jumping jacks, and burpees—which have all been around since Patton—still exist in this Army’s fitness curriculum.
Both Palkoska and Van Camp are quick to point out that there’s nothing wrong with running. But soldiers, they say, are better served by doing it in a way that benefits mission performance, not just their two-mile run time.
“Running is fine,” Van Camp says. “If you’re going to do it, a good way to plan your week would be to run at your ability one day a week for 20–30 minutes straight. Another day, walk under load with a weight vest. Another day, do sprint work. If you break it up this way, you’ll be less likely to get injured and you’ll see more benefit. You’ll have worked on energy systems that buffer lactic acid…there has to be balance.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Army’s body-armored homeland defenders are becoming increasingly faster, stronger, and more agile than their enemies. Raw physical dominance has been added to the Army’s already lethal combination of tactical superiority and advanced weaponry. The realities of combat, Palkoska says, have warranted this revolution in exercise ethos. No more “training to the test,” but rather toward decisive victory.
What is perhaps most telling of that storied run to Athens is what happened to Phidippides after he conveyed his message: He collapsed and died of exhaustion.
Being “Army Strong” is only the beginning of operational readiness. To do everything that a soldier needs to do well, you also need to train your body to be quick, agile, and powerful. FM 7-22, the Army’s authoritative field manual for exercise, lays out a host of programs that develop soldiers in physical totality. These two workouts, each with diferent aims, constitute a snapshot of the curriculum that the Physical Readiness Division (PRD) has set forth.
Known as Conditioning Drill 3 in the pages of FM 7-22, this workout is designed to improve power, coordination, muscular strength, endurance, and agility. It is a more advanced drill not typically done by new recruits, which, if done to the letter, is certain to challenge all but the most elite athlete. “The sequence of exercises is important because the early moves prepare muscles for the later ones,” says PRD chief of doctrine Steve Van Camp. “You’ll move from one exercise to another without rest. It’s very P90X-ish in nature.” This drill encompasses many of the WTBDs—warrior tasks and battle drills—that have been identified as crucial to mission success
Frank Palkoska, division chief for the Army’s Physical Readiness Division (PRD), believes that strength is an overlooked component of soldier training. This basic circuit, which calls for you to perform reps of a given exercise continuously for 60 seconds, builds functional total-body strength and trains proper movement patterns. And while dumbbells can be used for the routine, Palkoska recommends kettlebells. “Unlike dumbbells or barbells, kettlebell handles are much thicker, which also develops grip strength, a key asset for soldiers in the field,” he says. “It is a different challenge altogether to become proficient at wielding ungainly equipment.”
Work 1 Instructions: Perform 5 reps of each exercise, moving through the circuit without rest. Repeat the circuit 2 or 3 times total. When you can complete the entire circuit 3 times with ease, bump your rep range up to 6-7 to increase the challenge to working muscles.
Workout 2 Instructions: Perform reps continuously at each station for 60 seconds. On resistance exercises, choose a weight you’d be able to handle for about 15 reps. Rest only as long as necessary to get to the next exercise. Repeat the circuit up to 3 times through.