Posted : Tuesday Jun 1, 2010
FORT JACKSON, S.C. — The Army is overhauling its outdated physical training philosophy to one that prepares soldiers for conditions faced on today’s battlefields.
“Everybody makes the assumption ‘well, we’ve got to run farther and longer to be more fit.’ It’s just the opposite,” said Frank Palkoska, director of the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School here. Instead, the Army-approved Physical Readiness Training manual stresses lots of sprinting and other high-intensity exercises that mimic the challenges soldiers face in combat.
“There are no warrior tasks and battle drills that require us to run for considerable distances,” Palkoska said. “We look at the ability to start, stop, change direction, get up, get down — those tasks that soldiers have to perform in full spectrum operations are exactly what we are training them to do.”
The new manual, FM 21-20, is scheduled to be available online via the Reimer Digital Library by the end of this month. It’s designed around the Army Forces Generation Model, a full cycle that includes readiness training, deployment, redeployment, reset and back to readiness.
The new manual marks the first change to the Army PT doctrine since 1992. It’s part of a multiphase effort that will result in a new Army Physical Fitness Test sometime after 2011.
“That’s the future; we have to align the assessment with the tasks that soldiers have to perform so that the commander has a better tool in preparation and planning of their unit programs,” Palkoska said.
The current PT test — which consists of push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run — has remained unchanged since it appeared in 1980 and continues to drive fitness training.
“That’s kind of a flaw with the system right now because the test is driving everything,” Palkoska said. “We primarily train for the assessment.”
Gearing up for battlefield
This new, Army-wide approach to fitness is an expanded version of the PRT program all new soldiers follow in Basic Combat Training.
First Sgt. Kevin Freison has been watching new recruits at Jackson do PRT for the past 18 months.
“It’s getting them ready to carry the gear they are going to have to carry,” said the 38-year-old first sergeant of B Company, 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment, referring to the body armor, weapons, ammunition and other equipment that can weigh from 50 pounds to well over 100 pounds, depending on the soldier’s job.
To Freison, who has been in the Army for 21 years, the new PRT doctrine offers a lot more variety.
“I like it,” he said. “Back in the day, it was push-ups, sit-ups, flutter kicks and then run.”
The Army’s PT overhaul began in 1999. For the most part, the current program hasn’t changed much since 1980 when the Army introduced gender-integrated fitness training. Before that, male and female soldiers trained and tested on separate PT standards. The 1985 revision made the APFT the primary goal of soldier fitness. That focus continued despite another revision in 1992, Palkoska said.
“We have old doctrine,” he said. “If you go onto the civilian side and look at all the improvements in science, the understanding of how the human body functions during exercise … and the functional aspects of how we prepare athletes today, our 1980, 1985, 1992 [doctrine] is basically outdated.”
That doctrine was based on the “gold standard” of the American College of Sports Medicine, a standard designed for civilian athletes that was never formally evaluated for soldiers, Palkoska said.
The new PRT doctrine has been scientifically validated by the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, now the Army Public Health Command (Provisional), in three separate studies involving new soldiers in Basic Combat and Advanced Individual training, he said.
“When you look at [the] legacy system, there were never any program evaluations for proof of concept because it was based on the gold standard,” Palkoska said.
The printing and distribution of the new manual, which is scheduled for midsummer, will complete Phase 1 of the Army’s PT overhaul.
Phase 2 will focus on developing a physical readiness trainer leader course. The fitness school has already started doing this by sending out mobile training teams to conduct train-the-trainer sessions with more than a dozen units this year, fitness officials said.
When Phase 2 is completed in 2011, the Army will begin revising the APFT “so it is more task-related and correlated more highly to the performance of warrior tasks and drills, so that the commander has an accurate assessment of what the requirements are for the missions they have been directed to conduct.”
If units stick to the new doctrine, soldiers should do well on any assessment that’s based on that doctrine.
“We want the training to drive the test, not the test to drive the training,” said Stephen Van Camp, deputy director of the fitness school.
Tricky to maintain
Capt. Dave Smart, the commander for B Company, 1-61st, said he likes the highly detailed workout plans, but it may be a challenge for regular Army units to keep to the schedule when training conflicts arise.
“It’s easy in Basic Combat Training to stick to the strict schedule,” he said. “Once you get to the units, it’s going to be more difficult.”
The manual consists of weekly and monthly exercise routines designed to build strength, endurance and mobility. Each day’s workout is designed to take between 60 and 90 minutes. There are core-strengthening and hip-stability drills and multiple climbing drills designed around simple pull-up bars.
While the manual does away with long runs, it still includes lots of running.
PRT does not “allow them to run every day, especially long, sustained runs. That’s why we don’t run to distance. We run to time,” Palkoska said.
One running drill involves sprinting for 30 seconds and walking for 60 seconds. It might sound easy, but it gets harder with every repetition.
“We expect rep 10 to be the same intensity as rep one,” Palkoska said. “It’s the intensity factor that we have to look at. You have to train harder, which therefore limits the amount of time you can train.”
Planning for injuries
Fitness officials did not have injury-rate statistics, but they stressed that “the aspect of running to time has helped us lower the injury rate,” he said.
But, Palkoska said, the Army is “always going to have injuries.”
That’s why the new manual includes a chapter on injury rehabilitation, which focuses on bringing recovering soldiers’ fitness up to the level it was prior to the injury before having them rejoin the PT formation.
In most cases, “once the profile is expired they go back to doing what the unit is doing,” Palkoska said. Unfortunately, at that point, if they are not working at the same level as the rest of the unit, they are very prone to re-injuring themselves. “You don’t treat million-dollar athletes like that, and we need to focus the same way on soldiers as we do on athletes.”
Differ by unit type
The workout routines differ depending on unit type. Units in the Army Force Generation Model will follow workouts designed for each of the three cycles — reset, train/ready and available.
“For operational units, when they are in reset they have de-trained aerobically and anaerobically and there is a loss of strength, so we … progressively ramp them back up,” Palkoska said.
Some routines require soldiers to exercise in their Army Combat Uniforms and combat kit. The exercises are designed to build the strength and flexibility soldiers need for the jobs they do, such as sprinting 50 yards in full battle gear and jump a low wall, or to endure the twisting and balance involved in manning a gun turret.
“As they get into the train/ready phase, we get into more complex drills, exercises and activities. … Toward the end of that phase and the beginning of the available phase, they are actually conducting physical readiness training … with body armor, ACUs, boots and individual weapon.,” he said.
“We are advocating that you have to train as you fight,” Palkoska said, “so some of this training will be done in battle rattle.”