The Army is overhauling its physical fitness tests for the first time in 30 years and adding a new "combat readiness test." To help troops prepare, the Army advocates training that incorporates cross-training, elements of yoga, and the benefits of rest.
It's all part of an effort to better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat, senior US military officials say. Announced March 1, the new training will be phased in over the next six months at several bases.
Still – and not unpredictably – some seasoned veterans say the new regimen coddles soldiers.
“There have been all kinds of rumors about what this is and what it isn’t,” says Gen. Mark Hertling, Deputy Commanding General for Initial Military Training at the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, of the new fitness requirements.
“People have said, ‘It’s yoga-like, it’s like Pilates’ … And frankly, it is all those things,” says Hertling.
Army culture is hard to change, even in the name of better fitness. “Lots of folks are saying, ‘Ah, you’re babying them,’ ” Hertling reports. “ ‘You’ve got to drive them hard, and work them until it hurts.’ ”
Yet such hard-charging training often came with a huge cost, he notes. “When you’re driving people until it hurts, that will result in injury. Not just in fixing people and mending bones, but in lost training time.”
During basic training, for example, the practice has long been “to load up soldiers quickly with lots of gear” and send them out on long marches, Hertling explains. “In our testosterone-driven world, it’s about doing something more, and something harder.”
But research has found that the strain accompanying such tough training leads to stress fractures and other injuries, he argues.
This research is increasingly bolstered, Hertling adds, by the experience of soldiers fighting two wars in exceedingly harsh climates over the course of a decade.
The result in practical terms is a new Army doctrine extolling the virtues of breaks on long marches – not typically a US military priority. Commanders are discovering, for example, that rest can be regenerative.
“When you’re doing long marches, get them off their feet, get their legs up, take the packs off, the helmets off,” says Hertling. “That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to incorporate.”
This change from past conditioning priorities is a departure from how the Army tests its soldiers for fitness – and how it prepares them for war.
For the past 30 years, “We’ve only done push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run,” Hertling says. “And frankly, none of those address the kinds of things soldiers are asked to do in combat.”
To remedy that, the Army is adding shuttle runs and the long jump, both of which are familiar to school-age children from the annual presidential physical fitness tests.
The Army has also shortened the traditional 2-mile run test to 1-1/2 miles, to give commanders a better sense of troops’ ability to run shorter distances more quickly – a more demanding feat than running a slower two-mile run, Hertling says, and one more closely related to soldiers' practice of sprinting from one patch of covered ground to another.
In basic training, the Army is increasing speed-running drills while reducing the weekly mileage that new trainees must log, which in turn “has seemed to help reduce the overall number of stress fractures,” he adds.
Commanders hope that the new combat readiness test will help better judge which troops who are ready for the rigors of war. The test includes a series of drills such as navigating a balance beam while hauling two 30-pound canisters of ammunition and dragging a sled filled with 180-pounds worth of sandbags.
Hertling says he has received reports that some units are resisting the new conditioning exercises, known in military jargon as "physical readiness training," or PRTs. A former drill sergeant, now in an operational unit, sent him a message saying, " 'Hey, I’m trying to incorporate the new PRTs, but my chain of command won’t let me,’ ” Hertling relates.
On this point, he is philosophical. “We’re still early. It’s going to happen,” he says. “I would suggest to all commanders: [Try] the program before you start bad-mouthing it, because when you try it, as many sergeants, majors, and commanders do, they say, ‘Holy smokes, this is a smoker of a workout.’ "