Health and Fitness: The Physically Adaptive Combat Athlete

Although this is obviously aimed for military application, I think it gives the Civilian Operator a great springboard template to base his Physical Fitness training regimen off of, especially if you want to integrate small unit tactics. -SF



The Physically Adaptive Soldier: Creating the Combat Athlete

Darrell E. Fawley III

As the Army transitions to a more flexible, adaptive force able to operate with little or no forewarning across a broad range of physical environments and levels of conflict, its physical training program remains rigid and fixed.  While espousing the need for the capability and capacity – to include endurance – to accomplish the mission in a complex environment, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The US Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World makes no mention of physical fitness.[i]  However, to have a force that can operate in a diverse range of geographic conditions and climates and perform tasks across a broad range of military operations, physical fitness will be key.  While functional fitness is the regime du jour, adaptive fitness is the concept that will prepare the Army to fight and win in a complex world.  Units should develop physical training programs that focus on developing the combat athlete and the Army should adopt policies that foster adaptive fitness for its direct combat units.

The Combat Athlete

By definition, the uncertain future operating environment will contain a set of challenges that are unknown.  However, the range of potential conflicts and physical tasks is knowable.  Soldiers, though, don’t know the exact climate and geography they will operate in and do not know the exact physical tasks required, thus they must have a much broader base of fitness than doctrine or common programs offer.  While Field Manual 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training, explicitly states that “[p]hysical readiness is the ability to meet the physical demands of any combat or duty position, accomplish the mission, and continue to fight and win”, the manual remains a one-size-fits-all approach to general fitness in most aspects.[ii]  There are many things to like about the manual, however, it does not set a path toward adaptive combat fitness. Combat or operational soldiers need to be prepared for the demands of any environment and any situation.[iii]

While regional alignment eliminates some environmental uncertainty, it doesn’t provide enough certainty to train for one specific place.  A regionally aligned brigade could fight in a set of diverse environments within their region. The African continent alone has six climate zones before even looking at the unique geography of individual areas.  Unlike a soldier who in the past may have prepared for a year to fight in the mountains of Afghanistan or the desert of Iraq, current soldiers need a broad level of a fitness that will benefit them in any potential environment.  Thus, they need a level of a fitness that will allow them to quickly adapt to the unique challenges they may face.  How do they do this?  Simply put, adaptive fitness.

Why Something New?

In recent years, there has been a wide body of fitness programs that operate under the banner of functional fitness with many of them claiming to be good for military athletes, of which CrossFit is certainly the largest and most well known.[iv] Some of these, such as Military Athlete, actually take into consideration what a combat soldier may need to do and build that into their programming.  However, many of these programs require a large amount of equipment that would be unfeasible in this budget environment with which to outfit units.  Put another way, they are gym based.  Further, while revered by some and reviled by others, CrossFit has proven effective in creating fitness.  The problem is that CrossFit has crossed into the realm of sport and is more about showing off the general fitness of its athletes than any discernable, useful fitness.  The average combat athlete has no need to be able to do a muscle up, an overhead squat, a handstand pushup or a double under, no matter how worthy these accomplishments may be.[v]

While practice has diverged from theory in CrossFit, the principals remain solid.  For example, one of CrossFit’s fitness models is that an athlete should be able to perform well no matter what physical task he or she is assigned.[vi][vii]  Called the “Hopper Model”, under this philosophy, given an infinite list of potential physical tasks, a well-trained athlete should perform to a high standard at any randomly chosen event.  For a combat soldier, there is not an infinite number of potential physical tasks, but there are a large number of tasks that a soldier may have to perform.  The sample list below shows a number of tasks that may need to be performed in combat wearing a full load to include the Army Combat Uniform, IOTV/Plate Carriers, ACH, weapon, PPE and other gear.

  • Conduct 3-5 second bounds while advancing under fire,
  • Patrol over long distances in rough terrain carrying combat gear plus extra equipment,
  • Drag a casualty to safety when the casualty is loaded down in full combat gear,
  • Drag a SKED litter or carry a litter for long distances,
  • Carry a casualty alone or with assistance,
  • Pull himself into a window, pull another soldier into a window or scale a wall,
  • Move over, around, and through obstacles,
  • Manually breach a door with his body or crowbar,
  • Move through a trench crouched,
  • Throw a grenade or grappling hook,
  • Change a tire,
  • Lift casualties into a helicopter or vehicle,
  • Move cases of water, bags of feed or grain or other heavy objects to distribute to locals,
  • Scale a steep slope,
  • Run 300-500 meters while reacting to indirect fire dismounted.
  • Engage in hand-to-hand combat,
  • Engage moving targets with elevated heart rate.

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