Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aaaaaaarmy Training, Sir! (FM 21-20 Edition)

OK, I'm genuinely bemused.

Does this strike you as a little piece of PR for Private Benjamin's Army, you remember, the one with the "condos and the yachts"? Is it just another "You're gonna love this great new PT program because...it's new!" sort of thing that comes out of the schoolhouse every couple of years?Or, WTF, over?

For those who don't want to go read the story, the gist is that the U.S. Army has cut back on some of the physical training elements, especially running, because (at least the official explanation is) the trainees are coming in all fat and nasty and can't run without hurting themselves.

Now. I was on the trail a decade ago, and I don't remember that we had all that many fatties and softies.

I remember complaining about the Joes' committment a lot - about the way they whined and tried to jake it - but not so much about their physical shape. Yes, some were soft, but, hey, we expected that. Not every wannabe grunt was a jock in high school, and the PT program in Basic was designed to ease them into shape. This article implies that even that standard was too high.

It seems intuitively exaggerated that the fitness of the nation's 17-year-olds should have declined so markedly in ten years. Am I just blanking out on the problem, old man style?

Now a LOT of the trainees I remember were different even from my early VOLAR BCT battle buddies. Less...well, "hard", I guess, is the word that comes to my mind. When I was under the hat I seem to remember having had a lot more suburban kiddos who had never really been in a serious fight, who were fundamentally, well, "nice" kids and who never really got that this was all about eventually getting them to the point of getting killed. They were like John Candy in Stripes; there for a challenge, or to lose weight, or whatever. The notion of dying - or making the other dumb bastard die - for their/his country didn't seem to occur to them.

But PT injuries? Not so much.

And just between you and me? A HELL of a lot of training units would eventually pencil-whip their PT failures and make them their line units' problem. Yeah, yeah, I know. Not exactly the West Point Code of Honor.

Anyway, not quite sure what to make of this, but thought I throw it out there as a curiousity. Any thoughts?

Am I giving away my age when I observe that all this reinventing the PT wheel stuff makes me wonder when someone will suggest we really, really NEED to try this cool new thing called the "Run, Dodge and Jump"?


  1. "because (at least the official explanation is) the trainees are coming in all fat and nasty and can't run without hurting themselves."

    That is what the article is focusing on, but not the real reason (despite some high ranking people spouting off some data that I don't know if they can verify). The reason that running 5 miles in PT formations is out of vogue, is that the type of physical conditioning doesn't really increase combat effectiveness.

    The article (and those who are quoted in it) really seem to push the "Fat Agenda", but the reason I've seen that the PT program is getting overhauled is because there hasn't been a serious review on PT practices since the 80s. Lots has changed in the science of exercise, and the Army has not kept up. Many classic exercises were just stupid (i.e., the Turn and Bounce) and did absolutely nothing but waste time and in some cases led to injuries.

    The current trend is to move towards full body movements (i.e. CrossFit), and specifically, core work outs. This is critical if you are going to be carrying heavy weight for long durations (In Baghdad my kit averaged 60-70lbs). Although trendy now, I think you will see a return to running in non-running shoes, even barefoot and away from the heavily marketed, over supportive running shoes.

  2. Dunno about the Army, but PT standards in the Air Force have strengthened considerably over the last decade. We used to have the infamous "bike test" but several iterations later, we've got a fairly stringent push-up, sit-up, 1.5 mile run, plus waist measurement system. If you score below the minimum in any one area, then it's an automatic fail. Scoring the minimum in each area is also an automatic fail. The waist requirement is hitting a lot of people in the Guard because if your gut (not waist) is greater than 38 inches (for men) - that's a failure. The Guard is generally older and, ahem, "bigger" than the active force.

    The new standards, just implemented this year, seem pretty unpopular so far - who knows if they'll last or not.

  3. I have heard that the "new wisdom" on running is that distance running is out, interval running is in for fitness gurus. I have no trouble believing that the military has not paid attention to advances in physical fitness training. I had a hell of a time keeping trim in the late 1980s while stationed at a TDA unit, despite dieting and Army PT three times a week. I don't think the traditional approach was helping me, although I easily passed the PT tests.

    As for these younger people, again, no trouble believing that they've fallen by the wayside in fitness areas. Statistics point to it, our digital revolution has led to these results. Why walk to the library when you can just download a book? We do need a change in Army fitness practices, hope this will work.

  4. Chief,
    BG touched on the shoes and i'll further this cmt.
    Look at the run , dodge and jump- the dude is a dude and he's wearing combat boots.
    Look at your entry pic and the dude is not a dudester and further wearing running shoes/trainers.
    Remember when we said that you fight as you train and train as u fight? Does anyone wear tennies in combat?
    Now let's do a little reality check- could Stormin Norman or most senior officers pass a real pt test? I'll lv Stan Mc C out of my cmt since his legendary fitness didn't help him much.It always grabs my ass to see fat GO's.
    Since we are talking fitness why not start by looking at the mess hall fare?

  5. Jim: re your comment on tennies. I believe that the Koreans wore sneakers in combat. Must have been cold in the winter.

  6. jim-

    "Look at the run , dodge and jump- the dude is a dude and he's wearing combat boots.
    Look at your entry pic and the dude is not a dudester and further wearing running shoes/trainers."

    Agree!, and it's so obvious, but nobody saw it until . . . maybe this is where the Empire sputters out . . . ?

  7. I tend to agree with Jim about the boots. The tennie-runners are nice for going fast, but if you're going to run out in the tules, you're going to be in your LPCs.

    Thing is, I don't remember ever "running" out in the tules. You sprint your ass off from cover to cover, yup. And there are lots of times when you yomp along at an almost-jog, but that's ruck marching, and the trainees never really got a lot of that.

    So I don't really regret moving away from the distance running. I didn't get any sense that it was going to be replaced by route marching, tho, and that always made sense to me as a soldier-fitness sort of PT.

    "As for these younger people, again, no trouble believing that they've fallen by the wayside in fitness areas."

    But that was what brought me up short when I read this. Like I said, I was on the trail as short a time ago as 1998. The trainees I saw weren't exactly wolfishly lean - there were a fair number of weebles in any intake group - but they weren't THAT sad. Remember that this is the Aaaaarmy, guys; the kind of kid who won't "walk to the library when you can just download a book" isn't really prime recruiting meat. We got a pretty fair number of high school athletes - including the females - who were in decent shape. I'd say that we had more problems with football jocks and weightlifters who were too damn roided up to run or march than we did with fatties getting hurt. It seems hard to credit that the past twelve years have been some sort of bonanza time for the candy-hogs and soda-guzzlers to the point where a major revision to 21-20 is a must.

    My recollection is that this stuff used to happen every dozen years or so. We had one major change right after Vietnam, when the fixed-facility events like the horizontal ladder and the run, dodge, and jump got tossed out. Then some time in the late 1980s a lot of the old core-twisting exercises like the Body Twist got DXed, supposedly because of injury problems, and we had a general tightening of time standards for running and reps for PU/SU. And now this.

    Anyway, the oddity here was difference between the stated rationale - the incredible fatness of the American high school kid - and my experience with trainees a decade ago. Maybe the kids ARE fatter and slacker. Maybe its just time for a new 21-20. Maybe its the phases of the moon. You got me. But I'm sure everyone will piss, moan, eventually get with the program, and by the time everyone gets with it...it'll be time for a new revision!

  8. Interestingly, the general in charge of Army personnel (at least that's who I think it was) recently averred that only 30 percent of the target recruit population was fit for intake. Wasn't just physical, of course. It included IQ, HS graduation, criminal record, dope use, etc. What I think may be happening is that lots of recruits are indeed out of shape, maybe because couch potatoes are kind of smart, don't use drugs, stay out of trouble and graduate HS. So maybe you get more of them.

    Look around you. Of course there's a problem with the youth of America. And it's especially acute with certain demographics and with po' folk in general. Millions of American kids think a Big Mac and large fries is one of the food groups.

    Fat/physical fitness wasn't a real problem back in the dark ages when I first went in. Fat kids were an oddity in those days. I don't recall the recruit stuff being all that difficult, but consider that I was over six-foot-tall and weighed 150 pounds. Wasn't that unusual in those days. This will astound Jim, who's actually seen my 200 pound corpus, but, yes, Ranger, I was once indeed skinny.

    For the past year+, I've been going through a physical fitness regimen, first under professional supervision, and now on my own. Based on this, as well as on my own experiences, which include combat (hint: one year in Vietnam = 20 pounds or more lighter), I'll make some observations. First, running ain't worth it. And to answer you old farts who don't like sneakers, consider this: The Army and the Marines didn't go to tennies to give the troops a break. They did it because feet—lots and lots of feet—broke down. Combat boots aren't designed for distance running. They are designed for lengthy road marches with full ruck. That's what should be done. That builds endurance. Morning run, my ass. Full field, that's what I'm talking about.

    Weight lifting. No Nautilus stuff. Every platoon should have a bunch of free weights. We don't want our guys looking like prison inmates, but we want upper body strength. Weights are cheap and can be used any time.

    Being agile and sure-footed will save your life far more often than will the ability to run five miles. If you have to run five miles in combat, you've got way more problems than your weight.

    Diet. Ranger is right about the mess halls. Get serious about diet. Veggies can save lives, too. Get rid of the fast food outlets on base.

    FD Chief used the term "hard" in discussing the kids. "Hard" is what we want. But we must realize that hard is a state of mind. Building bodies may be the least important part of PT. Building confidence, endurance and just plan dogged insistence on mission accomplishment is what we ultimately want. Why do guys drop out? It's usually not physical. It's mental.

  9. IIRC, the Army Physical Readiness Test (Pushups, situps and run) was designed as a proxy measurement of fitness that requires no special equipment or facilities. Has little or nothing to do with fitness for any specific combat tasks. It's just easy to administer, and can be administered to troops at a downtown Los Angeles recruiting station as easily as troops at Fort Hood. After time, it became, via no valid logic other than being required, as some sort of "Gold Standard".

  10. My comment is similar to Aviator's: Reservists couldn't train for the old PCPT unless they lived close to the armory/center.

    The old PT test for forty-somethings was a four mile walk in an hour or less, in combat boots, which does make some sense, close combat being a young person's game.

  11. So true about the mental part Publius!

    I see things divided into two broad categories: physical fitness and training. You do the former to prep for the latter which itself is prep for the real thing.

    Back when I was younger and more of a PT guy, I toyed with the idea of trying BUDs. I started doing even more running, but all in boots and half of it in the sand. I wasn't ready for that kind of change and being young and dumb I didn't take time to adjust and ended up screwing up my knee, which still annoys me today.

    The point being, I think there's a time for PT with sneakers and there's a time for "PT" in boots or full kit or whatever. Professional athletes spend a lot of time building strength and stamina through activities outside whatever it is they compete in. That's more effective than simply practicing day in, day out.

  12. Andy: "The point being, I think there's a time for PT with sneakers and there's a time for "PT" in boots or full kit or whatever."

    Absolutely. I think where people, to include military leaders, get confused is the difference between "THE Physical Readiness Test" and "Physical Training". The former, at least in the Army, is a generic, easy to conduct measure of specific aspects of physical ability. The latter involves physical training activities to build and or maintain physical ability necessary to either pass the "Test" and/or for specific duty demands.

    How the military conducts training and conditioning to bring recruits up to the necessary standard of fitness is immaterial, as long as it succeeds. How the military measures fitness for duty should, of course, provide a realistic predictor or measurement of the ability to handle the physical demands of the job to be performed.

  13. Chief,
    Stamina is all, it doesn't matter how you get it.
    The feet break down b/c the boots are new and stiff, and the young troops never wore them before.
    The boots should've been issued prior to EAD and broken in before the start of training, but this requires foresightful planning.
    I too was thin at a 28 inch waist back in the dark ages. I think i made all my training b/c i was carrying exactly zero extra weight. Plus my catholic school background was tougher than Army sergeants.