Physicality has always been an enduring feature of warfare. This has been a truism since Cain first picked up a rock to strike Abel, all the way through to the accounts written here detailing incidents of hand to hand combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. While it is without doubt that the battlefield has seen some radical changes in the last 100 or even 50 years, it appears that a physically fit and robust force will still remain an important feature of the future.
So what are the physical demands of the 21st century battle space, and how do we as a modern professional army ensure that our training is specific and relevant to the job we do? Do these answers differ for those taking the fight to the enemy in close quarters urban assaults, against those operating in a high tempo third-line logistics unit undertaking demanding cognitive and physical tasks under cumulative fatigue and sleep deprivation common on operational deployments? In this series of blog posts I, and my fitness colleagues, hope to explore this complex but fundamental challenge.
Selection and maintenance of the aim is as important for effective strength and conditioning as it is for war in general; so what are the core physical requirements of the modern battlefield, and how should we be preparing our soldiers for this? Those interested in the physical requirements for the modern warfighter should read Kramer et al. This well-researched paper breaks down the physical requirements of the modern battle space, and the training focus required in order to prepare soldiers for this environment. It outlines a modern battlefield, which arguably requires individuals to have 4 key fitness traits, outlined below:
1. Baseline strength.
3. Anaerobic capacity.
4. External Load Carriage (ELC) & muscular endurance.
Kramer et al’s paper is also interesting as it puts in a strong argument against the need for extensive aerobic fitness, or long slow distance training (LSD). I agree with this. It is incredibly rare that you will find an instance of a soldier undertaking any activity resembling low-medium intensity running for long durations in any stage of operations. Without even touching on the injury prevention argument here, this fact alone is enough to warrant a hard look at what is potentially the most common form of ‘PT run’ in the barracks environment. This is certainly not an argument against running, but rather the intensity and goals of the running session conducted. The argument against LSD training aside, I believe that Army still could benefit from an increased focus on basic strength training. As the studies below show, even elite endurance athletes have gained benefits through addition strength training:
- Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners
- Explosive -Strength Training Improves 5km Running Time by Improving Running Economy and Muscle Power
- The Effects of Resistance Training on Endurance Distance Running Performance Among Highly Trained Runners: a Systematic Review.
In the end the essence of professional strength and conditioning is to prepare the individual for a high level of performance specific to the demands of their job. General fitness, a non- specific ‘smash’ session or a run along the river next to the barracks can all be helpful (written and delivered by anyone): the mark of professionalism, however, is evidence based, specific, and safe training that meets the specific needs of the environment.
The Second and Third Order Effects on Organisational Resilience
Physical fitness has obvious first order effects on the ability of an Army to do its core job. Take, for example, acquiring a target and shooting it (and avoiding being shot). Research by Billing et al and Frykman et al respectively found that a poor physical capacity to carry heavy loads makes a soldier more vulnerable to enemy fire, and less able to acquire targets and accurately engage them. There are also, however, deeper second and third order threats that poor physicality poses to an organisation; a lack of fitness (for example) increases the burden on service healthcare systems, and also the services which provide care and funding for retired service members healthcare. Fitness is intrinsically linked to organisational resilience. Physical conditioning can be a powerful tool for not only producing first-class soldiers, but also for reducing organisation healthcare burden and costs. For those interested in this, the following articles are studies on strength and resistance training, high-stress workplaces and resilience:
- Strength and Fitness and Subsequent Back Injuries in Firefighters
- Health and Fitness Benefits of a Resistance Training Intervention Performed in the Workplace
- Health and Performance Related Potential of Resistance Training
Conclusion – What to Do Next?
Army offers a unique cultural environment for effective training: a willing (and captive) audience who undergo inculcation through defined points of entry and who do not have to pay for training undertaken. This provides us with an incredible opportunity to apply high-performance techniques to develop a workforce who is prepared for the task. A strong start has already been made in this direction with the injection of funding and strength based training at Kapooka, as well as some fantastic work being done by CPL Nicolson for 8/9 RAR in Brisbane, but I believe it is a cultural change that needs to spread throughout Forces Command and to the bulk of where our people are.
So what should we do about this complex problem, involving time, expertise and funding gaps? I will propose a few of my thoughts on the issue in the next blog on the Cove, and will look forward to the ideas of other like-minded professionals out there.
About the author:
Calen Thomas has a both a bachelor of Physiotherapy and of Applied Science (Human Movement Studies) with honours, majoring in Exercise Science. Before joining Army in 2015, he worked in a strength and conditioning role with the QLD Reds and Australian Rugby Union Academy as well as in a sports trainer role with South’s Rugby Union, Brisbane. Calen is a keen advocate of rehabilitation and return to high performance activity and the modernisation of Army Physical Training.