Skip to main content

Article – What are the Physical Requirements of the Modern Battlefield?

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.

Click on the image to access 5 Harrowing Stories of Close Combat via Task & Purpose

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.
2. Power.
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:

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:

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.

11 thoughts on “Article – What are the Physical Requirements of the Modern Battlefield?

  1. Definitely all accurate and fair points. This research has been around for a lot time but Army only seems to be just catching up now.

    Starting this training as early as Kapooka is great but we’re still feeling the effects of not having a higher standard of fitness required to graduate training. Therefore the burden on units and the defence health system is not going to change any time soon without real change to how we define a fit and capable soldier.

    We are seeing recruits with fitness deficiencies pushed onto the schools to make up said deficiency. The schools don’t have the time to do this so they have to push it onto units.

    1. Absolutely Steve, and this was seen through correlation with a change in training at Kapooka followed by an injury spike at Singleton.
      Progress is being made but it’s time to link all the like minded people in the system to generate more momentum!
      As a professional force it’s no longer good enough to just go for a jog because nothing else was planned. Or to return to running at exactly the same intensity following a field phase with out accounting for 6 weeks of detraining!

      Also a process of education as to how anaerobic or interval training better replicates demand, such as the repeated high intensity efforts required during fire and movement etc. and how strength is a key underpinning factor to most other facets of fitness.

  2. How would you approach the limited ability to maintain a long range strength & conditioning program in a high tempo unit at one of the BDE’s?

    The challenge seems to me, to be that with field, courses, leave and general battle rhythm disruptions it is hard to maintain a group PT program that moves past a basic level.

    At any one time you will be dealing with a portion of the sub unit that is not conditioned to the percentage load (or whatever progression metric you are using).

    I feel like this is the reason (combined with expertise/equiptment shortages) that is is seen to be easier to do the classic bodyweight circuit/ long slow distance.

    I wrote a paper on this topic a few years ago, I can try to dig it up if anybody is interested.

    1. Hi Tom, valid points buddy; the said challenges clearly highlight the importance of individual soldiers taking ownership and being actively responsible for their own fitness to ensure they are healthy and conditioned to perform their role and job within Army 😊

  3. My advice: Do not treat soldiers like professional athletes. In my opinion your emphasis on strength only correlates with (but does not CAUSE) performance improvements. If i were in your position i would think more like a physio than a strength coach. Ie: Thoracic and lumbar stability and functionality for improved load carrying performance. Pelvic/hip Gait functionality through correct running mechanics to reduce lower limb joint imbalances. Agility/dexterity drills to further protect ankles and knees. Going back to the thoracic – come up with some scapular exercises to protect the shoulders. As far as neural activation is concerned do sprints. 10m, 20m,30,40,60m This will take care of plyometric adaptation as well as rate of force development where it matters. Watch out for cns burnout. And lastly (cause i can go on forever) dont think of long slow running as a workout but as a form of recovery. Make it slow and relaxing. The slower the better. Focus on oxygenating the body as opposed to burning them out. There is also the issue of relaxation techniques, ie breathing techniques and bodywork. Hope this helps

    1. The Physio world has discounted strength training for far too long and has been shown to be effective in reducing injury risk as well as improving performance. I also fail to see how a basic strength training such as a deadlift or squat isn’t functional for someone who will be asked to lift, place and carry.

      How do you define “correct ” running mechanics or correct mechanics of any kind?
      More and more evidence points to the fact that movement variability is a very poor predictor of injury risk.

      Not sure where dexterity comes into play apart from weapon handling but agility can be easily addressed through warm up protocols such as the FIFA 11+

      WRT to long slow running the problem we face is because it is “easy” to program you often find cases where platoons will run 5 days a week with no Los monitoring or objective data on volume or improvement.

  4. Hi Cal – I agree with large parts of this article however disagree that the need for a sound aerobic base is basically redundant. I see a large part of the organisation unable to sustain a steady state for longer than 30mins (probably 20) due to our over reliance on high end anaerobic training. It is not running or aerobic training that increases the injury rate, but the poor application of its use. We saw this in the mid 90s when we removed the 5km run because running was causing so many injuries – yes it was, but because of a lack of patience to develop a sound base and the mentality of having to always be hard and fast to get results. The 2.4km has not IMO made a difference as now we can get away with 10-15 mins of high intensity and ‘guts’ our way through a test that when you break down the energy system usage, is in excess of 95% aerobic. I agree with the author that strength is a vital component, but we also see the same analogy as I have described above – lift heavy things fast and furious = shoulder and back injuries….not because of the system, but because of its poor application. We don’t need an army of distance runners, but I would argue that a sound aerobic base is the foundation for everything we need from an RAINF soldier. The ability to keep going at a steady state, work at higher intensities for periods of time, move heavy objects and then be ready to go again….this does not happen with 6x 400s as your only running. Aerobic exercise does not cause injury….poor application and a lack of understanding of its use does.

    Fitness and a structured training program is a force multiplier and CFLs and PTIs are well placed to implement these.

    Ps – I enjoyed the read and it is great to see an article of this type. Happy to discuss my views further on fitness in the military. Thanks.

    Pps – the shift towards teaching sound lifting technique and strength training in training establishments is a positive one IMO.

  5. Great piece Cal. I couldn’t agree more, the literature is running away from a biomechanical right or wrong way to move to reduce injury, faster than you can say ‘transitioning to midfoot running and engaging your tranverse abdominis will reduce back pain and prevent shin splints’.
    If we really want to take injury prevention, physical performance and resilience seriously then we have to find ways to push the style of S&C that yourself and Kramer et al are describing more broadly across the organisation.
    Which brings us quite rightly to Tom’s question of how we achieve this in a high tempo Combat Brigade environment. For what it’s worth I think this requires a few things. Firstly we need to periodise training broadly based on Battalion battle rhythms over at least a 12 month macro cycle. Secondly we need a meso cycle (6-8 weeks) focused on reconditioning back to the base standard for anyone away from the unit for greater than 2 weeks. Thirdly we need to implement simple measures to track training response and look for early signs of overtraining syndrome, such as invidulised RPE diaries to track acute:chronic workload ratios. Finally we need buy in from commanders to facilitate the above, given that it is a shift away from the traditional style of delivery of PT within Battalions which often work in the 2 days under sect/pl 2 days under Coy and 1 day under Bn arrangements for weekly PT.
    This isn’t a new concept either, I’m pretty sure a similar model to that which I’ve described above is currently being implemented at 1RAR and I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone up there as to how they’re finding it?

    1. Paul – Whilst I am observing from afar, I am an interested observer having been an advocate of periodised PT programs throughout my career. 1 RAR are in fact following a very structured model at present and all indications are they are seeing very good results due to the leadership group enforcing the program. Seeing a platoon of Infantry doing a strength training session of squats and deadlifts with structure and very good technique is a positive step forward and hopefully what 1 RAR is doing will filter to the wider Army.

  6. How do I define correct mechanics for running? Basically running at varying intensities from say 30% to 95% intensity without getting injured. Kind of how i assume you would define correct squat mechanics or deadlift mechanics. Basically execute challenging lifts without injury. In order to achieve this you dont teach everyone to squat the same do you? Everyone will squat differently correct?

    So how do you improve mechanics? You address muscle imbalances. Make sure everything is firing correctly. I like the term “intramuscular coordination”.

    Also, i never said strength was irrelevant. In fact i stated that it is correlated with improved performance but is not the cause of improved performance, and that is a fact.

    On movement variability: Are you familiar with the term “reconsolidation”?

    1. Hey Paul, sorry for the delay I did not see your latest comment.

      No problem with running at different intensities/velocities and looking for increased movement efficiency, just disagree that there is a gold standard technique, most of the data at the moment suggests the biggest controllable risk factor is weekly load:

      for almost anything which reduces injury, and there is a growing body of evidence to support this, including some fantastic longitudinal studies which showed that years of manual lifting training had no positive effect on injury rates! (It was even shown that this training increased fear-avoidance and led to worse outcomes when injury occurred):

      Running Injuries: A review of the epidemiological literature.
      Willem van Mechelen – Sports Medicine – 1992

      There is a similar picture for lifting, the key variable seems to be being prepared for the load through gradual training and increases, rather than techniques which are ‘bad’ for you, i teach technique primarily for efficiency and performance reasons, and the program progression carefully to allow for adaptation. Here are some fantastic longitudinal studies which showed that years of manual lifting training had no positive effect on injury rates! (It was even shown that this training increased fear-avoidance and led to worse outcomes when injury occurred):

      What constitutes effective manual handling training? A systematic review
      S. Clemes-C. Haslam-R. Haslam – Occupational Medicine – 2009

      Verbeek , J., Martimo , K., Karppinen, J., Kuijer , P., Viikari-Juntura, E., & Takala, E. (2011). Manual material handling advice and assistive devices for preventing and treating back pain in workers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (6), Art. No.: CD005958. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005958.pub3

      But I completely disagree with your statement that it is a fact that strength is not a cause of performance improvements, but I find little value in just arguing opinion vs opinion, so instead I’ve quickly thrown together a list of some research articles below; this list is by no means exhaustive (and this doesn’t even take into account the long term health benefits from strength training):

      Maximal strength training improves aerobic endurance performance
      J. Hoff-A. Gran-J. Helgerud – Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports – 2002

      Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power
      L. Paavolainen-K. Hakkinen-I. Hamalainen-A. Nummela-H. Rusko – Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports – 2003

      Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes
      P. Aagaard-J. Andersen – Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports – 2010

      Maximal Strength Training Improves Surfboard Sprint and Endurance Paddling Performance in Competitive and Recreational Surfers
      Joseph Coyne-Tai Tran-Josh Secomb-Lina Lundgren-Oliver Farley-Robert Newton-Jeremy Sheppard – Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research – 2017

      Combining Explosive And High-Resistance Training Improves Performance In Competitive Cyclists
      Carl Paton-William Hopkins – Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research – 2005

      ENDURANCE ACTIVITIES: Can Explosive Strength Training Improve Distance Running Performance?
      John Crawley – Strength and Conditioning Journal – 2001

      Maximal strength training improves walking performance in peripheral arterial disease patients
      E. Wang-J. Helgerud-H. Loe-K. Indseth-N. Kaehler-J. Hoff – Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports – 2010

      ENDURANCE ACTIVITIES: Can Explosive Strength Training Improve Distance Running Performance?
      John Crawley – Strength and Conditioning Journal – 200

      Transfer of Strength and Power Training to Sports Performance
      Warren Young – International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance – 2006

      Adaptations in Athletic Performance after Ballistic Power versus Strength Training
      Prue Cormie-Michael Mcguigan-Robert Newton – Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise – 2010

      Influence of Strength Training on Sprint Running Performance
      Christophe Delecluse – Sports Medicine – 1997

      There is a reason that strength training is a staple of almost every professional sporting training program on earth, along side sport specific conditioning, power and skills. Thanks for your thoughts, I always welcome the chance to discuss these issues with fellow health professionals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *

The Cove is a professional development site for the Australian Profession of Arms. The views expressed within individual blog posts and videos are those of the author, and do not reflect any official position or that of the author's employers' - see more here. Any concerns regarding this blog post, video or resource should be directed in the first instance to