The Wrong Strategy

Recently there was an article in The Seattle Times about the devastating effects on US soldiers from carrying heavy ruck loads in combat (ARTICLE). The article details individual stories of young soldiers with chronic spinal arthritis as well as how musculoskeletal injuries have significantly increased since this war began. Depending on the branch and unit, loads vary anywhere from 70 to 130 pounds. The article calls for a significant “weight loss program” to reduce the average load carried by combat soldiers.

Unfortunately it isn’t realistic to ask an infantryman to carry less weight. How else would the team carry batteries, survival gear, food, water, ammunition, and necessary explosives with them in the field? Vehicles and even pack animals are used when they can be, but there are specific circumstances and specific units who have a mission that won’t allow help with carrying loads. The warriors will have to soldier on, as they say, in order to do what they need to do.

The article referenced several underweight infantrymen.

“I had a choice. But I couldn’t leave my squad behind just before they were being deployed,” said Staff Sgt. James Knower, a wiry, 155-pound soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who served in Afghanistan for a year despite injuries to his arm and rotator cuff.

A rail-thin staff sergeant in the same platoon, 130-pound Kenneth Rickman, patrolled with armor and gear that typically weighed between 80 and 90 pounds.

There are several things wrong with a guy carrying 70% of his bodyweight all day, every day. First is the institution that put him in that position. Why would a 130 pound man be tasked with a job in infantry — one that specifically demands that the soldier carry heavy loads long distances on a daily basis? That infantryman may also need to carry classified equipment or, god forbid, another American soldier away from a dangerous situation. Trusting someone who is underweight, and inevitably under-strong, with these tasks is a fault of the institution.

Additionally, it’s a mistake to have a “cry for help” to try and reduce loads. Modern warfare demands significant amounts of equipment ranging from communications gear to mortar rounds and tubes. Realistically the loads won’t be reduced any time soon. Warfare and methods would need to adapt, and this environment of this current war (mountainous terrain in the middle of no where) limits technological adaptation to help a platoon move materials from one place to another. The trait that can be influenced in the short-term — one that will help improve the readiness and capability of the soldier as well as limit their potential for injury — is to have a stronger soldier.

A stronger soldier not only will be able to withstand the rigor of carrying 100 pounds on his back all day (and then dropping a small portion of it to engage an enemy followed by picking it back up and moving to the destination), but it will strengthen the structures to withstand the force and strain of heavy loads. Advocates that fight for the improvement of soldier safety (regarding carrying heavy loads) shouldn’t aim to reduce the load, but to prepare the soldier to handle those loads heavier. In reality, it’s the only thing that can be currently effected — focus on the variables that can actually be controlled.

Most of these young soldiers with withering spines were ill prepared for carrying such loads. It’s not that they didn’t have the experience of carrying loads (they do it in training), but that their structures — muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones — were ill prepared to handle the ongoing stress. It’s one thing to increase the contractile force of your muscles, but it’s another thing to increase the density and capabilities of a structures. Bones will react and adapt to the forces that are placed on them, yet slamming them with 100+ pounds of compression forces without any chance to adapt will result in deteriorating mass and structural stability. Instead, soldiers should use a combination of overall strength training with safe ruck marching loads (sources recommend capping training ruck loads at 50 pounds). Squatting and deadlifting are perfect exercises for preparing the entire spinal column to withstand higher forces, and the training ruck marches can condition that strength for prolonged postural use.

A 130 pound — even 150 pound — guy who hasn’t increased the integrity of his musculoskeletal system is ill prepared for the rigor of deployed ruck handling. What actually should happen is under weight soldiers should be put on a strength training regime to increase their body weight to at least 180 pounds with compound, realistic movements that train the musculature and structures involved in a soldier’s job: squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and rowing. It isn’t realistic to begin or maintain a program in an institution like the military. It takes years for large-scale physical fitness trends to permeate, and they don’t have the means for all personnel to get adequately strong anyway. I should point out that doing a leg press or machine row is a poor substitute for effective training. The spine and hips need to be loaded similarly to how they’ll be loaded in the actual job, and that is stabilizing a load that is not constrained to a set track.

It’s unfortunate that many soldiers have lingering effects of courageously carrying massive loads when deployed. The Seattle Times article repeatedly references the musculoskeletal issues, especially on the spine. Good chiropractors that can treat spinal issues as well as the soft tissue surrounding the spinal column should be utilized to help treat battered soldiers. Additionally, they should have effective programs that progressively increase the capabilities of the injured structures to a point where they can handle a load again. Simple, yet intelligent, progressive overload principles over time compounded with skeletal and soft tissue manipulation can help treat these lingering injuries so that the soldiers don’t have to result to pain killers and narcotics to cope (see article).

Alas, changes in the institution’s system will be long, drawn out affairs if they happen at all — it’s just the nature of a large organization responsible for the defense of the United States. Instead, active and former soldiers would do well to educate themselves on how to properly prepare, cope, and rehab with the physical punishment associated with their job. Most veterans who read this site are “in the know” of how to train their body accordingly, but they’d do well to help their friends with these simple, yet helpful lessons. Take responsibility in helping who you can when they will listen. There are thousands and thousands of people around the world that train for the sole purpose of killing Americans, especially American soldiers. We don’t need our lack of proper strength training to kill our soldiers in the field, or slowly killing their spines years after seeing combat.

22 thoughts on “The Wrong Strategy

  1. Here fucking here!

    When i was in the Royal Marines Reserves we would often carry loads of up 60kg for great distances (15 mile and more). It was always surprising to me the amount of guys who were of similar weights to their packs, but to their credit they did “soldier on”.

    If there was a mandatory requirement for recruits to go through a strength program prior to active duty or even recruit training we could have a force of universal soldiers….

  2. Funny you should post this today, as I just read this article about how the food provided to soldiers is making them too fat:

    If the military were really committed to the idea of a solider-athlete weight training would be very important.

    Ha, nice link. If they were all squatting a couple times a week then they’d have a place for those extra calories to go!


  3. Article makes sense, I mean if you were going to throw a heavy load on a mule and head out into the wilderness you would want the skinniest one you could find. What great logic. Nothing but vegis and LSD for me now.

  4. Having been an Infantryman for the past 14 years I can say from experience that there are individuals in the Armed Forces who have the knowledge and ability to properly train Soldiers/Marines for this. The problem lies in the operational tempo of our forces and competing priorities for Commanders. Most of the force is on a year on year off deployment cycle. Units must re-train Soldier skills, complete loads of classes (cultural awareness, ethics, language, etc..), and prepare personally for deployments all while trying to get into proper shape for the rigors of their upcoming deployment. Another problem is that most leaders in the military know very little about physical fitness or training. They do what their leaders before have done. There is little in the way of formal education, at least in the Army, and most of what is there is from a guy in the unit who is into it and has personally invested in becoming better and more educated. With all of the competing priorities, physical training is usually the one that loses out. PT is conducted, but unless Commanders and Leaders are truly focused on combat, it is geared towards passing the fitness test, not surviving combat.

    I hear ya, Steven. I didn’t mean to say that the Army was incompetent and that everyone who was in it didn’t have their shit together. I’m more so looking at the large scale issue of changing an approach over time (and we both know that it takes time). The thing that bothered me in the article was the call to lighten loads, as if that’s reasonable given the current war. It’s a silly gut reaction that our society has nowadays: do a complete 180 with tons of hysteria.


  5. It is a shame that our Military doesn’t treat our soldier more like advanced athletes and put top-notch strength and conditioning programs in place for them, or at the very least educate them on such things. There’s no way we should be putting soldiers into battle that couldn’t even carry a wounded soldier to safety. Maybe an overall of the current PT protocol is needed to reflect actual combat situations.

    To clarify, they are treated as athletes. It’s just that they are “behind the times” and have large scale logistic problems to implement it (e.g. imagine having to outfit the 101st Airborne with weight training equipment to get all of them stronger…that’s a tall order). The national budget is high enough as it is, and the Army has “got along” for a long time without extra or special PT. Instead, platoon or squad leaders should do their best with what they have, and individual soldiers should educate themselves on how they need to prepare for their mission (based on their state of adaptation — in this case, skinny, weak, or strong).



  6. Great article! Hopefully the message is passed around to senior leaders. I can’t imagine how bad that must sucked for those 130 and 155 lb guys trying to carry that much weight around on mission, in miserable weather conditions. Amazing what the heart of a Soldier can will themselves to do.

  7. A american friend of mine has massive knee issue because of this issue you describe.

    On a less deopressing note;

    Justin, when can we expect the final installment on the Texas Method, about how to modify the volume day in order to further progress?
    I am heading towards the tail end of TM. I have a squat of 172.5kg X 5 squat.
    I want to get 180kg X 5 squat before I finish TM, and if possible a 190kg x 5 squat using some fancy tricks like speed sets (or anything else you say in your post).

    I know I am heading towards the end because I stall on the volume day every 3 weeks or so, and it is getting hard to recover from, and lots of rest is required between sets (over 10 minutes).

    many thanks!

  8. Good article, Justin.

    If you have ideas on how to reconcile strength and power training with long distance endurance work, I’m all ears….

    I’d implement a strength program with properly scheduled ruck marching.


  9. As one of those infantrymen who carried 130 pounds on missions this post hits close to home. The infantryman’s load is the heaviest it’s been in history. It’s a tragedy how long it will take to bring proper training into practice if ever at all.

  10. Pingback: Workout Of The Day 3/1/2011 « Crossfit Monterey

  11. @John–the Army’s new test looks a lot like the Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test, which I think is a lot better test of someone’s real-world strength and conditioning than the standard PFT is. The CFT does a good job of identifying the people who’ve never lifted anything heavy and who would be a liability in a bad situation.

  12. so i am 6′ and about 240 because i like to lift and eat. i do ok on the APFT, but i don’t kill it or anything. i don’t train for it really and i like to basically wing the run because 2 miles isn’t all that far. when other army people start talking about body fat % and tape tests and run times i like to ask them: if you’re shot in the leg and need to be carried/dragged soemwhere safe, do you want me or a 175 dude who can run a 12 min two mile to be the one to help? gets the point across pretty good.

  13. I guess they’re treated as athletes, but compared to other athletes (football, baseball, olympic) they are certainly lacking. I understand the complexity of the logistics, but it seems these guys should be a priority. Nice to say, but probably not going to be a reality anytime soon. $$ talks.

    Simply educating these guys to use what they have doesn’t seem like it’d take a ton. Not like putting state of the art stregth training facilities on every base. Educate on the benefit of strength training, use the gyms that are in place, with maybe a squat rack or two added in and change the way PT is done 1 day a week and what the PFT measures. Maybe even just job specific PFT to start with. Seems doable IMO.

  14. Justin, great article man. I’m an Army officer currently in an infantry unit in Iraq and I am amazed at how clueless the Army is about physical fitness. When I first came to my unit the Battalion Commander actually mandated of minimum of 30 minutes of running everyday (less than one month after they had returned from a 15 month deployment), and then called us out for being pussies when half the men were on profile for shin splints a few weeks later. Our senior leaders, for the most part, simply don’t understand the concept or importance of strength training and they think that the weekend is sufficient time required for recovery. It gets better… I’m 5′ 9″ and about 225lbs with a 525lb squat, 375 bench, a 570 pull and I can still run a 40 yard dash in well under 5 seconds. But since my 2 mile run is over 13 minutes (14:15) I am considered to be unfit and “out of shape”. I have been deployed for 8 months now and strangely enough I have never had a situation that required me to drop my kit, throw on some shoes and run for 5 miles. Initially I was impressed with the little dudes in the unit who could run 2 miles in under 12, 11, even 10 minutes. That is some impressive shit! But now I consider them a liability more than an asset because they are simply less useful to the group. Senior officers in my unit with 20 years of experience would have you believe that you are unqualified to lead men if you do not fit the dimensions prescribed in the Army’s height/ weight standards (according to the regulations a 5’9″ soldier should be a maximum of 179lbs). Alas, there is hope; some high ranking General Officers with legitimate knowledge on physical fitness are making attempts to modify the APFT to include more relevant events such as a shuttle run, litter carriers, along with other anaerobic-based events and shortening the run to 1.5 miles. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll be able to influence those leaders who have been misinformed for decades that skinny=fit and strength=fat. But in the meantime the junior officers and NCOs must continue to fight the good fight and spread the knowledge to those misled soldiers out there being convinced that doing 5 mile runs and exclusively doing pushups, sit ups, and pull ups every day is what it takes to prepare for combat.

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