July 18, 2011
By Sgt. Darius Kirkwood, First Army Division East
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. — If nearly a decade at war has taught us nothing else, we have learned that Soldiers do not fight like marathon runners, and that training for a test does not equal maximum results on the battlefield.
The Army is addressing the shortcomings of the physical training standards nearly every present-day Soldier has come to know with an entirely new guidebook that focuses on developing and evaluating the intense, explosive power inherent in today’s front line.
First Army Division East’s Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment here is using guidance from the new manual, entitled Army Physical Readiness Training, to augment its own PT program and improve the overall quality of its multi-component team’s physical readiness.
For more than 30 years, Army PT has been a marriage of fitness test-oriented routines with a heavy dose of late-70s running craze a la Jim Fixx, whose 1977 N.Y. Times bestseller, “The Complete Book of Running,” ignited an American fitness explosion that is still simmering today.
Until recently, not much had changed, except perhaps that most running is done in sneakers instead of boots.
Three mornings a week, the Soldiers assigned to Division East’s HHD conduct a laundry list of high-intensity, functional exercises that improve strength, endurance and mobility while mitigating the chance of injury, said Sgt. 1st Class Chad Urquhart, one of two noncommissioned officers assigned to 1AE who received formal instruction on the new system.
Urquhart is built like the archetypal combat-seasoned infantryman, long, lithe, wide shouldered. He’s the guy that starts the two-mile run at a relatively tame clip, then blasts off at a blistering pace, finishing minutes ahead of everyone else.
He has the calm, knowing demeanor of a parent with a small child, or that of an experienced senior enlisted Soldier who has lead countless troops. These days, he’s applying his talents as NCO in charge of 1AE’s Division Operations Center, an access-controlled vault that is the nerve center for the unit’s training mission.
Bottom line, When it comes to fitness, Urquhart knows a good thing when he sees it.
According to Urquhart, a Soldier participating in a PRT session can discern the improvements almost immediately.
“The dynamic warmup is great… For several years, I’ve used CrossFit, the Ranger Athlete Warrior program … By and large, they’re all set up with a dynamic warm-up,” he explained, speaking of the 10-exercise kinetic preparation drill that prepares Soldiers for more intense activities by stretching while moving.
In the past, warm-up sessions often didn’t necessarily target the specific areas about to be exercised, said Urquhart.
“Back in the day we used to do a couple of calisthenics as the warm-up, and then you would move into stretching those muscles. Those muscles aren’t necessarily warm yet by doing some side straddle hops, some pushups, and some flutter kicks!”
Not everything about the “old way” of doing PT was bad, says Urquhart. The PRT program, replete with instructions for every possible scenario, demands that leaders return to a more formal style of leading a PT session.
“Back in the day, everything was dress right dress. Everything was called out and repeated,” he said.
Urquhart explained that when fewer and fewer Master Fitness Trainers were getting assigned to units, many started to do their own thing. All too often, discipline went out the window.
Now, even the way you move your body to the starting position for a particular exercise is strictly defined all in the name of injury prevention.
Another big change is the emphasis on shorter, more intense runs and sprints to develop anaerobic endurance. According to the new manual, aerobic training alone does not fully prepare Soldiers for the functional endurance and strength requirements of Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills.
Likewise there is significant evidence that while anaerobic exercise also improves aerobic capacity, the inverse is not true.
“The amount of running has lessened,” said Urquhart. “You don’t need to go out and ran all that much. I train for marathons. You do a lot more running training for a marathon, but I don’t run every single day. I run 3 or 4 times a week. That’s it!”
Capt. Bruce Pauley, commander of 1AE’s HHD, has noticed some significant gains in the unit’s performance since the PRT program was implemented.
“The company average for the last record APFT was 253. Now, the company average is 262,” he said.
According to Pauley, part of the increased overall average may be attributed to more perfect scores on the APFT unit-wide. “We got a lot more 300s than we did last time,” he added.
Despite the seeming benefits of the switch to PRT, Pauley explained that there have been a few detractors.
“That happens with all new things you introduce in the Army. Then they get used to it and realize, wow this really works!”
Sgt. Iraq Blackledge, the executive administrative assistant to 1AE’s top enlisted Soldier, is convinced that the regimen does indeed work.
“Overall, it’s a good change of pace. It’s better than going out and doing pushups to muscle failure one day, then going out for a ridiculously long run the next,” said Blackledge, who adds variety to his own fitness regime with yoga and Pilates.
With unit-level testing of a revamped, five-event fitness test already taking place, PRT is here to stay. There are sure to be more groans from the peanut gallery, regardless of its success, says Urquhart.
“You can’t make a perfect system that everyone will agree on, but this is a definite step in the right direction for the Army as a whole.”