While deployed to Afghanistan, one of the soldiers under my charge was nearing the end of his contract with the Army. He wanted to reenlist, but he was overweight, his body fat was too high, and he couldn’t pass a physical fitness test. I had to utilize everything I’d learned over the years about diet and fitness to help him reach his goals. I reported the results to StrongFirst. Following are my dispatches. The process worked, as the soldier was able to reenlist against many odds and when many others didn’t think it could be done.
Hello everyone. my name is Douglas Moore, and I’m a long-time disciple of Pavel’s and an NCO in the US Army who is currently deployed to Afghanistan.
I have a story to tell, so I came here to tell it, knowing I’d find people who’d be interested.
As an Non Commissioned Officer, it’s my job (or one of them) to keep the troops conditioned, strong and otherwise physically capable. One of my soldiers in particular was overweight, and his conditioning was such that he could not run 2 miles in a time that meets the Army’s standard. He was fat, slow, and weak–a bad state for any human being, let alone a soldier. He was on the verge of being forced out of the Army because he could not reenlist while being so fat. He came to me and told me that he wanted to reenlist; his wife was pregnant with their third child, he needed and wanted a job, and this was a terrible time to lose the job he had.
I agreed to help him, but only if he gave me his best effort, not the weak effort he’d given that got him into so much trouble. He agreed. He only had two months, so we’d had to get straight to it.
There was an obstacle in our way: Afghanistan. We are currently deployed to Afghanistan, FOB Warrior in Ghazni Province. Not only is the heat oppressive in June and July, but we sit at 7000 ft above sea level and the soldier would have to pass his two mile run in some seriously thin air.
We weighed him and measured his body fat. 246 lbs, 25% body fat, at 6’2″ . Moreover, his diet was wretched. Cramming in the starches, he tried to stick to a vegetarian diet, assuring me that he heard this was healthy. I told him that if he wanted to keep his job, he’d have to eat as I told him, which meant he’d have to eat a balanced diet, with meat in it. I told him he’d could have three square meals a day, no seconds or deserts except on weekends.
The soldier had lost weight since he arrived in Afghanistan–almost everyone does unless they try to make weight gains. But he was still blubbery and too heavy. Worse still, he was weak, a triad of doom for the professional soldier. I set about designing a program that could meet his needs. I decided that since the Army’s physical fitness test focus on pushups, situps, and running, we’d begin there, then introduce other methodologies. The running would address the bodyweight problem, which would make his pushups and situps easier, at least in theory.
I had the soldier running or doing other cardio exercises, at least 20 minutes every other day, in addition to calisthenics circuits. I made sure to vary the intensity and duration of the training sessions, monitoring the soldiers demeanor and motivation. Mind you, the whole time we’re trying to get him fit and strong, I’m hearing negative comments. “He won’t make it.” “I don’t think he’ll do it.”
These comments made me want even more this soldier to succeed.
Eventually I introduced the soldier to kettlebells. We have a few of them here at FOB Warrior, a 35, a 44 and a 53 lber. Swings were the order of the day, served on a plate of dust-ridden, low oxygen air. We started with the 44, doing sets of 20, with a minutes rest between. I worked them in after bouts of pushups, dips, and situps, sometimes mixed into a giant, evil stew.
His first physical fitness test since I began training him was around the corner. And he only had three weeks to pass the PT test, and get his body fat down to 22%. It last stood at 24%. unfortunately, all the cardio work had reduced his neck size by one-half inch, which meant by Army calculations (waist to neck ratio, factored with weight), that he’d gained a point of bodyfat despite the cardio blast. I added one minute interval sprints on a stationary bike, ten intervals, and told him to limit the starch in his diet to an amount that would only fill one small section of his tray at each meal, and upped the kettlebell weight and volume. Now he was swinging the 53, sets of 20, up to 160 total reps.
Finally, the day of his test came. The soldier did more pushups than he’s ever done on any other test in his Army career, and easily passed his situps, too. But then the tough part: The run around a dirt track, surrounding a giant smouldering dirt pit (in which the base burned all of its trash), in 90+ degree heat at 7000 ft.
And he failed.
It was back to the drawing board. In two days, I administered another test. This time he did even more pushups than before, breaking his old record–and passed the run with 14 seconds left. No small feet in this environment. Many other soldiers, even well-conditined ones, have failed the run test here.
His body fat was still high. I calculated that he needed to add .5 inches to his neck and lose 1 inch off his waist. Since the PT test was out of the way, I decided to take a different avenue: Barbell training combined with kettlebells and low-intensity cardio ie walking.
I discovered that this soldier was incredibly weak. All the cardio and calisthenics had done virtually nothing to enable him to contract his muscles harder. I don’t care what someone scores on an Army PT test, if they are as weak as this soldier was, at his weight, they’re not very useful on a battlefield. He struggled with 135 for 5 reps on a barbell, but he managed. The first session, he did 20 half squats with 225, for one set. And then 6 sets of 5 rep shrugs at 315, in order to increase the girth of his neck and give him some overall strength.
His second session was kettlebell swings, kettlebell military presses, and 3×5 squats.
Today, went pulled out the measuring tape and scale. He’d lost over an inch on his waist and gained that needed half inch his neck and lost another pound. In other words, he passed. He was at 22% bodyfat, no boasting rights to be sure, and he’d have to get taped again because he was so close to being over, but a success nonetheless. Over the two month training period he’d lost 11 lbs and 3% body fat.
If I had to do it over again, I would have started the barbell training and the heavy kettlebell swings earlier. Still, it was a tough call knowing how tough the run would be up here. But the weight training changed his body much faster than did the running, and the running sapped him of his strength.
We’re not stopping here. He’ll get stronger–the iron and steel will ensure that.
I’m continuing the soldier’s “special populations” ie fat people, training. As I mentioned in my post, he’s lost significant weight here, but with it, he lost what little strength he started with. The cure? Old School barbell and kettlebell training. The challenge is keeping his body fat low enough to stay in the army. He hovers at 22%–exactly meeting regulation requirement, but his retention in the army is a unit commander decision, and the commander states that he wants this soldier at 21% before he can reenlist.
The program’s core is now 5×5 squat and bench press, with hi-rep kettlebell swings. He’s continuing to lose weight and his strength is improving every workout, especially on squats and swings. His schedule is every other day, but I’m not dogmatic about this; recently he failed to progress on bench, so he took two days off. When he returned he was stronger than ever.
Looking back, his biggest problem was not his weight, but his lack of strength. His feeble strength made every training session more difficult than it needed to be.
Yesterday, he was able to complete 200 kb swings, sets of 25 with a 53 lb kb, averaging 1 min 30 secs rest between sets. Kettlebells have increased his work capacity by vast amounts and in a very short time.
I’m hoping the squats force his body into the adaption it needs. I’m waiting for that cascade. The interesting factor will be how this affects his body fat levels. We weighed him and measured body fat again last week. He’d lost 5 additional pounds, but was still at 22%.
As I noted previously on this thread, my intent with this soldier was to provide him with a significantly better strength base, something the running and calisthenics did not do to a sufficient level.
He’d passed his PT test, and lost some weight. But he needed more physical capability and muscle. This soldier is not genetically gifted, but I remembered what Pavel said on one post: The term, Hardgainer, does not contribute to a helpful mindset. So I trusted the process. Commit to A as action, and B will follow. 5×5 barbell with linear weight increases and kettlebell work would make him stronger, fitter and torch the fat from his body.
We were still in a race againt his enlistment clock. he either lost the weight and increased his fitness, or would be barred from reenlistment. But the dilemma. Running to make him burn calories, or weight training to preserve muscle and change his body’s composition. We’d done the running and cals. It helped him pass the PT test–barely. But he was weak as a moth. I had to trust the iron and old fashion dietary common sense were enough. Who wanted a soldier that was skinny-fat and barely passed his run test? Strength is the foundation of any athletic endeavor and no soldier–no real soldier– can do without it.
We began his strength routine July 1st, every other day. At first it was the three big lifts, with a few 20 rep KB swings thrown in.
His squat (5×5) weight has gone up in every workout. In order to accelerate the fat loss, we upped the kettlebell volume. The last three days of training this month, he achieved the highest level of physical ability he’s ever had. He weighs less than he’s ever weighed in the Army, including just out of Basic Training. He is stronger than he’s ever been. And his fitness? Two days ago I put him through a kettlebell complex that most people could not finish, especially at 7000 ft above sea level. Here it is–give it a try.
Do this complex 5 times, 1-2 minutes rest between each exercise and each interval.
53 lb KB swing x25 reps
35 lb 1 hand KB swing, 20 per arm
35 lb KB Clean and Jerk, 10 per arm
53 lb KB High Pull, 10 per arm
And our command has decided to allow him to reenlist. He says he feels great, and his new confidence is apparent.
Kettlebells work, and faster than anything else, without the loss of strength associated with lots of running. Have faith in the process.
Do A, expect B