Periodization and Army PT

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As sergeant of my unit’s S2 shot, I am responsible for developing the physical training program for all the Soldiers that I work with.  I develop monthly plans and present them to the O3 Officer In Charge (OIC) for his approval.  The OIC told me that he is a PT fanatic and expounded that PT could be done twice a day.  He also brought up something that I have come to hate: CrossFit.  Crossfitters invariably believe in constant progress.  They believe that fitness is a linear, ever-rising thing, and that by merely being tough and grinding through workout after workout,  a person can become super-fit.

This mentality goes against the training regimen of almost all world class athletes.  Physical training must involve back off days, and slight variations in rep/set protocols as well as type of exercise in order to maximize results.  Not only will people not see the best results from “maxing” every day, they will feel awful.   Over training can make people miserable.  The worst thing about over training is many people will not even realize just how bad they feel until they stop training and rest.  Even then, they may not make the connection between their exercise and mood, sleep and appetite.

Fortunately the Army has caught on, though the word hasn’t made it yet to every ear.  The new Army program, Physical Readiness Training (PRT), incorporates many aspects of periodization of exercise.  Not only are Soldiers discouraged from going all out every day, but cardio and strength workouts are done on alternate days, a method scientifically proven to promote recovery.

I plan on fully incorporating the PRT model into my office’s training.  But I expect some push-back from higher.  Of course, I have the highest levels of the Army behind me as this as PRT has been mandated as the doctrine for Army physical training.

The Murph

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While the story of the “Blackhawk Down” mission in Somalia is well known, most people are probably not familiar with Operation Red Wing, a kill-or-capture mission to be executed by US Navy SEALs and SOF Soldiers in Afghanistan, 2005.

The plan was to disrupt a group of Taliban fighters known as the Mountain Tigers. Ultimately, the team was  compromised, probably by a group of Afghan goat herders, and then overrun by 100–200 Taliban. The incident is famously recorded in the book, Lone Survivor, written by Marcus Luttrell,  the only American survivor of the US ground operatives.

The operation’s leader, SEAL LT Michael P Murphy, died when he was shot in the abdomen while attempting to contact higher headquarters on his cell phone. The military comms systems were not working properly due to the mountainous terrain.

In the rescue attempt, insurgents sent an RPG round through the open back ramp door of an airborne Chinook helicopter which carried 8 SEALs and 8 members of the elite 160th SOAR. The helicopter smashed into the side of a mountain and fell to the bottom of a ravine, killing all on board. In all, 19 US personnel died. Marcus Luttrell managed to find refuge with native Afghans and was later rescued.  Michael Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

CrossFit names many of its Workouts of the Day after fallen US military personnel. One of its most brutal workouts is known as “The Murph”, so named for Michael Murphy’s favorite workout, which he called “Body Armor.” It goes like this:

For time, do the following, partitioning the bodyweight drills until you complete the prescribed number. For the hardcore, do the workout like LT Murphy did: wearing 20 pounds of body armor.

1 Mile Run

100 Pullups

200 Pushups

300 Bodyweight Squats

1 Mile Run

This week, I plan on completing The Murph. I’ll let you know what my time is, and maybe provide some pics or video.

Special Populations PT insructor

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I have been assigned the duty of Special Populations Physical Trainer for my unit. My duties will commence next month. Special Populations are soldiers who failed their last Physical Assessment test or did not meet the Army’s bodyfat and weight requirements.

Now, I’m producing workout templates, that I can easily reference for a certain day’s training event. I plan on using the near fail-safe method of alternating hard and easy days–a method that everyone seems to ignore these days, even the supposed cutting edge Crossfitters.

Intensity is and always has been the core of my training regiment. It produces the fastest and best results. Low intensity workout are good for recovery and fat loss, but for athletic and health benefits, you’ve got to ramp things up–way up. My easy days will consist of ruck marches and perhaps just a walk. Some of the soldiers will probably be left wondering what benefit they get from so easy a workout. I’ll remind them on the hard days why they need the easy ones.

The two most important sides of the exercise coin are intensity and time. As intensity goes up, time goes down. And as time goes up–intensity must go down. If anyone tells you they work out for four hours at the gym, I can tell you that they’re not doing it very intensely.

Some who see my training may mistake it for Crossfit. I’ve stated before my problem with Crossfit, but also make the concession that Crossfit fundamentally changed the way people trained. Intensity became key–and for that I commend Greg Glassman, Crossfit’s founder. But the cult-like mentality of many Crossfitters is troubling, leading to mindlessly following the Workout of The Day (posted daily on the Crossfit website). Also, Crossfit lacks a significant strength protocol. Again–alternate easy and tough days and watch yourself explode. Try to peak everyday and wither like an over-watered flower.

I’ll incorporate some of the following workouts and ideas into my program:

Dumbbell Complexes: Pick 5-6 exercises with dumbbells and continuously move through them in a circuit.

Bodyweight Circuits: My favorite. I have several templates that I already use. My 100, 200 and 300 workouts are incremental in difficulty and easy to perform anywhere. I use the 300 template regularly and I can assure you, it’s an ass-kicker. Here was today’s 300 workout–300 calisthenic reps in a circuit:

50 Hindu Pushups

30 Frog Jumps (Standing vertical jumps)

20 Diamond Pushups

25 Jumping split-squats–4 count (place hands on hips; jump as in a jumping jack only move your feet front and back instead of out to the sides.)

30 Flutter kicks–4 count

50 wide hand pushups

20 Frog Jumps

25 Mountain Climbers–4 count

50 Regular pushups

25 Split Squats–4 count

I finished the workout a few seconds under 18 minutes. I could feel the bile building in the back of my throat as my body pushed out the Human Growth Hormone….

Tabata Sprints: Remember the gassers you did for your high school football of basketball team? Suck it up Soldier!

Good ‘ol weight training: Guess what? 3 sets of 10 repetitions of bench press and squats works just about as well as anything. So simple people stopped doing it….showing the incessant need for humans to over-complicate.

There are two types of Soldiers that fail to meet Army fitness standards: The uninformed, the unmotivated. Genetic deficiancies as well as issues in the personal life also enter the equation, requiring added doses of dedication and knowledge. My mission is to provide knowledge to those who lack it and to motivate those that don’t care. Of the two, motivation is the more difficult to impart as the greatest drives come from within, not without.

But a good leader makes his troops want to perform to standard. There are a hundred ways to skin a cat and every soldier must be handled in subly diferent way, with varying degrees of praise and admonition. Some require very little of either, others lots of both.

If one person in my PT group fails the PT test, I will have failed my unit.

Crossfit: Is it really the Holy Grail of fitness?

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Crossfit is all the rage amongst many in the police and military community. For those of you who are not familiar with Crossfit, let me explain what all the hype’s about.

On the Crossfit website is posted the following definition of “World-Class fitness”:

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.
Hey, you’ll get few arguments from me on this. It’s pretty much what I’ve done and advocated for years. Crossfit posts daily WODs, (Workout of the Day) on their site. The WODs are very intense and can take incorporate virtually any type of training, from Olympic weightlifting, to a 10k run. Most of the workouts keep the training in brief and intense, highlighting the awesome advantages of circuit training and sprint intervals. Again, no problem here.
Here’s a couple example WODs”
“Nancy” (Many of the WODs are named after the people who created them):

Five rounds for time of:
400 meter run
95 pound Overhead squat, 15 reps


Three rounds for time:
Run 400 meters
1 1/2 pood KettlebellX 21 swings (or 55 pound dumbbell swing)
12 Pull-ups

So in the case of Nancy, a person would do a 400 meter sprint, then 15 reps of overhead squats, competing this circuit five times. He would keep tabs on how long it took him to complete this WOD and try to improve on it the next time the same WOD came up.

On some days, the WOD may be deadlift singles, training a person for raw power.

There are tons of different exercises in Crossfit and the website has videos that demonstrate most of the more esoteric movements. All of the workouts, due to their intense nature and ability to generate monumentalloads of lactic acid, will stimulate Growth Hormone release. This is a great thing.

But I’ve got some problems with it. My first problem is the intensity, day in, day out perscribed by Crossfitt. I believe this level of intensity will lead to over training and in the end, result in sub-par performances. Though changing the exercises daily does have the effect of acting as a “rest”, it is not enough to make up for the fact that virtually every Crossfit workout–five times a week–are pushing your body to the max. Can humans withstand this type of work load? Sure, as can be witnessed by ultra-marathoners. But it is not really the road to heath and happiness–or ultimate performance in sport. This amount of trianing will lead to muscle breakdown, and all the other things that come with overtraining, like sleep problems and mood disorders.

My second probelm with Crossfit is the compromise of strength that will occur should someone adopt this form of training as an everyday practice.

As noted in the article written by Andrew Burne at Curtin University’s School of Physiotherapy:

 Sale et al (1990) suggested that resistance training performed on the same day as endurance training may impede strength development when compared to training for either on separate days.

And… Dudley and Fleck (1987) suggested that individuals performing concurrent strength and endurance training may become over-trained relative to subjects who perform strength or endurance training alone. I have found this to be the case for myself. Every so often, I’ll have a day when i do both cardio and stregth trianing, but it’s infrequent–and I always pay the price.

Most imprortantly: Residual fatigue has been suggested to occur following the endurance component of a concurrent program, which may compromise the ability of muscles to develop tension during the strength element of concurrent training (Hennessyand Watson 1994). If sufficient tension cannot be generated during the strength component of a concurrent program, optimal strength development and adaptations may not occur. It has been suggested by Craig et al(1991), that if the endurance trainingis performed prior to the strength training, residual fatigue may impair muscular force out-put and thus impair strength development. Sale et al(1990) also found that concurrent strength and endurance trainingperformed on alternate days produced larger strength gains than concurrent training performed on the same day, which indicates that residual fatigue from endurance training is a possible mechanism responsible for the observed inhibition in strength development.

Even Greg Glassman admits that too much mixing of endurance and strength training results in poorer results in both areas. He believes though, that the Crossfitway of training better simulates actual sport activities and real-life events such as grappling or fighting, because those events incorporate stregnth and endurance at the same time. Glassman says that while Crossfit athletes may not be able to lift as much as power-lifters or run a 15K as fast as a dedictated runner, they perform better in a wider variety of events and are healthier. He uses rather extreme examples, such as a power-lifter who can deadlift 900 lbs. I agree that someone who can deadlift 900 lbs is probably not that healthy, as they are over-specialized. I would also remind Glassman though, that someone who can lift 900 lbs is probably using illegal anabolic steroids.

The primary problem is the volumn of the Crossfit workouts. While a couple of two or three mile runs a week are unlikely to have much of a negative affect on strength training, smoking yourself everyday certainly will. Also know that while strength is compromised by excessive endurance training, endurance athletes actually gain an advantage from strength trianing, (Paavolainen L, Hakkinen K, Hamalainen I, Nummela A, Rusko H. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol. 1999 May;86).

But I would not do the strength and endurance training on the same day–every day. Your results can be far better if you separate your training.

Next–a cult-like mentality. Cults are poison and cause people to lose their ability to think for themselves. Many people will ruthlessly follow the appointed WOD, regardless of how they feel or how they are performing. Crossfit has T-Shirts, and the people on the airbase here in Weisbaden Germany who do Crossfit walk around sporting the clothing as if they were declaring tribal affiliation. Many of the Crossfitters around here and online will hear nothing of other training methodologies. Anything else is pure heresy.

There’s health concerns too. Reports of exercise induced death. There’s something called rhabdomyolysis. It’s as bad as it sounds. When a person overdoes exercise, that is a person’s body is not adequately adapted to intense work, his or her muscle tissue can break down and leak into the bloodstream, causing death or permanent disability. Crossfit is intense, to say the least.

Besides mixed-martial artists, there are no professional athletes that I know of who use Crossfit as their primary conditioning program. And, I question in an anecdotal sense,  Crossfit’s effectiveness. Anything is better than nothing, but the system I use, which relies heavily on intuitive training, is more effective it seems. There’s no Crossfitter around here outdoing me. Do I randomize my training? Yes. But I also allow time for recovery and don’t blast myself day in, day out. My section sergeant does Crossfit and on many days he’s limpingaround here, sore and tired. I think a training regimen should leave me more prepared, not less. Excessive fatigue, soreness and other symptoms of over training compromise soldier readiness.

In the end, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to throw a Crossfit WOD into your training once in a while. But there are better ways. Healthier ways. Crossfit asks too much and returns too little. It over-randomizes training, resulting is athletes who are not nearly strong enough. And it’ll burn you out, too.