Category Archives: Fitness / Strength / Health

More Details on the Army’s Feeble Fitness Test, OPAT

In response to our commentary on the OPAT, Occupational Physical Assessment Test, we’ve received a lot of interesting comments, including some that wanted more technical details than what we provided.

The purpose of this post is to provide you with primary documents that help you understand this test. Now, these documents exist on two planes; one is the bare words on the document, which are written to give an impression of scientific objectivity and leadership impartiality; the other is the subtext, for these documents all are written with a view to support the political Party Line with respect to combat fitness, a Party Line that we think everyone understands.

The new OPAT... only has one ball.

The new OPAT… only has one ball.

Instruction on how to administer the OPAT is here [.pdf]. It does not answer the question some had on what intervals are used on the beep test, as the beep test audio is a computer file provided separately. Here is another set of instructions[.pdf] with illustrations and some differences — for example, the first forbids use of d-handles on a trap bar, the second shows a soldier using the d-handles.

This next document suffers from the antimnemonic and counterinformational name, USARIEM Technical Report T16-2. [.pdf] The subtitle, however, does express its intent: Development of the Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) for Combat Arms Soldiers. This document purports to explain how the OPAT was developed, although at the time of this document (Oct 2015) it was just intended to classify soldiers for Combat Arms specialties (specifically Combat Engineers (12B), Field Artillery (13B, 13F), Infantry (11B, 11C) and Armor (19D, 19K)). If you are Army, you will note that these are all enlisted MOSes, and have no bearing on the You Go Girl! careerist officer contingent behind all this social engineering, but that’s neither here nor there. In most of those fields and in most activity domains (although not, perhaps, endurance, which this test can’t measure) the physical demands on the enlisted soldier are greater than on his officers.

Setting up a bifurcation in the physical duties of the infantry leader and his subordinates leads one to the South American army, where privates dig the officer’s foxhole and carry the officer’s rucksack. This division of power is why the world quakes before the military prowess of Bolivia, for instance. So the Army is likely to pay at least lip service to the idea of making officers and enlisted soldiers meet similar standards.

That the Social Justice Warriors are behind this document is very clear:

A number of studies have shown, however, that [the Army Physical Fitness Test] score is not highly correlated with the performance of the physically demanding tasks performed by Soldiers. Furthermore, the APFT score includes adjustments for age and sex, not only biasing for/against certain groups, but making it potentially legally indefensible if used as a screening tool for entrance into certain MOSs. Since it is not practical to test Soldiers performance of physically demanding tasks prior to entering an MOS, criterion-based physical performance tests (i.e., tests that are predictive of soldiering task performance) are essential if the Army wishes to establish valid standards to select Soldiers for an MOS.

Translated to plain English, that means: the APFT doesn’t measure anything except ability to do push-ups, sit-ups, and 2-mile run; a test score can’t be used as an MOS cutoff anyway, if it’s age-normed and sex-normed; and that the Army can’t measure, say, the ability of a would-be cannon cocker to pick up cannon shells, so they need some test that will predict whether Soldier X has this capability before they let him strike for a cannon-cocker job. (They just assume they can’t measure something like shell-handling capability… and then, later in the paper they use tests like that to “validate” their proposed OPAT!) So they conclude that, rather than test soldiers on a realistic test, some stylized, abstract and formalized test will test Soldier X’s readiness for picking up artillery shells better than pointing him at an artillery shell and saying, “Mongo, lift!” will.

In depth job analysis revealed that five of the seven MOSs (11B, 11C, 12B, 13F, 19D) had similar critical physically demanding tasks, while two MOSs (13B and 19K) had additional or different tasks with heavy physical demands. In order to reduce costs, simplify and streamline testing, additional analyses were run to determine if a common battery of physical performance tests could be used for all seven MOSs without a large loss in the predictive capability.

That’s the source of the next assumption. They selected 23 difficult physical things, in all, and if someone could do those, then they could probably do everything the MOS required.

Remember why they’re doing this (emphasis ours)

[T]hree courses of action for gender neutral Occupational Physical Assessment Tests (OPATs) were developed for seven combat MOSs.

They did not follow through and see whether their selectees then actually could perform the combat arms job, and this was done entirely by lab boffins without any visible input from people who actually have done combat arms jobs, let alone have done them in combat, which hasn’t exactly been in short supply for the last decade and a half. But they did compare how performance on three preselected batteries of tests related to performance of the 23 tests that they decided, based on zero experience, were the edge conditions of combat arms service.

When the tests were chosen, the standards were initially set by the proponencies (i.e. the schools that train soldiers in those specialties). However, the standards were reset, lower, by the Natick boffins, based on the performance of actual soldiers. If 90% of the soldiers they tested, say, in MOS 11B, could not complete some 11B task, the standard was reset at whatever level it took to get a 90% pass rate. Thus, the claim that this test is based on the needs of the MOS is only true if you accept that the boffins are the best judge of what the MOS needs, and the performance of a set of soldiers should take primacy over the tasks they need to do). This is one of many examples where the development of the test was biased towards the command’s desired lower standards.

(It’s not unusual for a soldier who’s no good at one physical activity to be accepted by his peers based on other performance strengths, a classic example being the strongman who’s a poor runner. But by lowering the standards in this manner, the boffins assured that the test is a performance test of everybody’s weakest event, and ensures that, for instance, a weak man who’s also a poor runner will be accepted, because the criterion is set by the weak in every event).

While the boffins lowered standards, they did not raise any if the soldiers of the MOS outperformed the school standard. This is another example of the bias towards lower standards. There are many more such examples.

The three test batteries were:

  1. medicine ball put, squat lift, beep test, standing long jump, arm ergometer
  2. medicine ball put, squat lift, beep test, standing long jump.
  3. standing long jump, 1-minute push-ups, 1-minute sit-ups, 300 m sprint, Illinois agility test

The most predictive of performance on the 23 tests was Test 1, which edged out test 2, on what was apparently the sole criterion of evaluation, an R2 test of predictive value (R2 tests have their own issues); Test 3 was not significantly predictive of performance on the 23 tests (r2 as low as 0.58). Tests 1 and 2 were both about 80-90% predictive, according to the paper, and Test 2 was cheaper to administer, so the Army chose Test 2.

They went to validate the test against the criteria developed, originally, by the proponencies, with the standards lowered by the boffins as described above. However, they decided that some of the tests just were too much trouble:

Some of the tasks were not collected due to either a large skill component (as the hand grenade throw) or the duplication of the physical demands with another task (multiple foot marches).

You might be excused for suspecting that this was just one more in the many examples of bias towards lower fitness standards that permeates this entire project.

They compared their approach to the pre-recruiting tests used by many foreign nations. They are dismissive about some foreign tests:

Predictor tests range from those highly faithful to the original task, such as the weight load march and jerry can carry of the Australians….

They certainly didn’t like that antipodean idea. They never considered anything like it.

That’s how the OPAT took shape, and now we see the result.

Update 1200

Even as the Army prepares to send the physically feeble to Combat Arms, recruiters have a feebler and feebler cohort of young civilians to choose from, according to the very same “beep test” used in the OPAT:

America’s kids ranked 47 out of 50 countries measuring aerobic fitness — a key factor for overall health — in a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. By comparison, Tanzania, Iceland, Estonia, Norway and Japan raced away with the top five slots. The least fit country: Mexico.

Gee, would some degree of the American decline be explained by the gradual replacement of Americans by those unfit Mexicans? (You’d suck at aerobic activity, too, if you had to breathe Mexico City air. The city’s in a bowl; it’s like LA without movie-star sightings and other vestiges of the dying SoCal culture).

Research teams from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the University of North Dakota analyzed data on more than 1.1 million kids aged 9 to 17. Subjects were evaluated using a multi-stage fitness test also known as the “beep” test. How it works: You run back and forth between two points 66 feet apart to synchronized beeps. The point where you can’t reach the line before the beep, that’s your level.

…and that luckless recruiter just knows that the few superior examples are probably going to choose the less-Social Justice Warrior infected Marine Corps, or the “if you’re not going to be in a fighting service, you might as well take it easy” Air Force.

Fitness: The Army, Doing it Wrong

The biggest key to Army fitness testing, is it has to be something that dumb people with no equipment can measure. Seriously.

The biggest key to Army fitness testing, is it has to be something that dumb people with no equipment can measure. Seriously.

A reader suggested the linked item at Mark “Rip” Rippetoe’s Starting Strength blog. Rip gives a platform to Major Ryan Long, who asks:  Why does the Army want me weak?

Why, indeed? Long had spent the previous two years (his article is from 2010) as a Phys Ed instructor at school: the United States Military Academy, to be precise. And he found some pathologies in Army fitness culture.

I encounter a common theme with the active duty military folks: lifting weights isn’t entirely compatible with military culture and combat-related fitness. I feel compelled to share my thoughts on why Starting Strength is exactly what we need.

The US Army has a strong focus on low-intensity cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness.

Semi-annually soldiers must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) consisting of 2 minutes of pushups, 2 minutes of sit ups, followed by a 2-mile run on a flat road or track.

See Table 1 for passing and maximum performance standards by age and gender. The minimum standards are disappointing while the maximum standards are quite achievable.

Physical training (PT) is usually given only minimal attention and is often the first victim of a busy training schedule.  Additionally, unit commanders are required to regularly brief their combat readiness, one measure of which is APFT performance. As a result, PT becomes APFT-centric and our soldiers rarely improve anything….

This fanciful illustration reflects what the Army really believes, institutionally: that the best runner is the best prepared for combat.

This fanciful illustration reflects what the Army really believes, institutionally: that the best runner is the best prepared for combat.

What the PT Test often yields, in our experience, is a sort of runnerocracy where the fastest 2-miler is the fittest guy, period. (We were once one of those guys with an eleven-something two miler. It seems a century ago. Well, it was in the last century). So in combat it turns out maybe we’ve been training for the wrong thing:

Most combat operations are not done at the limit of a soldier’s low-intensity capacity, because we don’t go out and do a 6-mile dismounted patrol as fast as we can, at least not intentionally. …. Combat is usually conducted at either the very low or very high ends of the spectrum. I strongly believe, through personal experience, that high-intensity training is the key to survivability and performance on the battle field

But even the mismeasure of fitness that comes from the PT Test, and the mistraining that results, isn’t the whole problem. You’re about to meet the weird Army weight control system that punishes soldiers for extra muscle:

But if a Soldier buys in to the above – lifts heavy weights and eats to support that recovery – there is an additional hurdle: the Army “Tape Test.” The US Army uses height and weight to screen for obesity, similar to the body mass index or BMI assessment.

In fact, the Army height/weight table is keyed to the rigid BMI standards. You’re overweight at BMI 25, and the Army only lets the fit off the hook with a bizarre tape test, one that is designed not for accuracy but for (1) not requiring any expensive equipment and (2) capable of being executed by a first sergeant, operations sergeant, or sergeant major with an IQ of 75. (Why we have any NCOs with an IQ of 75 is a question for another time).

At my considerable height of 5’4” I am only allowed to weigh up to 158 pounds, and yes, I get taped. Fortunately the only punishment for exceeding this 90s-small weight is a body fat analysis done by measuring the Soldier’s neck and abdominal circumference (and hips also in the case of women). These measurements, along with height, are used to approximate body composition. As long as body composition remains below the maximum body fat percentage (20% men and 30% women ages 17-20) then the Soldier is free to weigh in excess of the weight threshold. Too many Soldiers see the act of being taped as a personal failure and strive to avoid it.

And the Army’s answer to a soldier who is over, fit or not — run more, do more cardio, get a runner’s build.

height weight screening

Think about professional athletes. Who would not be over on BMI? The scale doesn’t cover heavyweight boxers, but the world cruiserweight champion, Russian Denis Lebedev, is overweight, says the Army. About half of American football players are over. It doesn’t cover NBA centers, but if you extrapolate, Shaquille O’Neal would be way over at 7’1″ and 325. To find a champion who isn’t “Army fat,” you have to go to cycling (Lance Armstrong, 5’10” and 165) or straight to running (Usain Bolt, 6’5″ and 207). On the other hand, female pro athletes often come in below the Army standard. (Example: Elena Delle Donne, WNBA MVP, is 6’5″ and 187, but she’s built like a lean man).

Running is a good measure of one thing -- running. The only way to prepare for long walks with a ruck, is long walks with a ruck, but strength training is better prep for that than running is.

Running is a good measure of one thing — running. The only way to prepare for long walks with a ruck, is long walks with a ruck, but strength training is better prep for that than running is. Meanwhile, running Army brass wants a return to the prewar “running culture.”

So here comes a story declaring that the Army is way fat and out of shape based on, of course, the percent of soldiers whose computerized health records screened as eligible to be taped (about 8%, presumably including MAJ Long, if he hasn’t joined us in the Elysian Fields of retirement yet).

The story is in Military Times and is written by one Andrew Tilghman. A few words about Tilghman, who sells himself (on LinkedIn) as a “storyteller”  (in a profile that seems aimed at getting him PR moonlighting work for Beltway Bandits) and someone who has “10+ years’ experience with military and defense-related issues.” Where did he get all this experience? For example, “[w]orking from the Pentagon pressroom for the past five years…”

Oooooh. Can we touch him? (No. Don’t touch. Don’t even point). When MAJ Long was going through Ranger School, Tilghman was going through Columbia Journalism School. So he’s a sucker for whatever Someone in the Pentagon tells him, and here’s what they tell him:

About 7.8 percent of the military — roughly one in every 13 troops — is clinically overweight, defined by a body mass-index greater than 25. This rate has crept upward since 2001, when it was just 1.6 percent, or one in 60, according to Defense Department data obtained by Military Times. And it’s highest among women, blacks, Hispanics and older service members.

“Defense Department data obtained by Military Times,” is Tilghman’s self-important way of saying, “a Press Release handout I picked up from the boxes in the Pentagon press room,” because that’s exactly what he has got.

From that data point, he twists the data to clickbait extremes:

  • Today’s military is fatter than ever.
  • For the first time in years, the Pentagon has disclosed data indicating the number of troops its deems overweight

Well, none of your reporter Johnnies asked, did you?

  • raising big questions about the health, fitness and readiness of today’s force.
  • others say obesity can be a life-and-death issue on the battlefield.

And the answer is always available from the running acolytes, in this case the current Sergeant Major of the Army (and not the worst; that would have been the couple of ’em that went to prison):

“If I have to climb up to the top of a mountain in Nuristan, in Afghanistan, and if I have someone who is classified as clinically obese, they are potentially going to be a liability for me on that patrol,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the military’s top noncommissioned officer and the senior enlisted adviser to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Troxell said today’s force is combat ready, but he believes the obesity trends are troubling, and demand careful consideration from senior leaders. “I don’t think it’s a clear readiness concern right now.  But I think it’s something that needs our attention. And we really have to look across our services at what we’re doing every morning or every day to prepare the men and women for what could be the worst day of their life,” Troxell said in a recent interview.

Translation: we runners think everybody should run more.

Would you rather be wounded and dependent on a drag to safety by running SMA Troxell, or iron-pumping MAJ Long? What Troxell and the rest of the Army overhead don’t want to admit is that the original impetus and lasting enforcement of the Army height and weight standards gives a pseudoscientific gloss to what commanders really want, which is a way to get fat troops to slim down so the units don’t look bad. That’s all.

Does anyone remember when the Army first imposed height-weight standards, and why? We do. In the 1970s, Soviet officers were invited to observe NATO exercises in Germany. One of the Soviet senior generals, a man of no mean wit, observed to his counterpart, “Bathrobe” Bernard Rogers, then SACEUR (one of the lean, gangly running guys), that “In our army, all the generals are fat, but the sergeants are skinny. In your army, all the generals are skinny, but all the sergeants are fat!” Rogers was white with fury at the Russian’s joke, and soon we had height-weight tables and tape tests.

Like many well-credentialed but poorly-educated journalists, Tilghman also confuses the linguistic concept of gender with the biological concept of sex, but that’s the least of his sins. After a brief aside in which Pentagon health officials try to teach him some of the ways in which this data — computer derived from health records by simply applying the BMI calculation to reported height and weight — isn’t the clarion of Armageddon he wants it to be, he goes back to the quotable Troxell:

In the 90s we were a running culture. If you weren’t running, you weren’t training. And we were doing a lot of foot marching and things like that. As 9/11 happened and we started doing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the operational tempo rose for service members, I think more and more we started slowing down. We started doing more walking. Obviously in the Army and Marines, we started doing more walking with heavy loads, and moving over rough and uneven terrain, which in itself was developing muscles that we weren’t developing before. So now we were going from looking like runners to these block-y looking football players.

He says that like it’s a bad thing. And Troxell blames the new generation:

The men and women that are coming in today weren’t doing the things as they were growing up that I was doing when I was growing up, such as playing outside until dark, racing with my friends from one crack in the cement to another crack in the cement. More and more, young men and women are attracted to things that happen indoors and allow them be on a couch, like playing video games. Men and women are growing up differently. There is less physical activities and more mental activities.

Let’s see what (the fitness site created by steroidal cycling champ Lance Armstrong) says about BMI:

Kinesiology professor Sue Beckham, PhD of the University of Texas at Arlington, asserts that BMI is not useful in assessing athletic muscular individuals and is not a good indicator of changes in body composition. A 2007 study of male and female college athletes published in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Medicine” concluded that BMI incorrectly classifies athletes with normal body fat as overweight and that separate standards should be established for athletic populations.

Livestrong suggests that the better measure is Body Composition, which is Total Body Mass minus Fat Free Mass, but would require more high-tech measurement techniques (and possibly, smarter first sergeants and sergeant majors, a non-starter).

The CDC says more bluntly:

A high BMI can be an indicator of high body fatness. BMI can be used as a screening tool but is not diagnostic of the body fatness or health of an individual.

So why does the Army use it? Because it can enable the Tilghmans of the world to write clickbait articles? Or, for the same reason the drunk looks for the keys under the streetlight instead of in the dark alley where he lost ’em?

Hey, you can read Tilghman at Military Times. Or you can read The Duffle Blog about the APFT. The result is the same. But one writer is aware he’s having you on. And if you’re going to read one link from this long story, go to Major Ryan Long’s article at Starting Strength and Read The Whole Thing™.


Fitness: Is Pain Weakness Leaving the Body?

the-push-upStrength trainer Mark Rippetoe says no — not if the pain is soreness caused by many reps of static-weight exercises.  The illustration he used with it (right) is a ringer for many Army PT tests, even to the institutional-looking gym in the background and the spit cups, and reminds us that pain and exhaustion were always an objective, often the objective in Army PT. But they’re two different things.

Soreness, he says, is a response to muscles being made to do what they have not done before, or recently; it is an adaptation that comes with exertion to encourage recovery. Staying sore all the time doesn’t increase your strength, just tears you up and wears you down. Rip writes:

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is currently understood as an inflammatory response to the eccentric component of an exercise. The actin-myosin crossbridges are damaged by the separation under tension as the sarcomere elongates during the eccentric phase of the muscle contraction, and the damage is repaired during the inflammatory cascade (for more information about the microanatomy involved start here)

When you are sore, you have done muscular work with an eccentric component to which you are not adapted. For example, cycling has no eccentric component, and although cyclists new to barbell training may be fairly strong, they get incredibly sore the first time they squat due to the eccentric component of the movement. And pushing the prowler doesn’t make you sore, no matter how hard you work, because pushing a sled lacks an eccentric component.

Since productive barbell exercises include an eccentric phase in their movement patterns, some soreness is always the result of productive training. But the soreness itself is not the aspect of the training that makes you stronger – the programmed increase in the load over time does that. The soreness is merely an unfortunate but necessary side-effect of having done barbell exercise.

Training specifically for soreness is foolish, since it indicates nothing more than unadapted-to eccentric work. The best illustration of this is 100 bodyweight (“air”) squats done as a single set. Anyone who is actually capable of doing this will get both excruciatingly sore and absolutely no stronger as a result. The soreness will be the product of the negative phase of 100 continuous reps, despite the fact that the load is only your bodyweight. And because the load is only your bodyweight – and because you’re already strong enough to do it 100 times – you cannot increase your force production capacity by doing 100 bodyweight squats. You can only get sore.

You know what we’re going to say here: go Read The Whole Thing™. It reminds us that, during our strength training with local top trainer Josh Gould, we’re always tired at the end of a workout, and always have to walk off an elevated heart rate, but there’s been very little soreness. And benefits in strength, mobility, flexibility and balance are already evident.

Rip’s final conclusion is that fitness training that has as its objective being sore (which seemed to be a thing, during our long dwell in the Army, USAR, and National Guard), is either based on bad information or some psycho-religious attempt at improvement-by-suffering. Of that motivation, “I’ll leave it to the psychologists,” he says drily.

So say two Paternosters, and try for a personal record in the morning… or seek out a well- and scientifically-educated trainer, like we did. And there’s no reason you can’t do both.