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™.


35 thoughts on “Fitness: The Army, Doing it Wrong

  1. Neil S.

    One of my greatest regrets about my time wearing a tree suit is that I had no idea how weak I was relative to my potential. At 6’2″, I typically weighed in around 215 lbs, but had a 21 minute 3 mile time. I could also barely do 5 chins. Need to stay under your target weight, fat boy? Better run more! I just didn’t understand any other way to train. I didn’t realize how much of a liability I was until I needed to haul 200 lbs of dead weight out of a smoking Humvee I’d just flown out of, and was unable to do it without help. If I could have pulled even 315 off the floor, how much more effective would I have been?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yeah, if I’d only known that my unserviceable ankle was not an immutable problem… the services need to get smart about (1) strength in general and (2) the idea that there’s running guys and strong guys, and both can add to the capabilities of a team, squad or strong unit, and everyone can be made more useful if he or she is made stronger.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I actually sent this to my trainer some weeks ago. Thanks for posting the link, because I forgot to. SPC Withrow will probably get tuned up for having ideas above his pay grade. The SP4 mafia is not wrong when they think they’re brighter than the CSM and 1SG – usually!

  2. Hillbilly

    I was one of those individuals who was “over weight” by the standard. So even though I scored 300 on the PT fairly regularly at 74″ and 210- 215 lbs I was getting taped.
    I wasn’t as fast you in the 2 mile although at 17 and 175 lbs I managed a 11:45 once. Once I started hitting the weights regularly I jumped to 200+ pretty quickly and have stayed there ever since. I weighed 228 at my heaviest while in the Army and managed to run 13:00 +- 10 seconds.
    I had a Squadron Commander in the Cav who was a APFT stud (340+ on the extended scale) , but at maybe 140 lbs soaking wet and I can remember the CSM who was a big gym rat talking smack to him because he couldn’t bench press much. Would of been interesting to stick him under a 70 lb ruck and see how it went.

  3. rotorhd

    It’s all about the fashion show and saving a few $$.

    Back in the 90’s, I knew an great but older CW4 who passed his APFT but failed the tape test. He was a tall skinny 6’1″ or 6’2″ guy with a little pounch and a little pencil neck. He protested and fought it for a while. On his own dime, he went to a medical school to had the Hydrostatic Body Fat Testing done. The test showed him under the required body mass percentage but it didn’t matter. The inaccurate tape test is the OFFICIAL method and he retired.

    While on my hated year long non-flying staff tour to Iraq, I worked out regularly, 6 days a week. What else was there to do? The first 6 months I did the normal Army PT stuff and running (2-3 miles). My fitness improved but nothing too impressive. However, the last 6 months I did a mixture of Crossfit and P90X in addition to running/sprints (.5, 1, 2, 3 miles).

    My improved results were staggering and the APFT was WAY too easy. I had NEVER been in that good of shape, ever! Despite doing Airborne, Air Assault and several other physical Army schools during the 90’s while in my 20’s, I now realize that I was not in very good shape then. Back then, I only concentrated on doing well on the APFT because that is what counted to the Army…..

  4. Tierlieb

    When I was at my best (judging from physical capability), I was at the upper end of “overweight” and close to “obese” according to BMI. Not according to a bodyfat measurement, though. Or the superior and even simpler to calculate Waist-to-height-ratio (WHtR).

    BMI is a stupid measurement. Always has been. The original by Quetelet was devised to represent the data they took from their population in 1850. So it was descriptive, not prescriptive. If someone wants to use it prescriptively, they should be clear about the goal: recreating the population weight and height distribution of 1850s France.

    Now there are occasions in my life where I decry the stupidity of the world my friends tell me to relax, as it does not matter. But the BMI matters! Insurances use it. The US Army uses it. Doctors use it. It’s the goddam phrenology of health sciences. Government-mandated aether theory. What’s next? Making a CCW permit depend on whether the applicant’s four humours are balanced?

    1. Sommerbiwak

      To show us that BMI was a not so useful tool my biology teacher in school let us calculate it for the class. One of the pupils was into competition weight lifting (writing poems was his other hobby). And he was the fattest obese guy in class according to his BMI.

      You can use it as an indicator, but without adjustment for muscle to far ratio it is very misleading. And fat people can be fitter and healthier than skinny ones. But skinny or fat every idiot can see. Including mil bureaucrats, Generals and SGMs.

      As they say in computer tech: there are lies, dam lies and benchmarks.

    2. Y.

      They use it because it’s cheap. The body-fat measuring gizmos are inaccurate, measuring fat accurately is difficult and time consuming.

      The funny thing is it actually underestimates obesity.

  5. John M.

    It does seem odd to me that the US Military has made few advances in physical fitness training/testing in the last 20 years, while sports have come so far.

    There is something to be said for simple tools that can be used by simpletons. An army (either literal or metaphorical) can’t count on having bright people doing the jobs available. And after all, within living memory our (literal) Army had to go from a small force of professionals to a massive force of draftees. That couldn’t have been good for average IQs at any level of the services.

    But those tools should be useful, not just simple.


  6. Jim Scrummy

    I tried the link to the good Major’s article, it didn’t work for me? You may want to check it.

  7. DSM

    The is quote should read, “The biggest key to [evaluating anything relating to personnel readiness], is it has to be something that dumb people with no equipment can measure. Seriously.”

    I make no apologies for my former service’s staunch belief in its cycle ergometry as a valid measurement of fitness. Heck, the current iteration was much touted as having been developed by some smart sports physician…who quickly withdrew his endorsement when they chopped up and bastardized it to fit their own means. Even then it is only a variation of the APFT. Not having eight, 3.5oz bars of soap in your mobility bag will also malign the Air Force’s ability to fight any conflict. True story.

  8. Mike_C

    There is much to respond to in this article, but a few quick thoughts in no particular order.
    1. BMI is a terrible measure of body composition, which is the real question when someone weighs more than expected. Is the excess muscle and bone (good) or flab (bad)? I posit that simple visual inspection (i.e. looking at the guy) would be more informative than BMI in that case, but of course visual inspection is subjective and subject to challenge. This is the case of a simple and simple-minded metric with the virtue of generating an objective datapoint being stretched way beyond its usefulness into harm.
    1a. That said, for the average person, BMI isn’t that bad a measure, because the average American is shockingly sedentary. (And I say this not from a physician’s perspective — i.e. distorted by seeing mainly the sick and halt — but from the perspective of an epidemiologist who works with community-based cohorts of “just regular folk” who are not sick with anything.) So for the guy or gal on the street, a high BMI almost certainly means excess adiposity, not that s/he is seriously swole.

    2. I don’t know what tape standard the Army uses to determine percent body fat (%BF), but recently I looked up the Marine Corps standard (per MCO 6110.3) and ran it by a friend whose research is in body composition and assessment thereof. (This is a woman with a PhD in that area who also has a masters in Statistics.) Friend read MCO 6110.3 overnight and the next day sent me the email equivalent of laughing hysterically. “They really use that? It’s an incredibly crude model!” [in the sense of mathematical model for “the system”] On a personal note, I like the Marine Tape model because it says I am 10%BF even in my current decrepit state. (Pretty sure that’s incorrect, alas.)

    3. Much as I hate race/ethnicity based stuff, it would make sense to have race-based tables for %BF. There are well-known and documented differences in amount and distribution of both subcutaneous and visceral fat between blacks and whites. (From a medical perspective — not a performance perspective — subcutaneous fat may be unsightly, but isn’t all that bad for you, whereas high visceral fat is associated with many chronic diseases, and very likely also plays a causative role in disease.) There are already different cutoff points for Asians with respect to BMI and overweight/obesity. (Lower for Asians since we tend to have smaller bones and slighter builds. And South Asians, as in the subcontinent, are particularly prone to “skinny fat”.)

    4. Identifying a problem is one thing, but what are potential solutions to the body-composition assessment problem?
    a) tape/circumferences
    b) calipers/skinfold thickness
    c) bioimpedance
    d) underwater weighing
    e) BodPod (air displacement plethysmography)
    f) tomographic imaging (MRI or CT) or DXA
    g) dissection by pathologist, weighing of components on calibrated scales
    So a-c) are cheap and quick, but often inaccurate. UW weighing (d) is relatively cheap, but time consuming, and accuracy also depends on what formula/model one uses to account for residual air in lungs, etc. The BodPod and imaging methods are considerably more accurate, but time consuming, require specialized equipment, and in the case of CT and DXA, expose the serviceman to ionizing radiation. The final possibility is probably not ethical, not to mention extremely time consuming.
    So, for those of you who would know better than me, and leaving out (g) as a bad joke, which of these would be acceptable from a service perspective? Go with something in the a-c) group, but designating an e/f) method as the final and official measurement in the case of a challenge?

    1. Mike

      This is the Army’s program, AR 600-9, Army Body Composition Program.

      The Army posts I’ve been assigned to for the last several years have had an Army Wellness Center with nutritionists and BodPods. Anyone who falls afoul of the tape test is supposed to automatically be sent over to the Wellness Center for an appointment. Part of that appointment is to get in the BodPod for a measurement. I know of 3 Soldiers who went to the Wellness Center for an appointment after failing the tape test, and the Bodpod said they were under the allowable limit for body fat. In each case, the Soldier was not flagged or placed on the Army Body Composition Program.

    2. Tierlieb

      Hi Mike, excellent points, all of them.

      Regarding 1), I always point to WHtR: It is not good, but it both simpler and better than the BMI.

      Regarding 1b), I think this applies to the army as well: Most army members with a high BMI are just fat, too. It is just that the army cannot afford to misidentify those that aren’t, because those will probably key people in their respective MOS.

      Regarding 4), I’d put on my favourite “movement-pattern-guy” hat on and ask: Why would we need a body-composition assessment system at all? Wouldn’t a functionality assessment be better? The only problem I see with that is that someone would need to find the balls to actually define what makes a good soldier.
      The last fitness thread had a long debate about what that was. Instead of repeating that, I’d point to a simple functional test as a starter:

      The sit-down-and-stand-up test has been used very successful for assessment with older patients. It is also very telling for a basic classification. What you do is start standing, then sit down, then stand up again.
      If you manage to do it without using your hands, going down in a controlled manner, not falling on your ass and getting up, again without using hands, without rolling or kipping, you get ten points. Any kind of cheating costs you some points.

      This is not useful to separate the SEAL from the Ranger candidate but it is lightyears ahead of any BMI classification regarding normal, overweight or obese. Yes, you might be docked the same amount of points for having a bad knee as for being too heavy, and you might succeed due to being strong or light, but that’s the point: No one cares what you look like, but whether you can go. Functionality for the win.

  9. Mike

    I had a company commander at the 82nd who was a runner. About 5’10”-6′, and 140-150 lbs. Ran the 10 miler in All American Week in something like 56-57 minutes. However, he couldn’t do push ups or pull ups for shit. Every time he came by my platoon to join us for PT and realized we were doing upper body improvement, he hung around for maybe 10 minutes before leaving to go check on another platoon. He was ok at rucking, so long as the ruck weight didn’t exceed 35 lbs. The one time he tried rucking with my mortar boys he got broke off.

    Being able to run doesn’t correlate to combat fitness, but the Big Army still refuses to accept anything else.

    1. Hillbilly

      I noticed that once the ruck weights started getting up to/above 70 lbs that it tends to sort out pretty quickly who can and can’t hump the weight.

    2. TF-BA

      Wow. 35lbs is a harsh indictment. Was that at least a 35lbs ruck with plates in, radio, water, ammo, weapon etc. loaded out on the vest?

      Seriously, a 35lb ruck is basically the equivalent of what a 12 year old girl with a full book bag, carrying a french horn home from school has to cope with on a Thursday. I already thought that the Army 45-55lb training guideline was a joke. Now I have a mental image of a middle school girl talking shit to a paratrooper because SHE can carry her french horn all the way home.

      The type of man you describe would prolapse his colon attempting to put on a real ruck. Please say it ain’t so.

  10. Seacoaster

    I’m gonna go the other way on this. Agree that we don’t need more gazelles, but I see at least as many grunts who can throw around weight but have poor endurance as I do the opposite. And the majority are lifting for cosmetic reasons, not for combat fitness. Compare cable machine use to parallel back squats observed in a base gym some time.

    Running and cardiovascular endurance are still critical components of military fitness for good reasons as well as bad. Col John Ripley was about as good a “tactical athlete” SME as you can get, and he had a memorable rant about strength not even being “in the same grid square” as endurance to a soldier. Between Dong Ha and the schools he passed, I’d take his word for it.

    The Rangers’ RAW seems like one of the better overall tests going:

    Stew Smith’s Dirty Dozen is also pretty good, did that with my platoon a couple months ago:

    1. Tierlieb

      > Running and cardiovascular endurance are still critical components of military fitness for good reasons as well as bad. Col John Ripley was about as good a “tactical athlete” SME as you can get, and he had a memorable rant about strength not even being “in the same grid square” as endurance to a soldier. Between Dong Ha and the schools he passed, I’d take his word for it.
      Maybe the guy who spent a large amount of time hanging from a bridge underestimated the strength requirement for his feat ;-)

      Joking aside, I think we need to differentiate a bit more.

      a) I find it completely debatable whether running should be part of military fitness: If we define running as “movement where one foot is in the air, no weight added, for a distance of 800m or more” (comparing it to the olympic definition of walking by technique and separating it by distance from the sprints), then I would say: No. Not at all, because that does not mirror military requirements. The Stew Smith Dirty Dozen you mentioned uses the sprint and the ruck walk instead, which are much closer.

      b) Whether some kind of movement pattern should take precedence over some kind of weight lifting pattern depends on the MOS, I think. While in my mind, every foot soldier should train both walking with weights and sprinting , a tanker might focus on lifting instead. Hell, a drone operator should focus on back, neck and shoulder health ;-)

      c) Cardiovascular endurance seems to be a crucial part of military requirements for me, too. The interesting thing is that for a given task, training consists of two parts: Neurological adaption – stuff gets easier because you did it before. That requires the exact movement pattern. An then components like VO2 max, lactate thresholds and all that – training how to keep going. And that latter part can be trained without the movement pattern, at least in my opinion. Kettlebell-types will point at their marathon experiments (many, mostly anecdotal, but with the sorry state of exercise science [could as well be psychology with their small number of subjects], I think they should count); and Izumi Tabata’s study on the Japanese Speed Skating team in 1996 (trained by cycling, a completely different movement pattern) is kinda legendary. That does not mean that running does not make you better at the latter part, too – but running is not the most efficient and very unhealthy in the long term.

      In summary, I would not want to throw out running in the broader sense and yes, there are some very deficient weight lifters, but the problem with most armies of the world is running too much, not lifting too much.

  11. Barry Jones

    Way back when I was a tank platoon leader I had a SGT that always came down on the “overweight” list. He was a body builder (not a bad thing for a tanker to be) and had a 47 to 48 inch chest…and a 30 inch waist. He was the kind of guy that had two sets of fatigue shirts – the summer shirts were cut off at the elbow because he could not roll the sleeves up and still get his arm in the sleeve. We also had a “tanker PT test” that focused on sprints, lifting heavy weights to various heights multiple times or sprinting with heavy loads which is the kind of fitness a tanker needs (even the tools are heavy on a tank – ask a tanker about a “little Joe wrench” and the loaders job of humping 50lb shells into the breach of the main gun is tiresome…not to mention re-ammoing.

  12. Kirk

    With this issue, just like everything else in the military that is dysfunctional, the root problem comes back to an essential inability to define the terms of what we’re talking about. Poor conceptualization leads to poor and inadequate thinking about an issue, which leads into ineffective action and conduct.

    Describe for me, please, what an Infantryman needs to be able to do. Even something seemingly so simple is essentially not described. Nowhere in the Army or the Marine Corps is there a table that says “An Infantryman must be able to lift this much, this many times, in this amount of time, while wearing this equipment…”. Instead, we substitute a system of assessment that is essentially meaningless–I don’t give a flying f**K how many pushups you can do in two minutes. I really, really don’t–What I care about is whether or not you can lift that f**king tire over there into the spare tire rack on the truck you’re assigned to drive. You may, indeed, be able to score 340 on the extended APFT, but if I have to assign two or three of you little flyweights to do a job that one of my “overweight, unfit fatasses” can do by himself… Something is severely f**ked up in the system.

    All of this bullshit is essentially cosmetics. The APFT is a sad joke, when it comes to assessing combat fitness, because reality has no way of inserting itself into the test. Dude or dude-ette weighs 130lbs; they can do pushups forever, and situps the same. Their run time is lightning-fast. Now, take those little lightweights out to the field, and see how well they hang doing their jobs. Oh, they can’t lift the camouflage net? They can’t help load the truck? They can’t do a fireman’s carry on that guy who can do both? WTF is the point here, other than playing games with appearances?

    At one point in my early career, I was held back from being promoted early to SP4 (Yeah, that long ago–We still had SP5 rank in the supply room…) because the other guy who was eligible outscored me on the APFT. Care to f**king guess who was the asshole on the other side of the bridge tongs that dropped his load, and damn near broke my leg when the Bailey Bridge was being assembled? And, the reason he dropped it was because he was a.) physically unable to lift that weight continuously enough to meet the standard, and b.) physically exhausted, as in “Put SPC Smith over there in the shade; he looks like he has heat exhaustion…”. It was, I might point out, Oc-f**king-tober at Fort Leonard Wood. And, not particularly or unseasonably warm, that year, either. I think the actual temp was in the fifties, that particular day. My hero sure did well on the damn APFT, though–Boy could run, and his little itty-bitty pectorals could bounce that little flyweight ass up and down on the pushup all day long.

    Trouble was, he couldn’t actually do shit, job-related. Shoulda seen the issues he had trying to change a tire on a five-ton dump. Truly, a thing of beauty and wonder, watching him jumping up and down on the end of a tire-iron cross-bar. When the platoon sergeant got tired of watching the fun, he sent me and another guy over. I broke every one of those “frozen” lug nuts free by the simple expedient of setting the tire iron, and standing up with it in my hands. None of them required what I considered to be “excess effort” in my naive and charming country manner. Guess who got counseling about his “lack of physical fitness”, why don’t you?

    Yeah, the whole thing is in dire need of a major reset and rethinking. Maybe after we lose the next war, we can fit in fixing this arrant idiocy, somewhere in between the re-education classes and the Chinese language lessons…

    1. Tierlieb

      Wow. That must have been an annoying experience, Kirk.

      Part of the problem is a long-going debate between absolute and relative strength: Relative strength is a convenient thing in everyday life, maybe a better health indicator and fairer to smaller people (1) – perfect for fitness, where you only compete against yourself.

      But it is very much useless when there are absolute weights to be lifted, like the aforementioned tires or camo netting. Also, buddy carry should be focussed on the heaviest guy on the team, right?

      And going for the highgest absolute strength seems like a logical solution. But from an economic perspective, finding a reasonable absolute strength ceiling and then optimizing for that is probably better. Tom Kratman came up with good examples in the book where he invents the female battalion (The Amazon Legion, 2011).

      – Yes, buddy carry needs to be done with the heaviest guy on the team. But there needs to be a weight limit (an all women-team will not be as strong, but not as heavy either)

      – Yes, there are absolute weights that need to be moved. But if economic analysis tells you it is inefficient to train all your soldiers to this, come up with alternatives: Either get lighter stuff (Kratman’s Amazons don’t get the heavy mortars and have to adapt their strategies accordingly, iirc) or establish team solutions (have a look at Asian teams at firefighting competitions (*), they make some fun videos)

      > the root problem comes back to an essential inability to define the terms of what we’re talking about
      Exactly. A lot of head-in-the-sand stuff going on there.
      Weigh things, evaluate tasks, form requirements, train towards that purpose.


      1) Checkout out Andrej Stanaszek as the best pound-for-pound powerlifter.
      2) Yes, it is probably totally racist of me to point out that they are usually lighter and have less absolute strength than Westerners. It is also true.

      1. Bob

        Relative strength vs. absolute strength: both can be high. It’s just that the training methods in common use among the amateur trainee population are garbage and so many either end up not very strong at all, or end up eating their way up to 230 pounds at 5’10 with a measly 500 lb squat or something like that (i.e. trying to out-eat ineffective programming). And of course small people just don’t move huge weights relative to larger ones.

        Andrej Stanaszek is a midget obviously, those guys are the exception. His absolute strength is just fine, far above his weight of course. His build is the problem here that would disqualify him from a military occupation. Can’t get over high obstacles, reach high places, slow rucking pace due to super short stride, shooting may be an issue with his ultra short arms…

        A normal 50-60 Kilo person (non-midget variety) can (with no supportive gear) squat up to a bit over 400% of their bodyweight vs. Andrej’s 600%, bench maybe between 250%-300% (maybe in exceptional cases), deadlift 430% or so (unless built like a little crane, then it might be more but other lifts will suffer). That’s for the most elite weightlifters in that weight-class. Females about the same squat and pull but less in the bench, 200-250% tops maybe (can’t say for sure, most of “my people” don’t train the bench press seriously).

        If you consider now that that takes very specialized training, and the more advanced a trainee you become, the more you need to train to keep progressing… And that in the field you would not be warmed up properly for a given feat of strength…
        Not looking too good for smaller people who can only get to decent absolute strength levels by being among the absolute best strength athletes in their weight-classes.

        A taller person can be somewhat half-assed in terms of strength and whatnot but due to simply having every metric being naturally higher, they will perform better with an absolute load on their body.

        Women only perform somewhat similary to men in the lower weight-classes, to boot. Comparing the strength of a 75 Kg girl (165 lbs) to a similarly heavy male will already show a huge gap in performance generally. The best female super-heavyweight, who was caught doping at 14 or so, is a russian who weighs 240 or something like that but performs more like a fairly decent 77Kg (169) lb guy. And she is the extreme exception among heavy women, all others of which just don’t compare to men at all.

        Now in my opinion, someone of average height and weight might be the best compromise, if you can get them the right kind of training. Really heavy, muscular people tend to have worse relative strength (thus move their body through space less well), require more food on average, much higher strain on the cardiovascular system when just moving around, esp. with heavy external loads.
        The metabolism of an infantryman would be pretty fast to begin with due to all the shit he has to do and train for, so if you have a huge bodybuilder guy, the muscle will melt off him the second his food-intake is restricted to just one mre a day or something like that. He’ll feel horrible and perform terribly after a while.
        A more normal sized guy can be very strong in absolute and relative terms, has less metabolic load to deal with, can tolerate smaller food-intakes better due to that… Not as much cartilage degradation just from standing in formation or rucking etc… Less heavy to drag/carry if injured, less heavy in total with an approach march load (imagine a 260-300lb guy with 135 or so extra lbs or more, marching through a swampy area on his two little feet).

        For a professional military, or at least it’s SOF and top infantry components, a longer initial physical training pipeline might be good too.

        Start strength training at 12-14 (or 18 if necessary due to laws, though that means missing out on a good part of a persons natural steroid cycle, puberty), train for 2-4 years until bone density, muscle and tendon strength is high, then introduce ruck marching (not earlier to avoid injuries and extreme load on the heart) and whatever running you might actually need (to a proper standard, otherwise you’d just sink more and more time into it that could be better spent elsewhere). Additional whatever amount of years you need to train people up to be able to do everything an infantryman needs to be able to do.

        You’d need an excess of strength for additional bone density and because you can’t go 100% with no warm-up under normal circumstances in the field, so making a strength standard something like “1 muscle-up with full combat load” would be garbage as you won’t perform 100% when the time comes. Maybe 1 pull-up with 165-200 lbs external load or whatever, for example, if you have to simulate climbing up some obstacle in a hurry without warm-up).
        People can learn to shoot from the start with lots of dry-fire and some live fire testing and familiarization, basic land nav without much external load until they have enough excess strength to handle it easily etc.

        For rucking, build a nice rucking track that absorbs some impact for use with beginners, then a normal one with a harder surface for testing or “tough” sessions. No tilting of the floor to avoid one-sided overuse injuries, or make sure everyone gets to walk the the same amount of tilted ground for both sides of the body. Should be able to train people to high standards with less injury.

        Basically handle this more like the training of professional athletes in other countries, rather than training everyone like some kind of ww2 draftee or conscript.

        Folks can guard bases and whatnot while they’re still in the pipeline but haven’t done too much advanced stuff yet, so that they’re not useless to the mil until they are fully trained up.

        Tests would just be practical stuff. Ruck so and so long with so and so much weight, scale some obstacles, shoot targets, evacuate wounded, load artillery, whatever.

        If there was less waste of money on overprized toys, foreign aid, banquets for the brass, social shit for scammers etc, i’m sure the various western militaries could afford some platforms, even ground, decent barbells and bumper plates plus pull-up wall thingies with a variety of grips.
        And more than that is only necessary for injured people in terms of strength training.
        Add the ruck march tracks and whatever.
        Strength programming would have to be smarter than what is in common use. Otherwise your guys will always be too heavy for their strength and progress too dependent on over-eating. Those programs are also not as easy to combine with other training because you tend to be toast after a session when the weight gets heavy
        I.e. great for pogues and shit for front-line guys.

    2. Steve

      Actually, Kirk, there are objective physical standards associated with Army MOSs. The most current for Infantrymen can be found in Tab C here:

      As you can see, the standards are very task specific, and directly apply to the tasks expected of the average Infantryman.

      Also available is the research conducted in designing the OPAT (the physical tests recruits now take to determine physical eligibility for MOS assignment):

      There is also the 2008 listing of occupational and (abbreviated) physical requirements for nearly all Army MOSs here:

      I would be willing to bet that there have been defined physical and task standards for each Army MOS for decades, but I’m too lazy to spend much Google time finding any more examples.

      All this said, I agree the APFT is not an accurate measure of MOS-specific physical requirements, but then it was never designed to be such. It replaced the old 5-event physical test because it required very little equipment, could be administered to large groups relatively quickly, and could be conducted nearly anywhere one could find a relatively flat area for the 2 mile run. In other words, the typical Army choice of expediency over accuracy, much like the height/weight/body fat standards and measurements.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Oh, yeah, the five-event test. That was with the monkey bars, pull-ups, run-dodge-and-jump and shuttle run, IIRC, and the other event must have been a run. That went out not long after I joined, but it was kept alive by the 1st SFOD-D selection team for years afterward.

        Until 1981 or 82, the 2-mile run was done in boots.

  13. Cap'n Mike

    I too hated the APFT when I was in.
    People talk about a runners high, but I never felt anything while running except wanting to stop running.
    I could Road March all day every day though.

    I could keep up with the APFT while on active duty, but after I ETSd and joined the National Guard, it hung over my head every year like a vulture, and was one of the reasons I got out all-together.

    For Cops in Mass they have tried to come up with a system that actually tests a persons ability to do the job. Its not perfect, but its something.

    “Police Officer Physical Abilities Test (PAT) Events

    Obstacle Course

    This event simulates the actions necessary to pursue and “takedown” a suspect. The event begins with an obstacle course where the candidate will be faced with climbing under an obstacle, climbing up and down steps, going through an open window, climbing over a wall and negotiating a series of cones arranged in a zigzag pattern. At the end of the course, the candidate will be required to grab hold of a weighted bag attached to a pulley and touch it to the ground. The candidate will then immediately move around the Power Station to the handcuffing simulation where he/she will be required to pull on two hand levers until the cable hits the stop. This completes the event. The time limit is 130.4 seconds.

    The Trigger Pull Event

    This event consists of raising a handgun and squeezing the trigger six (6) times with each hand. The time limit is 7.1 seconds.

    The Separation Event

    This event simulates tasks that require separating one party from an other and controlling individuals, such as in crowd control situations. The candidate will be required to pull a hanging bag backward touching it to the ground across a marked line. Candidates will have to perform two “pulls”. The time limit is 14.2 seconds.

    The Dummy Drag

    This event simulates dragging a victim or suspect. Candidates will be required to drag a dummy over a straight course. The time limit is 11 seconds.”

    I was only told I passed (20 years ago) so I don’t know if I was a stud or if I barely made it.

    People do fail it, so it must be somewhat challenging and effective.
    I saw a couple of females fail to get over the 6 or 7 foot wall.

    One big problem is its only done during the hiring phase, and not yearly, so many cops probably couldn’t pass it after a couple of years on the job sitting in a cruiser for hours at a time and eating fast food.

    I’m not in the same shape I was 20 years ago but I think I could still do it.
    I sure would be sore the next day though.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Very interesting, task-oriented and mission-focused test. You do nail its Achilles’s heel, that it’s never repeated post-hiring.

  14. W. Fleetwood

    A thought, for what it’s worth. For years I, like the rest of the Army, did morning PT. Why? At the time I would probably have given some wiseacre answer like “Because the sun is up, and it is written in the Holy Book of the Army that when the sun comes up you will do PT. Say Hallelujah!” . And that was about as deeply as I thought about the subject.

    In retrospect I do see the value of what we were doing, but it had nothing to do with strength, fitness, or any of that. Morning PT was an important social and morale event. On most days it was the one time the CO, and CSM would actually see the troops under their command (and vice versa). It also allowed the whole unit to do something physical, all together, as a team. It might be the only reminder in a week, or quite a bit longer, that you weren’t just some guy in the Big Army. No, you were a B company Basher, or a “Fangs Out!” TOW Platoon gunner, something unique, and important.

    It also reinforced the Chain of Command, if only by making it possible for Pfc Smith to identify that CoC in a line up. But, if the CO had the sense to run Platoon Days and Sergeants Days and so on it could do quite a bit more than that.

    This may be a case of needing to look past the name stenciled on the box and see what’s actually inside. Again, just a thought.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

  15. Aesop

    I’m gonna be a glass-half-full guy on this, and note that if I just get one more growth spurt of a foot or so, I can return to my peak weight and still be within spec.

    Pizza and ice cream for everyone!

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