Training for Combat While Preparing for the Army Physical Fitness Test
by Ryan Long

As a former combat commander I am more concerned with the minimum allowable weight than I am with the maximum weight. Is a 111 pound soldier really an effective member of an infantry squad? Can that soldier carry the average soldier when wounded on the battlefield? If the maximum allowed weights are admittedly low in order to catch most of the fat Soldiers we should consider raising the minimum weights high enough to catch the weak Soldiers, but then that implies we’d know how to make them bigger and stronger once we’ve identified that they are weak.

My strong-but-fat Soldiers were great contributors in combat, and often they were the best performers both mounted and dismounted. They were more durable and more versatile. Our problems were with the skinny-fats and the sparrows; they couldn’t keep up on dismounted patrols under load, couldn’t kick in a door, couldn’t evacuate anybody over 140 lbs, and couldn’t intimidate an insurgent.

I do not dispute the need for a baseline of low-intensity fitness to conduct combat operations. Dismounted patrols in the streets of Baghdad and mountains of Afghanistan, lengthy guard shifts in which soldiers stand for hours in a minimum 60 pounds of gear (33 lbs medium-sized enhanced body armor with attachments, 7.5 lbs rifle with magazine, 7.5 lbs basic ammunition load, 4 lbs water minimum, 3 lbs helmet, 5 lbs boots and uniform, not to mention intra-squad radios and first aid equipment). Undoubtedly these operations require such low-intensity fitness. However, the overlooked quantity here is strength. Again, sixty pounds is the minimum load; this minimal load does not account for radio operators, machine guns, medical equipment, and breaching tools – equipment needed on every single mission. What then prepares a Soldier to carry loads in excess of 80 pounds?

If low-intensity performance is relative to maximal capacity, doesn’t it stand to reason that sub-maximal efforts become easier as maximal performance increases? A soldier who can do 50 pushups with a 1RM bench press of 200 pounds will obviously be able to do more pushups with a 250 pound bench press. And by extension a soldier with a 500 pound deadlift will be able to stand on guard duty under body armor longer than a soldier with a 315 pound deadlift. Remember, PT is supposed to be focused on combat, not the APFT. If the APFT is essentially the only training we conduct out of combat gear, does it still retain any value for measuring the actual required physical abilities?

Strength persists longer than cardio-respiratory performance and takes longer to develop. As a result strength should lie at the base of physical training while cardio-respiratory training should serve as the peak.

– Maj. Ryan Long
Ryan Long is a major in the US Army and an instructor in the Department of Physical Education at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY. He graduated from USMA in 2000 with a Bachelors of Science in Environmental Science and graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008 with a Masters of Education in Kinesiology. He is a competitive weightlifter with a 210kg total in the 77kg class and a competitive powerlifter with a 1300lb raw total in the 181lb weight class.