A military Physical Fitness Test is not designed to measure combat effectiveness, nor is it designed to measure combat readiness. Physical Fitness Tests are wellness assessments for hygiene designed to ensure a minimal level of fitness necessary to avoid medical problems, not for improved performance.

Here is how to do it better and actually improve performance.

Starting Strength and Barbell Training in the Military
Lt. Col. Christian “Mac” Ward

Making Strength Happen
Enter the barbell and training with a purpose, specifically Starting Strength. On my last deployment I trained 15 Marines and Sailors in the proper use of barbells, and I did it with a simple protocol. For approximately 7 months, these folks performed the squat, bench, deadlift, press, and clean 3 days a week. We incorporated the prowler to keep conditioning high, we incorporated weighted chins, and dips for some. Three dropped out, twelve persisted. Five were women, ages varied from 24 to 38. At the end of the deployment three ran PFTs for the purpose of promotion in rank. All three bested their previous PFT score.

Read that again: All three bested their previous PFT score. They did not run, they did not perform daily crunches, they did not do sets of 20 chins. Most of them participated in MCMAP, several earned their black belts and all advanced. The men all achieved a 315-pound squat for three sets of five. The women all squatted in the high hundreds, many broke 200 pounds for a single. Every woman that trained with me could perform 8 chins and all could do weighted chins for reps.

Here is the best part: all training was done without injury, without a loss to combat readiness, and around daily duties. This all happened in the same unit that had a number of injuries that occurred while doing other “constant variation” exercise protocols. The only complaint I had was that a few of the men needed to buy bigger shirts. Sorry for your loss, bro.

The biggest hurdle I had was preventing the Marines from doing more. Many initially refused to believe that 4 hours a week in the gym was enough. In time, all eventually listened and did as they were instructed. In many cases I explained to them that 4 hours a week of busting your ass was enough, while four hours a week of “sliming your way through” was not. Because aerobic capacity is required while in combat and for the PFT, they pushed the prowler 1 to 2 times a week. They never loaded the prowler more than 90 pounds, and they never felt the need to do so. Prowler work was limited to 15 minutes per week.

How much did these Marines and Sailors add to their strength? For sets of five, one male increased his squat from 185 to 325, his deadlift from 255 to 375 (405 for a double), and his bench from 175 to 235. He put on about 10 lbs of body mass. Last I saw him he was looking at himself in awe in the mirror. One female started her squat at 65 pounds and finished at 170 pounds, her bench went from 50 to 85, her deadlift improved from 85 to 205, and finally her chins improved from zero to eight. Both scored a higher PFT than either had previously scored. These are typical gains, made during a combat deployment, eating normal amounts of food, executing the Starting Strength protocol.

Every unit in the military should be invested in the strength of its members. Every unit in the military should require every member in the unit to complete novice progression. Combat is serious business, and strength is the foundation for all other activities. Seriously.

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