Army to overhaul fitness program
June 28, 2008
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army is preparing to overhaul its long-standing physical fitness regimen, ditching time-honored long, slow runs for short, fast sprints and muscle-building work that come in handy under fire.
A 645-page draft revision of the Army’s physical readiness training field manual, which is circulating among Army senior leaders, could be adopted Armywide by mid-2009, according to co-author Frank Palkoska, director of the Army Physical Fitness School at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Soldiers today usually focus their physical training, or PT, time in preparation for the Army’s twice-annual PT test.
Taken in shorts, sneakers and T-shirts, the test includes sit-ups, push-ups and a two-mile timed run. Soldiers who fail to meet gender and age-based standards can lose promotions and even get tossed from the Army.
But while the Army PT program creates healthy troops, it doesn’t prepare them for battle, Palkoska said.
"They may be physically fit, but not physically ready," he told Stripes in a Thursday telephone interview. "You don’t run two miles, or do push-up or sit-ups when you cross" the line of departure into combat.
Long-distance running has been the Army’s fitness gold standard since 1980, when the civilian American College of Sports Medicine declared aerobic capacity the key to health and longevity — and running the way to get it, Palkoska said.
"A baseline of aerobic capability is still important" for overall health and fitness, draft co-author Stephen Van Camp, chief of doctrine and deputy director of the fitness school, said in the Thursday interview.
But in combat environments, "We’re carrying heavy loads, we need to be strong, we need to be fast," Staff Sgt. Mike Norton, a 27-year-old instructor-trainer in the Physical Fitness School, said in the Thursday interview.
"That’s just common sense. Any good leader is going to recognize it," said Norton, who spent 2004 deployed to Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan with the 25th Infantry Division, where he and his soldiers performed missions on foot in elevations from 4,000 to 14,000 feet.
In Afghanistan, Norton helped his own soldiers boost their fitness so they could better tackle the challenges of deployment.
But Norton, at 5 feet 8 inches tall and 190 pounds, can bench-press 225 pounds for 20 repetitions. He recognizes that "all soldiers aren’t from an athletic background," Norton said.
"That’s why it’s important to get this [new] doctrine out there," Norton said. "It is definitely necessary for the direction we’re going as an Army."
Palkoska and Van Camp took five years to revamp the Army PT manual, without a specific budget, Palkoska said. "We get paid to do this," he said. "It’s part of what we do as the Army’s proponent for physical fitness."
The draft revision features monthlong "blocks" that gradually get more challenging as the year progresses, bringing troops to a peak during a period that is supposed to match a combat deployment. Soldiers are expected to do their drills in full "battle rattle" during some of the more intense phases of the yearlong training cycle.
The draft document is meticulous, "fully explaining all the exercises you need, and making sure you do everything properly," Norton said. Those details are the reason for its length compared to the current manual, which is around 207 pages, Palkoska said.
If short was the goal, "We could have reduced the book down to maybe 100 pages," he said.
But "Steve and I view this as a fitness encyclopedia for the Army. It’s so much easier to know what ‘right’ looks like."
"And if we don’t give [soldiers] enough information, we’ll get bombarded with questions anyway."