Hup, two, three, four…We are Delta, mighty-mighty Delta…left, left, left-right left! Add to that a relentless regime of push-ups, sit-ups and running, and you have the essence of military fitness training. Beyond the military, the concept of running and challenging calisthenics for fitness has spread and has been embraced by the fitness community in the form of “boot camp” classes. There must be something to it, as it’s been around for a long time and, after all, the US has the best military in the world. But is this traditional approach the best way to get our military fit? The appropriate answer seems to be, “Sir, no sir!”
At two recent PICP Level 1 and 2 courses, we had the privilege of having two Air Force officers in attendance: Lieutenant Colonel Rod Grunwald and Chief Master Sergeant Rick Wooden. These men are stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California, and between them, they have 47 years in the Air Force. Grunwald and Wooden are proud to be a part of the greatest fighting force in the world; all the same, they wanted to learn if there might be a better approach to getting our military personnel, from combat soldiers to accountants, ready for service.
According to Wooden, one of the problems with fitness training in the military is not so much a lack of specific goals but an appropriate method to achieve those goals. Wooden explains that all military personnel have a set of physical fitness standards that must be met on an annual basis based upon your job, age and gender. These tests include a timed mile-and-a-half run and a set number of sit-ups and push-ups. But testing someone who is not ready can have catastrophic results, says Wooden, who is part of the 615 Contingency Operations Support Group at Travis. “When I first came in some personnel would try to lose weight the week before the test and then try to gut out the run. There was no bodyfat test, so if you made the run time, you were good. The downside is that we had a lot of injuries and even some heart attacks.”
Grunwald, who is the 349 Logistics Readiness squadron commander, says that although the requirement to be in fighting trim is key to the regular training of soldiers in the infantry, officer training school and Special Forces, the standards are much lower for regular military. “It’s important that our people be in shape to pass our military standards, because if they can’t pass them, they are eventually going to be booted out of the service.” He adds that his personnel are encouraged to participate in three days a week of physical activity, “generally some running and perhaps a team sport,” but nothing like the 5-in-the-morning gut-check runs glorified in the movies. Readiness becomes a big issue when people are called up for intense overseas duties, such as when so many reserves were suddenly called up to serve in the conflict in Iraq.
“There were a lot of people called up who were not in good shape,” says Grunwald. “The goal was to get forces in place and get going, so initially many personnel were given physical fitness waivers if they had some type of limitation that prevented them from meeting our standards, such as the timed mile-and-a-half run.” Grunwald says that a lot of those who came back from their first deployments were suffering from shoulder and lower back problems. “Some of these individuals had to go in front of medical evaluation boards to determine if they were still fit to serve.”
Training Smarter, Not Harder
One extremely positive change that improved the general fitness and health of the military concerns the attitude towards smoking – in fact, Wooden believes that in the past the military indirectly encouraged smoking. “When I was in basic training in 1979, the guys who smoked got to take a break: ‘Smoke ’em if you got ’em,’ they would say, while the other guys had to stand in formation. So you had a lot of servicemen who started smoking because they wanted to take a break.” Wooden says these attitudes have changed, and now there are policies of no smoking in buildings. Likewise, he says, the attitude towards the abuse of alcohol has changed, and there are harsher penalties for DUIs.
The Poliquin Difference
Grunwald, who has a heavily muscled physique that is the result of countless hours of hard training, says he had an immediate respect for the 4,600-square foot training gym at the Poliquin Strength Institute. “I’ve seen larger facilities, but I’ve never seen anything put together like this gym. The Atlantis equipment is tremendous, and I especially like the variety of thick barbells and dumbbells.”
Asked to describe the major difference between Charles Poliquin’s programs and others he has tried, Grunwald remarked on program design, especially loading parameters such as tempo and rest periods. “In the Poliquin program there was a more thorough explanation of program design, such the importance of alternating between accumulation and intensification phases.” He was also intrigued by the concept of the critical drop-off point, which is a method of determining when to stop an exercise to avoid overtraining.
“The military is known for pushing its people through periods of overload when they should be tapering,” says Grunwald. He adds that some of the intensity programs the military prescribes may not be appropriate for many of the older personnel. “For our reserve forces such as our civil engineers, and for some of our older MPs, you don’t want to start them off running obstacle courses. Cardiovascular fitness is great, but at first they are going to benefit more from achieving structural balance with a properly designed strength training program that works the muscles throughout a full range of motion.”
Asked what he learned that could be applied immediately to the training of his personnel, Grunwald replied. “A lot! The first thing is that we will be better able to assess our personnel to see where they are weak or inflexible so that we can design programs to help them stay healthy and remain a productive and vital part of the force.” He continues, “I’ve learned more from these two courses than from all the pro bodybuilding shows and powerlifting competitions I’ve attended over the years – the amount of research Coach Poliquin has made available to us is tremendous, and I can’t say enough about the quality of the professional staff of instructors who worked with us: André, John and Eoin are all outstanding.”
Both Grunwald and Wooden agree that when taken as a whole, military service personnel are fitter than the general population. “I would say the intent is there to keep our service men and women fit, and I would say that we are getting better at it, rather than just being satisfied with looking good in a uniform and being able to run a mile and a half in a decent time,” says Grunwald. “But after attending these two courses by Charles Poliquin, I know how we can be more productive in improving the health, fitness and combat readiness of our personnel.”