Army PRT: You hate it because you don’t understand it. You are also doing it wrong.

Bottom Line Up Front: US Army leaders fail to see value in the Army’s Physical Readiness Training (PRT) because they don’t understand it and don’t care to. And this is a problem.

Army PRT
I was very unimpressed with what I had seen from the Army the minute I experienced our physical training plan at basic training (run, push-ups, “abs”, run, repeat). Nowhere were we doing anything to prepare us for combat really. It was just things to get us to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). We did foot marching and “army training”, sure, and that was preparing our bodies, but the dedicated “PT” time was very basic. I was again unimpressed with what my first unit was doing for PT and what all the leaders around me were doing for PT when I got into the operational force. I wrote off the Army as somehow lacking in planning and executing physical training. I had been in the strength and conditioning world since 1996, working formally and informally training athletes, personal training clients, friends and myself. I would never have planned PT how we were doing it. I wondered why no one trained like an athlete. Did the Army think running long slow distances every day was a strength and conditioning program?

Later that year I had to open up FM 21-20 Physical Fitness Training for a professional development session. I actually read it in depth for the first time. I found it was filled with a lot of great ideas, none of which centered around running followed by various push-up and ab drills every day like all the senior Soldiers I was working with were doing. Maybe the Army knew more than I thought.

Here is a great quote from the preface:

The costly lessons learned by Task Force Smith in Korea are as important today as ever. If we fail to prepare our soldiers for their physically demanding wartime tasks, we are guilty of paying lip service to the principle of “Train as you fight.” Our physical training programs must do more for our soldiers than just get them ready for the semi-annual Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT).

The manual goes in to have a ton of gems in there that are not really advanced for someone preparing a college football team for high level performance but way more info than the average American knows. The bottom line is that if you read this, it would NOT occur to you that a 5-mile run followed by only push-ups and sit-ups done every day is the right thing to do for PT. Then why was everyone doing that?

The Concept of Physical Readiness Training (PRT)

Then comes Physical Readiness Training (PRT) in the late 2000s, which almost everyone immediately said is useless. “How will this help my PT?” they said. This translates to “How will this help me do better on the APFT?” None of them actually read it of course. For if they read it, they’d see how it would clearly help them do better at PT, which is to say better at combat. PRT is fundamentally based on two concepts from my interpretation: 1. Physical training for combat should actually focus the skills required in combat, and 2. Injured people can’t fight optimally or at all. The bad news here is that this was what FM 21-20 was based on yet it was completely disregarded in practice.

Someone realized that after a decade of sustained combat that injured people is one of our largest problems. Not injuries from combat per se but injuries from anything. Every dislocated shoulder and aching knee keeps people non-deployable, unable to fight. If we can prepare our Soldiers’ bodies better for injury prevention, rehab the injuries we have, and stop having everyone run their knees off, we will have ready Soldiers for the actual war.

FM 7-22, PRT (20 October 2012) starts off the first chapter with this quote:

Military leaders have always recognized that the effectiveness of Soldiers depends largely on their physical condition. Full spectrum operations place a premium on the Soldier’s strength, stamina, agility, resiliency, and coordination. Victory—and even the Soldier’s life—so often depend upon these factors. To march long distances in fighting load through rugged country and to fight effectively upon arriving at the area of combat; to drive fast-moving tanks and motor vehicles over rough terrain; to assault; to run and crawl for long distances; to jump in and out of craters and trenches; and to jump over obstacles; to lift and carry heavy objects; to keep going for many hours without sleep or rest—all these activities of warfare and many others require superb physical conditioning. Accordingly, this chapter links Army physical readiness training (PRT) to Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN).

Still in the first chapter, the manual shows a linkage with PRT and the principles of Army Training from ADP 7-0! Apparently physical training should actually involve principles of Army training. This is excellent doctrinal linkage, showing how PRT is part of the total program to train units and develop leaders. It’s very well done.

It then goes on to show you the physical requirements necessary to fight and win on the battlefield as determined by the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills (WTBDs). For example:

Task: Navigate from one point to another

Physical Requirements: March/run under load, jump, bound, high/low crawl, climb, push, pull, squat, lunge, roll, stop, start, change direction, and get up/down.

There is another chart on page 1-5 and that cross-references the various physical skills (muscular strength, muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance, agility, balance, coordination, flexibility, posture, stability, speed, and power) with their usefulness in executing the warrior tasks and battle drills. What you notice quickly is that the ONLY ONE that does NOT apply to each warrior task and battle drill is Aerobic Endurance, e.g. long, slow running. Only one other skill is assessed not to be valuable in all WTBDs – muscular endurance (long sets of push-ups and sit-ups). These are the ONLY TWO physical skills that MOST senior leaders have been and continued to use daily. They are still training for the “test”, not for combat which is the real test.

The Real Problem: Our Leaders

Unfortunately, the evaluation of the time you spend at PT comes in two places: the APFT and long runs with senior leaders (How many of you were taken on a long run upon arriving at a new assignment?). In garrison, you will most assuredly be judged by your APFT score not your agility, power, or ability to carry a casualty. I have always seen the PT test used as a major barometer in formal and informal evaluation. Good runner = good leader, right? Is it surprising to anyone people train to the test? The biggest detractor to our Soldiers training their bodies properly remains to be the example our senior service members set for the junior ones. Picture seeing your battalion commander and command sergeant major run every day (for most of you this is reality so it’s easy to do). The message it sends is that you should too because just about everything else they do every day – come to work on time, in the right uniform, with the right attitude, care for subordinates, display technical and tactical competence, develop leaders, etc. – are all things you should do every day too.

Our Obligation as Warriors

Military members are supposed to be warrior athletes. We are paid to come to exercise, on duty, as part of our jobs. Take a look in the mirror. If you don’t look like an athlete, like you exercise regularly, you are an embarrassment to the service and your nation. If the average citizen who can’t keep themselves out of the overweight and obese category looks at you and isn’t sure you exercise daily, there is a problem. It is probably due to your diet and sleep patterns, not just your physical training program. That’s another article for another day (talk about setting a bad example, take a look at most Soldiers’ lunches…). But I promise you that only running plus push-ups and sit-ups plus bad diet plus bad sleep (quality & quantity) plus stress will lead to just being fat or being skinny fat (bird chest, skinny arms, no visible leg muscle, protruding gut). Every weekend I see Soldiers in civilian clothes that do not appear physically in any way they are in the Army other than a short haircut.

If you play a game of ultimate Frisbee and can’t move right for a week, you are not fit to fight (or even healthy). I remember overhearing a group of field grade officers after a dodgeball session remarking on how all the rapid changes of direction, sprinting, and dynamic throwing crushed them. The problem is they usually move really slowly in straight lines during their physical training.

Just doing the prep drill and recovery drill from 7-22 doesn’t mean you are practicing the philosophy of PRT either, ladies and gentlemen. I see this one a lot. We have done a great job stopping all the static stretching to warm up or doing nothing to warm up, but there is far more to battle-focused physical training than this.

Actions for Leaders

1. Read FM 7-22, understand it, and follow its philosophy of program design. You don’t need to get into a complex civilian physical training program (Military Athlete or CrossFit for example), hire a personal trainer, or buy a bunch of complex equipment. You should know what words like “mobility” mean. You should do things that target “agility” and “power”. You should use a pull-up bar at least as much if not more than you do push-ups. Training “abs” isn’t a thing any professional athlete does. We think of the body as a unit. Train using functional fitness concepts and your “abs” will be fine. Want to see them? Stop being fat, not doing more sit-ups.

2. Stop using the APFT as the measurement of physical fitness. This is one for the leaders out there. I am much more interested in my subordinates being able to pass the APFT easily than I am with them maxing it. I don’t see any reason we all can’t be above a 250 in fact. But if you are a company commander, battalion commander, or brigade commander, stop forcing an environment where APFT score is more important than the physical attributes required to do the WTBDs. Be happy with a company/battalion APFT average of 230 with less injuries and less failures versus a 260 full of broke people who can’t do 2 pull-ups or buddy carry someone 100m without vomiting. If you can get to 260+ and have diverse physical fitness per 7-22, great. It is more fun to train like an athlete too. Running every day is so boring.

3. Start training like a warrior athlete. That means you can do your job in combat and are not injured. If you have nagging injuries, training with kettlebells, rucking, carrying heavy things, sprinting, and doing pull-ups will help you not hurt you. You all know someone nowadays that is doing what you think is “CrossFit” because you have no idea what they are doing or what CrossFit is. They are NOT the guys who are bodybuilding or trying to bench 500 lbs, which is little better than running every day for warrior athletes. They are the guys wearing a weight vest, doing walking lunges, cleans, snatches, swinging kettlebells, and using sandbags for PT. They are training like athletes who train for performance. This isn’t reserved for those training to be in or already in Delta or the Ranger Regiment. Ask these guys what they are doing, why, and see if it passes the common sense test. Be clear that just because it is hard and involves diverse skills doesn’t mean it is in accordance with 7-22 either. I know a lot of CrossFit gyms whose programming isn’t in my opinion good or combat focused, but I have never seen one that is not far better than just running every day. If in the end you are injured, it wasn’t so great though.

4. Attend and/or send your Soldiers to the Master Fitness Course. My current battalion sent 10 of our NCOs to this course at Fort Knox. None of them wanted to go, thought it was stupid. All of them came back excited about PRT and educated on some basic concepts – proper running form, importance of diet, proper execution of the PRT drills in 7-22, use and value of foam rolling (self-myofascial release) to name a few. This course isn’t going to teach you the 20+ years of things I learned obsessing over strength and conditioning, but it is a very good program.

5. Get the Right Equipment. One reason you see a lot of running and bodyweight work is it requires no equipment. We all know you can’t take your whole rifle company to the gym. You can, however, purchase gear that is highly durable, cost effective, and can be kept in small spaces. Without any reservation I would recommend sandbags and kettlebells be the basis of such a purchase. I would be happy to assist in preparing a specific list of the amounts and weights you should purchase if you are interested. I have done it three times now for various units. These two pieces of equipment can be used to work on strength, power, and endurance with ease. Try running up a hill with a 60lb sandbag on your shoulders, then walk down without it, sprint back up without it, and walk back down with it on your shoulders again. Do this 10 times. You just drastically improved your “running” session to make it functional. Please find a qualified person to give you some instruction on the use of items such as a kettlebell. You can use YouTube very effectively at showing new exercises or demonstrations too.

Final Thoughts for Leaders

The Army has “presence” as a leader attribute in the 6-22 series for a reason. Presence not only gets after how you carry yourself but also how you look and perform. To me, it is important my Soldiers are confident I can lead them in any conditions – dark, hungry, tired, and under physical stress. A baseline of functional physical fitness is vital to ensuring you are fully mission capable.

Here are some additional points of consideration/questions to spark discussion:

Is it possible to convince your senior commanders that the APFT isn’t the true measure of fitness? Or is it sufficient as an easy method of baselining some attributes of physical fitness?

Have you had experience in a unit that had a function PT program? How was it received by the unit? What were the lessons learned in its implementation?