Deployment Fitness versus PT Test Fitness

For anyone who has spent time far far away in a land much hotter (or colder) than home, this section should not be a surprise. The fitness levels required for deployment life are much different than the fitness test in which you are expected to excel. This is something I and others have struggled with since we first entered the military. The Marines seem to be leading the charge in getting this right with their new Combat Fitness test. While some may debate its specifics, they also put out a great publication years ago on treating Marines as athletes. I will go into more detail in the deployment training section, but I’m not sure many people have experienced running 1.5-2.0 miles to get away from the enemy unarmed while wearing PT shorts and running shoes. I also have never had my waist measured before I got on a convoy with EOD to help blow up old/captured munitions (and we AF types wonder why the other services make fun of us for PT). As I alluded to earlier, there is always the option of just meeting PT standards, but for many personal (pride) or professional (leading by example) reasons this may not be feasible. Believe it or not, people tell me I’m actually a halfway decent officer (I’m not sure if you know this, but I’m kind of a big deal... many leather-bound books) and I feel a big reason for this is leading from the front and excelling in the standard PT sessions in addition to the weight room.

Training for the PT Test

To be honest, I dreaded writing this section. Mostly because if you are already training properly, then your training for this should be pretty much taken care of (also because this is one of the last sections I tackled). Just add a little more running as you get closer and you should be good. The law of specificity always applies, to get better at running you must do some running, to get better at pushups, do pushups, etc., but again, if you are training properly and consistently the PT tests really should not be a big deal to get a decent score on. Obviously, if you want to max the test you need to do more work on the specific areas, and if you just want to meet standards so you can concentrate on getting bigger and stronger, just do the minimum you need to pass. I’ve gone through both evolutions (to the point of even doing a heavy squat workout a few hours before taking my PT test), and for now I try to reach a happy medium and put up a decent score without wasting a whole lot of time, if any, training specifically for it.  If you need to quickly increase your cals, the whole "multiple sets of about ½ your max multiple times a day" seems to work pretty well. If you need to drop your run time dramatically and quickly, doing fartleks or sprint/jogs such as Indian (First American?) runs can be very effective but please refer to my earlier statement on the danger of jumping into anaerobic-lactic means too quickly.

Individual Training While Deployed

Two items that I think every soldier should pack in their deployment bags are a jump rope and a TRX (or TRX-like system). Since Elite sells the TRX I can get away with saying that Blast Straps, while a great piece of equipment, don’t make the cut simply because they are too heavy and take up too much space when you’re loading up an already-too-heavy ruck. My first deployment to Africa, I spent the majority of the deployment in civilian clothes “blending in” with the local populace while directing reconstruction projects. I say “blending in” because even in civilian clothes I’m not sure how many 235 lb sunburned, red-haired individuals of Irish descent there were walking around some of the remote villages we visited. There was usually no secure area for us to run and using the term “fitness center” would get you nothing but funny looks, but I was able to keep up my conditioning and cardiovascular fitness by doing jump rope intervals wherever we stopped for the night, whether that be a small hotel room, a safe house, or a small secured compound. Jumping rope has all sorts of benefits besides just conditioning, and there is really no excuse for not being able to fit in a short session wherever you go. The TRX makes the cut because it makes bodyweight training much more versatile and challenging.  I shouldn’t have to sell anyone on the benefits of suspension training; many people much smarter than I have mentioned it on this site so take their word for it, not mine.  It’s lightweight and compact and is designed to be used almost anywhere (HUMVEE attachments, bars, doorways, etc). Again, I have no financial stake in any of this and own both the TRX and Blast Straps so take this for what it’s worth. I did take my Blast Straps on my second deployment and got a lot of use out of them, but I was in a more stable location that time and hadn’t purchased a TRX yet. If the price tag of the TRX bothers you, either try and get your unit to purchase a small number of them or make your own like we did on my third deployment from nylon/cargo straps and flexible PVC (thanks to James Smith for the idea). There are a lot of useful tools for the development of military fitness, but these two are portable and versatile enough to cover all your basic needs in a pinch if you are creative enough.

The setup below was constructed out of a CONEX with 4x4s as bracing, old leftover tent pools, 1.5” nylon straps, flexible PVC, and having the right people working for you (see the section below on being nice to the engineers). It took about a days worth of work for 4-5 people and was well worth it.  The CONEX is still operational.


Unit Training While Deployed

As a leader, one issue I’ve struggled with in the past is when or whether to implement organized unit training on deployments. Again, optimal vs. reality. For whatever reason, Air Force leadership decided I was responsible enough to lead an 80+ person crew in the desert with my closest supervision being a five hour C-130 trip away. Then they let me do it again a year after we got back from that deployment. All that I learned from these experiences is way outside the scope of this article, but it really increased my training knowledge and how to handle the training of such large groups as well.

From experience, the first thing you need to do is figure out exactly what you have available to you, and what physical qualities you want to develop in your troops. I read “Principles and Basics of Advanced Athletic Training” by Issurin on the last deployment, and while it often made my head hurt, it really increased my understanding on how on all the different pieces fit together when putting together an effective program. When I write down a program I first think of the qualities to develop, these include but don’t have to be limited to: joint mobility, torso strength, upper body/shoulder girdle strength, hip/leg strength, power, reactivity, general work capacity, max speed, and alactic/glycolytic/aerobic power and capacity. As you can see, maximal strength is not on the list of qualities I want to develop in unit training. This is because it is really not feasible in a group this big and safety concerns come into play. After starting a goal list of qualities to develop, the next step is prioritizing them and fitting them into the physiologically correct order within the workout, read the above text for more on this. All of this needs to be developed with the time constraints in mind. We regularly worked ten hour+ days six days a week (this is nothing compared to the pace some units keep) and obviously work was the first priority when it came to organizing the day. Because of the very physical construction jobs many of the troops do, recovery must also be kept in mind as well as the fact that many of them will try and max out multiple times a week in their personal lifting. This is a very important issue and I do not want to sell this short, but it will be covered in more detail later in the case study.

After deciding what qualities to develop and prioritizing their order both intra-workout and during the training work, you need to decide how exactly you will go about developing them. I’ll be here all day if I described all the variations and implements that can be used to develop these qualities, so for now I will just list a few implements that I’ve made use of in unit training on deployment, most of these items are easily found if you ask the right units: ammo cans (fill them with sand), constructed sawhorses as hurdles, sandbags, homemade suspensions straps with 1.5” nylon and flexible PVC, concrete blocks (extra force protection blocks), trucks/vehicles for pushing/pulling, sledgehammers, heavy equipment tires, etc. An example of how to put all these to work will be given in the final section.

One way to keep things interesting on a deployment is to implement monthly PT “challenges.” These can be pretty much anything, but are great for motivating the soldiers to work hard in the weeks leading up to the competitions as well as giving them an outlet for some of their pent-up competitive juices (General Order No. 1 has a way of restricting people’s usual activities). On one deployment we did a unit squat and bench press competition with prizes for top individuals (EliteFTS Strong(er) beanies, actually) as well as the highest scoring shop (time off, special plaque, etc.). On the last deployment I had a plan to hold a shop truck push challenge around the interior perimeter of the FOB (stole the idea from some British types I saw doing it).

As a side note on deployments, make friends with the engineers. We can build lots of cool stuff. And even if we tell you we don’t have any scraps you can use, we really do. So if you ask us for something small and reasonable, and we tell you we don’t have any, you need to either stop being a d-bag about something or offer us something in return. Also, many basic things can be made by almost anyone who knows how to use a hammer and nails. There are a lot of reasons I chose to go the Officer route, and one of those is that besides playing sports and lifting weights I don’t have a whole lot of innate technical ability. In fact, my lovely wife is much better at making home repairs than I am despite the fact I work in the construction field. Despite that, I managed to help construct squat racks, board press boards, suspension training straps, etc. from scrapped materials. If I can do it, pretty much anyone can. The rack below was constructed out of lumber obviously, but on a previous deployment I had a guy who was able to weld a squat rack out of left over angle iron.

Next: Case Study on Implementing a PT Program While Deployed