7 Obstacles to Implementing Functional Fitness in the “Big Army”

By Rob Shaul

We’ve been approached by several line military units at all levels (squad, platoon, company, battalion) in the past 10 years with the goal of implementing a “functional fitness program” at their unit.  We’ve found there are 7 major obstacles units have to implementing functional fitness programs at “Big Army” units:

(1) Limited Equipment … and/or the Wrong Equipment
Functional fitness programming requires loading and this means equipment in the form of basic barbells, racks, dumbbells/kettlebells, plyo boxes and sandbags. Many units like the idea of “functional fitness training” but are not willing to make the investment in the needed equipment and instead expect their soldiers to all crowd into base gyms at the same time 0630-0730 – and use what’s there. It doesn’t work. 

Worse, before developing the programming an/or thinking it through, they’ll invest several hundred thousand dollars in the “platoon” equipment packages marketed by crossfit equipment vendors like Beaverfit. I do this for a living – please understand these Crossfit-inspired equipment packages will not work for a comprehensive functional fitness program at a line unit.

Resist the urge to spend on equipment before identifying what you want the equipment to do, how many you’ll need to train at one time and what type of training sessions you’ll need equipment for (i.e. programming).

2) Unwillingness to allow multiple PT times during the garrison day to maximize equipment limitations.
Want to cut your equipment investment by 50%? Split your unit in half and allow each half to train at different times. They can share the same package of equipment. Want to cut the investment by 66%? Split the unit into thirds and set up 3 training times. Want to cut the investment by 75%? Divide the unit into fourths …. you get the idea. 

There are additional benefits to establish separate training times including allowing the possibility of establishing a pool of unit-wide coaches and having these individuals instruct each training session.

3) Unwillingness to set aside Army PRT requirements.
Many times commands have contacted me to consult on establishing functional fitness training at their unit, only to insist that their soldiers must still do Army PRT. While bodyweight calisthenics and unloaded running can be a part of a functional fitness program, they aren’t the whole thing. Further, there is only so much time for PT, and soldiers don’t have enough time to do both.  

4) CO turnover … ie. huge investment by the current CO is wasted when the next CO comes in with different ideas.
Short commands (2 years) negatively affects the military in many ways, and establishing a functional fitness program is one of them. 

5) Lack of Command Commitment – usually in the form of a brand new CO who wants to make “functional fitness” a keystone of his tenure, but when the rubber meets the road, is unwilling to see the program through.

Never do I get called by the CO. It’s always a Captain on the HQ staff or a Command Sergeant Major in the unit who proclaims that the CO is “committed” to making functional fitness a “priority” and is ready to invest.

Indeed, making “fitness” a command priority is so common it’s trite these days. What generally happens is the new “committed” CO spends a bunch of money on a crossfit “platoon” packages in connex boxes for every company or so, sends a few soldiers to a Crossfit Level I cert, observes a morning or two, and thinks the job is done. A month later the equipment is left rusting in the boxes or used by a few dedicated soldiers after the work day.

There is much inertia standing in the way of implementing a Functional Fitness training program in the Big Army  – from many directions …. 

  • From above – it turns out even brigade commanders have someone watching over their shoulder. “Why aren’t your soldiers doing PRT? …. Are you sure this is safe?” 
  • From below – a seasoned platoon sergeant or squad leader won’t get on board if our poor training session programming means he spends have the training session standing around waiting for the squat rack.  Also, the “but we’ve always done it this way …” running, push ups, sit ups, repeat – argument.
  • From the sides – for example, breakfast chow hall hours are set …. which limits the number of sessions we can hold in the morning; brigade PT’s and medical staff (Safety Nazis – more below) are quick to protest.

A truly committed CO has his work cut out for him.

6) Unwillingess to Invest in Programming and Coaching First.
Any CO will tell you “people are most important” but when it comes to implementing a functional fitness program, he’ll buy equipment before investing in programming and coaching and then wonder why the whole thing collapses.

Programming is everything and designing Mission-Direct programming which address the primary fitness demands for line unit soldiers and accounts for limited equipment is no easy assignment.

As well, coaching 30+ soldiers of varying experience through a strength and work capacity training session is no easy task.

Start with the programming, then find and train unit-wide coaches. Then implement/test on a few soldiers to find programming, coaching and equipment needs. Make changes, fix, buy equipment and deploy unit wide.

A note on programming: Line unit soldiers don’t get to decide what weapon they carry into battle – everyone gets an M4. This should be the same with fitness programming – make it required and unit-wide. No special snowflakes. Don’t burden coaches with developing the programming also – it’s hard enough just to coach the sessions.

7) Safety Nazis. 
“Safety Nazis” hover around everywhere – generally in the form of doctors, brigade PT’s, athletic trainers, “wellness” coaches etc. The Safety Nazis will present CO’s with research, medical terms, anecdotes, and past lawsuits while arguing that functional fitness is “dangerous.”

In our own programming, we’ve moved away from many of the exotic, fancy exercises in favor of simple movements which transfer to the battlefield. None of these exercises are that complicated, and if loaded reasonably, simply aren’t dangerous. Stats show playing basketball or soccer is much more dangerous than functional fitness training.

Units seem to think getting everyone at the unit crossfit level 1 certified, and getting every soldier “proper instruction” on how to do these simple barbell exercises is a way to avoid injuries.

Save your education dollars. Limit the exercise menu to the classic strength exercises and invest in coaches. What hurts guys isn’t the exercise, it’s doing the exercise too heavy. Good coaching solves this. (Another reason to invest in unit-wide coaches).

How to counter? Mission-Direct Fitness is a safety issue. Any CO who sends his soldiers to a selection, school, training exercise, deployment or harm’s way without the mission-direct fitness to carry the 65# fighting load, sprinting work capacity, rucking ability, total body strength, endurance, stamina and mid-section strength is negligent.

A soldier’s body is his most important piece of equipment. Sending him into harm’s way weak and unfit is akin to taking away his M4 and sending him to battle with a bb gun. He’s going to get hurt, or worse.

Any CO who would send his soldiers into battle outgunned would be negligent and lose his job. What is the difference when it comes to fitness?

Interested in day to day programming at a line unit level? Check out GRUNT PT (active duty only)