Lessons Learned 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 traveled and instructed at several, and spent several weeks working directly with a enlightened battalion CO at Fort Bliss.

We’ve found there are 7 major obstacles units have to implementing functional fitness programs at these units:

  • Limited Equipment;
  • Unwillingness to set aside Army PRT (if applicable) requirements;
  • Unwillingness to allow multiple PT times during the garrison day to maximize equipment limitations;
  • CO turnover … ie. huge investment by the current CO is wasted when the next CO comes in with different ideas.
  • Lack of 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.
  • Programming Focus and willingness to invest there first.
  • Not investing in unit-wide coaches

Here are some lessons we’ve learned:

1) Command has to be on board and be willing to take the heat by ignoring Army PRT (if applicable – you can’t do both army PRT and a full-on functional fitness training program), buying equipment, and allowing multiple PT times during the course of the day to maximize equipment use – i.e. not enough equipment for everyone to train 6:30 – 7:30.

2) Unit fitness leaders (squad, platoon, company, etc.) don’t have the time to program. We’ve found even special operators at tier 1 units rarely have the time for fitness programming. Professional soldiers at all levels want to understand the methodology behind their fitness programming, but away from the course, few have the time required to actually program. What this means practically is a developing centralized unit programming person or resource, with knowledgeable “coaches” at the ground level to implement the programming and adjust as needed on the fly given time/equipment/personnel limitations.

3) Staring with equipment purchases before thinking through programming and implementation first. Please take it from someone who does this for a living…. the “platoon” equipment packages marketed by crossfit equipment vendors 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).

4) Not paying attention who learns the programming/coaching. Focus on those who are interested. We’ve taught programming courses to entire battalions a company at a time, and each course, found 1/2 to 2/3 of the students simply not that interested. Save your education dollars and have the most long term impact by purchasing instruction for those genuinely excited and interested in becoming unit coaches and learning programming. Know that it is possible this is not designated by rank.

5) Making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to safety. From a fitness perspective, programming is everything. 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.

Also, beware of the “Safety Nazis” that seem to hover around everywhere – generally in the form of doctors, PT’s, athletic trainers, “wellness” coaches etc. The Safety Nazis will throw research, medical terms, anecdotes, past lawsuits, – the legal issues especially have effect on commanders and the military promotion culture which rewards timidness. 

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.

6) Trying to have a coach for every squad. It’s hard to describe how sophisticated a coaching task it is to coach a platoon of line unit soldiers or tactical athletes, most new to functional training, through a typical strength or work capacity session – especially if the squad or unit platoon fitness leader is expected to train alongside with everyone else. Rather than trying to have a fitness leaders for every squad, it’s better to have a pool of well trained coaches for the entire unit. These individuals will coach multiple sessions each day. Instead of having once coach for each platoon in a company of four platoons, for example, identify 4-5 “company coaches” who together coach the four platoons through that day’s training in multiple sessions.

We’re recently worked with an Army Brigade to help it implement a functional fitness program brigade-wide and I’ve shared this implementation process with the brigade command: 

  • Begin with a programming course for the individual or team who will develop the brigade programming, and next a coaching course for the “brigade fitness coaches.”
  • Next, test out the programming and training session coaching on the coaches themselves, and one company. Identify what works and doesn’t work with the personnel, equipment, facilities and logistics. Fix the problems, and then implement with a full battalion.
  • Again, assess what works and doesn’t work, and only then implement brigade-wide.

My suggestion to this command was that the success of implementation will only partly be on how well planned and thought out it is going in. Just as important will be our openness/ ruthlessness for honest assessment, problem identification, creativity to find solutions, and agility to implement and try again.

Then repeat. Then repeat again.

There is much inertia standing in the way – from many directions:

  • From above – it turns out even brigade commanders have someone watching over their shoulder.
  • 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.
  • 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 always have their doubts.

The above thoughts are for non-SOF units. But it’s important to add that in our experience, functional fitness implementation and even professional coaching at tier 1 and 2 SOF units has been hit and miss.  Smaller groups and more resources does not guarantee success.

We’ve seen two main issues:

  • First, expecting SOF operators to do their own programming. Even if we teach them how, they don’t have time. This is one of the reasons we give our programming course students a year-long subscription to the website so they can follow our programming.
  • Second – “big boy rules” when it comes to fitness. “Big boy” rules for fitness don’t work. What ends up happening is guys either do what they’ve always done, or do what they are good at – they often don’t train what they need. Even units staffed with full-time strength and conditioning coaches often don’t require their operators to use the coaches or follow unit-wide programming.

Email rob@mtntactical.com

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