The Industrial Revolution started around 1800 and extended to the end of the century. This revolution of technology and manufacturing brought about textiles, steam power and iron making. While technology was moving forward the majority of workers grinding in the machine of advancement were doing so with the sweat on their brow and calloused hands.By 1920, the vast majority of Americans lived in cities. As the Industrial Revolution ramped up people were moving from the countryside to the cities in masses; in 1800, only 6 percent of the US population lived in cities. By 1900 that number had increased to 40 percent.
Along with this rapid urbanization, there was a significant rise in unskilled labor. Prior to the 19th century, most Americans who were not employed in agriculture performed a skilled trade. Industrialization made apprenticeships obsolete and commoditized labor itself. While the majority of Americans in the workforce were not skilled, they were performing backbreaking work in the factories and cities around the country.
In 1914 the First World War broke out. Over 60 million troops fought for four grueling years. Few would have envisioned the bloody scenes that came to pass in the fight for freedom – millions died, civilian and Soldier alike to preserve the freedom we celebrate today. The majority of the US armed forces came from the farms and the factories. Suffice it to say, the rigors and physical demands of war were on par with their daily lives on the farm and in factories.
I came across a statement by the US Military while researching physical fitness and training in World War I.
“Training for sport is training for war.”
Playing sports and participating in games are a natural way to train for war. Field, court, and combat sports replicate battle and train the performance traits needed for war.
However, when World War II broke out less than 30 years later, more than half of the first two million men called up by the Selective Service were found unfit for duty with 90% of rejections due to deficiencies in health and fitness.
Clearly a major crisis, and the US military started researching the best ways to exercise its men and prepare them for the demands of combat. The result was the introduction of a robust physical training program, as well as the US ARMY’s first physical fitness test.
The test consisted of a 5-event battery of tests: squat jumps, sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, and a 300-yard run.
World War II ended in 1945 with the inclusion of a new physical training program and physical test in 1946, but leadership allowed Soldiers to grow soft.
Fitness Following WWII
After World War II many Americans worried that US citizens, especially the young, were growing overweight and out of shape. The nation’s economy had changed dramatically, and with it the nature of work and recreation changed. Mechanization had taken many farmers out of the fields and much of the physical labor out of farm work. Fewer factory jobs demanded heavy labor. Television allowed for watching rather than doing. Americans were forced to confront a new image of themselves and their country, and they did not always like what they saw.
In 1950, American troops struggled in the Korean War. The struggle was traced to a lack of physical preparation for the rigors of battle. By the end of the 1950s, the US ARMY took the lessons it had learned on the Korean peninsula and began to create new standards for Soldiers’ physical fitness – the focus was on combat readiness. On July 16, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. Three years later, a new program of physical training and testing was introduced in the US ARMY: FM 21-20, Physical Readiness Training — the US ARMY’s PRT field manual.
The training put value on strength, muscular endurance, anaerobic and aerobic capacity, agility, and coordination, as well as the attainment of “proficiency in certain military physical skills which are essential to personal safety and effective combat performance.”
All male Soldiers were required to take the new Physical Combat Proficiency Test (PCPT) to complete basic training, and periodically while on duty.
The Soft American
John F. Kennedy took it upon himself to point out the real problem and put steps in place to derail it. He wrote an article in Sports Illustrated in 1960, The Soft American, outlining his thoughts.JFK said, “The first indication of a decline in the physical strength and ability of young Americans became apparent among United States Soldiers in the early stages of the Korean War. The second came when figures were released showing that almost one out of every two young American was being rejected by Selective Service as mentally, morally or physically unfit.”
Once Kennedy made his way into office, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness got the support they needed and printed an educational program focused on improving youth fitness. During the 1961–1962 school year, nearly a quarter of a million US children took part in the pilot project.
Sadly, JFK was killed in 1963 and Lyndon B. Johnson became president. In 1966, Johnson created the Presidential Fitness Challenge, which I experienced decades later. Extending on what Kennedy started, LBJ’s new challenge was a sequence of various physical activities similar to what you see at your weekend group fitness class. For years, the Presidential Fitness Award was given to students that were able to place in the top 15% in all categories. No participation trophies were handed out. Sounds amazing.
This became the hallmark of fitness in schools and physical education in middle school was built around training for the test.
Personally, I remember passing all the tests in 6th grade except the pull-ups. I had never done a pull ups before 6th grade and I failed. This was a source of embarrassment for me as an 11 year old and each day after I failed I jump on the pull up structure at recess and lunch and practice pull-ups. In hindsight, what’s most disappointing was no training program existed for the students to learn to do pull-ups. Our teacher was a runner, so guess what we did; we ran.
Knowing what I know now in having a greater understanding of motor unit recruitment, accentuated negatives and isometric holds are extremely valuable tools to take any willing subject and teach them to do pull-ups in a relatively short amount of time.
My 6 year old twin daughters just passed their Power Athlete physical testing standards for starting 1st grade this last Saturday. One of their tests involved doing 10 pull-ups.
With JFK’s lead and the LBJ taking the mantle to push physical testing in the schools, where did it go a awry?
I Believe It’s Yogging
In the 70’s there was a running boom on the heels of Prefontaine & Frank Shorter’s victory at the 1972 Olympic Marathon. Winning does change everything. The US saw a huge push for cardio and endurance training, even Jimmy Carter jogged behind this bandwagon. The military saw the value of aerobic health and began to have Soldiers work long distance running/jogging (it might be a “soft J”) into their training.
The early 80’s brought the Reagans, Run-DMC and a new US ARMY fitness test. As DMC ran the airwaves, First Lady, Nancy Reagan, decided that the lack of physical fitness was not a problem compared to drugs and America’s youth. She started the “Just Say No To Drugs” campaign – she herself having two kids involved with drugs. Emphasis was taken away from youth fitness.
The PCPT evolved into the US ARMY Physical Fitness Test (APFT) and the five combat-related events became three – 2 minutes of sit-ups, 2 minutes of push-ups, and a 2-mile run. Overall, the new APFT was more accessible and less rigorous. The focus was taken off combat readiness and placed on whether Soldiers were generally living healthy lifestyle.
“Few recruits are physically fit for the arduous duties ahead of them. The softening influences of our mechanized civilization add difficulties to the problem of conditioning men and thereby make physical fitness more important than ever before. Even within TOE [support staff/non-frontline units], labor saving devices and mechanized equipment exert this softening effect. If men are to be developed and maintained at the desired standard of physical fitness, a well-conceived plan of physical readiness training must be part of every training program.” —FM 21-20, Physical Readiness Training (1969)
This has been the US ARMY’s standard for the last 38 years until recently.
The US ARMY Combat Readiness Test
Last month, the US ARMY released the new Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT) for all Soldiers in the US ARMY:
– Trap bar deadlift: Pulling a 3 rep max using weight from 170-420 pounds.
– Standing power throw: tossing a 10-pound ball backwards over your head as far as possible
– T-pushup: 2 minutes for max reps of push ups but you have to place your arms out to the side at the bottom of each push up.
– Sprint/drag/carry: 4 minutes to sprint 25 meters five times, drag a 90-pound sled, then carry two 40-pound kettlebells.
– Leg tuck: hanging from a bar, lift your legs up to touch your knees to your elbows, again as many times as possible.
– 2 mile run
Hands down this is a move in the right direction. The variance of movements and demands in this test are a much greater test of combat readiness than push ups, sit ups and a 2 mile run.
This is forcing our Soldiers to start thinking, moving and training as athletes. No longer are they just Soldiers that only move in a sagittal plane. They are now athletes being forced to move in all planes of motion under stress and load.
In 2017, The US ARMY asked myself and my team from Power Athlete to visit Fort Bragg and work with the 18th Airborne Corps to assess physical limitations and teach a basic performance model to develop athleticism. We taught over a half dozen seminars to over 200 Soldiers and their leadership.
Admittedly, I was not ready for what we encountered. Since 2009, I have been fortunate to work with the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) within the US Military. The Soldiers we encountered in SOCOM had gone through, and passed, some form of selection. They were all hard chargers eager to improve their performance by any margin. Most are pretty well squared away with their training and recovery practices, which allows us to offer more advanced training systems.
However, working with “Big Army” we encountered Soldiers that had no formal experience lifting weights or doing any form of performance training. Simply teaching a basic iso-stability movement like a Dead Bug was foreign to some Soldiers. While they may never have been put in this environment, every attendee was excited to take part and had a real desire to get better.
This showed me we were on the right path; we just needed a better map and messaging.
The Soldier is a Professional Athlete
I stated in my opening talk, “No longer are you just Soldiers. You are athletes playing on the biggest and best team in the world, the US ARMY. You are playing for the biggest stakes and how you train and execute your job affects everyone in this room and millions of Americans the world over.”
My singular mission here at Power Athlete since its inception in 2010 has been to foster and develop athleticism and help athletes unlock their athletic potential using the most effective training practices.
While speed, strength, power and stamina are all admirable and desirable traits, it is only when coupled with a focus on developing athleticism that these traits contribute to the rise of pinnacle performance.
I was fortunate to see this in my own life growing up playing sports and earning a scholarship to play football at UC Berkeley. The lessons I learned in those formidable years carried me through my 10 years in the NFL.
I watched countless big, strong athletes get cut each year because they did not possess the intangibles to play the game. Football, and combat sports, are not just about strength and speed; but desire, preparation and the will to win. While everyone wants to be good, not everyone is granted greatness. That has to be earned through diligent practice and immersing yourself in the best training available.
As LTG Paul LaCamera told the group at the Power Athlete Executives Course at Fort Bragg, “we are not fit enough to fight the wars of the future. The kids showing up to join today are coming from an education system that does not value physical education. They are not strong or fit to serve because the 18 years leading up to their service did not put emphasis on strength and fitness. It is now the job of the Army to prepare these kids for the rigors of combat and make sure we don’t bury half of these kids on the next battlefield because they were not physically able.”
How do we train for the new ACRT?
The six movements of the ACRT challenge all energy systems and all planes of motion. Athletes will be required to tap into their ATP, glycolytic and aerobic energy systems and move along the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The first and most complex movement is the deadlift. This movement is going to use a trap bar for the lift. If you have never seen a trap bar, imagine a diamond shaped bar where the athlete stands in the middle of the diamond and grabs handles affixed at the sides where the plates are loaded.
The Soldier will be required to pull a 3 rep max trap bar deadlift using weights from 170-420 pounds.
A trap bar deadlift is very different from a conventional deadlift as the trap bar is open in the center and the handles are in the middle of the athlete’s center of gravity. This differs from a traditional deadlift where the bar is out front of an athlete’s center of gravity.
The movement pattern most similar to a trap bar deadlift is the barbell back squat. The chest can be kept up in a more upright position while the loading is along the shoulders via the hands and arms instead of a bar resting on the traps. The torso angle, hip and knee position should be more representative of the barbell back squat than traditional deadlift. With this in mind, the athlete needs to learn to squat properly for not only his or her own athletic development but to execute and master the trap bar deadlift for the ACRT.
Standing Power Throw
The next movement is what I call a Reverse Ball Toss, or what the Army is calling a Standing Power Throw, in which an athlete tosses a 10-pound ball backwards overhead for max distance. This movement is testing an athlete’s ability to get to generate and transfer force with triple extension.
Having done this for years in Power Athlete’s Field Strong program, the best throws are achieved when an athlete is able to get full extension and release the ball into an arc that balances both height and distance in the throw. Transferring force comes down to dynamic hip extension, knee extension and ankle plantar flexion to generate force, and tensile strength to transfer the force into the weighted ball, thus moving an object for max distance.
The T-pushup will require a Soldier to do max reps in 2 minutes of push ups where your arms are put to the side at the bottom of each push up. Commonly, known as hand release push ups, this is an interesting movement as it tests upper body strength and endurance but takes the stretch shortening cycle out of the movement and forces more range of motion than the previous test. By releasing the hands at the bottom there is no standard to judge on touching your chest and no stretch shortening cycle to load tension to assist in the movement.
The most practical, useful and challenging movement in the ACRT is the sprint/drag/carry. This will require a Soldier to complete the following in four minutes: sprint 25 meters five times, drag a 90-pound sled, then carry two 40-pound kettlebells.
This will require athletes to sprint, change direction and sprint back in the shuttle run. Then a reverse drag of a heavy weight to put emphasis on the posterior chain followed by walking with kettlebells in each hand. This will challenge multiple planes of motion, change of direction, tensile strength, and both posterior and anterior loading.
The final new piece of the test is the hanging Leg tuck. This will require a Soldier to hang from a bar, lift their legs up, touching their knees to elbows as many times as possible.
This is designed to test an athlete’s stability, coordination and endurance in the trunk. By bringing the knees to the elbows from a hanging position Soldiers will not put the same extension/flexion stress on the low back as the standard sit up.
2 Mile Run
Soldiers need to be able to run. The 2 mile run is a good indication of the fitness for the Soldiers when paired with the other five tests.
Like I stated earlier, this is absolutely the right direction for the US ARMY to be headed in terms of physical testing and training.
The only issues I see come in the form of training systems for the Soldiers and reservists leading up to the test. As I outlined earlier in the history of physical training and education, we do not have the systems in place to get the near millions of Soldiers up to speed to pass the test and execute it safely.
Training for THE Worst Day
There are many great things about being an American. One of those great traits is always feeling like we are behind and need to keep pushing ahead to be the best.
Through the history of the armed forces we explored previously, there has been a feeling of never being fit or strong enough to fight the battles ahead. The common sentiment is the worst day will be on some remote hill and will require a level of stamina, strength and willingness our enlisted men and women do not possess.
I think the feeling of never being up to the next task is what keeps the fires lit under the Military to continue to be the hammer, and not the nail.
The US ARMY is working to create a more combat ready force.
That requires a new standard.
The new physical training test will require a complete change in the way Soldiers execute their daily Physical Training activities. Instead of practicing their push ups and sit-ups and holding the current standard on the run, Soldiers will be required to train to be stronger, faster, and better movers.
To be more athletic.
To be more combat ready.
To be ready for their worst day.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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