Small Wars Journal

The Physically Adaptive Soldier: Creating the Combat Athlete

Share this Post

The Physically Adaptive Soldier: Creating the Combat Athlete

Darrell E. Fawley III

As the Army transitions to a more flexible, adaptive force able to operate with little or no forewarning across a broad range of physical environments and levels of conflict, its physical training program remains rigid and fixed.  While espousing the need for the capability and capacity – to include endurance – to accomplish the mission in a complex environment, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The US Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World makes no mention of physical fitness.[i]  However, to have a force that can operate in a diverse range of geographic conditions and climates and perform tasks across a broad range of military operations, physical fitness will be key.  While functional fitness is the regime du jour, adaptive fitness is the concept that will prepare the Army to fight and win in a complex world.  Units should develop physical training programs that focus on developing the combat athlete and the Army should adopt policies that foster adaptive fitness for its direct combat units.

The Combat Athlete

By definition, the uncertain future operating environment will contain a set of challenges that are unknown.  However, the range of potential conflicts and physical tasks is knowable.  Soldiers, though, don’t know the exact climate and geography they will operate in and do not know the exact physical tasks required, thus they must have a much broader base of fitness than doctrine or common programs offer.  While Field Manual 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training, explicitly states that “[p]hysical readiness is the ability to meet the physical demands of any combat or duty position, accomplish the mission, and continue to fight and win”, the manual remains a one-size-fits-all approach to general fitness in most aspects.[ii]  There are many things to like about the manual, however, it does not set a path toward adaptive combat fitness. Combat or operational soldiers need to be prepared for the demands of any environment and any situation.[iii]

While regional alignment eliminates some environmental uncertainty, it doesn’t provide enough certainty to train for one specific place.  A regionally aligned brigade could fight in a set of diverse environments within their region. The African continent alone has six climate zones before even looking at the unique geography of individual areas.  Unlike a soldier who in the past may have prepared for a year to fight in the mountains of Afghanistan or the desert of Iraq, current soldiers need a broad level of a fitness that will benefit them in any potential environment.  Thus, they need a level of a fitness that will allow them to quickly adapt to the unique challenges they may face.  How do they do this?  Simply put, adaptive fitness.

Why Something New?

In recent years, there has been a wide body of fitness programs that operate under the banner of functional fitness with many of them claiming to be good for military athletes, of which CrossFit is certainly the largest and most well known.[iv] Some of these, such as Military Athlete, actually take into consideration what a combat soldier may need to do and build that into their programming.  However, many of these programs require a large amount of equipment that would be unfeasible in this budget environment with which to outfit units.  Put another way, they are gym based.  Further, while revered by some and reviled by others, CrossFit has proven effective in creating fitness.  The problem is that CrossFit has crossed into the realm of sport and is more about showing off the general fitness of its athletes than any discernable, useful fitness.  The average combat athlete has no need to be able to do a muscle up, an overhead squat, a handstand pushup or a double under, no matter how worthy these accomplishments may be.[v]

While practice has diverged from theory in CrossFit, the principals remain solid.  For example, one of CrossFit’s fitness models is that an athlete should be able to perform well no matter what physical task he or she is assigned.[vi][vii]  Called the “Hopper Model”, under this philosophy, given an infinite list of potential physical tasks, a well-trained athlete should perform to a high standard at any randomly chosen event.  For a combat soldier, there is not an infinite number of potential physical tasks, but there are a large number of tasks that a soldier may have to perform.  The sample list below shows a number of tasks that may need to be performed in combat wearing a full load to include the Army Combat Uniform, IOTV/Plate Carriers, ACH, weapon, PPE and other gear.

  • Conduct 3-5 second bounds while advancing under fire,
  • Patrol over long distances in rough terrain carrying combat gear plus extra equipment,
  • Drag a casualty to safety when the casualty is loaded down in full combat gear,
  • Drag a SKED litter or carry a litter for long distances,
  • Carry a casualty alone or with assistance,
  • Pull himself into a window, pull another soldier into a window or scale a wall,
  • Move over, around, and through obstacles,
  • Manually breach a door with his body or crowbar,
  • Move through a trench crouched,
  • Throw a grenade or grappling hook,
  • Change a tire,
  • Lift casualties into a helicopter or vehicle,
  • Move cases of water, bags of feed or grain or other heavy objects to distribute to locals,
  • Scale a steep slope,
  • Run 300-500 meters while reacting to indirect fire dismounted.
  • Engage in hand-to-hand combat,
  • Engage moving targets with elevated heart rate.

Nothing on this list should be surprising and the list is not all-inclusive.  It says nothing of MOS specific tasks that a mortarman or cannon crewmember might have to perform and doesn’t touch on position specific tasks that an anti-armor crewman, for example, might be required to perform.  The problem is that both doctrine and testing fall short in leading to this type of fitness.  While FM 7-22 contains a good discussion about the fitness required in combat, its recommended physical readiness drills and programs are largely based around the performance task of Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) excellence and the condition of wearing shorts, t-shirt and running shoes.  The manual does prescribe new running techniques and includes some equipment used in functional fitness such as kettle bells and jumping boxes.  Still, the effort falls short and essentially advances the notion, tacitly, that the unit fitness program of an infantry platoon should vary little from that a personnel section.  Many of the manual’s recommended weight exercises revolve around fitness machines that are not abundant enough for a typical unit to use effectively and limit mobility through isolation, something a soldier’s body will not be called to do in combat.

Furthermore, the APFT remains a test of general fitness with no direct correlation to combat fitness.  The test itself may be fine for the general population, but by leaving it the standard it becomes the basis – or an influential consideration - of many combat unit’s physical fitness programs.  Units look good when they achieve high scores on the APFT and thus commanders who claim the APFT is not relevant tend to train toward it anyway.  Efforts to change the APFT have failed largely due to stubbornness and trying to improve rather than recreate the current test.  When the potential updated test was to include a 1.5 mile run, commanders wanted it to be two.  This wasn’t because they believed 2 miles was a better test of fitness but because it was mentally tougher, something the APFT is not designed to test.  When the new test was to have 1 minute of pushups, it was pushed to two until the test remained the same. 

Toward a New Combat-Fitness Assessment

There are possible replacements for the APFT that already exist one of which is the 75th Ranger Regiment’s Ranger-Athlete-Warrior (RAW) assessment.[viii] It is a very good assessment of markers of military fitness but lacks two key elements.  First, of the eleven events in the RAW assessment, only one is conducted in combat gear.  Second, many of the events are not specifically combat focused but rather measure indicators of combat fitness.  They are still great measures and the RAW assessment is backed by years of data within the Regiment.  However, these existing tests are not what will drive the average combat unit to the desired fitness levels.

Another aspect that the RAW assessment and other existing tests are lacking is the unpredictability that exists in the future operating environment.  An adaptive physical fitness test for combat soldiers would include a number of potential tasks designed to look like those in the above table and be performed in full combat gear.  Commanders would receive a menu of options and choose a handful to test without informing their soldiers what they will have to perform.  Soldiers would arrive on testing day and test on whatever the events were. (Or, to provide some notice but not enough to skew PT programs, commanders could provide a brief ten days in advance.) This would demonstrate a much broader and more adaptive level of fitness than the APFT and by having the test customizable, it prevents a unit from gaming the test by focusing solely on the tasks to be performed.  One aspect of the RAW assessments that should remain is the assessment vice test piece.  The ultimate measure of combat is completing the mission, so scrap the points and instead create a minimum, gender and age neutral standard.  The assessment of combat fitness should be just that.

Potential Menu of Events for the Combat Fitness Evaluation

  • Shuttle run requiring soldier to go to prone at each turn,
  • 5 mile ruck march, preferably on a fire break or trail,
  • Sprint to "Rescue Randy" simulated casually, drag to start point,
  • 100 m SKED drag weighted to 250 lbs,
  • 100 m fireman's carry,
  • Pull-ups with full gear,
  • Short obstacle course requiring hurdle/vault, low crawl, and bypass,
  • 400 m farmer's carry,
  • 500 m sprint in combat gear,
  • Deadlift, clean and jerk, jerk (simulates several combat tasks).

The above list demonstrates just some of the possible events.  I’ve included the dead lift because there are many times in combat when a soldier must lift a heavy weight off the ground.  I’ve include the clean and jerk to simulate moving a heavy litter from ground into the top shelf of a MEDEVAC helicopter or into a large vehicle. Lastly, the jerk is included because there are several instances where a soldier may need to press something overhead to include an anti-armor crewman hoisting a TOW to a HMMWV-mounted gunner.  (There are certainly ways to test these three events in combat conditions that do not involve a barbell and weight plates.) While many would argue for the strict press it makes little sense and the same goes for pull-ups.  In combat, a soldier will use whatever is in his power to get something overhead.  Thus, the jerk allows for the incorporation of the whole body.  This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list and the distances can be debated as well as the standards for each.  However, when developing the standards it is important to remember that a soldier in combat will use whatever means necessary and thus allow kipping and other actions to complete the task.  Also, it is true that soldiers will likely have help conducting physical tasks, thus standards should be kept in check.  For example, making a soldier carry or drag a casualty alone for a mile is unrealistic.  Similarly, expecting a soldier to be able to deadlift 500 lbs is over the top.

The Army has signaled interest in Combat Readiness Test. As it looks to develop this, it should keep in mind the potential physical tasks a soldier may need to perform. Currently, the Army is testing and evaluating a gender-neutral Occupational Physical Assessment Test that will serve as the physical version of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). This test consists of a deadlift (lower body strength), medicine ball toss (upper body power), broad jump (lower body power) and a VO2 max (endurance). This test is a good first step but should not become a combat readiness assessment because it does not have direct correlation to combat tasks.

It would also be worth a commander’s time to test combat accuracy under physical stress.  For all combat soldiers this could mean running up a hill or running shuttle sprints in full gear and then immediately going through a moving target record fire or conducting 3-5 second rushes and then tossing (inert) grenades for accuracy.  For a forward observer it may involve physical stress leading to a call for fire.  For a scout, it may require physical stress followed by reporting or drawing a reconnaissance sketch.  However, these would be additional tests that didn’t count toward the results of the evaluation.  They would be used as data for the commander to determine combat readiness under physical stress.

Training for Adaptive Fitness

The combat athlete would need to train strength, endurance, balance, power, and speed.  Standards would mirror those of combat.  If a soldier needed to pull himself up with full combat gear, he’d be allowed to kick, swing or do whatever he needed to get himself up.  So, why create a standard of strict pull-ups?  Obviously with this and other reductions in strict form, the risk of injury goes up.  Therefore, each soldier would need training in how to properly kip, for example, to prevent injury.  Further, similar to a CrossFit competition where the standard is completion of tasks not form, this is an exception only for testing.  During routine physical training soldiers should be trained according to form (i.e. viable kipping pull ups versus kicking).

Commanders would need to implement some guidance and oversight to ensure the program created true and unbiased combat fitness.  The issue with bias is that generally when programming fitness, the programmer tends toward his own strengths and likes.  Thus, a platoon sergeant that likes to run might conduct several long runs but neglect carrying heavy things.   These issues are easily fixed though with intent, guidance and supervision and don’t prevent the use of mission command in the design and implementation of a combat focused program.  One of the best things a commander could do for his subordinate leaders is develop a recommended programming format.

CrossFit recommends a three-day on, one day off format that is not feasible to the five day a week physical training format.[ix]  Fortunately, even CrossFit recognizes this and has a plan to create a five-day a week template programmed over three weeks.  In this system, there are three elements: gymnastics, metabolic conditioning and weightlifting.  Over three weeks, there are two days each dedicated to each single element (usually Mondays and Fridays), three total days (usually Wednesdays) involving all three elements and two days each involving two elements.  For the elements, gymnastics includes body weight exercises or calisthenics such as pull-ups, dips, pushups, sit ups, jumping and squatting (ideally wearing combat gear in this program).  Metabolic conditioning involves running and rucking (also rowing, swimming, cycling and jumping rope, which are less feasible to a platoon for PT) while weightlifting generally involves anything with an external load (not including body armor).  In CrossFit, that comes in the form of kettle bells and barbells most often, but for a combat platoon it could mean water jugs, weighted litters, HMMWVs, or logs among other things.  Leaders can determine their own pattern, but this is a start. 

With this template, commanders can create a diverse set of physical readiness training events that challenge soldiers and prepare them to adapt to an uncertain environment.  There are a few things to be aware of.  First, the idea of hard as good.  Many soldiers equate the two.  If something is hard, it must be good.  But, the real test is usefulness.  The CrossFit Hero Workout known as Murph involves a mile of running with body armor, 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups and 300 sit-ups with another 1 mile run.  Though named after a Navy SEAL Medal of Honor recipient and conducted in body armor, the combat applicability of this grueling workout is extremely limited.  There is nothing wrong with using physical training to test mental limits, but it should be done sparingly.  Second is the idea of combatives as a physical fitness event.  Sure, it requires physical fitness and could be included in the same way running and shooting would be.  However, combatives is military training of your body as a weapon.  Wearing tennis shoes and your ACUs and grappling is not functional and does not train as one fights.  Third, ruck running.  Generally, running with a ruck on should be avoided outside of a competition or test.  Running with heavy loads short distances is prudent.  Running repeatedly or continuously for long distances or periods of time is dangerous and unproductive.  The longest I’ve run with a ruck on my back in tactical training or combat is 600 m or so when a Ranger Instructor needed to help us make our hit time by speeding us up with a simulated artillery attack.  Soldiers can learn to walk very quickly under load without running which will save their bodies for the real test.

The Combat Soldier as Athlete

It is important that soldiers in these operational fields be trained and treated like athletes.  That means soldiers need to do more than physical training.  They need to understand fundamentals of fitness and understand proper technique.  They need to properly warm up and cool down, something often overlooked during road marches.  They need to be trained in injury prevention and be provided proper medical attention and recovery time when injured.  A commander in today’s budget environment isn’t going to get a physical therapist or athletic trainer on his rolls but a creative leader could partner with a local college for interns provided a solid legal review is conducted. 

Soldiers also need to be trained in proper nutrition and provided it.  Walk through just about any operational brigade and you will see candy and soda vending machines in unit areas and barracks.  Go to the dining facility and you’ll find a litany of unhealthy foods to include copious dessert options.  Soldiers are provided the opportunity to eat for free or cheap a near limitless amount of refined foods with added sugars.  Then, progress to the nearest shoppette or troop store and you’ll find the cheapest tobacco around for soldiers to buy.  No coach of an endurance athlete or weight lifter or CrossFit Games athlete would provide any of that to his athlete.  Does that mean they can’t get it on their own? No.  But to provide it for them sends the wrong message and doesn’t teach healthy habits.  And, to profit off their tobacco use while offering smoking cessation classes is hypocritical at best.  It is time that the Army reevaluate its policies and consider how it is undermining combat performance in these areas.  It needs policies that encourage the total athlete, not just a good runner or strongman.  For starters, it can remove vending machines from company areas and increase the ratio of meat, vegetables, nuts and fresh fruit to canned fruit, processed foods and sugary solids and liquids.

Combat athletes are preparing for a competition far more important than anything Rich Froning, Lebron James or Ronda Rousey will ever face.  However, these athletes and many at their level are far more conscious about their dietary and sleep habits, injury prevention measures and technique than the average soldier.  To win in a complex environment, that has to change.  Usain Bolt and Stephen Kiprotich both won Olympic gold medals in 2012 for running, one for 200 meters and the other for a little more than 26 miles beyond that.  Both trained for years knowing exactly what they needed to do.  Imagine if all they knew was the race would be somewhere between 200 meters and 26.2 miles.  Imagine if they didn’t know the exact length or where, when or what weather conditions would greet them.  How would they train?  That is the lot of the combat athlete.  Whatever the condition, the combat athlete must arrive at the starting line ready to go full speed or slow and steady for a long distance.

All of this will take a high level of buy in from mid- and senior-level commanders and an open mind.  Despite all the evidence that dynamic warm ups work, I still hear from officers and NCOs that want to go back to the days of knee and ankle rotations.  And, it will take a lot of dedication by company commanders, first sergeants, lieutenants and platoon sergeants.  However, all it takes to get the ball rolling is for a few enterprising, courageous leaders to put it into action and display the results.  This is the way Modern Army Combatives came to be.  Matt Larson, an NCO, started teaching his guys and they started beating everyone else.  Before long, his battalion commander, then-Lieutenant Colonel Stanley McChrystal asked him to teach the battalion and on it went.  Now the program is standardized across the Army.[x]  So, there is precedent for a grassroots effort to take hold. 

Units (or the Army) could create a hybrid CrossFit Games/Best Ranger Competition event that tested the physical adaptability of combat soldiers.  The competition would revolve around small units (fire teams or squads and their artillery, armor, scout and sapper equivalents).  Task would be diverse and not announced too far in advance.  This would also serve as a great public affairs opportunity for the Army.  A competition of this nature would drive NCOs and officers to strive for units that were adaptably fit and it would demonstrate the Army’s commitment to this type of fitness.


To be ready to fight in the current and potential future operating environments,  soldiers and leaders must be adaptive.  Generally, this means mentally adaptive and that they must be critical and creative thinkers.  While the mind is an important weapon to winning in a complex world, the ground soldier will still need the physical skills required to operate in any environment.  He must be physically adaptive possessing strength, endurance, power and speed as well as the ability to fight at altitude, in the heat and cold, in wet, humid and arid conditions, and in the dark and light.  Adaptive fitness is the crucial enabler that will allow this to happen.  Therefore, the combat soldier must become the combat athlete and combat units must develop physical readiness training programs that set the conditions for soldiers to be adaptive athletes.  The Army needs to foster this by considering what nutrition it provides to its soldiers and how it educates them.  If done properly, combat units will be able to arrive anywhere at anytime and be given any mission ready to fight and win.

End Notes

[i] TRADOC Pamphlet 523-3-1, The US Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World, p. iii.  Presumably, the pamphlet is referring to endurance of the force vice the soldier.

[ii] Field Manual 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training, p. 1-1.

[iii] For the purpose of this article, combat or operational soldiers will be defined as infantryman, tankers, scouts, forward observers, cannon crewmen and sappers.  I have excluded special forces soldiers not because what I am writing here is irrelevant so much as the assumption is they already implement much of this.  I have excluded other specialties solely because their jobs are not specifically focused on close ground combat.  This doesn’t mean the principles aren’t good, but the point of this is that they have a different set of fitness needs.

[iv] Highlighting it’s ties to the military community, CrossFit recently held its CrossFit Open 16.4 announcement at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO.

[v] From here on the paper will us the masculine form when referring to a generic soldier. This is to maintain flow and is not intended to indicate that this article pertains only to male soldiers.

[vi] It could be argued that a combat soldier has use for a bar muscle up, which simulates pulling oneself into a window or over a wall, but there are few instances a soldier would need to do this without some assistance making the less technical pull ups and dips a better fit.

[vii] “What is Fitness? (Part 1)”, CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide, p. 16.

[viii] See the Ranger-Athlete-Warrior Manual available in open source.

[ix] “A Theoretical Template for CrossFit’s Programming”, CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide, p. 52.

[x] Matt Larson relayed this to me when we met at a conference in Columbus, GA, in September 2008.


About the Author(s)

Darrell E. Fawley, III, is a student in the Art of War Scholars Program at the Command and General Staff College.  He an infantry officer who has led combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He holds a Level 1 certificate from CrossFit, Inc., placed 20th in the 2010 David E. Grange, Jr. Best Ranger Competition, and is a four time Ironman.