Why Your Military Unit Needs Crossfit and How To Implement It

crossfit_groupIn May 2010, a study was released from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College titled “Crossfit Study”.  The study was written by MAJ Jeffrey Paine, MAJ James Uptgraft and MAJ Ryan Wylie.

If you are really curious, you can view the whole study at this link.  For the sake of saving everyone’s time, I am going to paste the conclusion and recommendations below since that is what most people want to see anyway.

Conclusions and Recommendations:

The CrossFit program and other functional fitness programs present the U.S. Army with unparalleled opportunities to improve Soldiers’ level of physical fitness. In this study, after only six-weeks of training using the CrossFit program, on average the athletes increased their level of physical fitness by 20%. One athlete increased her level of fitness by 41%. Moreover, the athletes in this study experienced relatively equal increases across all of the four assessments each of which required a different type of conditioning and skill set. This suggests that the CrossFit program produces the type of Soldier-athletes that the U.S. Army requires to succeed in the contemporary operating environment. That is, Soldier-athletes who can successfully perform a broad range of physical tasks and challenges, many of them unknown or unknowable.

Recommendations for implementing CrossFit into U.S. Army units.

We cannot over-emphasize the important role that we believe effective coaching played in the results the athletes achieved in this study. Similar to combatives training or rifle marksmanship training, CrossFit movements are only safe and effective when done correctly. The CrossFit mantra is “Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity.” This means that athletes should first develop the skill required to perform movements correctly and consistently before they attempt to add intensity when conducting those movements (i.e. do them with heavier weight or faster). Moreover, establishing an effective training plan is similarly important to effective results. Properly trained coaches are fundamentally important in both establishing an effective training program and developing proper movement mechanics in athletes. All of the trainers in this study were either Level I or Level II certified CrossFit trainers, meaning that they had received at least 16 hours of instruction on CrossFit movements. Additionally all of the trainers had considerable CrossFit experience in excess of two years.

Based on our experience in the study, for the U.S. Army to safely and effectively harness the power of functional fitness training it needs to relook how it trains small unit physical fitness trainers, like squad/section leaders, and how it implements functional fitness programs into tactical units. Across the U.S. Army, junior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and officers are expected to effectively conduct physical fitness training. Many times the only training these junior leaders have received to prepare them for this task is what they learned from their squad leader when they were a Private and what they learned in one of the NCO Academies, if they have had time to attend one of these schools. Similar to U.S. Army Combatives training, effective functional fitness training requires a high level of expertise from trainers. This signals a change from the past when physical training, relatively speaking, was low skill. However, unlike the U.S. Army Combatives program, the U.S. Army does not currently have a method for training physical fitness trainers and giving them the skills required to train and coach Soldiers using functional movements. To fill this gap in expertise, the U.S. Army should establish a formal functional fitness trainer program similar to the Combatives program. In the meantime, we have outlined below how we believe tactical units can effectively implement a functional fitness training program into their physical training plan.

The following section describes a way to implement a functional fitness regimen as the primary physical fitness training program in a military unit. We make two major assumptions in outlining this plan for change. The first and most important is that the unit commander supports the ideas contained in the plan and is willing to commit time, personnel, and funds to achieve the transition to a functional fitness program. We hope that the data presented in this paper accompanied by personal observations and anecdotal evidence will be a start in convincing commanders of the need and advantages of this method. The second assumption is that this plan is designed to implement at the battalion level for a unit consisting of between 500 and 750 Soldiers. The principles described should be valid for a unit of any size, but may require some modification in numbers of trainers, quantity of equipment, etc., to be viable for a smaller or larger unit.

Implementation of a functional fitness program as a unit training program should be done in three phases:

  1. Training a cadre of trainers and acquiring the necessary equipment
  2. Building credibility through a test population
  3. Full implementation across the battalion. It is important to phase the implementation for several reasons. Units will need the time to nominate and train trainers; trainers will need time to practice and refine their training techniques. Additionally, this will give time for leaders in the unit to see, evaluate, and become accustomed to the idea of functional fitness.

During the first phase of implementation, units will select and train the primary physical training cadre and begin to assemble equipment sets necessary for functional fitness training. Trainers should be leaders within the battalion who are respected by the Soldiers in their unit. It is not necessary for the trainers to have previous experience in functional fitness programs such as of CrossFit, so long as they are generally physically fit. Initially, the battalion should have approximately one or two trainers per company, or about one trainer per fifty to seventy-five Soldiers, and one to two senior trainers at the battalion level to oversee the program. Ideally, these trainers should be serving squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and platoon leaders with the battalion goal being to train and certify all leaders at these levels through a CrossFit Level I Trainer certification. This would give them the requisite skills for teaching and training the functional movements as well as a basic understanding of nutrition, workout development, and programming. Ideally, the senior trainers would attend both a Level I certification and the CrossFit Coaches’ Preparation course to educate them in techniques for managing the overall unit program.

Following the cadre’s initial certification training, the senior trainers should conduct a dedicated program with only other trainers during normal unit PT hours for a period of 30 days. During this time, trainers will refine their teaching and training techniques, be given the opportunity to program workouts for a period of time for the trainer group, and further enhance their understanding of physical fitness. Each trainer would, depending on the size of the unit, be responsible for programming for the cadre and several days during which they would supervise and coach during the workout. The trainers and the battalion leadership must understand that there is an up-front investment of time and effort in this transition. It will take time for the trainers, and ultimately the Soldiers, to learn, become proficient, and master some of the movements and skills in the functional fitness program. Additionally, trainers will have to develop and improve their training style throughout this 30-day period and beyond in to the subsequent phases of the transition. One of the major points we identified in our study was that trainers had to make a significant investment of time and effort to train their athletes in the skills prior to seeing physical improvements – the more complex the movement and the poorer the condition of the athlete only extended this time. During Phase I, trainers should focus on building the skill sets — both training the movements and executing the movements themselves — before advancing to high intensity performance in workouts. Once the movements and teaching techniques are established, the improvements in physical performance will come.

Concurrently with the training and preparation for the cadre, the battalion must gather the necessary equipment sets to conduct functional fitness training. Units should purchase enough equipment for each company to have its own set. For an example of a company functional fitness equipment set see Appendix F (Sample Company Equipment Set). These sets should consist of Olympic barbells, “bumper” weights, kettlebells or dumbbells, squat racks and benches, medicine balls, and resistance bands (to assist in pull-ups). Companies should also own or have convenient access to pull-up bars and may purchase rings for use with their training programs. It is not necessary, however, for a unit to purchase all gym-quality equipment; units can use some of the equipment around them in lieu of dedicated weights and bars. For an example of how to make functional fitness equipment from military items, see Appendix G (Austere Company Equipment Set). For example, ammunition cans can be filled with dirt or sand and used for presses, lifts, and swings. Old basketballs or soccer balls can also be filled with sand and sealed, then used in throwing exercises in place of medicine balls. Truck tires can be used for lifting and “jerry” cans could be filled with water and lifted or carried. Using equipment and supplies that are at hand is especially useful in that these items are readily available while units are deployed or conducting field training, allowing a unit to easily maintain a high level of fitness while away from a garrison environment.

Key to the first phase is the management of programming and equipment. The senior trainers must be able to deconflict the training area used, as well as the equipment required for workouts. Furthermore, the trainers will gain an understanding of what equipment is available for use during physical training and how often they will be able to use specific equipment in training their companies. By developing and testing systems early in the process, senior trainers and unit leaders will make the transition run smoother and ensure that all companies and Soldiers get maximum benefit out of the training.

At the conclusion of the initial 30 days of cadre training, the battalion will transition into the second phase: building credibility through training a test population. This test population could be a single company or platoon out of the battalion on which the trainers focus their efforts. Another option would be to form two groups from across the battalion, one of physically weak Soldiers or APFT failures and one of physically strong Soldiers. The training cadre would assess, develop a program, and execute functional fitness training for 45 days with the test populations, carefully documenting performance and any progress. At the conclusion of the 45-day period, the test group would perform an APFT as well as another benchmark workout for the leadership of the battalion. As the leaders and Soldiers see the improvement of the fitness of the test group, their confidence in the new training program will increase, overcoming resistance to change.

The second phase is also the next step in the development and training of the training cadre. During the first phase, they practiced training Soldiers that had the same training and education; during the second phase, they would train Soldiers that had little or no experience in the movements, techniques, and philosophy of functional fitness, essentially starting from scratch with their Soldier-athletes. This would assist them in further developing and refining their training and teaching techniques. It would also require them to actively tailor and scale workouts based on the abilities of the training audience, whether on a group or individual basis. The increase in experience and training ability of the cadre will prepare them for the third phase, full implementation across the battalion.

In phase three, the training cadre would return to their companies and begin a transition similar to phase one, but at the company level. Trainers would teach fundamental movements and techniques to squad leaders, platoon sergeant, and platoon leaders and lead training sessions. Each company would designate a lead trainer for coordinating and managing equipment at the company level, advising the commander and other trainers on programming, and conducting quality control of the training program. Trainers should attend the Coaches’ Preparation course or one of many specialty certifications to continue learning and building their knowledge base. Companies would send additional squad- and platoon-level leaders to attend Level 1 certifications. As additional trainers are certified, companies would integrate them into the training and programming efforts. The goal of the battalion and company would be to train and certify all squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and platoon leaders as functional fitness trainers; all squad leaders should be trained, certified, and capable of planning, programming, leading, and executing a functional fitness training program with their own Soldiers.

Battalions and other military units can take advantage of the techniques of functional fitness and implement them as the primary physical training regimen in the unit. Units begin by training cadre and acquiring equipment, then build credibility through training a test population and publicizing the results, and then finally proceed to full implementation throughout the battalion. As described above, the entire transition process should take around six months to complete. Leaders can accelerate the process by applying more resources of training time, leader attention, a greater number of initial trainers, and funds for certification and equipment purchase. Throughout the transition process, leaders and trainers work to overcome resistance to change by showing empirical and anecdotal results to convince Soldiers of benefits of a functional fitness program in building unit physical readiness.

Recommendations for further research

1) There are several areas in which more research would benefit our understanding of how a functional fitness regimen improves physical fitness. The first would be to expand the study in terms of length of the training period and the number of athletes. Allowing for a training period of six months, athletes could learn and practice the requisite skills for the movements and participate in multiple assessment periods, possibly every sixty days. This would provide those conducting the study a more accurate picture of the athletes’ performance and improvement throughout the study, so that an “off” day during the assessment would only be one of many assessments and not invalidate any findings. As an example from our study, we conducted the post-training period assessment during the second week of December. On the day athletes performed the Army Physical Fitness Test, the temperature was approximately thirty degrees Fahrenheit and a twenty-mile-per-hour wind was blowing along the 2-mile run course. Wind and ice had a significant impact on the 2-mile run times for all athletes, resulting in slower run times. Because we only conducted two assessments periods, these slower times represented 50% of our APFT data and may give the impression that cardiovascular endurance (one of the ten physical skills) decreased during the functional fitness training. Multiple testing periods throughout a longer assessment would eliminate this data point as an outlier. With the data and training period that we had, we were unable to accurately assess increases in cardiovascular endurance in terms of the APFT because of the anomalous run times in 50% of the APFT scores.

Additionally, a longer training period would allow for a greater amount of time to build the physical skills in the athletes at the beginning of the study and then allow them to more effectively increase their intensity as the study progressed. For example, some of our athletes struggled to learn the proper technique for the clean after several weeks of training. As a result, any workout that involved cleans was a challenge for these athletes in terms of their ability to maintain intensity. Therefore, over a six-week period it is difficult to ascertain the true impact of the CrossFit program on metabolic conditioning because the low skill level of some athletes never allowed them to increase their intensity level to a point that would have produced positive adaptations in how their body used energy. Instead, they had to remain focused on movement mechanics.

A larger sample size and a control group would also increase the validity of our study. We made the conscious decision to forego a control group in this study because of the pool from which we chose our athletes. Drawing from students at the Command and General Staff College, where no organized physical training occurs and students conduct physical training individually, it was not feasible to form a control group with which to compare the functional fitness regimen. In an operational Army unit, we could simply remedy this by assigning a platoon or company as control group and have them continue with their standard physical training plan. Both a larger sample size and the addition of a control group would generate more data and a greater understanding of the impacts of a functional fitness program.

2) The second major recommendation for further research would be to study the impact of nutrition and diet control on the performance of the athletes. Athletes in the test group would be given instruction in basic nutrition and asked to record what they ate. The control group would merely record types and quantities of foods consumed during the study. The test group would eat according to a programmed diet, possibly following the Zone Diet or the Paleo Diet. During the assessment periods, both groups would be evaluated on changes in body composition, cholesterol level, and other chemical indicators in the body.

Conducting additional studies including the above considerations and adjustments to the planned program would greatly increase the quantity of data collected and contribute to a better understanding of the impact of a functional fitness program and the role nutrition and diet play in improved performance.