The U.S. Army requires all enlisted soldiers to successfully complete basic combat training (BCT). This entry-level training determines suitability of the prospective solider for the armed forces while also providing recruits a platform to obtain proficiency in basic soldier skills, regardless of their military occupational specialty. Unfortunately, many recruits entering BCT do not possess an adequate level of physical conditioning to manage these demands. Consequently, many prospective soldiers are discharged (11) or injured during BCT (10,15). Previous research has documented the importance of physical conditioning before attending BCT (12,13). Potential recruits considering service in the military should be physically prepared to ensure a smooth transition into BCT, attenuate the risk of injuries, and increase the likelihood of graduation.
Recently, the strength and conditioning professional has become an important resource for law enforcement personnel, firefighters, and Special Forces soldiers hoping to enhance physical readiness for their respective occupational tasks. The increased demand for strength and conditioning professionals illustrates their value to organizations associated with tactical operations (e.g., Special Forces) (26). Notably, it indicates that these organizations recognize the value of professional knowledge in designing and implementing task-specific training programs that are intended to physically prepare soldiers for the modern battlefield. The recent implementation of the Special Operations Command Tactical Human Optimization, Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning (THOR3) program into the Special Operations Community provides support for this assertion (17). This program focuses on the irreplaceable human element and identifies specific steps to prepare the special operations soldier for a variety of challenges they face. THOR3 also prioritizes program design considerations and methods to better educate, train, and monitor the special operations soldier and enhance their physical development.
The role of the strength and conditioning professional in training tactical operators may also attract the attention of civilians planning to enter the military who seek professional knowledge on being physically prepared for BCT. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to introduce BCT to the strength and conditioning professionals and provide guidelines for preparatory strength and endurance training.
UNITED STATES ARMY BASIC COMBAT TRAINING
BCT has recently been extended from 9 to 10 weeks (Schloesser K. The Top Ten Basic Training Changes. Army News Service. 2010) and is identical for all Army Active Duty, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard recruits. This training provides individuals with the fundamentals of soldiering-spanning warrior tasks, physical training, combative tactics, and military customs and courtesies. The typical daily schedule of a basic training recruit is highly structured, with specific activities designated at certain times (Table 1). Times can change depending on location, command guidance, or when drill sergeants deem appropriate.
From an organizational perspective, BCT consists of 3 phases (Table 2). At each successive phase of training, recruits receive greater responsibility, privileges, and independence. The specific physical components of phase I include calisthenics, muscular endurance training, running, basic marching drills, and combative techniques. Other physically demanding tasks in phase I include a confidence course, which requires recruits to navigate through several obstacles at various heights (e.g., climbing and traversing rope ladders and bridges), bayonet training, and personnel-carrying methods. Phase II includes daily physical training along with drill and ceremony training. Recruits will also perform a tactical foot march, engagement skills, and situational training exercises along with a timed obstacle course.
During phase III, a 10- and 15-km tactical foot march is conducted as well as a culminating special tactical field training exercise. At predetermined time points during BCT, recruits undergo the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) to assess physical aptitude. Routine administration of the APFT occurs throughout a soldier's enlistment period to ensure they maintain an adequate level of physical conditioning. In addition, performance on this test is important when being considered for promotion. Recently, more advanced training such as new battle drills, rifle marksmanship, advanced combative techniques, and modernized medical training have been incorporated into BCT (Schloesser K. The Top Ten Basic Training Changes. Army News Service. 2010).
INJURY AND ATTRITION IN BASIC COMBAT TRAINING
Musculoskeletal overuse injuries (e.g., strains, sprains, stress fractures) remain a problem during physically demanding environments, such as BCT. Recently, Finestone et al (3) investigated the epidemiology of overuse injuries among female and male recruits in an Israeli light infantry basic training cycle and found that stress fractures (females only), anterior knee pain, and back pain were the most common overuse injuries in basic training (Figure 1). These types of injuries occur from microtrauma due to a sudden increase in physical activity conducted during BCT (e.g., running) (21-23). Previous research demonstrated that high running volumes in endurance athletes and basic military trainees are associated with higher injury rates (8,14,16).
Although the army has traditionally focused on high volume running for training purposes, new approaches that entail reduced running volume are currently being considered. Studies conducted in 3 military services showed that reducing running mileage attenuates the occurrence of injuries without jeopardizing improvements in aerobic fitness (8,27). Musculoskeletal injuries are also associated with the rigors of marching and load carriage (8,9,20). It has been previously reported that 3 to 6% of male recruits and even higher percentages of female recruits acquire stress fractures during BCT (4). Collectively, these musculoskeletal injuries have a negative impact because recruits lose training days during BCT and it increases medical costs (23).
Knapik et al. (11) examined injury rates and risk factors associated with discharge from BCT to identify potential contributors to injury. They observed that 102 of 756 men and 108 of 474 women were discharged during BCT. The primary risk factors associated with discharge were medical recommendations for removal and inadequate performance on any of the 3 APFT events. The lack of physical preparation before BCT and being overweight may also be major risk factors for sustaining injuries during BCT. Cowan et al. (2) demonstrated that exceeding body fat standards of men were associated with a 47% greater risk of injury and 49% higher utilization of health care. Further, Finestone et al. (3) showed that stress fractures were significantly greater in women than men during a 16-week basic training program. Lower body mass index was the only variable identified as a risk factor for stress fractures among female recruits; however, it does not explain the differential responses between female and male recruits. The authors concluded that there may be an intrinsic difference between male and female bone properties with respect to fatigue resistance that may confer a protective effect.
A study by Knapik et al. (15) examined relationships between injuries and measures of performance in a subsample of subjects attending BCT. They reported that fewer push-ups, slower 3.2-km run times, lower peak o2 measurements, and cigarette smoking were strong risk factors for time-loss injuries in both men and women. These investigations suggest that inadequate preparatory physical conditioning results in poor APFT performance and increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries, thus contributing to attrition from BCT.
PREPARATORY STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE TRAINING FOR BASIC COMBAT TRAINING
As with any training regimen, program design influences adaptive responses. More specifically, the particular prescription or configuration of program variables will elicit specific adaptations. Table 3 presents various trainable performance outcomes within a military context (1,7). These components are essentially the same training goals of an athlete requiring multiple aspects of the performance spectrum. As such, the approach to training in a military paradigm should model strength and conditioning programs in athletics to some degree, given that soldiers and athletes require similar physical characteristics to perform their given tasks. In other words, soldiers represent athletes in a different context, and incoming recruits should be exposed to a similar training experience.
The goals of a conditioning program before BCT are acquisition of the physical characteristics needed to successfully complete and graduate from BCT. This requires the recruit to have the capacity to complete the physical tasks in all 3 phases of BCT along with the APFT. The APFT assesses upper and lower body muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory endurance. It consists of 3 events performed in the following sequence: (a) 2 minutes of push-ups, (b) 2 minutes of sit-ups, and (c) timed 2-mile run. Soldiers in BCT must attain 50 points in each event and an overall score of 150 points to pass the test. A maximum score of 100 points can be obtained on each event (Training Circular [TC] 3-22-20. Army Physical Readiness Training. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2010). A soldier receives 1 point for every correct push-up and sit-up completed within 2 minutes. Regarding the timed 2-mile run, points are scored depending on how fast a soldier completes the test. A soldier scores 1 point for every 6 seconds faster than their sex- and age-adjusted passing run time.
As an example, a 17- to 21-year-old man would need a minimum (50 points per event) of 35 push-ups, 47 sit-ups, and 16:36 on the 2-mile run to pass the APFT for BCT, whereas a woman in the same age group would need 13 push-ups, 47 sit-ups, and 19:42 on the 2-mile run. To obtain maximum scores on the APFT (100 points per event), a man in this same age group would be required to perform 71 push-ups, 78 sit-ups, and 13:00 on the 2-mile run and a female would need 42 push-ups, 78 sit-ups, and 15:36 on the 2-mile run. Tables for each APFT event, separated by age and gender, can be found in training circular (TC) 3-22.20 (Training Circular [TC] 3-22-20. Army Physical Readiness Training. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2010).
Although the Army currently administers the APFT, it is currently developing and testing 2 new assessments called the Army Physical Readiness Test (APRT) and the Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT) that will align with physical readiness training outlined in TC 3-22.20. The new APRT will consist of 5 events, including a 60-yard shuttle run, 1-minute rower (exercise outlined in TC 3-22.20), standing long jump, 1-minute of push-ups, and a 1.5-mile run. The ACRT will incorporate combat relevant tasks and provide a more accurate assessment of the soldier's ability to perform combat specific tasks. This test will be performed in the Army Combat Uniform and Advanced Combat Helmet while carrying a weapon. It will include a 400-m run, hurdles, a high crawl, casualty drag, sprints, and several other movement drills.
The tasks required during BCT, the APFT, and the proposed new assessments include a wide range of physical activities, thus requiring diverse attributes encompassing the primary performance components of strength and endurance. Therefore, a training program needs to appropriately address each component. The next section will briefly review studies containing applications to the physical components of BCT. Aspects of the training interventions utilized in these investigations were incorporated into the sample training program we have provided in Table 6.
Transfer of Training
Several studies have examined the training effects on BCT-relevant outcome measures, including general (strength, power, and aerobic and anaerobic capacities) and military-specific performance (load carriage and repetitive load lifts) (Table 4) (6,18,19,25). Schiotz et al. (25) investigated the impact of linear progression training versus a constant-intensity design on strength (1 repetition maximum [1RM] bench press and 1RM squat) and components of the Army Ranger challenge assessment (push-ups, sit-ups, a 2-mile run, and a 10-km run in Army Combat Uniform with a 15-kg pack and rifle) in male Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets.
The constant-intensity training program used a load of 80% 1RM, whereas the linear progression program used variable weekly intensity and volume assignments. In addition, all subjects performed identical aerobic conditioning (intervals and long distance with and without load carriage) 4 days a week immediately after the resistance training sessions. Performance improved significantly after both the programs, which demonstrates the utility of 2 different resistance training models on tasks relevant to BCT. However, the linear progression program significantly enhanced performance on a military-specific task (loaded 10-km march) to a greater degree than constant-intensity training.
The utility of linear progression programs has been demonstrated in other studies (6,18,19). Kraemer et al. (18) examined the impact of different training programs lasting 6 months in duration on the APFT as well as general physical and military performance tasks in women. Two of those programs utilized an approach consisting of full-body resistance exercises; however, one integrated strength and power with respect to movement velocity and load (explosive movements, 3–8RM loads), whereas the other assimilated strength with hypertrophy (slow movements, 8–12RM loads). Supplemental aerobic exercise was also prescribed for both the programs. Both training regimens induced favorable adaptations as indicated by improvements in all events of the APFT. The combination of resistance and endurance training improved BCT tasks more than aerobic-only training, thus supporting the use of resistance training. A similar study of shorter duration (12 weeks, 4 sessions/wk) also reported performance improvements in BCT-relevant activities, such as push-ups, sit-ups, and loaded 2-mile run time (19). The literature clearly supports the efficacy of combined training utilizing strength and endurance training in a progressive manner.
Most recently, Hendrickson et al. (6) investigated the influence of endurance, resistance, or concurrent training on strength (1RM bench press and 1RM squat), power (bench press throw and squat jump), 3.2-km run time, and military-specific task performance. Subjects trained 3 times per week on nonconsecutive days for an 8-week period. The endurance training program consisted of moderate intensity exercise (30-minute steady state exercise at 70%–85% maximum heart rate), interval exercise over distances ranging from 200 to 1600 m, or threshold exercise (30-minute steady state exercise at 80–85% of maximum heart rate). The resistance training group was prescribed an undulating periodized model for the duration of the study. The concurrent training group performed the same programs as the endurance and resistance training groups in the same session within the same day. The resistance-trained group demonstrated significant improvements in 1RM squat, 1RM bench press, bench press throw, repetitive lift and carry, and load carriage. The endurance-trained group improved in 3.2-km run performance, 1RM squat, repetitive lift and carry, and load carriage. In similar fashion, the concurrent group improved in 1RM squat, 1RM bench press, bench press throw, 3.2-km run performance, repetitive lift and carry, and load carriage. Collectively, these findings indicate that a concurrent training program can improve military-specific performance without adversely affecting strength, power, or endurance capacity compared with resistance or endurance training independently. Thus, combined strength and endurance training can be an effective method to prepare for BCT.
SAMPLE PRE-BCT TRAINING PROGRAM
The literature reviewed above highlights the efficacy of variety in exercise modes, which mainly consists of combined strength and endurance exercise along with military specific tasks (e.g., load carriage). The diversity of exercises conferring positive adaptations reflects the expansive physical attributes required of the prospective soldier to successfully navigate through BCT and ensuing combat operations.
Based on the literature reviewed, a 12-week combined modality training program has been developed to improve the physical conditioning of recruits and potentially increase success and retention in BCT (Table 5). This program consists of three 4-week long training blocks (mesocycles), each separated by 1 week of active recovery (recreational activities). This 1-week unloading period also provides an opportunity to modify loading should any adaptation occur during a given mesocycle, therefore maintaining the appropriate training intensity. An unloading week has also been provided at the end of training to allow for rest and recovery before beginning BCT. The duration of this program should be adequate, given that performance gains have been observed in untrained and recreationally-active men and women after 8 weeks of training (5,6).
The first mesocycle consists of 2 aerobic and 2 resistance training sessions per week. Performing both modes on the same day gives a training frequency of 2 sessions per week. Conducting both modes in succession or with a recovery period between has been utilized in previous studies reporting positive performance gains (6,19). Thus, the decision to perform both modes in succession or with a multihour intersession recovery period should be chosen at the discretion of the prospective recruit and strength and conditioning professional. The low frequency of training for each exercise mode is intended to act as a transition period promoting adherence while still providing an adequate stimulus, assuming a previously sedentary or minimally active lifestyle in the prospective recruit.
The aerobic component consists of 1 day of long slow distance (LSD) at 70–75% of age-predicted maximum heart rate and 1 day of interval training beginning at a lower volume. This can also be adjusted by the strength and conditioning professional after assessing the prospective recruit's initial fitness level. The resistance aspect integrates total body exercises prescribed in a nonlinear fashion, with 3 sets of 12 RM or 8–10RM (light and moderate loads) on a given training day. The strength and conditioning professional may need to implement load reductions on subsequent sets to sustain the desired repetition range.
In mesocycles 2 and 3, the number of training sessions has increased from 2 to 3 times per week for each exercise mode. The aerobic component incorporates a higher intensity of LSD and a higher volume of interval training. Also, according to a recruit's specific adaptation and fitness levels, the strength and conditioning professional can decrease resting time between intervals to increase intensity. Furthermore, two 5-km unloaded marches and two 5-km loaded marches (15.67 kg = ∼35 lb) have been integrated into mesocycles 2 and 3, respectively. These marches will introduce the potential soldier to a critical military task (load carriage) and can be performed instead of interval training.
The resistance component continues in a daily/weekly undulating fashion, but with the addition of a heavy load day (≤ 7RM). Another addition to the resistance exercise aspect includes the incorporation of power exercises, such as the high pull and push press. The strength and conditioning professional should coach proper technique and supervise recruits closely when performing these exercises to reduce the likelihood of injury. In mesocycle 3, loads have increased on 2 of the training days (8–10RM to 6–8RM, and 6–7RM to 4–5RM). Thus, progression in the last 2 mesocycles has been implemented by the addition of a higher-volume and higher-intensity aerobic exercise, increases in resistance loading, resistance exercises targeting a different performance parameter (power), and a greater training frequency.
Sample strength and endurance exercises for the second mesocycle have been provided in Table 6. The exercises listed should be considered as recommendations and may be altered as desired by the strength and conditioning professional. Although we did not address nutritional strategies, we recommend that strength and conditioning professionals provide guidance on the contributions of nutrient intake to performance and recovery. If needed, it may be worthwhile to consult a registered dietician to optimize the recruit's diet. Strength and conditioning professionals should also inform recruits of other factors related to injury prevention and performance, such as stretching, overreaching, or overtraining. Although we have made an earnest attempt to provide an evidence-based training approach, limited data exist on effective training strategies before BCT that may increase the likelihood of graduation. Future investigations that examine the efficacy of a pre-BCT program similar to the one outlined in this article may produce useful information concerning program design for prospective recruits.
The distinctive physical demands encountered during BCT can place a substantial burden on the prospective soldier with an inadequate level of conditioning. As such, the goal of a training program for a prospective recruit is to increase strength and endurance to minimize the likelihood of attrition during BCT. The tasks associated with BCT span the entire performance spectrum, including aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, strength, power, and muscular endurance. Moreover, these characteristics are applied to occupational tasks (e.g., load carriage, casualty rescue). Therefore, the strength and conditioning professional should strive to develop appropriate levels of these performance traits when training the prospective soldier. Although this can pose a considerable program design issue given the wide variety of training goals, favorable outcomes may be attained with appropriate planning. The literature indicates that this can be achieved with progressive strength training of all major muscle groups (3–4 d/wk, with daily/weekly undulating loads that target strength, power, and hypertrophy) and endurance exercise integrating interval training.
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Keywords:© 2011 National Strength and Conditioning Association
basic combat training; military performance; physical conditioning