Commanders key to success of new fitness program
FORT JACKSON, S.C. - An effective physical readiness program depends to a great extent on the unit commander, said Mike Trinkle, a former instructor at the Master Fitness Training program.
"If the commander wants it, it's going to happen," Trinkle said. "If the commander doesn't want to back the program, it isn't going anywhere."
The program he was referring to is the Master Fitness Training program, or MFT, whish was discontinued by the Army in 2001 and was recently reactivated, with the first pilot class graduating today. The new program is similar to the old MRT, but incorporates the latest fitness research methods into training spelled out in Training Circular 3-22.20 "Army Physical Readiness Training," slated to be a field manual next month.
Trinkle has seen it all before. He became an MFT instructor in 1989, and later as a first sergeant, observed that certain units hewed to the program more than others. Those that did saw fewer injuries and greater performance benefits than those that didn't.
"If you violate the exercise fundamentals, people start getting hurt," he said.
Besides commanders wanting to run their fitness program using "old school stuff that may or may not conform to exercise science," Trinkle attributes some of the problem to an overemphasis on the physical fitness test and not enough on proper exercise training and conditioning.
"If you're just running two miles, doing situps and pushups every day just to succeed at the test, you're missing the whole point," said Stephen Van Camp, chief of doctrine and an MFT instructor. He was one of the Army's first MFTs, who has been conducting training since 1983.
"If you have the right kind of training, it doesn't matter what test we administer," said Van Camp. "The APFT should be the easiest day of training in the year for you physically, if you're following sound exercise principles."
Van Camp said MFT trainers will be working with commanders to develop an effective program that not only reduces injuries and enhances performance, but also links the exercises to the warrior tasks and battle drills that all Soldiers are expected to be competent in.
"All Soldiers are warriors first," he said. "Even if you may never be in harm's way, you have to know how to evacuate a casualty."
The commander's "traditional way" of doing things can often be incorporated into the MFT program as long as the exercise principles are adhered to, Van Camp offered.
"I'm not particularly worried about a surgeon in field medical unit running five miles, but I am concerned that he can do surgery for 10 hours straight on his feet and remain alert," Van Camp explained. "The commander of an infantry unit would tailor his exercises to more load-bearing and endurance activities as the Soldiers might need to carry their stuff all day to an objective and fight when they get there. He wouldn't just run them every day."
Van Camp said the MFT is a sweetheart deal for commanders.
"If I were a commander, looking back now, I'd be thankful that I had a packaged program I could just adapt to my unit, and a master fitness trainer to guide me," he said. "A commander has a lot more than just a PT program in the morning to think about. We want to give him all the tools in the toolbox and let him run the garage; but he has to know what's effective to run that garage, so he's like the master mechanic."
Van Camp provided an example of a typical progressive program designed to increase performance and reduce injuries, TC 3-22.20 provides many other examples, with much greater detail.
"One day a week you might run sprints," Van Camp explained. "One day a week you might foot march under load. One day a week you might distance run. One day a week you might do strength exercises. A Special Forces program would likely include more foot marches and less distance runs."
A progressive approach allowing for recovery and variety is part of the program, he said.
"If you are not following the core principles of the program, you could get hurt," he cautioned. "If you overtrain, people get injured. Then, you've lost them no matter what, and they've got to start over again."
Principles of the program have been validated through scientific studies at Fort Jackson and at other installations like Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Polk, La., he said.
"There's been a dramatic drop in injuries of trainees here at Fort Jackson, where the program was implemented about four years ago," he said. "I'm talking career-ending injuries of the hip and lower leg, where the trainee gets out of the Army with life-long disability."
Maj. David Feltwell, another MFT instructor and a physical therapist, participated in the validation studies. In a soon-to-be published article in "Military Medicine," he writes that injuries could be reduced through a combination of "leadership involvement, injury prevention education, injury surveillance and modified physical training."
This study, just like the MFTC curriculum and the Physical Readiness Training manual, is based on the best evidence for controlling injuries and improving physical performance, Feltwell said.
But despite all of the research and validation, the MFT program will not work unless the commander is fully onboard, he said, adding that he thinks commanders will be, once they understand the program.
"Collecting unit injury data and presenting this to commanders as part of leadership education may provide the incentive to participate in the process of injury reduction," he wrote in the article's conclusion.