Functional Strength and Conditioning for a Combat Soldier
An Anvil Training Article by Marshall Officer
Recently, I wrote an article about Goal-Specific Training, and how important it is to consider the end goal, for both the overarching type of training program you are doing, and the individual exercises you do each day that you train. As an example, I included a small, infantry-specific program that demonstrated how you can take a defined set of goals and create a program that is applicable, effective, efficient, and enjoyable. I decided that after writing that program, I wanted to write a separate article going into more detail about why I chose those exercises for an infantry soldier, as well as some considerations that should be reflected in how combat soldiers could employ strength and conditioning to make them as effective as possible in their role.
As mentioned in the previous article, an Australian infantry soldier has allocated time for physical training every morning. It is safe to say that the average soldier is already doing five PT sessions a week, and these will most likely be some combination of pack marching, battle PT, cardio, and resistance circuits. In our previous article, I provided three extra weights training sessions to be done throughout the week, on top of the five scheduled sessions they are already doing. Why three? Well, to promote maximum recovery and myofibrillar hypertrophy (muscle strength, as opposed to muscle size) - 3 days a week would be far more effective and efficient (remember, these are the factors we want to guide our program development). However, if you have the luxury of structuring your own training, I would recommend a maximum of 4 days a week doing weights-specific training. As a soldier, the other sessions should reflect the other aspects of your role:
- Endurance, in the form of load carriage for distance or time. This could be a pack march, it could be a “stores carry”, or it could be a strongman-style conditioning piece that keeps your body under load for a significant period of time.
- Cardio, in the form of overall engine building. This means fartlek training, or building your “resting pace”. Soldiers need to be able to operate under moderate physical stress for long periods of time, with intermittent bouts of high-intensity work. Low impact cardio orientated exercises are ideal for this kind of engine building, especially if you are putting your joints and tendons under stress with weights or load carriage training during the week. Using a rowing machine, an assault bike, a spin bike, or even a treadmill will give you an accurate way to measure your overall pace, sprint times, resting pace, and will give your joints and tendons a much-needed break.
Remember, recovery is almost as important as the actual training!
A 3-day resistance training program gives you three useable days to train cardio, conditioning, and load carriage without overloading your system - and is easily enough time with weights to increase overall strength and induce hypertrophy (which is why I have chosen the 3-day split). As far as the weekly break up goes, as long as you are alternating weights with infantry-specific training (eg. weights on Monday, Wednesday, Friday), you should recover adequately between the sessions.
Beyond breaking up the baseline training, the example 3 individual sessions were built as a conjugate style, full body break-up. Conjugate simply means training multiple goals/lifts concurrently (at the same time). This kind of style differs from linear or block periodisation style programming, where you focus on one specific goal/lift for a given period of time, with other goals in maintenance. The exercise break-up for the individual session consisted of a Maximal Strength exercise, a Dynamic Power exercise, and a 6 round Resistance Circuit. The reason I believe conjugate is more appropriate for a combat soldier is simple. Combat soldiers do not have the luxury of pursuing one specific goal for any period of time, as they are constantly required to be ready to deploy, or are participating in field training exercises. This means that regularly that pursuing one specific goal, such as working on their 100m sprint time for 6 weeks, would be extremely impractical and detrimental to their overall state of readiness.
Maximal Strength: Push Press 8 sets, 2 reps, working up to 85% 1RM (Finish this exercise by dropping 10% of the weight, and doing an As Many Reps As Possible [AMRAP] set).
Dynamic Power: Bent Over Row 5 sets, 5 reps, 75% 1RM (The weight for this isn’t as important as the speed. Every rep should be a highly explosive concentric, alongside a controlled eccentric).
Circuit - 6 rounds:
Front Squat 12 reps, 65% 1RM
Good Morning 12 reps, 65% 1RM
Overhead Lunge 12 reps, 50% 1RM
Maximal Strength: Front Squat 8 sets, 2 reps, working up to 85% 1RM (Finish this exercise by dropping 10% of the weight, and doing an AMRAP set).
Dynamic Power: Hang Clean 5 sets, 5 reps, 75% 1RM (The weight for this isn’t as important as the speed. Every rep should be a highly explosive concentric).
Circuit - 6 rounds:
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 6 sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM
Bent Over Dumbbell Row 6 Sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM
Ab Wheel 6 sets, 12 reps, BW
Maximal Strength: Bent Over Row 8 sets, 2 reps, working up to 85% 1RM (Finish this exercise by dropping 10% of the weight, and doing an AMRAP set).
Dynamic Power: Barbell Back Squat 5 sets, 5 reps, 75% 1RM (The weight for this isn’t as important as the speed. Every rep should be a highly explosive concentric, followed by a controlled eccentric).
Circuit - 6 rounds:
Good Morning 6 sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM
Lat Pulldown 6 Sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM
Leg Raises 6 sets, 12 reps, BW
The maximal strength exercise is specifically designed to increase the soldier’s overall functional strength. This is done by using an exercise with a low rep range (1-3 reps), and working towards as close to a 1 rep max (or strained rep) as possible, to promote myofibrillar hypertrophy. Without getting into too many anatomy specifics, this type of hypertrophy does not affect muscle size, but it does increase a person’s ability to recruit more muscle units. It is induced by maximal time under tension training - which means a repetition that is close to 100% of a person’s maximum weight for that lift, that moves extremely slowly no matter how hard the person pushes. As an example, this is a powerlifting type of strength, where a person is capable of moving more weight without the muscle becoming overly bulky and affecting mobility. This is important for a soldier, who needs to be as strong as possible, without becoming so heavy they can’t be effective. In fact, the smaller/lighter a soldier is - the better they are at moving around a complex environment like a battlefield, provided they are still capable of carrying their equipment, weapons, and armour. A smaller, lighter soldier can fit through windows, get behind cover, and require slightly less energy over time to do similar activities as a heavier, more muscular soldier. I have been able to achieve this with multiple sets of heavy doubles, followed by an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set at approximately 75% - which forces the soldier to do enough reps to get to at least one strained rep with a weight that shouldn’t force technical failure and minimises the risk of injury.
The dynamic power exercise aims to increase the soldier’s explosive power. This type of training is used by powerlifters and Olympic lifters to generate maximum force as efficiently as possible. The laws of physics say that Force is equal to Mass multiplied by Acceleration. Therefore, the faster you are able to move something, the more force you can generate. A soldier that can generate more force on any given activity will have an edge over a soldier that can’t, and in the case of combat - any edge could be the difference between life or death. I have been able to achieve this through 5 sets of 5 reps, using 75% of 1RM with a highly explosive concentric (up/raising) movement, and a controlled eccentric (down/lowering). The weight for this exercise should always be fully manageable for every rep of every set, not coming within 2-3 reps of failure. The technique is the most important part of developing dynamic power.
Finally, the circuit component has been included to promote sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Higher rep, lower weight sets with maximum rest has been proven to effectively promote muscle size (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy). As I stated earlier, this is not a priority for a soldier, but muscle size does play a part in injury prevention. Some level of sarcoplasmic growth is required to facilitate better recovery, as well as a larger surface area around joints to protect them. Increased muscle size also helps with bone strength as bones also adapt to increased load over time - which can lower the risk of bone injury. The circuit also allows the tendons to be put under stress to induce growth, but not overload them with such extreme weight that they can’t recover properly. The nature of a circuit is that a person will complete the first exercise, and whilst they work their way through subsequent exercises - they receive maximum rest for the specific movement before making their way back to exercise number one again. This has the added benefit of improving a person’s conditioning by having them work for a longer period of time, with varying exercises minimising the risk of being completely overloaded. This is an excellent training strategy for a combat soldier - who needs to be able to perform moderate levels of physical activity for long periods of time. The 6 round circuit is a way of simulating this environment, with weights less than 50% of 1RM but using an extremely controlled technique to ensure injury prevention, a full range of movement, and stimulating muscle growth effectively.
Alongside this, it is especially important to understand why I chose the specific exercises for each session. I wanted to include exercises that develop strength and power, but don’t restrict mobility in the shoulders or hips. In a perfect world, the Clean and Jerk is the ideal triple extension lift that requires a combination of strength and power to perform correctly. Unfortunately, most soldiers are not Olympic lifters - and therefore the technique required would take too long to develop to use this lift safely. Instead, I chose lifts that build different parts of the Clean and Jerk, in order to achieve the same effect on the body but with safer and simpler movements that many beginner lifters already know how to do.
The Push Press is the upper body movement in the Clean and Jerk. It requires a strong core, and develops shoulder, upper back and chest strength without sacrificing shoulder mobility. It also teaches a lifter to generate power from their lower body and utilise it in the push - rather than restricting the movement to just the waist up. For building total body strength and power, full-body engagement and coordination is essential.
The Bent Over Row is the posterior chain (upper back, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings) dominant part of the Clean and Jerk. Rather than a conventional deadlift, which forces a lifter to put strain on the lower back with weight that could potentially cause injury - the bent over row requires a lighter weight to be used in order to control it, with isometric stimulation of the same muscle groups and a high level of upper back engagement. As a bonus, it targets the opposing muscles to the push-up, an exercise that many combat soldiers have done to the point of causing imbalances in their body, and should work towards balancing out these weaknesses.
The Front Squat is a lower body dominant movement, that focuses more on the quads than the posterior chain. This allows a lifter to do squats in the same session as the posterior dominant movements without putting too much strain on the lower back. It also promotes a greater range of movement, stronger core, and ankle strength/mobility compared to a typical back squat - which is important for a combat soldier who needs to develop injury-proof hips, knees and ankles.
The Good Morning targets the posterior chain better than almost any other exercise, an area that is often ignored by lifters. A strong core, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, assist in injury-proofing knees and spines for long-distance load carriage.
The Overhead Lunge develops coordinated leg strength and core stability, while also targeting shoulders and upper back isometrically. Stability and coordination are essential for a combat soldier, especially when fatigued.
The Hang Clean is an even more explosive row variation, restricting overuse of the lower back but still requiring dynamic and explosive power with a high level of shoulder mobility. It is a movement that doesn’t require as much strict technique as a full Clean and Jerk, but still develops upper back power with lower body coordination.
Dumbbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Row are variations of push press and bent over row that requires a larger range of movement and coordination, forcing muscles to adapt to slightly different stimuli. This will promote growth and hypertrophy more effectively.
Ab Wheel and Leg Raises target the core and posterior chain, developing core strength and coordination.
The Barbell Back Squat is known as the ‘king of all lifts’, and should be done to develop full-body, leg dominant strength, as well as promote muscular growth throughout the body. It is more posterior dominant than the front squat, but demands full-body coordination, strength and stability which are essential for any combat soldier.
The Lat Pulldown isolates the upper back and develops the pull-up muscles, which assist in mobility, oppose the push-up dominant training strengthening imbalances, and can be done by someone who can’t do many pull-ups to build their strength. They also help a soldier develop the strength to climb obstacles while fatigued and carrying heavy equipment.
So, to finish - conjugate training is especially effective for soldiers, but they shouldn’t immediately subscribe to the classic Squat/Bench/Deadlift program that the strength and conditioning community has tried to drag over from powerlifting to every other athletic discipline. Goal-Specific Training implies that every part of a program contribute to eventually achieving their goals - and training should be built on an individual’s specific context, as well as what they want to achieve. A soldier is not a bodybuilder. They aren’t powerlifters. They aren’t Olympic lifters. But, this does not mean they shouldn’t be strong, able to recruit highly explosive and dynamic power, or spend some time every week in the gym. My hope for this article is to clarify what kind of training a soldier can do to be more effective at their job - rather than subscribing to the latest and greatest Mr Olympia ‘6 Weeks to Success’ program and just ending up tired, sore, or injured.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
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