A reader suggested the linked item at Mark “Rip” Rippetoe’s Starting Strength blog. Rip gives a platform to Major Ryan Long, who asks: Why does the Army want me weak?
Why, indeed? Long had spent the previous two years (his article is from 2010) as a Phys Ed instructor at school: the United States Military Academy, to be precise. And he found some pathologies in Army fitness culture.
I encounter a common theme with the active duty military folks: lifting weights isn’t entirely compatible with military culture and combat-related fitness. I feel compelled to share my thoughts on why Starting Strength is exactly what we need.
The US Army has a strong focus on low-intensity cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness.
Semi-annually soldiers must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) consisting of 2 minutes of pushups, 2 minutes of sit ups, followed by a 2-mile run on a flat road or track.
See Table 1 for passing and maximum performance standards by age and gender. The minimum standards are disappointing while the maximum standards are quite achievable.
Physical training (PT) is usually given only minimal attention and is often the first victim of a busy training schedule. Additionally, unit commanders are required to regularly brief their combat readiness, one measure of which is APFT performance. As a result, PT becomes APFT-centric and our soldiers rarely improve anything….
What the PT Test often yields, in our experience, is a sort of runnerocracy where the fastest 2-miler is the fittest guy, period. (We were once one of those guys with an eleven-something two miler. It seems a century ago. Well, it was in the last century). So in combat it turns out maybe we’ve been training for the wrong thing:
Most combat operations are not done at the limit of a soldier’s low-intensity capacity, because we don’t go out and do a 6-mile dismounted patrol as fast as we can, at least not intentionally. …. Combat is usually conducted at either the very low or very high ends of the spectrum. I strongly believe, through personal experience, that high-intensity training is the key to survivability and performance on the battle field
But even the mismeasure of fitness that comes from the PT Test, and the mistraining that results, isn’t the whole problem. You’re about to meet the weird Army weight control system that punishes soldiers for extra muscle:
But if a Soldier buys in to the above – lifts heavy weights and eats to support that recovery – there is an additional hurdle: the Army “Tape Test.” The US Army uses height and weight to screen for obesity, similar to the body mass index or BMI assessment.
In fact, the Army height/weight table is keyed to the rigid BMI standards. You’re overweight at BMI 25, and the Army only lets the fit off the hook with a bizarre tape test, one that is designed not for accuracy but for (1) not requiring any expensive equipment and (2) capable of being executed by a first sergeant, operations sergeant, or sergeant major with an IQ of 75. (Why we have any NCOs with an IQ of 75 is a question for another time).
At my considerable height of 5’4” I am only allowed to weigh up to 158 pounds, and yes, I get taped. Fortunately the only punishment for exceeding this 90s-small weight is a body fat analysis done by measuring the Soldier’s neck and abdominal circumference (and hips also in the case of women). These measurements, along with height, are used to approximate body composition. As long as body composition remains below the maximum body fat percentage (20% men and 30% women ages 17-20) then the Soldier is free to weigh in excess of the weight threshold. Too many Soldiers see the act of being taped as a personal failure and strive to avoid it.
And the Army’s answer to a soldier who is over, fit or not — run more, do more cardio, get a runner’s build.
Think about professional athletes. Who would not be over on BMI? The scale doesn’t cover heavyweight boxers, but the world cruiserweight champion, Russian Denis Lebedev, is overweight, says the Army. About half of American football players are over. It doesn’t cover NBA centers, but if you extrapolate, Shaquille O’Neal would be way over at 7’1″ and 325. To find a champion who isn’t “Army fat,” you have to go to cycling (Lance Armstrong, 5’10” and 165) or straight to running (Usain Bolt, 6’5″ and 207). On the other hand, female pro athletes often come in below the Army standard. (Example: Elena Delle Donne, WNBA MVP, is 6’5″ and 187, but she’s built like a lean man).
So here comes a story declaring that the Army is way fat and out of shape based on, of course, the percent of soldiers whose computerized health records screened as eligible to be taped (about 8%, presumably including MAJ Long, if he hasn’t joined us in the Elysian Fields of retirement yet).
The story is in Military Times and is written by one Andrew Tilghman. A few words about Tilghman, who sells himself (on LinkedIn) as a “storyteller” (in a profile that seems aimed at getting him PR moonlighting work for Beltway Bandits) and someone who has “10+ years’ experience with military and defense-related issues.” Where did he get all this experience? For example, “[w]orking from the Pentagon pressroom for the past five years…”
Oooooh. Can we touch him? (No. Don’t touch. Don’t even point). When MAJ Long was going through Ranger School, Tilghman was going through Columbia Journalism School. So he’s a sucker for whatever Someone in the Pentagon tells him, and here’s what they tell him:
About 7.8 percent of the military — roughly one in every 13 troops — is clinically overweight, defined by a body mass-index greater than 25. This rate has crept upward since 2001, when it was just 1.6 percent, or one in 60, according to Defense Department data obtained by Military Times. And it’s highest among women, blacks, Hispanics and older service members.
“Defense Department data obtained by Military Times,” is Tilghman’s self-important way of saying, “a Press Release handout I picked up from the boxes in the Pentagon press room,” because that’s exactly what he has got.
From that data point, he twists the data to clickbait extremes:
- Today’s military is fatter than ever.
- For the first time in years, the Pentagon has disclosed data indicating the number of troops its deems overweight
Well, none of your reporter Johnnies asked, did you?
- raising big questions about the health, fitness and readiness of today’s force.
- others say obesity can be a life-and-death issue on the battlefield.
And the answer is always available from the running acolytes, in this case the current Sergeant Major of the Army (and not the worst; that would have been the couple of ’em that went to prison):
“If I have to climb up to the top of a mountain in Nuristan, in Afghanistan, and if I have someone who is classified as clinically obese, they are potentially going to be a liability for me on that patrol,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the military’s top noncommissioned officer and the senior enlisted adviser to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Troxell said today’s force is combat ready, but he believes the obesity trends are troubling, and demand careful consideration from senior leaders. “I don’t think it’s a clear readiness concern right now. But I think it’s something that needs our attention. And we really have to look across our services at what we’re doing every morning or every day to prepare the men and women for what could be the worst day of their life,” Troxell said in a recent interview.
Translation: we runners think everybody should run more.
Would you rather be wounded and dependent on a drag to safety by running SMA Troxell, or iron-pumping MAJ Long? What Troxell and the rest of the Army overhead don’t want to admit is that the original impetus and lasting enforcement of the Army height and weight standards gives a pseudoscientific gloss to what commanders really want, which is a way to get fat troops to slim down so the units don’t look bad. That’s all.
Does anyone remember when the Army first imposed height-weight standards, and why? We do. In the 1970s, Soviet officers were invited to observe NATO exercises in Germany. One of the Soviet senior generals, a man of no mean wit, observed to his counterpart, “Bathrobe” Bernard Rogers, then SACEUR (one of the lean, gangly running guys), that “In our army, all the generals are fat, but the sergeants are skinny. In your army, all the generals are skinny, but all the sergeants are fat!” Rogers was white with fury at the Russian’s joke, and soon we had height-weight tables and tape tests.
Like many well-credentialed but poorly-educated journalists, Tilghman also confuses the linguistic concept of gender with the biological concept of sex, but that’s the least of his sins. After a brief aside in which Pentagon health officials try to teach him some of the ways in which this data — computer derived from health records by simply applying the BMI calculation to reported height and weight — isn’t the clarion of Armageddon he wants it to be, he goes back to the quotable Troxell:
In the 90s we were a running culture. If you weren’t running, you weren’t training. And we were doing a lot of foot marching and things like that. As 9/11 happened and we started doing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the operational tempo rose for service members, I think more and more we started slowing down. We started doing more walking. Obviously in the Army and Marines, we started doing more walking with heavy loads, and moving over rough and uneven terrain, which in itself was developing muscles that we weren’t developing before. So now we were going from looking like runners to these block-y looking football players.
He says that like it’s a bad thing. And Troxell blames the new generation:
The men and women that are coming in today weren’t doing the things as they were growing up that I was doing when I was growing up, such as playing outside until dark, racing with my friends from one crack in the cement to another crack in the cement. More and more, young men and women are attracted to things that happen indoors and allow them be on a couch, like playing video games. Men and women are growing up differently. There is less physical activities and more mental activities.
Let’s see what LiveStrong.com (the fitness site created by steroidal cycling champ Lance Armstrong) says about BMI:
Kinesiology professor Sue Beckham, PhD of the University of Texas at Arlington, asserts that BMI is not useful in assessing athletic muscular individuals and is not a good indicator of changes in body composition. A 2007 study of male and female college athletes published in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Medicine” concluded that BMI incorrectly classifies athletes with normal body fat as overweight and that separate standards should be established for athletic populations.
Livestrong suggests that the better measure is Body Composition, which is Total Body Mass minus Fat Free Mass, but would require more high-tech measurement techniques (and possibly, smarter first sergeants and sergeant majors, a non-starter).
The CDC says more bluntly:
A high BMI can be an indicator of high body fatness. BMI can be used as a screening tool but is not diagnostic of the body fatness or health of an individual.
So why does the Army use it? Because it can enable the Tilghmans of the world to write clickbait articles? Or, for the same reason the drunk looks for the keys under the streetlight instead of in the dark alley where he lost ’em?
Hey, you can read Tilghman at Military Times. Or you can read The Duffle Blog about the APFT. The result is the same. But one writer is aware he’s having you on. And if you’re going to read one link from this long story, go to Major Ryan Long’s article at Starting Strength and Read The Whole Thing™.