PRT: The Army’s new road map for physical readiness

Shortly after he started his job as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s new deputy commanding general for Initial Military Training, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling visited various units throughout the operational Army to assess Soldiers’ PT programs. His realization? “Our physical training programs are not that good.” In fact, in more cases than not, they actually don’t do what they’re supposed to, he said. “And, I’ll challenge anybody to challenge me on that, because I’ve seen it.”

Fortunately for him and the Army, the team at the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School – a unit that falls under Hertling’s command at the U.S. Army Basic Training Center of Excellence at Fort Jackson, S.C. – had spent the last decade in an all-out effort to rewrite the Army’s manual on physical readiness training. 

The result of the school’s hard work is nothing less than a wholesale reimagining of the way the Army conducts PT. The 434-page product, Training Circular 3-22.20, Army Physical Readiness Training, was released Armywide in August and replaces FM 21-20, Physical Fitness Training, last revised in 1992. 

Drawing from lessons learned after nine years of war, the new document is more relevant, hewing closer to the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills than previous versions, and creates a progressive system of workouts and exercises that build Soldiers’ strength, endurance and mobility for just about any type of movement required in combat.

“We started working on this in 1999,” said Frank Palkoska, the USAPFS director, who once served alongside Hertling in the physical education department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “In fact, we had a draft ready before we went to war nine years ago. The problem was the concept scared the Army. All anybody wanted to know was what was going to be on the test.”

In fact, then as now, the test is the same. The existing Army Physical Fitness Test remains in the new book by design, part of a multiyear, multiphase approach the school is taking to roll out the new PRT program. Now that Phase 1 – delivering the new doctrine to the Army – is complete, the school will begin Phase 2: training leaders in how to properly implement the program with the creation of a PRT Leaders Course and mobile training teams that will visit various Army installations. (They’ll train instructors from the Army’s NCO academies later this month, for example.) Then, sometime next year, the USAPFS staff will begin looking at what the new PT test might look like.

“To ask about the test is premature,” said Stephen Van Camp, USAPFS deputy director. “I could give you a list of the possible events, but then, everybody would only train for those events.”

And, training for the test is exactly what the new doctrine is designed to eradicate.

“The problem [with the old manual] was that the assessment didn’t correlate with the training,” Palkoska said. “Therefore, what are you going to train? You’re going to train only what’s on the test. What happened with that shift was that testing drove training. You had units that said, all we’ve got to do is do push-ups, sit-ups and run; and, the more we run, the better we’ll be. That’s a flawed concept. 

“The other thing is that the test correlates poorly with the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills. So, there’s a false assumption that if you score very, very high on the APFT – 300 points – you can do everything that a Soldier needs to do. We know from nine years of conflict now that that’s not the case.”

“You can’t stop somebody my size on the street charging at you by just doing push-ups, sit-ups and running,” said Sgt. 1st Class Steven Lee, the senior trainer at the fitness school and the new document’s model for several of its exercise demonstrations. “It doesn’t work all the time.”

“And, you can’t take a 130-pound marathon runner, put 120 pounds on his back and march him at 10,000 feet in Afghanistan,” Palkoska added. “Those are the types of issues that led us to the development of the new doctrine.”

That process began with a thorough review of the literature regarding physical fitness training methods. From Herman Koehler’s system of exercise drills and gymnastics that formed the foundation of West Point’s physical education program in the late 1880s; to the reasons why most in the post-Vietnam War-era Army were embarrassingly unfit; to how gender integration within PT was accomplished in the 1980s; to the aerobics, Tae Bo, CrossFit and P90X crazes over the last three decades, the USAPFS staff left nearly no stone unturned in its search for what would work best for today’s Soldiers.

“Not only did we go back and look real, real hard during the lit review of what we did in the past – we called it ‘Back to the Future’ – we had to go back and look at what the Army said its training doctrine is, its how-to-fight doctrine.” Palkoska said. “We found that we had some really good points in our doctrine, but implementation was always a problem.”

“We looked at the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills – because those are things everybody has to do – and we put a matrix of hundreds of exercises and drills together. We looked at what components of fitness they train and asked, is it replicable? Can we do it anywhere? Is it acceptable to the Army, or is it too out there? We went from needing a master fitness trainer to help the commander know everything that was in the book to, now, any NCO should be able to take this book of information and be on the platform to lead it,” he said.

The new doctrine is organized around several drills that focus on building strength, endurance and mobility, the functional application of strength and endurance. Like puzzle pieces, the drills can be combined to produce a balanced, total-body workout for any day’s physical readiness training session, whether it be for basic trainees in the PRT Toughening Phase to Soldiers preparing to deploy in the PRT Sustaining Phase. To guard against injury and overtraining, new guidelines limit the amount of running in a session as well as the number of repetitions of each exercise. And, for Soldiers who are injured, in need of retraining or not up to speed with the rest of the unit, a whole chapter on reconditioning is included to ramp up those individuals’ level of intensity to match the unit’s.

To supplement the admittedly weighty tome, which school officials say could easily have been twice as big, the school’s Army Knowledge Online site will soon have videos showing how to execute every exercise in the training circular. 

For mobile devices, an “Army Physical Readiness Training” iPhone app was written by programmers at the U.S. Army Signal Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Ga., and released earlier this month as one of the overall winners of the Army G-6’s “Apps for the Army” contest. The free app, now available on iTunes, collates exercise details with photos, videos and example workout calendars for each of the PRT phases.

“This is an organized system of training,” Van Camp said. “It encompasses all the different levels of development, allows for reconditioning and allows for short recoveries [after deployment], as opposed to the menu of training activities that you had to learn what was appropriate based on your mission and what your mission essential task list was. Few really did that.”

“The old FM was more of a buffet,” Lee said. “If you didn’t understand it, your diet became, ‘whatever I like, that’s what I’m going to do.'”

The new program eliminates such haphazard planning based on personal preferences in favor of a standard, Armywide structure designed to train up Soldiers for the myriad physical skills needed for today’s fight – sprinting short distances and stopping quickly, jumping, climbing, and lifting heavy objects or wounded Soldiers, for example.

“From Initial Entry Training to Advanced Individual Training to what the unit does, this builds a basic foundation and then gets more complex so that, eventually, you’re going to be training how you’ll be fighting,” Palkoska said. That includes doing some drills and exercises in full body armor or doing sprints while carrying a load.

“It has to be about precision,” Lee said. “If you don’t do the exercises the way that they’re written, you’re not going to get the intent of the exercise, and then you’re going to say the program is weak. If you do the activities sloppy, you’re going to get sloppy results.

“When you’re climbing mountains, I don’t care if you’re the smallest guy. Can you evacuate somebody when he’s wounded? That’s where [physical readiness] really comes in; it’s for saving your battle buddy’s life.”

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