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The military is overemphasizing physical fitness at the expense of more important use of the time

Posted by John Reed on

Military overemphasizing physical fitness

The drunk under the lamp post

An old story tells of a drunk who was wandering around under a lamp post at night looking at the ground.

Passerby: What are you looking for?

Drunk: My wallet.

Passer by: Did you drop it here?

Drunk: No. I dropped way down there in the dark.

Passer by: So why are you looking for it here?

Drunk: The light’s better here.

The military seems to me to be doing the same thing with physical fitness. Never in the history of the U.S. have some, not all, U.S. military personnel made such a fetish of physical fitness—specifically, weight training and distance running.

Is this wise?

If you had an infinite number of hours in a day, yes. But there are only 24 hours. The percentage of the military’s day devoted to weight lifting and running is far too great.

Also a problem with some football coaches

We also see this in another of my areas of expertise: football coaching.

Many coaches put their players through a Bataan Death March sort of football program that their coaches measure by how many times the players puke during workouts.

These coaches make statements like

No one's going to outwork us!

We're going to be ready for the fourth quarter.

My warp speed no huddle offense

I am in favor of the idea of using superior stamina to defeat a stronger or faster opponent. I did it as a coach and advocate it in my clock (Chapter 16 Other Uses for Tempo) and contrarian (Chapter 19 Tempo) books and articles at this Web site. I recommended my alma mater Army use the warp speed for that purpose to compensate for the superior speed of their opponents.

But my way of doing that was not mindless infliction of pain on my players. Rather, I ran a very fast-paced practice with three-plays per minute scrimmages. I never ran any gassers or stadium steps or grass drills or any of that. But the whole practice was a sort of gasser because of the warp-speed pace. But the players did not notice because they were running football plays, not just stepping on their tongues.

Many an opposing coach expressed astonishment at our pace and could not believe we could keep it up the whole game. One told me his first-string defense was asking to be taken out of the game in the first quarter!

But, my use of the warp-speed is very precise and it’s in the very predictable confines of a football field and the rules of football. Real combat is nowhere near so predictable. More importantly, the basic principle of offense in football is strength against weakness. Arguably, the same is true of warfare. For us with our tremendous technology and firepower strengths to let our enemies fight us on the basis of stamina and/or muscle strength would be idiotic. I wonder if we could ever match the mental toughness of people who have spent their entire lives in Afghanistan, one of the most hard-scrabble places on earth.

I remind you of the Indiana Jones movie scene where he is confronted in a bazaar by a sword-swinging highly trained fighter, tires of the swordsmanship, and pulls out a pistol and shoots the guy dead. That’s strength against weakness. It’s also overemphasis by the sword fighter on show-off fitness rather than relevant weapons training.


“Curls are for girls” is a saying among football coaches and trainers. It means that football players should not waste their time doing curls because the biceps muscles they strengthen are generally irrelevant to football games. The phrase accuses the player in question of devoting his weight-room time to impressing the girls, not defeating the next opponent.

Furthermore, girls are not interested in biceps. I saw a survey about it on TV. When men were asked what body part women were most interested in, they answered things like pecs, biceps, hair, penis.

What did the women say? Buns. I asked two women myself: One said buns and the other, eyes.

So curls aren’t even for girls. Rather, they are apparently for men to impress other men. Same is true of pecs, triceps, and abs.

The same guys are almost invariably also big on the use of tobacco and alcohol—neither of which is part of any serious athlete’s training regimen.

Which begs the question of why so many U.S. military personnel around the world are spending so much time on their pecs, triceps, and biceps.

MSNBC did an excellent documentary on a tiny U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan in 2009. It’s called “Tip of the Spear.” The troops were physically fit in the way they needed to be—acclimated to the altitude, the stamina to hump up and down the mountains carrying their equipment. But as their time to return to the U.S. neared, they began lifting weights. Why? Correspondent Richard Engel explained it was to impress girls when they got back to the U.S.

Q.E.D. The U.S. military has, to an extent, morphed into a health club where you pump iron to impress girls and other guys and where you get paid to work out at the free health club on your base. It’s an improvement over getting drunk and probably helps recruiting, but the military needs to keep their eye on the ball—winning wars. Specific fitness like that exhibited in Tip of the Spear is necessary. But body building falls into the “Who do you guys think you’re kidding with all these muscles?” category. There is a sneering line in a movie about “taking a knife to a gunfight.” The military’s weight room emphasis is preparation to take muscles to a gun fight.

Easier than winning wars

The answer is apparently that enlarging muscles and going for reveille runs is apparently easier and more within our control than winning our current wars—like the drunk’s lamppost: easier, but irrelevant.

“But,” you ask, “isn’t physical fitness important for winning in combat?”

Pray tell, what actual war or battle was lost because one side was in better physical condition than the other?

Pray tell, what combat unit does physical fitness while on patrol?

Ever hump a ruck sack through the bush in Vietnam? Did your platoon leader or company commander ever get you up for calisthenics or a reveille run while you were out in the bush looking for the NVA?

Speaking as a football coach, players reach peak condition just before summer camp. Then, because less time can be devoted to weight training and running during the season, the physical fitness of the players deteriorates as they spend time practicing plays, doing technique drills, and scrimmages. But coaches know from experience that although fitness, strength, and stamina are important, they only have 20 hours a week (NCAA rules) and if they spend too much time on conditioning, the players will not know their assignments, their timing will be off, and so on.

This is more true in combat where the details of the fire fight are almost unknown in advance in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Generally, the fitness that matters in real combat in what it takes to walk long distances carrying a weapon, food, water, ammunition, and maybe sleeping equipment. As any soldier or Marine can tell you, there is not a chance in hell that any commander could ask the men to add exercise on top of that. So your combat fitness is going to be from that walking. If you are in a safe base, a modicum of weight training and aerobic exercise is advisable for everyone both military and civilian. But the notion that battles and wars are won by superior physical fitness is unsupported by empirical evidence. Generally, soldiers and Marines who are truly on the front, and their enemies, are lean and mean and strong because of their daily exertions when they are searching for their opponents or fighting them.

What should they be doing instead of so much weight lifting and running?

Studying after-action reports and lessons learned from other units in the same or similar theater of operations

Repairing or improving perimeter defenses

Cleaning and servicing weapons, radios, and other equipment

Gathering more ammunition and other battle consumables like fire extinguishers, first-aid

Talking to supporting artillery and air units to review and create new pre-planned fire concentrations and other speed-dial type procedures

Gathering intelligence from locals

Reviewing intelligence from higher headquarters

There’s more, but you get the idea. I have not been in a combat zone since 1970 so I am out of date. The point is there is a ton to do and it’s never done.

Many people in a combat zone do not have jobs where physical fitness is salient—like air crews, artillerymen, mechanics, fixed radio operators, drone “pilots,” medics, and so on. They need to practice and prepare for their actual combat roles, not the Mr. America contest.

National Geographic TV documentary

I saw a National Geographic special about Marines in Afghanistan on TV. They were stationed at a remote outpost. They were big on lifting weights there and buff as a result. But they went on a humvees patrol. During it, even though I have never been to Afghanistan, I thought they were in a dangerous situation and that it was getting worse as night approached. The National Geographic reporter was making similar comments as the night progressed. Sure enough, they got attacked by an IED and suffered casualties.

Their physical fitness seemed irrelevant to the action that was filmed. What it seemed like they should have done with much of that weight-lifting time was devote more time to learning how to spot IEDs, finding spots to camp for the night that the enemy would not likely anticipate in advance, making sure their humvees were in tip-top shape and not likely to break down, and so on.

Win wars, not body-building contests

The mission of the military is to win our wars. Results-oriented people like football coaches, firemen, entrepreneurs, trial lawyers, and so on learn to allocate time intelligently to achieve optimum preparedness for what they need to get done. Process-oriented people, like military and civilian bureaucrats, spend enormous amounts of time on whatever they like, as long as they can claim some relevance to the big picture.

I spent five years of my life with the process-oriented crowd in the Army and at Crocker National Bank. I spent the other 36 years of my adult life in results-oriented investing in rental properties, selling real estate on commission, arguing cases in court, book publishing and marketing, coaching soccer, baseball, football and volleyball teams, putting on seminars and coaching clinics, and so on. Watching the military spend so much time on weight lifting and running I see process-oriented guys spending too much time on a relatively unimportant activity for incorrect reasons like impressing girls (who are, in fact, not impressed by such things) or other men. See my article on process versus results orientation.

The military’s overemphasis on physical fitness is not much different from the drunk’s fondness for the light. It won’t work, but it’s easier and more comfortable than what will.

For the record, I lift weights every other day and do aerobic exercise like riding my Schwinn Airdyne stationary bicycle or walking several miles wearing a weight vest. I can lift more weight now at age 63 than ever before in my life. I am 5'11" and weigh 166—close to what I weighed the day I graduated from West Point. Strength training, aerobics, and limiting food intake are smart, prudent, and necessary for good health. But you need moderation in everything. And people who have a job to do, like national defense, need to take care of their job first and not let easy or irrelevant distractions like vanity body building or extreme body fat reduction take their eye off that ball.

Here is an excerpt from my review of the book The Unforgiving Minute about a West Point class of 2000 graduate who did a tour in Afghanistan in 2003. While there, he observed that they were very big on body building at rear area bases like Orgun and Kandahar.

Twisted mutation of the ‘Peter Principle’

The U.S. military practices a sort of twisted version of the already perverse Peter Principle: As soon as you start to get good at your job, you are removed from it and replaced by a rookie who is lousy at it. Actually, the Peter Principle would be an improvement in the U.S. military. At present, military officers not only get promoted to their level of incompetence, but beyond it as well. Every career officer who started in his early twenties is going to make lieutenant colonel no matter his or her level of competence.

And when you have commanded both platoons and companies and you are getting a general hang of command, they promote you to major and forbid you from commanding anything. You have to be a staff officer. Captains also get that job when there are not enough majors—a problem in today’s Army which sucks so much that too many captains get out.

Thus did Craig Mullaney become his battalion’s human resources guy. He bitches and moans about that in chapter 35.

At his battalion, being a staff officer meant having the time and opportunity to engage in serious body building. His Rhodes Scholar class would be so proud. Apparently, in Afghanistan, one of the ways you can tell the RAMF (Rear Area Mother Fuckers—Vietnam terminology) from the front-line guys is muscles. The RAMFs are the ones with the muscles. And the U.S. military is the organization saying or implying that they have muscles are to make them better in combat. The truth is combat soldiers have no time for that shit.

12/21/09 Army Times

The Army Times newspaper has two covers. The back cover of the 12/21/09 issue has a full-page color photo of a Marine Master Sergeant body builder. The headline is “Get Ripped.” The subheadline is “Military body builders show you how to train like a pro.” a subhead in the article is “Build a bigger, badder, bolder body.”

They make my points that:

• The military overemphasizes legitimate physical fitness
• Although greater strength and stamina is useful in many military mission situations, the actual focus of military physical fitness is not greater strength and stamina, it is vanity and looking strong.
• Although men mistakenly think big muscles will attract females and admit to that motive, they mainly seek muscles to impress other males, which they are less eager to admit.

The Army Times article, like most discussion about body building, fails to note the genetic requirements of looking like champion body builders. They imply, falsely, that every male will look like a champion body builder if he only works out hard enough and consumes the right supplements. Page 9 of that same issue has an almost full-page ad for body building supplements. I have coached football at three high schools with extensive eight rooms. My oldest son was an Ivy League tailback. My youngest son is a Pac-10 football manager. We have seen lots of guys work their asses off in the weight room. They do not have a uniform body builder appearance. They are all stronger than average non-athletes, but not as uniformly as their training would suggest. Some were born to be strong. Some were born to have big muscles when they do extensive weight training. If you were not born to be strong or have big muscles, weight training will have relatively little effect on your strength and muscular appearance.

‘Very pretty’

Instead of focusing on their low body fat percentage, our current physical-fitness freak generals need to focus on their low war-winning percentage since World War II. World War II commanders like Eisenhower (football player at Army), MacArthur, Nimitz, and Patton (finished fifth in the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics—he may have been robbed in the pistol shooting event by having bullets that went through the same hole in the bullseye repeatedly counted as misses because they did not make a new hole) did not have low body fat. They were too busy winning the damned war.

Donald Sutherland’s character “Pinkley” said it well in the 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen.

Very pretty general. But can they fight?

John T. Reed

On the other hand, at the same time that the special ops people are overemphasizing physical fitness, the U.S. military as a whole seems to be less fit than ever. Here is an email I received in 2012:

Re: "Hooah" apparently means "Supersize me!"

I've never failed to be amazed and disgusted at the people I see sporting Army uniforms…t. I see women that are literally about 4'9" and weigh 150 lbs in BDUs - the sight of camouflaged butterballs is ridiculous. I see men in BDU's with beer guts that would make Larry the Cable Guy proud. Some of the men that work the chow hall are often out of uniform and swathed head to foot in prison tattoos. "You can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys" - very apt here. I've never seen a greater case of arrested development in my life…, active duty and double-dippers alike. There are more giant trucks with lift kits and massive tires per square mile in this town than any place I've ever seen coast-to-coast. New Mustangs, Chargers/Challengers, 300Ms, etc -are a dime a dozen. More people have tattoos than not. Even their cars are tatted - giant "Army Retired" and "Combat Veteran" banners splattered all the way across rear windows. Listen, I was in for six, I did a dangerous job and was nearly killed several times in flight and by terrorist bombs in various countries. Yet almost no one I work with even knows I'm a veteran much less what I did or where I went when I was in. Splattering "Combat Veteran" in giant letters across my back window seems desperate and pathetic, as does $2000 in giant tires and a lift kit, "brush guards" and skid plates for a vehicle that never sees anything more dangerous than a Wal-Mart parking lot. The statement " drunk, posturing, arrogant blowhards demanding to get the respect they feel they deserve" - this place is full of them. I don't know if it is an Army thing, a government job thing or what, but this place, being that the post dominates this small town, is the worst I've ever seen for this and I've lived all across the country and world.

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

John T. Reed military home page

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