British Army Training: Tabbing Training for Troops

Combat fitness refers to the ability of a soldier athlete to effectively perform military-oriented tasks. Combat fitness is not analogous to athletic fitness as it's achieved by acquiring specific military skills and meeting military oriented physical fitness requirements (Physical Employment Standards). Athletes look to achieve functional dominance, whereas soldiers look to achieve functional competence, thus giving rise to the concept of the 'soldier athlete'. In relation to tactical advances to battle (TABs) also known as tabbing or loaded marches (LM), task-oriented fitness is ‘an individual’s ability to perform a specific activity with acceptable efficiency’ (Caspersen et al. 1985).

Infantry Soldiers

Military fitness training focuses on the physical and mental ability required to accomplish all aspects of a combat mission while remaining combat effective and uninjured. To accomplish missions, it is accepted that the basic fitness requirements are cardiorespiratory fitness (aerobic capacity), muscle strength and muscle endurance, and in addition to these components flexibility and mobility are also important. Components of ‘motor’ fitness, which affect a soldier’s performance in the field are speed, agility, muscle power, eye–hand coordination and eye–foot coordination. All of these components can be improved by adding specificity to training within the limits of each soldier’s potential. Specific fitness training or readiness programmes either followed individually or as a group prepare soldier athletes to perform well to accomplish set tasks and remain combat effective.

British Army Infantry

 

Load Carriage and Mission Success

Soldier athletes are often required to traverse ground while carrying very heavy loads. In some cases, mission success and survival can be dependent on the speed at which a soldier can cover the ground while carrying the equipment needed for the operation. Although soldiers have progressively become larger and stronger than their earlier counterparts, loads that soldiers carry have also progressively increased since the British Crimean War. Today, the load carried by a soldier in combat, regardless of body mass, can range from 30 to 60kg (Knapik et al. 2004b; Nindl et al. 2013). New technologies have increased the lethality of the individual soldier while at the same time increasing the soldier's survivability. For example, infantry soldiers can now carry weapon systems that can disable and destroy aircraft and armoured vehicles, whereas developments in body armour have provided enhanced individual protection from hostile fires.

Infantry Soldier

In relation to the British Army’s standards, all soldier’s work as a part of a team in which cohesion and mutual reliance are dominant components in the successful achievement of a mission. High physical standards are a major factor in establishing and maintaining perceptions of competence, which is important for cohesion. Maintaining high standards has understandably emerged as a critical issue and a top concern for existing Ground Close Combat (GCC) Service Personnel. These concerns are fundamental to a front-line soldier’s identity, since passing through the various physically demanding courses and selection processes constitutes a rite of passage and contributes to the sense of common identity.

Cambrian Patrol Bergen Weight

 

Test Failures and Recent Media Attention

Given this training articles topic and without comment on the newspapers allegations, it is necessary to make reference to the recent article in The Daily Mail that 14 Service Personnel (1 female, 13 male) failed to meet the required fitness standard on the 8 mile loaded speed march on the Platoon Sergeants Battle Course (PSBC) held in Brecon - an arduous physical test and course for any soldier. (For further details, I recommend reading @pinstripedline's blog post surrounding this story).

In light of the story, subsequently the question of whether women are physically up to the demands has thus arisen from dead ground. In a counter-attack against criticisms of double standards existing, and as an aid for individuals who need additional training support, the aim of this training article is to arm soldier athletes (men and women) with effective loaded march training advice including a proven training programme in order to enhance performance.

Tabbing Training

PTI Thompson: “For as many times I’ve let self-doubt creep in, or wrestled with the thoughts that maybe I should just walk away from it and start over, there’s always been an unwavering voice on the horizon whispering you’re not finished yet, not even close. That’s the voice I choose to hear and so on the crest of every hill I simply keep on going and hopefully I persuade others to do the same too.”

The British Army has an uncompromising pursuit of excellence and standards and has made it clear that standards have not been lowered for female soldiers. With an open field to all, I hope this article along with others empowers a new line of fit, focussed front-line soldiers to rise to the challenge and test their metal on whatever bearing they choose to take.

Female Army Ranger  Female Army Ranger

(Role model: Maj Lisa Jaster, a West Point graduate, an Army reservist, an engineer, a CrossFit enthusiast, a mother of two, and the third woman to graduate from U.S Army Ranger School.)

 

New British Army Fitness Test

Under Project THOR, the updated age and gender neutral British Army physical employment standards (PES) (commencing April 1st 2019) are in place to ensure a high level of fitness and strength for operational success. The British Army’s updated physical readiness programme moves off from no equipment calisthenics and tests (press-ups, sit-ups, timed run) and middle-distance running in favour of weight training, incorporating squat racks, barbells, powerbags, drag bags, pull-up bars and more. In support of the new training programme, it was found that calisthenics (bodyweight exercises) improve muscle strength in the first few weeks but without adequate overload, further improvements in strength were minimal (Kraemer et al., 2004). With the concept of physical fitness training changing to ‘physical readiness training’, which includes gradual progression in physical training, scheduling periods of recovery from weight-bearing exercises (every 2–3 weeks), reducing running distances and including, balance and agility components, the incidence of stress fractures and the severity of injuries will be dramatically reduced.

GCC PES Representative Military Task

RMT Loaded March – 2 stages.

Stage 1: – TAB: cover a total distance of 4km at 4.8km/hr (2.98mph a slow walk in a total time of 50min). Dress – webbing 9.5kg, weapon 4.5kg, bergen 26kg – total load 40kg.

  • 5 minute transition and water break before starting stage 2.
  • Stage 2: LM performance run: cover a total distance of 2km as fast as possible. Dress – webbing 9.5kg, weapon 4.5kg, daysack 11kg – total load of 25kg.

Loaded March

 

Intel on Loaded Carriage Performance

In order to provide a recommended loaded march training programme, it’s important to draw attention to some key findings within existing literature on loaded carriage performance. In military studies, Kraemer et al., (1987; 2004) reported that 12 weeks of upper or lower-body weight-based training by men, combined with high-intensity endurance training, improved load carriage time with a 44.7kg load by 14% and 11%, respectively. Though unsurprising, the study found that weight-based training or high-intensity endurance training alone produced no improvement in loaded march performance, thus highlighting the need for specificity. It was found that in comparison to calisthenics (bodyweight exercises such as bodyweight squats, lunges, and jumps), the weight-trained group showed continued improvements in tests of strength and power over a longer period of time than did the calisthenics group (no weights). Thus, calisthenic training is more likely to produce an earlier plateau in military task performance than would weight-resisted training.

Female Weight Training Female Weight Training

With regards to female soldiers, Knapik and Gerber (1996) observed that a 14 week fitness training programme combining resistance and aerobic training reduced 5km, 19kg load carriage time by 4% among women. In addition to this, Harman et al., (1997) reported that the 3.2km, 34kg load carriage time of the female soldiers was shortened by 32.5% as a result of 24 weeks of weight-based training, running and tabbing on hills with weight. Kraemer at al., (2001) observed that women who participated in 6 months of total-body or only upper-body weight-based training along with aerobic training improved significantly in the speed at which they could carry 34kg for 3.2km, whereas women engaged solely in aerobic training did not improve their speed.

In relation to specificity, Knapik et al., (2012) found that when progressive load-carriage exercises were part of the training programme, combined with resistance-aerobic training, and when that training was conducted 3 times per week, over 4 weeks the performance improvements were more than twice as large compared with resistance-aerobic training without load carriage. Collectively, these studies show the effectiveness of combining specific modes of physical training such as weight-based training for improving medium to long-distance load carriage performance.

Tabbing Training

 

Physiological Differences

Before a loaded-march training programme is recommended, it is important to uncover the effects of physical training on speed marches and to describe the modes of physical training that can most optimally enhance loaded march performance.

Physical Differences

We acknowledge that physiological differences exist between men and women – so what? It seems there is a lack of deeper knowledge and understanding over what these differences are and how they affect job performance (including how to adapt training methods accordingly). With regards to loaded marches, by better understanding physiological factors that affect load bearing tasks this can reduce the risk of injury.

In relation to body mass, Knapik et al, (2004) found that women are on average more susceptible to fatigue when carrying heavy loads, in which were attributed to size differences between men and women, with women having less overall lean body mass. Muscular endurance of men in absolute terms is greater than that of women because of their greater muscle mass and strength. This is of advantage for those military tasks in which the endurance level is fixed (e.g. loaded marches at a predefined pace and distance and loading tasks).

It is accepted that men naturally have higher upper body and lower body muscle mass which corresponds to larger muscle fibres. In addition, men have greater fast-twitch muscle fibre size and a higher ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibres than women, both of which contribute to differences in muscular strength. With appropriate preparation and training, female soldiers can increase their levels of fitness, which will reduce their risk of injury and increase their performance on physically demanding military tasks. A soldier’s history, physiology and physical fitness all influence performance levels.

Studies have also shown that men, on average, perform better on tests of muscular strength and cardiovascular (i.e., aerobic) endurance compared to women. However, it was found that there are no differences in flexibility, balance, and core strength (Courtright et al., 2013). These initial differences in strength thus give male soldiers have an initial advantage physiologically in terms of aerobic capacity, anaerobic power, and muscular strength. However, although physical ability differences are expected, it is important to examine the range of these differences and to recognise that there are women in the British Army who will achieve exceptionally high test standards. In other words, average gender differences can be misleading when decisions are being made about individuals.

Charlotte Spence

(Role model: Charlotte Spence, a CrossFit athlete and Rehabilitation Instructor in the Royal Army Physical Training Corp.)

Performance on physical fitness tests is a function of many different factors including biological, psychological, sociocultural, nutritional, and environmental. The influence of these factors can explain, in part, why simply knowing individual values of “maximal oxygen uptake do not reveal the person’s potential to perform well in events that demand aerobic power” (Åstrand et al., 2003, p.265). In other words, any observed differences on physical ability tests cannot be attributed fully to differences in physiology between men and women. Specific training, for example, can result in substantial gains in aerobic capacity and muscular strength.

Tabbing Training

PTI Thompson: "The bottom line is that you're the only one who knows in your heart of hearts if you're really giving it all you have. You are the only one who knows what you're capable of and the only one who can evaluate your effort relative to your own standard. It's through our efforts out of sight, behind the scenes that we emerge - be ready."

Biomechanical Factors and MSKI Injury Risk

There is good reason for recommending that short soldiers place themselves at the front of the squad. At a given marching pace, females walk with shorter stride length and greater stride frequency than men (Ling et al., 2004). Furthermore, as loads increase, females’ stride length decreases, whereas men’s stride length does not show significant change. With increasing load, female soldiers were also found to have a more pronounced linear increase in the time that both feet are on the ground (double support time) than do male soldiers (Martin and Nelson 1986). To bring the centre of the load mass over the feet (base of support), female soldiers tend to hyperextend their necks and bring their shoulders further forward than do men due to compensating for a lower level of upper body strength (Ling et al. 2004).

Winter Tabbing Training

Load carriage at pace also presents certain risks of stress fractures specific to women who are smaller and have a shorter stride length. Knapik, Montain et al., (2012) found that stress fracture incidences occurred more frequently in female recruits. However to restate an earlier point, caution must be exercised when generalising findings based on the general British Army population to well-conditioned women who meet the physical fitness standards required for GCC roles. Taking into account research demonstrating that low physical fitness is an important risk factor in training (Knapik et al., 2006; Rauh, et al., 2006), the potential injury rate of female soldiers who have the strength, endurance, and other critical abilities to qualify for a GCC role may be considerably lower than the injury rate of women from the wider British Army who are less conditioned.

Infantry Exercise

 

Physical Readiness Training Programme

The studies highlight that a weight-based training programme is the most effective mode of training in achieving the most improvement in a soldier athletes overall physical performance (not just loaded-march performance). As mentioned earlier, it’s important to reiterate that physical performance in the field requires speed, agility, and anaerobic endurance, in addition to strength. Therefore, a physical readiness programme designed to improve performance in the field must balance the types of training so as to achieve the most overall improvement within the limited amount of time commanders allocate for physical training.

It was found that resistance training that improves the strength and muscular endurance of the upper body musculature is more important for improving load carriage performance than lower body strength-muscular endurance exercise. Therefore with regards to resistance training portion of a programme to improve load carriage performance should focus primarily on the upper body.

Female CrossFit Athlete

(Role model: CrossFit athlete Katrin Davidsdotti. It's worth mentioning she can squat 225lbs and deadlift 310lbs) 

 

Loaded-March Training Programme

Weekly Training Schedule

(Training frequency: 3 – 5 session per week)

Monday: Warm-up 10min, weight training 50min, rest 10min, 3.2km best-effort run 12–18min, cool-down 10min.

Tuesday: Warm-up 10min, agility/running drills 75min, cool-down 10min.

Wednesday: Warm-up 10min, 8km loaded march on hilly terrain 75min, cool-down 10min.

Thursday: Warm-up 10min, weight-based training 50min, rest 10min, 3.2km best-effort run 12–18min, cool-down 10min.

Friday: Warm-up 15min, sprint intervals 45min, cool-down.

Strength Training

Weightlifting Exercises

Bench press, barbell (grip just wider than shoulders).

Clean and press, barbell

Deadlift, barbell

Hang power clean (grip just wider than shoulders)

Back squat and front squat, barbell

Pull-down (wide grip)

Dumbbell Thrusters

Face-down torso raise with weight (45 degree bench)

Hanging knee raise

Shoulder press, barbell or dumbbell

Pull-up, overhead bar (shoulder-width grip)

Barbell step-up, 18-in. box

Box jump

Incline bench press (shoulder-width grip)

Face-down torso-twist with weight (45 degree bench)

Female Weight Training

(Role model: CrossFit athlete Katrin Davidsdottir, two-time winner of the CrossFit Games in 2015 and 2016)

 

Loaded-march Training Programme Results

In a timed 3.2km, 32kg loaded speed march test, the individuals who followed this type of training programme reduced the time taken to cover the distance by approximately 15% in 8 weeks. Soldier athletes following this type of training programme saw a 10% to 13% improvement in maximum aerobic capacity, otherwise known as Vo2max (Vo2max is a measure that provides an estimate of the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can use during physical activity). This improvement was particularly impressive because the individuals already started with above average aerobic fitness and interestingly averaged no more than 12km per week of running, including the distance runs and interval training. The degree of improvement a soldier athlete can expect in Vo2max depends on their pre-training level, meaning fitter soldiers will generally show relatively small percentage changes. In support of this type of training programme, moderately active individuals, who trained by running 10 to 40 minutes at 80% to 90% of their maximal heart rate 3 days a week for 9 weeks improved 9.3% in Vo2max (Kraemer et al., 2004).

The primary power for military physical activities come more from the lower body than from the upper body. The muscles in the hips, calves, and thighs propel a soldier athlete’s body upward and forward with each step in a load carriage test with fighting load. The weight training programme uses the barbell squat, barbell step-up, and box jump to strengthen the lower body, working the leg and hip muscles to accelerate against gravitational and inertial resistance and hence explains the performance improvements.

Feet Taping For TABs Blisters from tabbing

(Speaking to trainees, to prevent blisters when tabbing tape your heel with zinc oxide tape to prevent hot spots and powder your feet. Wear cotton trainer socks under thicker high quality walking socks as a friction barrier.)

 

Physical Training Methods

Physical training is defined as a routine and systematic set of physical movements (exercise) designed to improve one or more of the components of physical fitness.

Aerobic & Anaerobic Training

Running and other forms of long-term submaximal exercise improves aerobic capacity, allowing soldier athletes to perform the same exercise at a lower relative exercise intensity and allows more rapid recovery following the exercise. With the knowledge that improvements in the cardiorespiratory endurance component of physical fitness resulted in faster load carriage times, it is recommended that aerobic training is included in a programme. Interval training on flat surfaces and hills challenge both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. With regards to long-duration running, progressive overload is achieved by increasing running distance. In addition to running, cycling and stair stepping are also effective for aerobic training. With regards to interval training, progressive overload is be achieved by increasing the number of intervals, reducing rest time between repeats, and manipulating distances. Effective gains in load carriage performance were seen with just resistance-aerobic training (for the most part, running), suggesting that the combination of strength and cardiorespiratory endurance are important fitness components of an overall programme to improve load carriage performance.

Trail Running

PTI Thompson: “Avoid taking the easy route and be persistent with your winter training. If you’re willing to run through the storms you’re willing to make progress. Chase it or run away from it - the decision is always yours.” 

 

Linear and Periodised Weight Training Programmes

Two types of weight training can be followed; a linear or periodised weight/resistance training programme. Firstly a linear programme involves an unchanging number of sets and repetitions and exercises the same muscle groups throughout the programme. With this more restrictive routine, progressive overload is achieved by increasing the amount of weight lifted.

Alternatively, a periodised weight training programme is where the number of repetitions and loads are changed to emphasise muscular endurance (higher repetitions, lower resistance) at some points in the training programme, and muscle strength (lower repetitions, higher resistance). In addition to this, power can be emphasised with faster weight lifting movements or hypertrophy can be emphasised with slower movements with more repetitions. Note that periodised resistance training programmes have been found to offer greater improvements in load carriage performance than linear resistance training programmes.

Tabbing Training

For the greatest improvements in load carriage performance undergo a periodised training programme that manipulates sets, repetitions, and exercises in either in “blocks” (mesocycles and microcycles) for a duration of 7 weeks, with weekly or even daily alterations in intensity and volume. On some days, focus on higher weight and fewer repetitions emphasising strength, and on other days, focus on lower weight and more repetitions to emphasise muscular endurance. Also, focus on different exercises for different muscle groups on different days. The emphasis on different components of fitness (strength and muscular endurance), combined with the greater variety of trained muscle groups will prove effective in improving load carriage performance.

Regarding equipment, train with primarily free weights over machine devices and if possible incorporate sand-bag/powerbag lifts and carries, partnered resisted exercises, squat racks, barbells, heavy box lifting, band-resistance exercises and lower-body plyometrics to improve leg strength and power.

Combine progressive resistance training with aerobic training and train 3 times per week over 4 weeks. One option is to hold aerobic and resistance training constant and change the frequency of the progressive load-carriage exercise, however ensure a progressive load-carriage exercise is carried out at least once weekly.

Muscular Strength Training

 

Loaded March Training

The largest overall improvements in load carriage performance were found when once weekly progressive load-carriage exercise was part of the training programme. With regards to this finding, combine progressive resistance training with aerobic training and train 3 times per week over 4 weeks. One option is to hold aerobic and resistance training constant and change the frequency of the progressive load-carriage exercise and ensure a progressive load-carriage exercise is carried out at least once weekly.

Winter Tabbing Training

This follows from the exercise principle of specificity whereby gains in physical performance are the greatest when soldier athletes systematically exercise with the task in which performance improvements are desired. Progressive load-carriage exercise thus involves the skills, muscle groups, energy systems, and related components of fitness that are important for the performance of the task. Speed and distance can be held the same and progressively increase the load up to the criteria of the load carriage task.

For further tips on tabbing up hills read 'British Army Endurance Training: Hit the Hills'.

Tabbing Training

PTI Thompson: “When we take care of our effort and intention, with hard work the desired outcome will follow. Being out on the trails was a reminder that what we do everyday matters more than what we do every once in a while - but we can get there. They say the harder you work for something the greater you’ll feel when you finally achieve it - so let’s see.”

 

Load Carriage and Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against a submaximal resistance for an extended period of time. In other words, it is the ability of the muscle to resist fatigue as expressed in extended time to failure while maintaining a target resistance (Hicks et al. 2001). Therefore, muscular endurance is among the most important physical requirements for many military tasks such as loaded marches and loading ammunition.

US Army Fitness Test

Muscle fatigue in the field has a significant amount to do with the loads that soldiers carry. A number of studies have described the effect of excessive load carriage on fatigue. Clarke et al. (1955) reported decreased MVC of trunk, knee and ankle flexor/extensor muscles in soldiers after walking for about 3hrs while carrying loads of up to 27 kg (30 % of body weight). Blacker et al. (2010) showed that carrying a 25kg pack during 2hrs of walking on a treadmill induced a 15% loss in knee extensor MVC and was associated with moderate central (neural) and peripheral (muscular) fatigue.

 PTI Thompson"When training out here I am not any bigger with the mountains beneath my feet but I always find a reason to look up. We don’t test ourselves at things because they are easy, we test ourselves to know who we are in the face of our trials. This mentality has become my guiding north for all my training activity."

How ergonomics can reduce injuries and enhance performance.

Intense physical activity such as loaded marches increase the prevalence of acute and overuse musculoskeletal injuries, which comprise of medical conditions involving muscle, tendon, nerve, ligament and bone tissues. Among overuse injuries, stress fracture has been identified as a leading medical condition affecting soldiers’ combat readiness, due to the relative long recovery time, during which the soldier is prevented from engaging in weight-bearing activity. Interestingly, when female and male soldiers matched for aerobic physical fitness, the injury rates were found to be similar (Bell et al. 2000). In addition to improving loaded march performance, higher physical fitness has been proven to reduce injury risk. A lower rate of injury during basic training was found among men and women who were at higher aerobic fitness levels (Knapik et al., 2001).

Tabbing Training

PTI Thompson: "Endurance comes to those who put in the time, the effort, and the heart. Seek out and train in the places where you feel most alive. Ultimately, if we aren't in the arena and able to struggle for something worthwhile, we'll never develop our level of resilience."

In a loaded march using daysacks alone, most of the weight rests on the shoulders resulting in pain and discomfort. It was found that an independent predictor of march-time while carrying loads is shoulder breadth (Harper et al., 1997). Furthermore, the design of daysack and Bergen systems are based primarily on the anthropometry of men (Knapik et al., 2004) leading to poorly fitting systems, additional discomfort and restricting movement in the arms and legs for women. To overcome these ergonomic issues, a well-padded hip belt improves load carriage performance by allowing a better transfer of the load to the hips so that females can use the stronger muscles of the legs to carry the load (Lafiandra and Harman 2004; Ling et al. 2004). It’s important to note that modified or well-designed and properly worn hip belts can be effective in moving about 30% of the load to the hips, but the upper body musculature still assumes most of the load and assists in stabilising the upper torso during movement. Additional modifications to daysacks and bergens can include back padding and wider shoulder straps.

 Modified Bergen

(Modified female specific short-back Bergen; wider shoulder straps, back padding and extra padding placed within the hip belt.)

Summary

The aim of this training article was to provide training advice in order to physically condition soldier athletes to better tolerate heavy loads. Collectively, the studies mentioned show that specific modes of physical training can substantially improve the speed at which soldier athletes carry loads over distances. In order to substantially improve load carriage performance, the most effective loaded march training recommended to soldier athletes is the upper-body resistance-aerobic training conducted 3 times per week for a minimum of 4 weeks, which incorporates at least one weekly progressive loaded march.

In order to better prepare and further integrate females in GCC roles, I recommend the development of a female-specific physical readiness programme that is well circulated and in particular focuses on enhancing soldiers' physical capability for load carriage.

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Fitness Training Instagram

[Study references available upon request]

 

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