Physical Training: Women in the Infantry

From online and offline observations, from my position I've gathered that the primary concern against lifting the policy on women serving on the front line resides in the marked differences in physical capacity between men and women. Subsequently, in light of the recent full integration of women into Ground Close Combat roles (RAC, Infantry and SF), and the establishment of gender-neutral fitness standards there is now a heightened interest in the evaluation of women’s ability to perform in previously restricted physically demanding military occupational specialities. With the first wave of female infanteers now in a position to attack the Combat Infantryman’s Course in Catterick and the Platoon Commander’s Battle Course in Brecon, I feel it necessary to pass on an array of information in the hope that it informs commanders and adequately arms such women, alongside words of encouragement (see @pinstripedline's blog and @Edeaulx's post titled 'Women in Combat').

(Case example: text message from a male SNCO to a female GCC soldier after an achievement.)

As a defence against negative ill-informed comments, this female-specific training article seeks to address the physical concerns head on by drawing on case examples from overseas, personal experiences as a dismounted GCC soldier, together with the provision of proven training advice in order to better prepare and support other women preparing to occupy a Ground Close Combat role.

I figured pass or fail, I was going to give it everything I had. It was everybody’s faith in me that set me on the path.” – Capt Shaye Haver (after graduating from Ranger School, Capt Haver is one of the first women to branch transfer to the infantry and now serves as an infantry officer).

Physical Performance Capability

Firstly, it is important for all (dinosaurs included) to acknowledge that a women’s physical performance capability can be significantly bolstered by optimised physical training programmes. Efforts focussed on improving strength and power can optimise women’s performance and prepare them for combat-centric tasks. Two studies (Nindl et al., 2017; Kraemer et al., 2004) that investigated the effects of physical conditioning programmes on military work capacity on women found that improved performance was found in military-specific occupational tasks among women by either completing a total-body strength/power training programme or upper-body only strength/power training programme (Kraemer et al., 2004). Women who follow a training plan consisting of CrossFit are also a prime example of how strength and power can significantly be bolstered. In support of this type of training, a 14-week study evaluating the effects of a three day per week resistance training programme on female soldiers demonstrated a 16-19% improvement in a maximum box lift at various heights and a repetitive lifting task. Therefore, this intel shows that by combining traditional strength training and conditioning methods with task specific training women’s performance gains can be significant.

If entering this debate, caution must be exercised when generalising the general female military population to women who already exceed the GCC physical fitness standards required. Taking into account research demonstrating that low physical fitness is an important risk factor in training (Beck et al., 2000; Knapik et al., 2006; Rauh, et al., 2006), the potential injury rate of women who have the strength, endurance, and other critical abilities to qualify as a GCC soldier may be considerably lower than the injury rate of women from the wider Army. Further support of this is provided by studies that control for individual levels of physical fitness. For example, in a study of 861 Army basic trainees, it was initially found that women experienced twice as many injuries as men. However, when controlling for fitness levels, women were no longer at an increased risk of developing an injury compared to men (Bell at al., 2000). The primary conclusion was that cardiovascular endurance rather than gender was the primary risk factor for developing an injury. Other studies also support an association between fitness and injuries (Cline, Jansen, and Melby, 1998; Friedl et al., 2008). Therefore, to minimise the risk of injuries, it is critical to establish and ensure minimum fitness levels are met prior to starting high intensity physical assessment and selection programmes.

Failure is not an option.” – Staff Sgt Amanda Kelley (first female soldier to graduate from the US Army’s Ranger School in Fort Benning).

Further reading: "New British Army Physical Training Programme".

Case Example: Physical Preparation

There had to be no doubt in my mind that I had the physical strength.” – Capt Shaye Haver

A junior Captain in the US Army, Capt Shaye Haver has led the route in by becoming one of the first women to graduate from Army Ranger School, a 62 day, 20 hour per day rigorous course. Once qualified, Rangers are required to embark upon special ops missions at a moment’s notice. With regards to training for the course, sports had prepared her well having regularly competed in athletics and soccer before being introduced to triathlon, competitive rock climbing and strength training and subsequently became a strength coach, coaching Division 1 female athletes. During her pre-training for the Ranger School assessment, her triathlons at West Point had already developed a high level of endurance in which Haver continued to incorporate into her training plan. In addition to this, Capt Haver strength trained every day and soon added specificity to her training programme by taking up functional strength training, carrying sandbags and doing weighted pull-ups. Female specific training included working on upper body strength, grip strength, hip strength and flexibility. Physically, Capt Haver equalled or outperformed her male peers, gaining their respect. Since graduating from Ranger School in August 2015, Capt Haver has now become one of the first women to branch transfer to the infantry and now serves as an infantry officer.

I let my actions and performance speak for me instead. I wasn’t about to be the weakest link.” – Capt Haver

Ranger School’s initial physical assessment:

49 push-ups in two minutes

59 sit-ups in two minutes

Run 5 miles in 40 minutes or less

Improved Psychological Capability

We all go through the same thing at the same time. You look left or right and each of you is hurting just as bad. And you just pick up your rucksack and keep going.” – Staff Sgt Amanda Kelley

A further result of the study was a substantial improvement in psychological status of the women in areas such as perceived physical strength/appearance, self-confidence, self-affection and knowledge of planning an exercise program (Nindl et al., 2017). Self-esteem has been discussed as one of the strongest dispositional predictors of positive job performance. Many studies have reported a positive relationship between self-esteem and performance. Self-acknowledgement of improved physical strength could significantly aid female soldiers in measurements and performance of job-specific tests, such as dynamic strength and lifting capacity tests, which are correlated to military job performance.

Case Example: Mental Preparation

It’s critical to have a game plan going in. I know how to react to pain, to fear, to being overwhelmed. Outside of combat, I don’t think I ever would have experienced that.” – Capt Haver

Capt Haver, was aware that her biggest enemy at Ranger School going into every situation was herself and her own mind. As a Pilot, Haver had already been through the Army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, which she states enabled her to understand intimidation tactics and went in knowing how she responded to pain and fatigue. With regards to mental strength, whilst at Fort Carson Haver learnt a great deal from a master resiliency trainer where she was trained to think through every situation. When doubts crept in, she was able to remind herself of why she was there and went into Ranger School with a plan of what to tell herself when she got low.

Capt Haver also credits her mental resiliency to her strength coach and mentor. She developed a mantra of just one word “one”, you can always do one more push-up, take one more step. You can do one more of anything. She stated every time she did something, she’d do it like it was her last time. In her words she stated it gave her a kind of “reckless abandon”. When asked Capt Haver defined grit as, “Doing whatever it takes to do what you set out to do. Daring to fail with reckless abandon.”

Further reading: “Mental Strength Training: Going for Goals”.

Statistics of Women in the Infantry

On 29th January 2019, Mark Lancaster stated, “The Regiment and role of an Army applicant will only be determined once they have successfully completed the applicant selection process and prior to basic training. For officer applicants, Regiment and role is determined during officer cadet training. Applicants can however express preferences for their Regiment or role within their application. Since the announcement on 25 October 2018, 110 female soldier applicants and five female officer applicants have identified the infantry as one of their preferences.

Less than five serving Regular female soldiers have applied to transfer into the infantry to date.

By making all branches and trades of the military open to everyone, regardless of their gender, the Armed Forces is demonstrating its commitment to equality and diversity and seeking to maximise the talent of all personnel.

Figures are single service estimates and have been rounded to the nearest five to limit disclosure and ensure confidentiality.


Women in the Infantry 

It is now common knowledge that in the US many women have already joined combat units at Fort Campbell, Fort Hood, Fort Bragg and other bases and several countries have allowed women into combat units for years including Canada, Israel, Norway and Sweden. There is thus a growing body of evidence that gender-integrated combat teams are effective. For example, in the Swedish recruit training barracks, men and women share a large room together, all in bunk beds. The recruits viewed this integration as crucial to unit strength. In support of this, two Norwegian researchers, Nina Hellim and Ulla-Britt Lilleaas found that having male and female troops live together has a “degenderizing” effect that makes soldiers act more like siblings, reducing harassment.

In Sweden the physical standards are already gender-neutral. Recruits must run 2km (1.25miles) while wearing combat gear (including body armour, helmet and rifle) in under 10 minutes and 15 seconds if they want to join reconnaissance teams. Ranger conscripts in mountain warfare training must all carry the same weight, and ski and climb the same distances in the same amount of time. There is evidence that progress on women in Ground Close Combat (WGCC) has been slow. The British Army has set a target of 15% female personnel by 2020 yet the figure is still below 10% for Regular servicewomen despite a major recruitment  campaign. From my perspective, if the British Army is to advance it must be in a position where it has the best talent and leaders everywhere, and that includes women in Ground Close Combat roles.

I wanted to do something important with my life. I wanted to be part of a group of people that would be willing to die for each other.” – Lieutenant Hierl (first woman in the US Marine Corps to lead an infantry platoon).

Operating in Challenging Environments

A team of six female British Army soldiers completed a 1,056-mile journey across Antarctica in extreme conditions, pulling an 80kg sledge loaded with equipment and supplies in temperatures as low as -42C for 62 days. The all-female team underwent extreme physical preparation for their expedition. 

Research findings on the Ice Maiden team found that the women maintained more body mass during their Antarctic expedition when compared to males and civilian women from previous expeditions. This research ties into how women are integrated into diverse military teams. In harsh conditions, it is agreed that women are key in ‘achieving a cognitive advantage’ and ‘protecting team dynamics’ as women demonstrate a ‘high tolerance for pain and willingness to burden share’. Women are not seen as dependent on other team members due to physical differences, instead the competitive edge they offer is recognised and maximised.

The study is the first to suggest that women are not more susceptible to the negative effects of physical exertion and, that with appropriate training and preparation, can be as resilient as men in undertaking arduous physical activity. As the women in GCC debate continues, it is clear that commanders still have much to learn about the effective integration of women into small teams.

Combat Infantryman’s Course (CIC)

Individuals wishing to either transfer or join the infantry will need to complete the Combat Infantryman’s Course (CIC) held at the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) Catterick, the location for all basic CIC courses within the British Army. The role of ITC is to deliver trained motivated personnel to the Field Army with dismounted close combat and leadership skills in order to meet the requirements of the Infantry and Defence. The completion of CIC training (regular and reserve) is mandatory for all infantry soldiers.

For regular soldiers, training is administered through two Battalions and delivered across four separate Infantry regiments, Line, Parachute, Guards and Gurkha. The course lasts for a minimum of 26 weeks. The training is a blend of generic military training (1 – 13 weeks) followed by Regiment specific soldiering skills, representing combined Phase 1 and 2 training. Ultimately all versions of the CIC course are designed to transform civilian young men and women into a class three infantry soldier prepared for transfer to the wider Army.

Occupationally appropriate levels of physical fitness are requisite. Entry standards for the infantry are the most stringent of the British Army, demanding high levels of muscular strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness. The arduous training regularly requires daily energy expenditure of over 5000 calories. Training load and intensity varies between regiments with the most demanding physical activity in the Parachute Regiment.

The physical training component is delivered by a team of All Arms Physical Training Instructors (AAPTI) under the management and supervision of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps (RAPTC). The infantry training programme is standardized and has been validated for regimental task specific requirements by the Army Recruiting and Training Division (ARTD). The volume of training load is highest for the Parachute and least for the Line, Regiment. The physical training programme is designed to improve aerobic power, muscular endurance and strength through running, resistance training, battle specific physical training, loaded marches, culminating with a combat fitness test. The course also contain technical, tactical and regimental specific military skills.

Case Example: First Female Soldier Passes the US Army’s Special Forces Assessment

Lieutenant Colonel Loren Bymer recently announced that the first female soldier has completed the US Army’s initial Special Forces Assessment and Selection process. After passing the demanding 24-day program, the soldier has now moved on to the Special Forces Qualification Course. The soldier could soon become the Army’s first female Green Beret, an elite special force that focuses on unconventional warfare and counterterrorism.

Case Example: First Woman in the US Marine Corps to lead an Infantry Platoon

I wanted to lead a platoon. I didn’t think there was anything better in the Marine Corps I could do.” – Lt. Hierl

Lieutenant Hierl became one of two women to pass the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course. The course involves 13 weeks of combat evaluations and long endurance marches carrying heavy loads. Lieutenant Hierl has since become the first woman in the US Marine Corps to lead an infantry platoon of 35 men. Her presence first eyed with scepticism appears to have now been quietly accepted.

The Threat of Injury

Musculoskeletal injuries present a significant threat to recruits striving to pass out through infantry training. Recruits experience a high level of physical and mental stress due to the multi-factorial components of military training and the challenge of adapting the significant environmental changes as they transition from a civilian lifestyle. Moderate, controlled exercise has been shown to have a protective effect on tissue health and injury incidence. However, heavy volume and intense repeated exercise combines with sleep restriction and insufficient recovery has depressive effects on the immune function, which in turn, may contribute to musculoskeletal injury. Musculoskeletal injuries are defined as pain, inflammation or functional disorder that involves the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and associated connective tissue injury.

It was reported that among the medical discharged (MD), 81% of recruits are MD due to lower limb and 13% for back and neck MSKI in British recruits. It is accepted that large and rapid increases in physical activity in military training with the associated psychological challenges can lead to MSKI. Recruits are known to be at a higher risk of injury compared to trained soldiers. The lack of appropriate conditioning and preparation for increasing the intensity of training may be considered as a fault which in turn may contribute to greater incidence of potential injury.

A combination of prolonged high load physical training, mental stress, working in unfamiliar or challenging environments, with external expectations of performance and associated sleep restriction may all contribute to impaired immune function. A compromised immune system together with insufficient recovery may contribute to the development of a MSKI.

Further reading: "Injury Prevention Training: Back in Business".

Injury Prevention: Strength Training

After work, at lunch, whenever we had any free time downrange, we were running, rucking, swimming, doing everything. I wanted to be somebody, I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself.” - Staff Sgt Amanda Kelley.

As soldier athletes, by making our engines and natural body armour strong we can increase the strength and movement capacity within our joints and tissue. This helps us withstand the rigours of being a soldier athlete and mitigates any injury that may occur by making sure that our nervous system can overcome external tasks.

With targets firmly within in our sights, the physical training we undertake must be relevant to the event that we are training for. According to the SAID principle, the body will generally create Specific Adaptions to Imposed Demands. By applying specificity to a training programme and with the inclusion of unconventional occupational training methods into the programme, substantial outcomes can be elicited in military occupational performance measures.

PTI Thompson: “All you have to do is the work.”

Build natural body armour and arm yourself against injury by incorporating the following exercises into your training plan;

  1. Back Foot Elevated Kettlebell Goblet Split Squat
  2. Kettlebell Deadlift
  3. Dumbbell Front Step Ups
  4. Front Foot Dumbbell Split Squat
  5. Dumbbell Goblet Squat
  6. Standing Single Arm Shoulder Press
  7. Hanging Knees to Chest

Further reading: "British Army Physical Training: Fit To Fight Females".


Case Example: Norway’s Hunter Troop, The Jagertroppen

Back in the mid-1980’s, Norway became one of the first countries in NATO to allow women to serve in all combat roles. The Hunter Troop or the Jagertroppen, as it is known in Norwegian was set up in 2014 as the world’s first all-female Special Forces training programme. Military commanders stated the war in Afghanistan proved an “operational need” existed for highly-trained female soldiers who could gather intelligence and interact with women and children during deployments in conservative societies. The women initially go through “hell week”, a test of mental and physical strength involving long marches over 7 days with little rest and minimum amounts of food and water. After hell week the yearlong training includes urban special reconnaissance, close-combat fighting, offensive driving, CQB, weapon training, parachute training and winter patrols with pulks on skis.

Norway’s Jegertroppen initial physical requirements to complete the course:

15km (9 mile) speed march in full gear (22kg backpack, weapon, boots) through forests within 2hrs and 15 minutes.

6 pull-ups

40 push-ups

3km run – maximum time 13 minutes

400m swim, first 25m underwater – maximum time 11 minutes

Female Royal Marine Commandos 

After preliminary fitness tests and interviews, in 2019 up to 20 women are expected to undertake the tough 32-week training course at the commando training centre in Lympstone, Devon. Three women have already passed the 9-week All Arms Commando Course, Major Philippa Tattersall of the army's Adjutant General's Corps, Jane Thorley from the Royal Engineers and a naval officer. To achieve the green beret, male and female recruits must complete a nine-mile speed march in 90 minutes, and a six-mile endurance course in under 73 minutes, and 71 minutes for officers. An aerial assault course must also be finished in under 13 minutes, and 12 minutes for officers, as well as a 30-mile march across Dartmoor while carrying equipment and a rifle in 8 hours and 7 for officers.

Case Example: Female Snipers of WW2

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a Soviet sniper in the Red Army during World War 2. At the age of 25 and with 309 confirmed kills to her name including 36 enemy snipers, it’s reported that the figure is nearly twice as many as the deadliest American sniper Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. She is regarded as one of the top military snipers of all time and the most successful female sniper in history. Pavlichenko was among the first round of volunteers at the Odessa recruiting office, where she requested to join the infantry and subsequently she was assigned to the Red Army's 25th Rifle Division; Pavlichenko had the option of becoming a nurse but refused; "I joined the army when women were not yet accepted". There she became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army, of whom about 500 survived the war. In early August 1941 she made her first two kills as a sniper near Belyayevka, using a Tokarev SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle with 3.5X telescopic sight. Once attaining the rank of major, Pavlichenko became an instructor and trained Soviet snipers until the war's end. In 1943, she was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, and was commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. Today, there are highly trained female snipers serving in a number of countries.

A Question of Culture

A growing number of studies are continuing to demonstrate the ability of women to perform physically-demanding occupational specific physical demands can be significantly improved following a combined strength and endurance training programme that places special emphasis on load carriage and lifting. These studies have shown significant improvements in a women’s ability to perform specific military tasks. Therefore, by engaging in a specifically designed and professionally administered physical training programme under normal time constraints apparent physical differences can be overcome.

Before my extraction from this ongoing debate, these studies combined with an ever increasing number of women performing to the same level as their male peers calls me to leave behind one all-important question; it is not whether women can be effective combat troops but whether a hypermasculine military culture can adjust? Ignorance is a choice.

I do hope that with our performance in Ranger School we’ve been able to inform that decision as to what they can expect from women in the military. We can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men.” – Captain K. Griest (Kristen Griest is one of the first women to graduate from Ranger School at Fort Benning).

For more training advice and workouts visit the Armoured page, a community for likeminded soldier athletes #ArmourUp

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