Five years ago, Major Mark Ivezaj went searching for a better training program for the men under his command in Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the most elite units in the U.S. Army. He found that program and more under the guidance of world-class powerlifter Matt Wenning, who at the time was training at legendary Westside Barbell in Columbus, OH. Wenning transformed Ivezaj's Rangers into a stronger, more athletic group of soldiers while also reducing injuries by an astounding 64 percent.
But why stop with the Rangers?
Ivezaj is currently operations officer for the 4th Infantry Division, 4th Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, Colorado, a unit with a non-deployable injury rate of 18 percent. This number needs to go down, and fitness levels across the board need to be brought closer to those of the Alpha Company Rangers. "Current Army fitness doctrine and facilities," says Ivezaj, "do not prepare soldiers sufficiently to conduct full-spectrum operations in general, and specifically in the mountains of Afghanistan."
Based on Wenning's success with Alpha Company, the Army contracted him to create a similar routine for 4-4 IBCT that's been dubbed the Mountain Athlete Warrior program. The idea is to find a better alternative to the Army's obsolete physical training regimen, and to create a formidable force of elite athlete soldiers to populate the United States military.
The MAW program combines multiple training styles to create a more well-rounded athlete. Think of it as a buffet line at a cafeteria. Some items you'll put on your tray. Others you'll leave for someone else. "How we select from that cafeteria," says Wenning, "is not by choosing things we like, but by choosing things we need."
Effective soldiers need many things. The balance and endurance to climb up the side of a mountain on uneven terrain. The overall speed and athleticism to sprint quickly during battle, duck and cover, then sprint again. The strength and power to drag an injured soldier 100 yards or more to safety. The MAW program addresses these areas in three-week cycles, with a different emphasis each week.
WEEK ONE (Stability):
Exercise difficulty increases through adding some form of instability to the mix, whether it's dangling kettlebells from elastic bands, performing one-legged movements to compromise balance, or both.
WEEK TWO (Strength):
The surfaces and resistances are no longer unstable, but the weights are as heavy as you can handle. Highlights of this phase include one-rep maxes in the deadlift, and three-rep bench press maxes.
WEEK THREE (Conditioning):
The exercises here aren't difficult because of the amount of weight being used, but because of the number of reps prescribed: dragging sleds non-stop for two minutes, and 50-rep sets of box squats, for example.
The fourth week is an unloading period where volume and intensity decrease. "It lets the body recover and 'soak in,' so to speak, all the new stimuli we've applied," says Wenning. After this, the program starts over again at Week One, using the same philosophies but different exercises.
The MAW system borrows from several different schools of training—powerlifting, bodybuilding, and even CrossFit, but it's much more calculated than simply combining different styles in random fashion. "Everything in the program has a distinctive purpose," says Wenning. "Nothing is there as a space filler."
Wenning designed the workouts using feedback from officers and enlisted personnel to address those military-specific skills that needed to be developed. They also provided statistical injury analyses of the most common causes of medical disability among soldiers—namely their shoulders, lower back and knees. Problems that, if minimized, could potentially save the military a substantial amount of money in addition to improving battlefield performance.
The program can easily be individualized based on soldiers' fitness levels and training experience. The sample workouts starting on page 84 are for more advanced athletes, but Wenning implements beginner and intermediate versions. which entail lower volume and intensity, as soldiers work their way up to elite status. In other words, workouts are adjusted to the individual, not the other way around.
A lack of necessary training equipment, even when troops are deployed, won't be an issue. According to Ivezaj, the MAW program is designed to be "fully functional" without a fitness center in an "austere environment." Each company will have an MAW equipment package that follows them wherever they go, contained in a storage pod. This includes everything soldiers need to get their workouts in: barbells, bumper plates, plyometric boxes, kettlebells, tires and sleds.
One thing you won't see a lot of in this program is long-distance running, which was an Army staple for decades that's being replaced by exercises like tire flips, kettlebell swings, and sled drags. These activities combine speed with added resistance, mimicking the demands of modern-day warfare better than jogging in a T-shirt and shorts.
Thanks in part to Wenning, the antiquated Army Physical Fitness Test could very well disappear in the near future. The APFT is the traditional measuring stick of military fitness, consisting of a two-mile run, two minutes of push-ups, and two minutes of sit-ups. In changing these parameters to include a more thorough evaluation of strength, power and speed, soldiers will be required to become better all-around athletes.
"Being quick with equipment will require lifts of 2.5 times body weight on squats and deadlifts, and a minimum of 1.5 times body weight on bench press to ensure enough mass, ligament, and tendon strength to support proper speed training," says Ivezaj, providing a glimpse of what a new and improved APFT might encompass. "A 400-pound deadlift should be average among soldiers."
"What we're trying to do with these workouts," says Wenning, "is not only to design a program that's smarter, but something that's way more transferable than the old days of running two miles and doing push-ups and sit-ups. That stuff just doesn't help on the battlefield anymore. Why use a dated system when we can use something that's better and more performance oriented, and treat the guys like athletes rather than just plain soldiers? The Army is training smarter now, and utilizing the best methods known to man."
Below is a 3-week sample of the MAW program. Exercise variations are introduced every four weeks. "This is really an example of how you could lay it out," Wenning says. "We want the soldiers to think for themselves. They're going to walk into a weight room-whether they're overseas or at another gym-and some of this equipment may not be available, so they're going to have to learn to improvise."