Beware of extreme conditioning

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No short cuts to safe conditioning

Associate Editor, Recruiter Journal
Lose weight, burn fat, rev up your metabolism, and sculpt, tone and tighten your body in just 10 to 20 minutes a day. Those are the claims of many extreme conditioning programs promising total body transformations in 60 to 90 days while working out at fitness clubs or even in the comfort of your own home with little investment in equipment.
ECPs are workout regimens that focus on high-intensity, high volume exercises with short rest periods between sets. Popular examples of ECPs include CrossFit(r), P90X(r), Insanity(r) and PT Pyramid.* While Soldiers are required to follow the Army’s approved Physical Readiness Training program (FM 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training released Oct. 26, 2012), designed specifically to limit injury and help Soldiers build the strength, stamina, agility, resiliency and coordination needed for safety and victory on the battlefield, many choose to supplement their PRT regimen with ECPs.
Just exactly how many Soldiers are participating in these programs is not known, but recent surveys of two infantry brigades from 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colo., by the Office of the Surgeon General and Public Health Command found that up to 20 percent of the Soldiers use an ECP as part of their individual workout, according to Lt. Col. Timothy Pendergrass, a physical therapist in the Allied Health Staff Office of the Army Surgeon General’s office. Soldiers and civilians across Recruiting Command are also known to participate in ECPs as individuals and groups.
Pendergrass said he understands why this type of exercise would be popular among Soldiers.
“The pace and intensity are exciting, motivating and appealing,” Pendergrass said. “These programs tend to burn a lot of calories in a short period of time, they offer consistent anaerobic exercise often lacking in traditional fitness programs and allow for training cardiovascular and muscular fitness in one workout. In addition, the social fitness aspect and competitive nature of these programs, which can foster teamwork and contribute to camaraderie, make them quite popular within the military.”
But extreme conditioning also carries risks.
“Many ECPs violate the tenets of good physical fitness like proper progression and proper body mechanics, and the lack of adequate rest and recovery periods for many ECP workouts prompt early fatigue and greater potential for overuse, overreaching and over-training, as well as the risk of outpacing an individual’s abilities,” said Pendergrass.
This, he said, sets up the potential for increased muscle strains and sprains, stress injuries, back injuries, and even exertional rhabdomyolysis (a dangerous breakdown of muscle tissue following bouts of heavy physical activity).
Complex movements with little training and the lifting of heavy weights overhead or in an explosive manner may place participants at greater risk for injury.
Another concern is with the population of Soldiers recovering from injury. Without adequate reconditioning and proper transitioning, Pendergrass said they could be prone to re-injury.
These programs also tend to lack specificity - a core principle in exercise, said Pendergrass, so they may not build muscular strength or cardiovascular fitness as well as programs designed specifically for those components of fitness.
The one-size-fits-all nature of many ECPs results in workouts that are too easy for some participants and too difficult for others, he said. Often these programs do not have subject matter experts or properly trained individuals providing oversight.
And finally, ECPs can be quite competitive as Soldiers of various fitness levels attempt to keep up with one another.
Although this can be thought of as a positive due to the camaraderie and unit cohesion it can build, it is important to consider that this competitiveness can also lead to increased risk of musculoskeletal injury and may result in lost duty time and decreased unit readiness.
Despite the risks, he said he understands the temptation to embrace ECPs when trying to squeeze exercise into a busy day, but warns, “As with most other things in life, shortcuts do not always lead to the best results.
Soldiers who do not exercise regularly or are trying to squeeze a quick workout in are probably not the ones who should be using ECPs. Remember that these programs require some baseline skill and movement proficiency.
Soldiers and commanders need to balance the injury risk with the potential benefits of these programs.”
Pendergrass recommends using common sense and the following precautions when participating in or considering starting an ECP:
* Look for fitness trainers with the proper certification. Examples include the Army’s Master Fitness Trainer Course, the American College of Sports Medicine, or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
* Inspect designated exercise areas to ensure proper safety procedures are followed and proper equipment is used.
* Introduce ECPs gradually into your workout routine.
* Monitor your physical condition for any signs of injury.
* Tailor ECPs to your individual fitness level, training goals and mission requirements.
* Increase duration of rest periods between exercise sets and schedule adequate rest days to optimize recovery.
* Be very cautious of explosive and overhead lifting.
ECPs are not a replacement for Army physical readiness training. Leaders should ensure unit physical training programs align with the Army’s physical training doctrine (FM 7-22).
Future Soldier physical training programs will adhere to the guidance in FM 7-22 and RPI 237, the Army Pocket Physical Training Guide (see page 27).
The fitness programs mentioned are provided as examples and do not constitute an endorsement by the Department of Defense,U.S. Army, or U.S. Army Recruiting Command of any particular commercial ECP. The views stated by Lt. Col. Pendergrass do not represent an official view or policy by the DOD, the Army, or USAREC on the use of ECPs. ECPs are not to be used on Future Soldiers or in the Future Soldier Training System.
CrossFit(r) is a registered trademark of Crossfit(r) Inc.; P90X(r) and Insanity(r) are registered trademarks of Product Partners, LLC.