The Army gets enlistees who can't do a sit-up.
''It's very common. They can't do sit-ups. None. I could not believe it when I saw it,'' said Staff Sgt. Terry J. Dokey, who was a drill instructor at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
After the drill sergeants are through with them, the recruits will meet or beat the minimum physical requirements, said Dokey, now at the Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va., as the Army's 1999 Drill Sergeant of the Year.
But the enlistees must overcome the effects of too little physical education in public schools, and too much easy modern living. In fact, Army training experts wonder if even the Army's standards have gotten too soft, and fail to prepare troops adequately for combat.
They are testing a new regimen based on the Army's 1946 fitness manual. If it works, recruits will be training more intensively.
Part of the Army's problem is in the poor physical condition of young Americans in general, said Stephen E. Van Camp, chief of doctrines at the Army Physical Fitness School in Fort Benning, Ga. ''There is a high incidence of low fitness and obesity,'' he said. ''There are pockets of good attitude toward physical fitness, but in general it's not a great priority.''
It's a long-standing problem, said researcher John F. Patton, chief of the military performance division at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Natick, Mass. A comparison of aerobic and strength abilities of incoming soldiers in 1978 and 1998 showed little if any change, he said. Similarly, the troops had approximately equal improvements at the end of Basic Training, he said.
Fitness is a great priority in the military, of course. Each soldier must meet a minimum for his or her sex and age. A 17- to 21-year-old male, for instance, must do 35 push-ups in 2 minutes, 47 sit-ups in 2 minutes, and run 2 miles in 16 minutes, 36 seconds or less, Dokey said. A female of similar age must do at least 13 push-ups and 47 sit-ups in her 2 minutes, and run 2 miles in 19 minutes, 42 seconds or less.
The requirements become somewhat more stringent after Basic Training. The Army wants troops to continue physical training and to improve. Soldiers test their fitness twice a year throughout their careers.
Army Basic Training begins with a diagnostic test to separate the fit, the adequate and the poor. Each group gets a different training intensity, so all should emerge better than they entered. Trainers generally alternate days that focus more on strength training, such as push-ups, with days that focus more on endurance, such as running, Dokey said.
The experts at Fort Benning want to change this. They think the current standard owes more to the health-club approach of aerobics and weight training than it does to the needs of combat.
Running is a case in point, said Frank Palkoska of the Fitness School. Aerobic endurance is good, but combat is largely anaerobic -- a sprinting activity, not a distance run, he said. ''We probably don't need to be running as much as we do,'' he said.
Similarly, sloppy calisthenics -- unfortunately common in today's PT -- is no substitute for teaching swift, precise body control that can be needed in real fighting, he said. Troops need more gymnastics-style movements, and activities that prepare them for close-quarters combat, he said.
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