I have written a great deal on the fact that soldiers and tactical personnel must train like athletes. Many people have trouble understanding what that looks like because they are so used to seeing bodybuilding “workouts” in magazines or on the internet. Even amateur athletes or former athletes have a hard time visualizing the entire system of training because all they were responsible for was doing what the coach told them to do. This brings us to an interesting sidebar early in this article. I feel compelled to point out that the profession of coaching is poorly defined and not regulated. Thus we have thousands of people calling themselves a “coach” when they have none of the education, knowledge, experience and skill of a professional or Olympic coach. The proper way to evaluate one of these “coaches” is to look at the level of competition and performance their clients actually perform at. Sure, you can call yourself a coach, but if your clients perform at a 6th grade level, you’re not impressing any one and you’re a pretty terrible coach. I’m not sure I’d go around bragging about it. But I digress…
One of the reasons these amateur coaches and everyone else fails so consistently is the fact that they are focusing on only one part of one domain that comprises a physical training system. The average person is performing “workouts” they got from a magazine or a website. Those workouts are poorly designed to build muscle size (hypertrophy) or the biomotor ability of maximal strength (MS) and take nothing else into consideration. There is so much more to the story than simply, “do this to get that.” Therefore, let me explain what goes into a physical training system at the collegiate, professional and Olympic level.
Because all humans have the same anatomy and physiology, all complete systems of training and human performance enhancement use approximately the same domains or components. I use a specific arrangement and specific terminology that suits my cognitive process; but all professional systems use variations of the theme I am presenting here.
The first thing you must understand is that in the human body, everything is connected and interdependent. You also have to understand that as a biological system, there is a predefined order and sequence in the way we function. For example, the ventricles of the heart always fire after the atria do because if they didn’t, blood would not be circulated in the body. If you develop a dysfunction where the heart functions improperly, the result is dysfunctional operation that worsens until death results. It’s also why people get so damn confused about physical training. For example, power is very important for many activities, however, when you think power training is using a maximal load for a few explosive reps, you will be very confused when your 10k run doesn’t get any faster and may even slow down. You trained the wrong kind of power and as such, failed to get the desired result. It is also why Crossfit fails to deliver power-endurance because the stimulus they throw at the problem is all wrong.
When a real coach examines an athlete or program, he does so through the lens (or variation thereof) of six development domains or components:
- Motor Pattern Development (MPD)
- Motor pattern development refers to the development of fundamental movement patterns and skills. It also concerns the restoration of movement patterns. This component of training is dominated by training designed to maximize neurological skill the establishment and maintenance of the appropriate range of motion for the task/activity.
- Biomotor Development (BMD)
- Once the correct motor patterns and range of motion have been established, it is time to load those patterns to produce new physical abilities. Loading is accomplished by increasing external resistance, speed of execution or both. By altering the variables of execution we can develop very specific outcomes such as strength, speed, stamina, power, etc…
- Energy System Development (ESD)
- Very closely tied to biomotor development is energy system development. ESD is approached in both a general and specific manner. In that way it acts as a bridge between biomotor development and technical skill ability. For example, in general terms, a soldier requires a very large aerobic capacity. On the specific side, the soldier requires a large loaded aerobic capacity in locomotion, specifically speed walking with 32kg on roads and cross-country.
- General Skill Development (GSD)
- General Skill Development (GSD) can also be thought of as both General Physical Preparation (GPP) and Gross Motor Skill (GMS). There is also a close link with Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS). All of these terms refer to the development of skills that are generally, but not always, gross and continuous. These skills, such as swimming, walking, running, cycling, etc. do not significantly degrade over time and are dependent on biomotor development (BMD) and fine motor skill to produce award winning performance. These skills and their general performance are quick to return after long layoffs provided the biomotor development is appropriate. General Skill Development varies, but for humans in general these skills always include locomotion, stability and manipulation skills. In the athletic world it also includes the development of several biomotor abilities in the preseason. General skills are usually autonomic requiring very little conscious attention to detail.
- Technical (specific) Skill Development (TSD)
- Technical Skill Development can also be thought of Specific Physical Preparation (SPP) and Fine Motor Skill. All of these terms refer to the development of skills that are discrete, specialized and specific to a task or activity. Fine motor skills like shooting a rifle require a large number of fine motor skills to be employed in harmony and with a very high level of precision. That harmony is composed of not just the technical skill possessed, but also with the factors of speed, time, distance, physical relationship, prediction/anticipation, reaction, skill-strength, skill-stamina and fatigue. Initially technical skills require a large amount of conscious attention and effort. As training history and experience increases, these tasks become more autonomic. An old hand doesn’t think about these technical skills but devotes his attention to tactics, strategy and leadership.
- Neuropsychological Development (NPD)
- Cognitive ability: Cognitive ability is our ability to process information, recognize patterns and combine information. The more experience in training and real world experience one has, the greater their cognitive ability. Tasks like complex target recognition and accurate prediction become ever more autonomic with experience. Specific training should always be performed to stimulate ever more complex memory and information processing abilities.
- Emotional Fitness: Emotional fitness is our emotional state. This is critical because the seat of memory, emotion, hormones, and action is the Limbic System of the brain. Emotions have a profound impact on performance, training, recovery and psychological wellness. Excessive physical training, poor leadership, poor decision making, poor coping skills and more have profound effects on soldiers, athletes and civilians alike. Careful attention must be devoted to improving emotional resilience, psychological conditioning, stress inoculation and emotional recovery.
As you can see, the big picture is significantly more complex and it gets more so as you dig deeper. The reason is that each domain is interconnected to the others. One does not develop these domains in order, you develop them simultaneously at approximately the same pace. The coach’s objective is to see full spectrum improvement each year, and to pay a little extra attention to the domain(s) that cause the most difficulty. A good coach will also stress different domains depending on the season. For example, in the athletic world the coach will focus hard on BMD, ESD and ESD. As the season nears the competitive phase, there is a gradual shift toward prioritizing TSD and NPD and addressing specific deficiencies while maintaining the general skills and biomotor performance levels.
In soldiers and operators this is a little different. Generally speaking, soldiers do not have a pre-season, competitive season and a post season. Technically they always need to be ready to fight or partake in civil emergency services like fire suppression, security and rescue operations in addition to fighting wars. Some units attempt to use the Joint Operations and Readiness (JORTS) cycle but this is not the same as the athletic schedule and is always subject to disruption. Therefore, soldiers and operators must develop all six domains with near equal effort. This can be successfully accomplished because soldiers do not need to be trained to as high a level of performance as professional athletes. The demands of that level of performance and competition demand that athletes have scheduled down time and a specific progression to return to competition each year or in the case of Olympic athletes, every four years. Soldiers and operators are capable of training to their required standards and maintaining performance capability provided that the senior leadership properly schedules training and exercises in harmony with the men’s physical and technical skill ability.
The reality of the military situation is that physical training has to me a micro version of the athlete’s schedule. While always training all six domains, exercises and hard training evolutions have to be treated as competitions followed by some down time and then a rapid train up to restore previous performance and then roll into the next train-up or exercise. But this doesn’t happen and the men do what they know in a vain attempt to regain or maintain their former performance levels. The marco-level problem as we see it these days is that the men are pounded into the ground with one training requirement after another and they get through on guts alone. They count on superior lethal technical skill and fire support which works until it doesn’t and then things go very badly. Commanders and senior leaders have got to understand that their men’s full spectrum performance is their most valuable asset. This exact problem has destroyed America’s special operations forces. To be extremely precise, the DOD as a whole has failed to address the six domains and they have failed to schedule the training and rotation of troops to preserve the force for 20-30 years per man. Instead we’re lucky to get a decade out of a guy before he’s so thrashed that he leaves the service.
When it comes to applying the six domains in your program, here are some tips to follow:
- You can only do an exercise if you have the ability to perform the proper range of motion and do it without load. If not, choose a less demanding exercise using a more restrictive range of motion and constantly work on improving your range of motion and skill of execution.
- Develop the biomotor ability you actually need. If you’re a runner, you do not heed much if any maximal strength training! By the way, if you’re a soldier, you’re a runner! When training a biomotor ability, do it in all basic movement patterns so that imbalances are not created. Speaking of which, if they do exist, fix them before adding load to anything! For example, you may have a 400lb squat, but if your lunge isn’t 85% of your squat, you’re not adding any more weight to the squat until you fix that!
- When developing energy systems, you must do so according to an activity. One does not develop loaded aerobic capacity by rowing in the aerobic zone (wrong activity) or sprinting (wrong energy system)
- General Skill Development can be considered everything that doesn’t fall into the Technical Skill domain. But that’s not permission to throw everything including the kitchen sink into the program. Just don’t leave out the fundamental movement skills.
- Technical Skill Development is best performed in similar conditions to those where it will be employed. That said, use the crawl-walk-run approach. Master it slow, speed it up a little but maintain accuracy and precision. Continue until mastery is realized.
- Neuropsychological Development is a highly complex subject I will cover in a later article series. If you want to begin making a big difference on your own, I cannot stress the importance of studying anything Tony Robbins does in order to understand the emotional fitness component.
That’s a lot to absorb but I hope it helps you to understand that a true system of physical training is more than a simple workout or the latest set/rep fad like 5×5 and 5-3-1. When you want to be the best, you have to model successful strategies and this is one such example of taking what works for professional athletes and applying it to soldiers and athletes.