Army 1st Sgt. Shawn Jarvis doesn’t need a fancy four-year fitness study — like the one pitting CrossFit against unit PT at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas — to tell him what he already knows: CrossFit works better than traditional unit PT.
“I drank the CrossFit Kool-Aid because I’ve seen the results, not only with myself, but with my soldiers,” says Jarvis, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division.
Since his unit — yes, his entire unit — adopted CrossFit as its primary mode of physical training about a year ago, PT test scores have gone up and injury rates have gone down, he says.
“I consider PT the most important part of the day, because it’s the one time you can make or break motivation for the rest of the day,” says Jarvis, the top enlisted leader for Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. “So we do CrossFit every morning, except on Thursdays, which is our road-march day.”
Anyone who knows the difference between a kettlebell and a medicine ball knows the cult of CrossFit has drawn a huge following among those in uniform.
Just witness the explosion of official “military affiliate” CrossFit “boxes” — as most CrossFitters like to call their Spartan houses of pain. From the Pentagon to the combat zones, on-base boxes have jumped from about 60 affiliates four years ago to more than 160 now.
But most, if not all, are for individuals looking to augment their regular unit PT. Now, however, entire units across all services are dumping their standard PT playbooks, in whole or in part, for CrossFit workouts.
The Air Force bomb-defusing experts with the 628th Civil Engineer Squadron, for example, switched to an all-CrossFit program for their five-day-a-week unit PT program about a year ago.
“It’s been really good,” says Tech Sgt. Dwayne Ferguson, who runs fitness training for the squadron’s explosive ordnance disposal flight at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. “Pretty much everyone is doing really well on the PT test, which isn’t exactly what we train for, but just by virtue of what we do, that goal gets knocked out.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been some pushback.
‘Everyone is faster’
“Like with anything new, there were some people who didn’t like it at first,” Ferguson says. “But we really wanted to get everyone on the same page for fitness because we had some guys who were monsters and others who had kind of fallen to the wayside. But every single person, across the board, has improved.”
Unit newbies are often flummoxed.
“A lot of guys ask why we don’t run a lot. And we don’t,” he says, acknowledging that this is of particular concern because the run portion of the PT test is often the weakest link for many airmen.
“But to a person, everyone who’s come into our program has gotten faster,” he notes.
Some of Charleston’s Air Force Reserve units are adopting all-CrossFit PT as well.
“Personally, I enjoy it,” says Staff Sgt. Caine Nielsen, with the Reserve’s 437th EOD Detachment, which switched to kicking off weekend drills with CrossFit about six months ago. “It’s a good mix-up, and definitely better than standard PT.”
An active-duty Marine for nine years before shifting into the Air Force Reserve last year, Nielsen says the CrossFit workout is more like the kind of PT he enjoyed as a Marine.
Some of the older members of the unit have struggled the most with the transition. “They seem to need more time to warm up, but mostly it’s gone well,” he says, adding that CrossFit complements the “Insanity” DVD workouts and weightlifting regimen he favors between drill weekends.
Marine Master Sgt. Joaquin Rios credits daily unit CrossFit blasters for keeping him in shape on his recent eight-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, where he was mostly stuck aboard the amphibious warship Boxer as the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s assistant operations chief.
By the time Rios got home in April, he was still able to knock out the 20 pullups and 100 crunches he needed to top out the PT test, while shaving a minute and half off his 3-mile-run time — and dropping from 19 percent body fat down to 17 percent.
Shipboard deployments make it difficult to maintain fitness through ordinary exercise, Rios says, not least because “there’s really no place to run.”
He says CrossFit definitely kept him and many shipmates in the zone on that recent deployment.
“Everybody I know improved — they lost weight, got faster, and got stronger by the end of the deployment. You could tell from week to week, month to month, the amount of weight everyone was pushing and the amount of time they were doing it: Everyone was improving. ”
‘CrossFit will change you’
Nowhere is the wholesale unit adoption of CrossFit more evident than in the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division, whose some 20,000 soldiers are split between Fort Stewart and Fort Benning.
“CrossFit will change you,” Lt. Gen. Robert “Abe” Abrams promised his troops in 2012 when, as 3rd ID’s commanding general, he launched an ambitious program to transform the division’s vision of what unit PT could look like.
“The goal behind the CrossFit method of training is to change the soldier’s attitude towards PT,” Abrams told a class of soldiers completing an intensive two-day program certifying them as Level 1 CrossFit coaches, the same training required for anyone opening a civilian CrossFit gym.
Abrams, now a top aide to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, dubbed the soldiers “deputized change agents.” In the last two years alone, the division has spent about $1.5 million training more than 2,000 small-unit leaders and fitness managers as Level 1 CrossFit coaches.
Those certifications, along with an infusion of CrossFit workout gear across the division, have essentially transformed every unit at the company level and above into its own CrossFit box.
“Some have embraced it more than others — usually it comes down to the unit’s leadership — but mostly it’s been a huge hit. The soldiers love it,” says retired Command Sgt. Maj. Randy Ray, who manages the sprawling 10,000-foot CrossFit Fort Stewart that has hosted 31 Level 1 certification courses for the division.
An avid CrossFitter since 2009, Jarvis, the cavalry first sergeant, got his coaching certification last year and has adapted his unit’s PT to it ever since.
“We just try to pick and choose our workouts wisely, gearing toward whatever our quarterly objective is for the troops. So, if we’re working up to a 12-mile road march, then I’m going to do more weight-intensive lower-body stuff, and get really big into the squats, work some shoulder mobility and strong back.”
In the process, PT scores have gone up about 7 percent overall.
“That may not seem like a significant jump, but the number of soldiers who walked away from the PT test with big smiles on their faces saying, ‘Wow, that’s the easiest PT I’ve done all month’ — that kind of thing you can’t measure,” Jarvis says.
And while critics are quick to point to a perception of high injury rates among CrossFitters, Jarvis says that when CrossFit is done correctly, it’s not only good at preventing injury, but also a useful workout for those recovering.
In fact, Jarvis first came upon CrossFit while recovering from a motorcycle accident. Not only did the daily WODs — CrossFit workouts of the day — help rebuild his broken body, he says they also got him in better shape than before.
“It’s not just the workouts. It taught me nutrition and structured my diet — not only how to eat right, but how to eat to perform, not just to survive.”
So it’s no surprise, perhaps, that Jarvis is among those who would love to see the entire Army drinking from the CrossFit punch bowl.
“The biggest problem the Army would have,” he says, “is pushing past this whole CrossFit-creates-injuries myth that’s out there,” which he blames on bad coaching, not CrossFit itself.
“You can do basic rifle marksmanship, and if you have a crappy instructor, you’ll have a whole platoon who can’t hit the broad side of a barn. It’s all about the quality control behind the instructor.”
Start your box
Ready to enlist CrossFit into your own command PT? Those who have done it say success usually hinges on three key factors:
1. Coaches. Nothing replaces knowledgeable coaches. Although many units have launched successful CrossFit programs without officially certified coaches blessed by the CrossFit mothership, certification can definitely help. The street price to certify a Level 1 coach is $1,000, though military units that commit to large-scale trainup programs have gotten discounts down to about $650 per coach.
2. Gear. The beauty of CrossFit is that it doesn’t take a bunch of fancy machines and equipment. But any box has basic needs. Among them: an Olympic free weight set and bumper plate holder, flat bench, squat rack, pullup bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, Concept II Rower, climbing rope, gymnastics rings.
3. Mindset. Competitiveness has its place, but too much will ruin your program. Successful CrossFitters are more concerned with beating personal records than their buddies’. It takes good leadership to ensure troops don’t push themselves so hard that they sacrifice good form for more reps. It’s also about understanding that fitness isn’t just what you do in the gym, but also good diet and nutrition and getting enough sleep.
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