Functional Training Goes Beyond Strengthening the Body
Matt Procter, President of Improve Group
Combat-Readiness Demands a Holistic Approach to Human Performance.
The most common career-ending injuries facing veterans today are not caused by enemy fire. They’re musculoskeletal injuries caused by repetitive motion and physical stresses on a body that has been pushed to its limits, then asked to go even further. According to a recent survey by Statista, 66% of US veterans have bone, joint, or muscle injuries. Moreover, many of these warriors mask their injuries during active duty to remain qualified and relevant to their team and organization. In other words, they don’t want to let anyone down.
Injuries primarily affect readiness through increased limited duty days, decreased deployability rates, and increased medical separation rates. Musculoskeletal injuries are also responsible for exorbitant medical costs to the U.S. government, including service-connected disability compensation. A significant subset of soldiers develops chronic pain or long-term disability after injury; this may increase their risk for chronic disease or secondary health deficits potentially associated with musculoskeletal injuries.
The habits, methodologies, and mindsets that can sometimes lead to long term injury begin at the earliest stages of training. But what if those injuries could be prevented with superior training methods? Could better training spaces create better warfighters? Bringing technology and design into alignment could improve not just the efficiency of training, but its effectiveness. Improve Group’s more integrated approach to human performance could build more competent warfighters who require less top-off to be mission-ready and whose bodies are better prepared for the requirements of future missions.
Teaching the Body to Respond
A big part of avoiding injury in the field is understanding how to safely fall and move in ways that mimic the conditions of combat. In the field, warfighters must run, fall, climb, jump, and evade while carrying up to 100 extra pounds of gear and protective equipment. This is significantly different from performing those moves without the weight, or from lifting weights to build muscles in isolation, yet that is what tends to happen in current human performance spaces.
Another element that’s often overlooked in training is cognitive stress. Completing isolated movements in controlled conditions is quite different from the reality of operational units, even when the movements are accurate. Warfighters need to be able to maneuver, communicate, and render aid or complete objectives while handling mental and emotional stress. Problem-solving and adapting to changing circumstances adds tremendous complexity to every activity.
Functional training simulates this complexity to allow students to practice realistic exercises in an environment where stressors can be added or relieved to replicate various conditions. Biometric tracking could then capture real-time information and feedback during each session to help measure the impact of stress and guide training decisions.
Training to Reclaim Time
Eliminating or reducing the risk of injury and disability is an obvious long-term benefit of functional training. But there are short-term benefits as well.
More realistic and complex scenarios better prepare students for combat, reducing the time that needs to be spent on top-off training. By increasing the efficiency of training exercises, the fundamentals can be learned more quickly, reclaiming time that can be spent on more sophisticated movements.
We’ve seen this in action at the Kirtland SMC training range for Air Force Special Warfare that we designed. Several design changes were implemented to minimize inefficiency so that students could grasp basics more quickly, providing more time for advanced training. Robots that simulate moving targets, SMC courses that allow for more realistic shooting positions, and a dynamic array of pre-programmed training scenarios that can be deployed to meet the skill level and needs of students. These factors combine to create an environment with greater functional training capability.
Other technological innovations could similarly reclaim time. For example, ground combat simulators can replicate scenarios to a high degree of realism and allow students to complete many more repetitions than they could otherwise by making training accessible during off-hours. This reduced cost per rep allows for more efficient and safer training that’s not contingent on the time and oversight of an instructor. That time can then be reallocated where it makes a greater impact, freeing instructors to focus on the most critical parts of their job without negatively affecting a student’s training.
Cut Out Inefficiency, Not Content
The readiness gap between training and deployment is well-known, but prevailing wisdom has been to accept it as inevitable. Students are expected to require days or weeks of top-off training to close this gap between training knowledge and practical skill. A more efficient look at training would find ways to close that gap by introducing more functional skills earlier in the process, but how? The curriculum for military training is fixed and difficult to change without multiple layers of approvals and red tape. If every exercise is essential and nothing can be trimmed from the syllabus, adding more training merely adds to the time and resources required. That’s an expense of time and money that no one can afford.
But what if the curriculum could be streamlined, not by cutting training but improving it? Simulator technology is better than it’s ever been. Understanding of physiology and cognitive performance is improving with research, and the collection of real-time biofeedback data helps to monitor and measure performance and response to training. Traditionally, training plans have been updated and refined according to opinions and impressions. Biofeedback allows for more hard data to enter the equation, allowing for improvements to be made that will have a real and meaningful impact.
Human performance spaces can be improved to make them better serve the needs of the students and instructors utilizing them. It just takes a new, integrated perspective to bring those techniques into alignment and start seeing results.
 Elflein, J. (2022, March 10). Injuries and health problems during service after 9/11 among veterans U.S. 2021. Statista. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1102029/health-problems-during-service-after-911-by-problem-veterans/
 Michel, L. (2020, July 23). War's deepest wounds veterans, suffering injuries both physical and mental, struggle to adapt and get care. Buffalo News. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://buffalonews.com/news/wars-deepest-wounds-veterans-suffering-injuries-both-physical-and-mental-struggle-to-adapt-and-get/article_66edfd8a-2c53-5eb7-ad52-970090b77fc4.html
 Molloy, J. et al. Musculoskeletal Injuries and United States Army Readiness Part I: Overview of Injuries and their Strategic Impact. Military Medicine, Volume 185, Issue 9-10, September-October 2020, Pages e1461–e1471, https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usaa027