The DOs and DON’Ts of deployment fitness

For some Military Service Members, deployment can be a challenging time to stay fit. For others, it’s an opportunity to get fit. Whether working out is at the top of your priority list or not, the following dos and don’ts for staying fit while you’re deployed are worth a look.

Dos

  • Do know your limits. The top cause of medical evacuations from theater during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2001–2006) were nonbattle injuries—most of which happened during physical training. In the past decade, a large number of severe injuries have occurred while lifting weights on deployment. This includes a high number of pectoral (chest) muscle tears, which are relatively uncommon otherwise, from doing bench press exercises. (About 300 pec tears have been reported in the last 20 years, compared to 9 in a 4-month deployment period reported in one recent study.) Pec tears and other injuries during PT often happen as a result of overtraining or pushing yourself beyond your limits. While you need to push yourself to your limits to see physical improvements, pushing too much can lead to injury.
  • Do balance your workouts. Push-ups or pull-ups and sit-ups are part of the physical fitness test for every branch of Service, so it makes sense to train for them. But working out only those muscle groups can lead to a tight chest, back, and hips, which can contribute to back pain. To avoid this, work out opposing muscle groups during the same workout or on alternate days. For example, have a “chest and back” day where you do exercises to strengthen your chest for the push-up test, and exercises to strengthen your upper back to keep your shoulders from having a forward posture. Make sure to include cardio workouts in your routine too.

Don’ts

  • Don’t do an extreme conditioning program. High-intensity training does have benefits, including  improved body composition, increased cardiovascular and muscular endurance, and increased strength. But extreme conditioning workouts often include too many reps/sets and too little rest between sets. Extreme conditioning programs have been linked to career- and life-threating conditions such as exertional rhabdomyolysis. To avoid turning your high-intensity workout into an extreme conditioning program, keep your total volume (number of reps times number of sets) and set times reasonable and build in sufficient rest between sets. Experts typically recommend a total of 4–8 sets of exercises per muscle group during a workout, with the number of reps in each set based on your workout goal (e.g. 12–15 reps for muscular endurance, 6–10 reps for muscular strength).
  • Don’t forget your form. Proper form is the key to staying injury free. When you’re warming up, do lightweight exercises, and focus on quality over quantity. When you’re lifting, gradually add weight as you get into your workout, and stop when your form starts to break down.

Bottom line

Working out while on deployment can be challenging. But deployment is also a great time to get creative with your workouts. You can create a great workout with a full jerrycan, some ammo cans, and a few sandbags. Just remember these DOs and DON’Ts to stay injury free. For more tips, read HPRC’s blog about working out while deployed from Dr. Myro Lu, a physician who deployed with the 98th Civil Affairs (Airborne) Battalion and 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).

Resources

Bergeron, M. F., Nindl, B. C., Deuster, P. A., Baumgartner, N., Kane, S. F., Kraemer, W. J., . . . O'Connor, F. G. (2011). Consortium for Health and Military Performance and American College of Sports Medicine Consensus paper on extreme conditioning programs in military personnel. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 10(6), 383–389. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e318237bf8a

Hauret, K. G., Taylor, B. J., Clemmons, N. S., Block, S. R., & Jones, B. H. (2010). Frequency and causes of nonbattle injuries air evacuated from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, U.S. Army, 2001–2006. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 38(1), S94–S107. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2009.10.022

O'Connor, F. G., Deuster, P. A., Barrett, J., Kane, S. F., & Depenbrock, P. (2017). Letter: Is high-intensity functional training (HIFT)/CrossFit safe for military fitness training? Military Medicine, 182(1), 1474–1475. doi:10.7205/milmed-d-16-00330

Ratamess, N. A. (2017). Development of resistance training programs. In B. A. Alver, K. Sell, & P. Deuster (Eds.), NSCA'S Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning (pp. 173). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Salazar, D., Shakir, I., Israel, H., Choate, W. S., Joe, K., & Van de Kieft, K. (2018). Acute pectoralis major tears in forward deployed active duty U.S. military personnel: A population at risk? Journal of Orthopedics & Rheumatology, 5(1), 1–6. doi:10.13188/2334-2846.1000036