Group physical training to improve unit military fitness

Group fitness workouts are great ways to get Service Members engaged and stay fit. For people who are externally motivated—by pressure or reward—group workouts can help provide the motivation necessary. When it comes to leading group workouts, it’s helpful to have a plan developed further out than the day before. Nonstructured group workouts won’t provide the most benefit for participants. HPRC offers some tips to develop a plan so everyone can benefit from a safe workout.

Start with a theme

You can base workout themes on the equipment available, such as TRX® straps, machines, or limited-equipment circuits. The workouts can also be based on an area of fitness you want to improve. If you want to dedicate a few weeks to improve running ability, advertise to your unit that you are conducting PT with a focus on cardio training—a mix of sprints, intervals, and distance runs.

A consistent theme for the workouts helps people know what they’re signing up for. Not everyone will participate, but you will get people who are interested in that type of workout or want to improve that area of fitness. It’ll also make it easier to build the program and progress over time. You’ll be able to make and see improvements that you wouldn’t normally if the program isn’t structured.

Circuit workouts are often best for group workouts. A few people can exercise at the same time while the others rest. This efficient, well-rounded workout capitalizes on proper work:rest ratios and it keeps the whole group from sharing a couple pieces of gym equipment.

Keep it small

For experienced fitness professionals, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends a coach-to-participant ratio of 1:15 for high school and 1:20 for college participants. The ratio drops to 1:12 in college for complex lifts and multi-joint free-weight exercises such as overhead barbell lifts and squats. Even for military fitness leaders—such as Army Master Fitness Trainers and Marine Corps Force Fitness Instructors—ratios should be kept low during resistance training so individuals can be properly supervised. If you’re not a trained fitness leader, resistance-training sessions should be small (1:12 or lower) so only a few people are actively lifting weights while the others are resting between sets. Cardio and equipment-free workouts can have the 1:15–1:20 ratios since the risk of injury is low. Up to that ratio, the limit depends on how many people you can observe and provide useful feedback to as they exercise.

Keeping it small can also apply to the timeline. It can be hard to see an end goal if you don’t have a deadline. Advertise it as “2 months to work on cardio” or “8 weeks of strength training.” Don’t promise incredible results, just a time frame and the types of workouts offered.

Have a plan

Whether you are doing machine-based circuits for muscular strength or a cardio program to improve cardiorespiratory endurance, have an organized plan that spans a few weeks. You don’t need to get specific for each person in the group. Offer guidelines such as, “We’re working to improve muscular endurance. We’ll be doing 4 sets of 12 reps of these exercises. Choose a weight that will challenge you, but not so heavy that you can’t finish all 4 sets. The last 2–3 reps of sets 2–4 should start to get difficult as we go.” When your group shows up, you have the exercises set for the day and it’s not a free-for-all.

A plan is also a good way to track progress. When you train for muscular endurance, you can do 4 sets of 8 reps the first week, then increase to 10, 12, and 14 reps in weeks 2–4 with the same weight. Everybody will have weights appropriate to their ability, so they will make good progress. It is also easier to plan. You only need to come up with 6–8 total exercises for each day, and the 4–week plan is just to increase participants’ reps. The same idea applies to muscular-strength training, but instead of increasing the reps, you decrease the reps and increase the weight weekly.

Cardio is a little different. You’ll need to balance speed workouts with time and distance workouts. It might take you a little longer to come up with a 4–week plan, but this will lead to the best cardio improvements.

Safety first

Plan around the safety of your participants. Unless you specifically plan for highly fit people, the workouts should be designed with the least fit in mind. Think about their ability to do complex lifts, and your ability to provide safe, constructive feedback to a group.

Consider the order of exercises too. NSCA recommends power exercises first, such as the snatch, power clean, and push jerk. These challenging exercises require lifting weights overhead and take the most energy. They will cause fatigue fastest and take the longest recovery time. If a person performs these lifts while fatigued, their technique can break down and the risk of injury increases. Power exercises should never be performed as part of a circuit after other fatiguing exercises.

After power exercises, exercises that require high levels of core stability come next. These are usually barbell exercises such as squats, bench press, and other multi-joint exercises. These types of exercises should also come early in the workout because they are highly fatiguing and can cause technique to break down.

Single-joint lifts—called assistance exercises—come last. They are the least dangerous to do when tired.

Adequate rest is especially important during group workouts. External motivation—while it’s a positive of a group workout— can also be what makes it dangerous. Combined with a high-intensity circuit common for a group workout, this can increase the risk that someone could develop exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER). Many cases of ER have been caused by workout leaders encouraging or demanding extreme levels of effort with inadequate rest. ER happens when you burn through your energy stores quickly without enough recovery time. Your muscles break down and release their contents–—specifically myoglobin—(a protein in muscle that stores and carries oxygen) into your bloodstream. If not caught quickly, ER can cause serious injuries—such as kidney failure—that can lead to death. To prevent ER, its essential to choose exercises, and assign weight, reps, and sets based on your participant’s fitness and ability level, as well as requiring the appropriate work:rest ratios. The final step to preventing ER is to know your participants’ limits and not push past them.

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Alvar, B. A., Sell, K., Deuster, P. A., Warr, B. J., Gagnon, P., Scofield, D. E., & Jaenen, S. (2017). Chapter 8: Testing and Evaluation of Tactical Populations. In NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning (pp. 145–146). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Haff, G., Triplett, N. T., & Sheppard, J. M. (2016). Chapter 17: Program Design for Resistance Training. In Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning: Human Kinetics.

NSCA Strength and Conditioning Professional Standards and Guidelines. (2017). Strength & Conditioning Journal, 39(6), 1–24. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000348