FORT BRAGG, North Carolina- Imagine hiking up a 2000-meter high mountainside on a perfect day, without any worries or heavy equipment. Now, imagine climbing up the same mountain carrying a 70-lb ruck, ammo, water, a radio and your weapon.
Did I forget to mention, it's over 90 degrees and you're also carrying a wounded Soldier out of a bad situation. These are the types of circumstances that Soldiers are likely to face and for which they must be optimally prepared.
How do you train Soldiers for a situation like this? How do you prepare their bodies for these types of scenarios?
"The answer is simple, work on the [physical] weaknesses and build [a strong] Soldier from the ground up," said Lt. Col. Mark Ivezaj, commander of 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Since taking command, Ivezaj noticed that the task of conducting multiple jumps while maintaining year round training has taken a toll on his Soldiers.
He conducted an internal study, gathering data provided by the physician's assistant within his battalion, and the numbers were staggering but not surprising.
"The numbers showed that about 30 percent of the men were injured and non-deployable," said Ivezaj.
Ivezaj said it didn't take long for him to understand that what his soldiers didn't have was core strength and the strength base in areas that are problematic to soldiers in the infantry.
"Current Army fitness doctrine," says Ivezaj, "does not prepare soldiers adequately to conduct the demanding operations of places such as the mountains of Afghanist
Ivezaj needed help, and he needed it fast.
He remembered that a few years ago, while assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, he faced the same problems and went searching for a better training program for his men.
He found four time world-class powerlifter Matt Wenning. Wenning transformed Ivezaj's Rangers into a stronger, more athletic group of Soldiers while also reducing injuries.
Ivezaj invited Matt Wenning once again, but this time, to train the Soldiers of the 2-501st PIR.
Wenning conducted a two-week, 40-hour class, where he combined multiple training styles to create a better-rounded athlete.
"How we select the exercises from the right workout, is not by choosing things we like, but by choosing things we need," said Wenning.
Wenning designed the workouts by using feedback from officers and enlisted personnel to address those military-specific skills that need to be developed.
Wenning said that statistical injury analysis showed the most common causes of medical disability among Soldiers are namely their shoulders, lower back and knees.
"With this class we are not only minimizing injuries, but potentially decreasing the military spending on healthcare benefits, while improving battlefield performance and increasing unit readiness," said Ivezaj.
To be an effective Soldier we need many things," said Spc. James Oney, a team leader with B. Company, 2-501st PIR.
"Wenning's class has blown me away with all the different exercises and all the information he has taught us," said Oney.
Soldiers need a balance of endurance to climb up the side of a mountain, the overall speed to sprint quickly during battle, duck, cover, and then sprint again. Soldiers also need the strength and power to be able to carry an injured Soldier to safety.
"I show them how to target weakness, and how to attack the lagging muscles, while increasing general strength to the entire body," said Wenning.
"It is important that the task can be done safely in any less-than-optimal position," said Wenning. "The only way to accomplish that is to be strong enough."
The methods taught by Wenning are used by elite military forces, top athletes, border patrol, SWAT members, and the Navy Seals to stay in shape and target muscular weakness.
Since most Soldiers in Ivezaj's battalion were found to have complications with knee injuries, due to kneeling on hard surfaces, exiting aircrafts, and running, Wenning introduced alternate methods of conducting cardiovascular exercise to avoid further injuries.
Due to the modern and demanding changes of the battle field, running as a sole means of cardio training is not optimal.
Experts believe running more, and for a longer distance, has created a generation of Soldiers who are not stronger on the battle field, but just fit to run a two-mile test, which in urban warfare has minimal effects.
"Those with less than optimal strength beat up their knees because of weak hip stabilizers and hamstrings," said Wenning.
Wenning said that jumping, jogging, and carrying equipment at a fast pace require the hips and hamstrings to do their fair share of the work.
"But if these muscles are lacking strength, then the knee extensors attempt to complete the work for the lacking muscles, causing overuse of the knee," said Wenning.
Wenning introduced methods to help Soldiers that are injured bounce back and stay strong enough to complete the physical demands of their job.
"This class has taught me so much," said Oney. "He is not only teaching us how to be functional and how to stay in shape, but he is teaching about the balance of strength and conditioning," he said.
Ivezaj has high hopes for this program and its positive impact on the future and readiness of his Soldiers.
"I would really like to see PT scores improve, and I hope to see injuries in the battalions decrease," said Ivezaj.
"I think this type of program is important to have in the military. We are trying to build a well-rounded athlete and challenge our Soldiers with PT without breaking them.
Oney said that he was thankful for having the opportunity to have gone through Wenning's class. He believes that he has the knowledge to help prevent injuries, attack weakness, and help his Soldiers improve.
"Wenning always said to us, 'Is not how much you can do, but how fast you can recover'," he continued.