FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Oct. 18, 2017) -- There is no pie in the sky definition for functional fitness. It varies greatly from person to person, dependent upon their mission and desired outcome. Exercises deemed essential for some might seem needless to others, and vice versa. One thing, however, is certain: It takes more than pushups, sit-ups, pullups, and running miles to get today's Soldiers motivated about moving in the direction of fitness, a prerequisite for the Army's top priority: readiness.
To help bolster Soldier readiness, Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation ran troops through a plethora of functional fitness events at the 2017 BOSS Strong Championship.
"Functional fitness is really based on the individual," explained Brandi Binkley, a personal trainer and former Navy air crew rescue swimmer who recently coached the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers squad from Camp Humphreys, South Korea, for two weeks at the inaugural BOSS Strong Championship in San Antonio. "Everybody needs a little something different. For some people, it may be squatting techniques. For some people, it may be how to pick things up.
"For our Soldiers, it varies, too, depending on whether they're in combat or they're at a desk, or a medic, or camera, or whatever. Functional fitness is really making sure that everybody has a structural foundation that is strong, and then we build on that structural foundation based on the individual needs."
Throughout 14 consecutive days of BOSS Strong Championship competition, Soldiers from Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort Bliss, Texas; Camp Humphreys, South Korea; Vicenza, Italy; and Fort Meade, Maryland, exercised various forms of functional fitness in numerous sports that were contested in formats far from traditional.
The troops never knew what was coming until it hit them -- while they were, quite naturally, succumbing to the Texas heat. On ensuing days, they progressively got stronger, faster, and more agile.
Before the grueling games began, Army FMWR partnered with companies such as Alpha Warrior, TRX, Trigger Point and Torque Fitness, which sent train-the-trainer instructors to Fort Sam Houston to demonstrate their functional fitness tools to BOSS Strong Championship coaches and trainers.
Master Trainer Britny Fowler came from Austin with numerous training and recovery tools produced by Trigger Point, such as foam rollers, massage balls and hand-held devices for targeting hard-to-reach muscle aches and pains.
"We have any kind of tool that you need for soft-tissue work or deep-tissue work, self-care products, and we pride ourselves on education behind those products," Fowler said. "We believe in self-care, so we're trying to provide products so great people can go for recovery or for preparation for whatever performance-based function, lifestyle, or any kind of goal a person has."
"In general, functional fitness is being able to move better, feel better, perform better, and those types of things come with practicing, being able to do some self-care, recovery, and preparation work," Fowler said. "We provide tools that people can utilize themselves, at home, with education and programming so they can do preparation and recovery following what research says is the best thing possible out there: self-myofascial release."
Trigger Point was born out of the necessities of people's need to keep functioning, move better and stay better, said Fowler, a master trainer for both Trigger Point and TRX.
"Because I've worked with such a wide range of population of clients, everybody is yearning for not just group things, but how do I do something more functional and healthy?" she added. "It doesn't mean exactly how I look, necessarily, but I want to be a healthier and more able person with longevity. Yes, it's popular, and it's important."
That does not necessarily mean that society has resorted to working out more for cardiovascular and mobility than for strength and physique.
"There's still plenty of that," Fowler said. "There's still plenty of that."
She does believe, however, that industry leaders have turned the corner.
"I do think there's a wealth now of trainers who are really understanding the importance of longevity and how fitness is defined," Fowler said. "Weight doesn't define your fitness level. It tells you nothing about your strength, your body fat, your abilities, and people judge off of this one number. Same thing with functional fitness. What is functional fitness? It's whatever is needed. Whether it's performance-based or lifestyle-based, it can be a lot of different things."
Likewise, workout options are dependent upon available space and tools, which makes functional fitness even more attractive when compared with free weights, universal weight machines, exercise bikes, etc. Getting those things to troops downrange can be difficult and costly.
"Realistically, you're preparing them for what they're going to see-do," Fowler said. "They're not in a nice gym. They're out on a different terrain. Whatever the mission may be, you have to have tools, body weight, things that are maybe easy to travel with. Function is a function of your environment, function of what you need to be able to do. So when you have tools and education that can help you in that aspect in that field, that's valuable.
"They're not going to set up a pretty little gym everywhere they go and have all this expensive and bulky equipment -- that's just not what they're going to have access to. So how can they be in the tip-top shape and prepared for what they're going to do: perform with limited space, equipment, and be able to load and unload the body?"
That's where TRX comes into play in more ways than imaginable. TRX was created by Randy Hetrick, a former Navy SEAL who recognized that physical strength is mission critical and deployment to the most remote locations in the world is always possible.
During the summer of 2008, Army FMWR purchased more than 3,000 TRX Suspension Trainer Fitness Anywhere kits to help deployed Soldiers get complete-body workouts wherever they could find a beam, doorway or tree limb to anchor the resistance-training devices. Many of the combat-boot-sized kits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
BOSS Strong Championship competitors will share their TRX experiences with fellow Soldiers, many of whom already have mounted the systems to Humvees, tanks and cargo crates.
One of the favorite functional fitness tools introduced here certainly won't fit in a rucksack.
"I think ours has the most buzz-feed," said Camille Rowe, who travelled from Minneapolis to San Antonio to introduce an all-surface sled named TANK to the BOSS Strong Championship coaches and trainers. "The TRX is cool -- they like fit in a different aspect -- but there's nothing like TANK."
Rowe said everyone enjoys working with TANK -- until it begins working them.
"We call it the torque of a TANK smile because no one can push that thing without a big grin on their face," she explained. "You just instantly get one because you're getting your butt kicked and it feels awesome. Every single trainer who's gotten on that thing says: 'This thing sucks.' And that's what we want to hear. We want to hear that they hate it."
The TANK sled alone weighs 180 pounds and is designed to carry six 45-pound plates for a 270-pound total.
"That's purely for traction," Rowe explained. "It doesn't make it harder or easier to push. It's just there to keep the TANK on the ground and not skid around. Inside, we want all six plates on there. Outside, you could have two on there because you're working against the terrain. It's all about the environment."
Rowe welcomed the creativity and ingenuity of trainers looking to enhance TANK, designed by Torque Fitness for explosive performance, injury prevention, and fast injury rehabilitation.
"People like to hop on there, too," she said. "Instead of plates, sometimes people load those baskets up with kettlebells, medicine balls and slam balls."
It's no small coincidence that functional fitness tools often use other functional fitness tools as building blocks.
"Functional fitness is more versatile," Rowe said. "You can do it anywhere at any time with limited equipment. You're working tons of different muscles at the same time instead of just doing a dead lift, a bicep curl or a lunge. You're doing a full body movement to get more bang for your buck.
"Tank obviously plays into that because when you're pushing, you're using your legs, you're using your core, and you're using your back."
In San Antonio, Soldiers took advantage of functional fitness tools and the support of Alpha Warrior and U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program coaches and trainers to get BOSS Strong in two weeks.
"I think they grew mostly in mindset," Binkley said. "Initially, they didn't think they were capable of so much. Then once their bodies were broken down and they came out here and did [the Alpha Warrior Obstacle Course] anyway, they realized that they were made of so much more.
"They had stuff left in the tank that before would have gone unnoticed because of our fears and our psychological thresholds. Theirs has now been raised probably 40 percent, so now they can handle much more than they could two weeks ago."
Along the way, Binkley sometimes had to bridle the troops' enthusiasm.
"A few times, I had to pull them back a little bit because they wanted to get after it and muscle it out," she said. "That's not always necessarily the way to go. Some of their great takeaways would be learning how to breathe, learning progression, learning how to stretch, and how to recover."
All of those elements play a role in functional fitness, which emphasizes the need for a total workout and recovery for the next go-round, as opposed to the "hurry-hurry, rush-rush to get your workout on" mentality of many exercise pundits. Too many troops are on profile not only for not getting fit, but for injuring themselves in the process.
The Army is working on overhauling the Army Physical Fitness Test that has been used since 1980. The U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training already has field-tested an Army Combat Readiness Test, part of a wider health and fitness effort to improve Soldier readiness and reduce injuries during training. Army "Holistic Health and Fitness" aims to improve the Soldier-selection process, physical performance, performance education, and Army fitness and training centers.
Army FMWR is counting on Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers to help bolster Army readiness with functional fitness knowledge gained at the BOSS Strong Championship.
"From working out all day to getting to know the other competitors and coaches, I learned a lot from them and I will forever take their knowledge and experience back to my unit as much as I can," said Pfc. Chris Ortiz, 21, a Los Angeles native stationed in Vicenza, Italy, who competed on Binkley's Team Able. "I hope the Army takes advantage of this. The whole point of the BOSS competition was for us to put something new in our system. I'm not trying to talk smack to our military but it's kind of boring and old-school.
"With these new toys and materials that we have, if we get stronger and faster with it, we can do anything, honestly," added Ortiz, whose pride swelled as his team collectively crossed the finish line of the final Alpha Warrior Obstacle Course at Retama Park in Selma, Texas. "I felt that we were close, but all the obstacles and all the blood, sweat and tears that we shed over here made us even closer, especially with coach Brandi [Binkley], coach [Capt. Michael] Kohn, and coach Bennie [Wylie]. I think they made our team perfect, like 100 percent."
As much as Soldiers want to find new ways to exercise, the Army wants to provide whatever it takes to get and keep them in fighting shape. The inaugural BOSS Strong Championship might have sharpened the tip of the spear, but much of the staff still needs rounding into shape.
[Editor's note: This is the first of a series of articles about Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation delivering functional fitness to Soldiers to help bolster readiness in the U.S. Army]