Learning from Fitness Standards circa 1941

Here are the physical fitness standards for U.S. soldiers circa 1941.  These are from the FM21-20 (which I’ve blogged about before).  Let’s look at these from the standpoint of a martial artist and see if we can perhaps learn a thing or two.


From the FM21-20 Field Manual circa 1941

I realize this may look easy nowadays — during what I like to call ‘the age of Crossfit’ — but it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

Time and Expense: In 1941 we had 1.8 million soldiers in service.  By 1945 we had 12.2 million.  When you are trying to get 10.4 million soldiers in fighting shape, you have to do it quickly and cheaply.  Iron is for tanks, not barbells and dumbbells, there couldn’t be a personal trainer for every soldier, and so on.  This is a time and expense equation.  The goal was to achieve fighting fitness quickly and cheaply.

All is not what it seems: Lots of people can do twenty sloppy Push-ups.  But 20 Push-ups to cadence — which is down, hold, one, two, up, hold, one, two, etc.  — feels more like forty.  If you don’t believe me, give it a shot.

Attire matters: Sure, lots of people can cover 12 feet in a running Broad Jump.  But can you do it in stiff leather combat boots with hard rubber heels and leather soles with very little tread?

Safety: If you read the entire manual, there are no extreme exercises that entail more than minimal injury risk.  You can’t afford to lose soldiers to injuries.

The fitness standards address the absolute basics.  They ensure that soldiers have the ability to charge quickly into battle and speedily avoid danger (100 yard dash), the mobility to leap over battlefield obstacles (High Jump, Broad Jump), and the coordinated strength to manage body weight and complete basic tasks (Push-ups).

With all this in mind, take a moment to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does your physical fitness regimen directly prepare you for what are actually trying to get done?
  • Are you ‘keeping it real’ in terms of both your monetary budget and your risk/reward investment?
  • Are you taking unnecessary risks in your training by doing extreme exercises that aren’t directly relevant to your activities?
  • Do you seem to be spending ever-increasing sums of money on training equipment that provide ever-diminishing returns?

Looking at this only makes me feel even better about what we are doing in Cabal Fang.  We practice outdoors and we wear street clothes.  We do calisthenics and other exercises that build functional strength for self-defense and real-world activities. And we do it cheap.

We’re not soldiers, and we don’t pretend to be.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from a martial arts manual that, if this world keeps on turning for another thousand years or so, may someday be on a par with other martial arts manuals like the Book of Han or The Zettel.

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