The Griffin Functional Fitness Program – Bringing Balance to Physical Conditioning and Resilience
Edward L. Gribbins and Patrick G. Miller
It is no secret that the Army has struggled with the efficacy of its physical fitness program for decades and has made numerous revisions and countless proposals for sweeping overhauls over recent years. However, the fact remains that too many Soldiers in all demographics are physically unable to accomplish the Army's mission to deploy and protect and secure our nation’s interests. In February 2018, the Army Times reported a total of 235,000 service-members – or 11 percent – of the total Army force as non-deployable. Of this 235,000, over 116,000 were not deployable due to short term or long-term injuries.[i] This article examines the causes behind the non-deployable population in the military intelligence community. The authors propose mitigating solutions to the epidemic of unwell and unfit Soldiers in the localized population and offer broader solutions that could be implemented across the wider formation and the Army writ large.
The overall structure of some INSCOM organizations make some basic Army required tasks such as physical readiness training a burden on commands and Soldiers alike. The constant ebb and flow of service requirements and mission essential tasks shift the focus of the Military Intelligence professional, putting additional strain on the soldier. Giving the Soldier the methodology and buy-in on their level can mitigate some of the inherent risk in these organizations. To say that giving Soldiers at all levels the tools they need to perform physical training on their own is a force multiplier cannot be overstated. Physical Readiness Training is one Army task that manages to keep its position on the training calendar but fails to meet the intent in many locations. In some sites where part of an organization is absorbed by another entity, the command team is relieved of a level of their power and control in regard to those soldier’s schedules. Physical training for Soldiers on shift work and non-traditional work weeks becomes a puzzle in and of itself. These Soldiers are a critical component in initiating movement on a way forward in this unique culture. This population is at a higher risk of failing to reintegrate or accept an Army culture the longer they stay in these positions, unless they were deeply seated in it prior to those assignments.
In his initial message to the formation, Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley clearly outlined his three top priorities: Readiness, the Future Army, and Taking Care of Soldiers.[ii] The 470th Military Intelligence Brigade’s Functional Fitness (Griffin) Program nests within all three lines of efforts as outlined by General Milley. The readiness component is addressed by the programming and movements prescribed to the Soldiers in the physical and athletic training. The Griffin fitness program aims to better the Soldier athletes who are already meet the Army standards, but more importantly the program is tailored to improve the marginal and failing Soldiers within the ranks. It is a supplementary program for command teams to leverage that alleviates the burden of remedial PT while also adhering to the regulatory limitations of the Army physical fitness and body composition programs.
The prospect of shifting the Army’s fitness culture is a major task to be implemented at every level. The 470th Military Intelligence Brigade has started that change with the Griffin Functional Fitness Program. This initiative comprised of junior Soldiers, NCOs, and officers of varying fitness profiles has its participants trained in a variety of fitness disciplines. Over a sixty-day period, each Soldier performs weighted, gymnastic, and mono-structural movements to build a well-rounded fitness foundation. The program promotes the shift from tedious and repetitive physical training plans to a competitive and diverse program through education and empathy. Empathy is listed under the Leadership Requirement Model (ADP 6-22) and states; “Leaders take care of Soldiers and Army Civilians by giving them the training, equipment, and support needed to accomplish the mission. During operations, empathetic Army leaders share hardships to gauge if their plans and decisions are realistic. They recognize the need to provide Soldiers and Army Civilians with reasonable comforts and rest periods to maintain good morale and mission effectiveness.” By applying one of the Army’s examples of empathy to the functional fitness initiative we begin this shift in culture and begin to see its second and third order of effects. Psychological changes can be observed from every member of the formation in a short time frame from the beginning to the middle of the program. To achieve some level of physical autonomy though a number of functional exercises can do nothing but improve readiness across the force.
The Griffin Functional Fitness Program is certainly not the first of its kind. In fact, many other Army units and sister service branches have explored hybrid and revolutionary fitness programs designed to answer the physical needs of their service-members. One of the major criticisms of all military branches physical fitness programs is the they “focus too narrowly on what it means to be fit – (t)hey emphasize aerobic capacity and upper body and core muscle endurance. Strength and flexibility get left out.”[iii] Seeking to fill out the gaps in fitness programming, various units have implemented supplementary programs. The 75th Ranger Regiment adopted the Ranger Athlete Warrior (RAW) which borrows principles and concepts from the accredited National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).[iv] Similarly, the Marine Corps also collaborated with NCSA and American College of Sports Medicine in creating its High Intensity Tactical Training (HITT) program – not to be confused with the exceedingly popular civilian counterpart High Intensity Internal Training (HIIT) platforms. Acknowledging although that the 470th MI BDE has a different mission set and operational tempo OPTEMPO) than the Special Operations Forces (SOF) and combat arms centric units, the brigade leadership still saw value in adopting some of the tenets found with RAW and HITT type programs existent throughout the forces today.
Although in the nascent phases of its pilot program, the Griffin Functional Fitness is centered on four pillars or lines of effort: 1) elevating fitness consisting of strength and endurance, 2) improving body composition through nutritional education and quantitative analysis, 3) physical wellness improvement via injury mitigation through exercise and movement modification, and 4) mental resiliency under physical duress. These four pillars were specifically adopted to address the recurring issues found within the brigade’s formations particularly amongst the profile population and the substandard APFT demographic. Rather than simply adhering to the standard remedial PT or profile PT model, the brigade leadership directed an exploratory effort to find a holistic solution to this readiness issue. The Griffin Functional Fitness program seeks to create a cultural change within the participants that embraces the totality of wellness ranging from increasing strength and endurance to monitoring caloric intake and macronutrients. Thus, this program gives back on all scales with individuals being trained and aware of lifelong wellness practices while unit readiness metrics trend up. Additionally, the Griffin Fitness program is a unique training modality that is designed to get participants excited about working out and general wellness.
The most appealing aspect of functional fitness training is the scalability and modifications of movements. The NSCA recognizes several factors that impact individual’s abilities to perform exercise or “functional performance tests.” Trainers will always account for “gender, age, level of physical fitness, and skill, body size” factors when creating fitness plans.[v] However, it is also appropriate to consider an individual’s other limiting conditions to include injury, range of motion and flexibility, and lack of familiarity with complex movements. The latter addresses the psychological rather than physical sphere of fitness where an athlete is mentally not comfortable with an exercise or movement. Griffin Functional Fitness takes all these factors into account when programming workouts and without fail, the trainers will always be able to find a substitute movement or exercise tailored an individual’s capacities. Such variations may include lowering the weight load, shortening the range of motion, decreasing repetition or time domains or simply finding a movement that mimics the stimulus originally sought. The strength and goodness of the Griffin fitness program is its ability to still increase an individual’s fitness capacity and wellness while still allowing for the individual to heal from an injury or rehabilitate an existent muscular-skeletal issue. An example of this would be taking a Soldier with a no run profile due to knee injury and creating a metabolic conditioning (METCON) that minimizes jarring movements. This may include a mono-structural movement such as rowing on a Concept 2 erg or even a lightweight complex barbell movement for a specified repetition or time scheme. Either routine will effectively raise the individuals’ heartrate and create an anaerobic response.
The Army expends a significant amount of time and energy in its Master Resiliency Training (MRT) where Soldiers are equipped with mental games and tools to mitigate the impact of life stressors.[vi] The Griffin Function Fitness Program seeks to similarly strengthen Soldiers resiliency in physical fitness – essentially conditioning individuals up to the point where, taken in perspective, APFTs, ruck marches and formation runs are not overwhelmingly taxing events. The Griffin program exposes athletes to barbell and gymnastics movements outside the norms of traditional Army based physical fitness routines. Athletes are also exposed to unfamiliar loads and weighted objects and unconventional repetition schemes and time domains. The program’s unpredictability (not to be confused with randomness) and muscle confusion are foundational to building the athlete’s resilience as well as fostering enthusiasm for fitness. All these aspects are designed to mimic the MRT competencies (self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strengths of character, connection) but in a more physically-centric fashion. [vii]
Participants are resilient under physical duress, have greater proprioception or body awareness, and have a more positive relationship with fitness in general – or hopefully enthusiastically embrace exercise regimes.
One of the many obstacles in this change in fitness culture is a perceived disconnect between the Physical Readiness Training program and Army medical community. Some medical providers have such a high propensity to risk aversion that blanket or “dead man” profiles are nearly a norm with little to no guidance on how to improve the Soldier’s impaired physical state. In organizations where the fitness program is stale, a physical profile is a “free pass” from an ineffective or not well received program. By empowering the service-member during the training sessions, we have given them personal buy-in through individual accountability. Discussions regarding physical profiles should not be what the service member is incapable of performing but rather what is possible to execute, safely and effectively. As a leader applying empathy, engaging with the Soldier to ensure their expectations are realistic is a small step towards the shift in culture we are moving towards. Profiles can be adhered to while simultaneously strengthening the soldier both mentally and physically during a physical training session.
A second and significant obstacle to comprehensive implementation of fitness programs like the Griffin program is the stigma of functional fitness where specific commercial fitness platforms have garnered the reputation of being dangerous, haphazardly moderated, and arbitrarily certified. Indeed, platforms like CrossFit, Insanity, and Gym Jones, all of which are considered “Extreme Conditioning Programs”, carry inherent risk of musculoskeletal injury.[viii] Critics also point to the competitive environment that causes novices to be too quickly introduced to unfamiliar and eccentric movements which could result in injuries to joints and muscles. The Griffin trainers are keenly aware of these criticisms and shortcomings and have mitigating these concerns through continual education and training as well adaption to programming methodology and athlete awareness. Ultimately, any fitness program that significantly impacts an individual’s wellness to be positive side will have an inherent risk. The Griffin program seeks to mitigate the risks and educate the participant and command teams of the cost-benefit continuum. While the onus is on the trainers and coaches to monitor and modify programming for safety and efficacy, the command teams must embrace and endorse the programming for their formations and encourage first line supervisors to take advantage of the resources the program offers.
The originators of the Griffin Functional Fitness program are confident that the pilot program will result in quantifiable success in all metrics – body analytics, strength gains, run times and APFT scores. More importantly, the success of this initiative should translate into a broader implementation throughout the organization with buy-in from command teams and junior leadership. Although the program has its risks and is not the end all answer to physical fitness and readiness issues in the ranks, its complementary utilization with current Army fitness training will result in wide scale and enduring improvements to Soldier strength, resiliency, and livelihood.