As Americans roll into another Memorial Day weekend, it is respectful to reflect upon those that have served our great country and died while serving in our armed forces. Many Americans will enjoy a nice BBQ this weekend with family and friends and rightfully so as this is one of our main holidays each year, but did you ever wonder was behind the “physical fitness” of the soldiers who won the first two world wars? What did history know? Do they have something to say that is still relevant in today’s technologically advanced society? Without these brave men and women, would we be free this weekend to enjoy our BBQs and freedom?
“If no use is made of labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.”
–-Marcus Tillius Cicero
One of the most brilliant physical educators in the American military history and West Point is Colonel Herman J. Koehler. What Koehler has to say about training warriors would be in stark contrast to today’s Hollywood version of Rambo or the “bootcamp” style of fitness training that reports to have a military foundation. So how was Koehler and historic military training at West Point different?
“Health and Organic Vigor the Determining Factors: Since the nature and extent of all physical training is determined by the state of health of the participants, every rational course in such training, military or otherwise, must have the development of the human organism in its entirety for its primary object.”
-Herman Koehler, Koehler’s West Point Manual of Disciplinary Physical Training (1919)
During Koehler’s era, they believed in “rational” training. There was no screaming and yelling by drill instructors. The notion was to conserve energy in training and in battle. It is not efficient to lose control; therefore, their training reflected a very disciplined, controlled, and rational approach to fitness. Interestingly, Koehler did NOT believe in training to fatigue and failure. There was no high volume high intensity training with poor form allowed. Over and over again, Koehler and his colleagues warned against such high volume deep labored training as they often made reference to the neurological and spiritual quality of exercise as well as physical or muscular strength.
Exercising to the Point of Exhaustion: “To exercise men to the point of exhaustion is not only liable to result seriously to the the men, but it kills their spirit and enthusiasm, and without these successful military training of any kind is impossible. It cannot be impressed too urgently upon instructors and upon others connected with the training of recruits that his drill, particularly the morning drill, must leave the men fit, able and eager for their other tasks; with an increased rather than a diminished amount of energy and enthusiasm. Instructors who do not possess the faculty of obtaining this result should not be intrusted with this instruction.” (Koehler’s West Point Manual, Page 24, Paragraph 79)
Now if Koehler had produced slack soldiers and lame leaders who failed in battle, we could easily dismiss his system of training. History is past tense, and the factual evidence is clear. He produced incredibly fit soldiers using this rational and what would be considered today “low volume and low intensity” method compared to what is going on today. Like who? Generals MacArthur, Patton, Eisenhower, and Bradley all went through the Koehler system at West Point.
So what was Koehler’s background? What were his influences? He came from a German gymnastics background. This method of gymnastics training was not like Olympic gymnastic programs today. The German “Turner” system was extremely restorative, taught proper posture and alignment, and was very safety focused as highlighted below from, The Koehler Method of Physical Drill, Section IV-Hints to Instructors:
- Exercise the Means, Not the End: “It should be borne in mind constantly that the exercises are the means and not the end, and that it is the application of an exercise rather than the exercise itself that brings results. Whenever a doubt arises in an instructor’s mind as to the effect of an exercise, or the condition of a man, he should always err on the side of safety. Underdoing is rectifiable; overdoing is often not.” (Page 112, Paragraph 26)
- Number of Times an Exercise Should be Repeated: “The number of times an exercise should be repeated has not been specified, as that will depend entirely upon the strength, aptitude, and proficiency of the men and the common sense of the instructor, who is again warned to err upon the side of safety. (Page 114, Paragraph 37)
There are numerous references historically to precision training. Current neuroscience would support this type of training as well, but interestingly, when you look deep enough into the history of American fitness, you will learn they clearly understood how to get the most neurologically out of physical fitness with their rational training system at low volume and high safety through precision and proper instruction.
“All exercises must be performed with the greatest accuracy, precision, and smartness, and proper posture must be constantly be insisted upon. In order to develop an intelligent responsiveness, attention should be called to the object of each exercise.” (Koehler’s West Point Manual, Pages 13-14)
Quite a reality check. Obviously, Koehler and his generation were fit and knew how to train for the ultimate test of physical fitness during battle, yet their methods were considerably different with low injury rates. This style of training was also used in our elementary schools, universities, and other military academies. NO bench pressing, leg press, pec flyes, high volume @ high intensity, treadmills or ellipticals to be found in Koehler’s methods. Body weight and gymnastic apparatus with some rifles for resistance with lots of marching drills. Simple. Effective. Results proven.
Now don’t believe a word I just said! Do your own investigation. References are below. While you BBQ and enjoy your freedom, you might find something of value in the history of rational military and physical fitness training with historical methods. We are using this approach now with corporate clients and children–lower volume, higher neurological quality, enhanced safety, and yes, history repeats…significant fitness results.
“Nations have passed away and left no trace,
and history gives the naked cause of it–
one single, simple reason in all cases;
they fell because their people were not fit.”