Organised physical exercise can be traced far back to ancient Greek times, where it was viewed that it should be both an integral part of an individual’s responsibility and civic duty to maintain health
One man who made significant bounds in formulating a holistic, well-rounded assessment of how to achieve this was Claudius Galen (c.130 AD – c.210 AD). Not only a prominent philosopher, surgeon and scientist, Galen also became the chief physician at the Gladiator school in Pergamum and later personal physician to Marcus Aurelius in Rome.
Galen’s theory was underpinned by six factors external to the body over which a person had some control.
- Air and environment
- Food (diet) and drink
- Sleep and wake
- Motion (exercise) and rest
- Retention and evacuation (avoiding dehydration retaining minerals/proper evacuation: perspiration, urination)
- Passions of the mind (emotions)
Of course, much of the motivation for developing physically well-rounded individuals in these eras revolved around producing effective infantry soldiers capable of marching long distances, overpowering the enemy, and winning battles.
Fast forward to the early 1800s, and we see a significant shift to gymnastic based activities that are still practiced today. Francisco Amoros, Spanish born and former Infantry soldier, founded the first military gymnastics school in Madrid. After Napoleon’s defeat, he relocated to Paris, continued to develop his system,
later writing “A guide to gymnastic, physical, and moral education” in 1830.
Gymnasiums in that era were basic, designed to allow maximum movement space using rudimentary apparatus for developing gymnastic (bodyweight) strength, balance, coordination, and mobility, supporting the body, suspending the body, promoting a healthy posture and focussing on fluid and efficient movement. Many of the gym tests on modern-day Physical Training Instructor (PTI) courses would look almost identical to those practiced back in the day: Rope climbs, demonstrating competency in balance at height, heave (chin-up) tests, box vaults, etc.
I was fortunate enough to receive my early formal PTI education under the auspices of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps in Fox lines, Aldershot (pictured). The main gym is named after Lt Colonel Sir G.M Fox, Inspector of Physical Training 1890-97, and remained relatively unchanged in layout from this era.
In the early 1900s, classical gymnastic exercises were being merged for practical application in the outdoor environment. Enter Georges Hébert, a French Navy Officer who, while stationed in Martinique, witnessed a natural disaster and coordinated the rescue effort of some 700 people. Using this incident as a source of inspiration, he developed his ethos,” Être fort pour être utile” (Being strong to be useful) and travelled extensively, witnessing the aesthetics and physical capabilities of indigenous tribes around the world. He went on to develop his own training system, La Méthode Naturelle, “The Natural Method,” applying it to the physical preparation of French Marines before the first world war.
In Georges Hébert’s own words:
“The final goal of physical education is to make strong beings. In the purely physical sense, the Natural Method promotes the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity, and speed towards being able to walk, run, jump, move on all fours, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself, and to swim.”
In the modern military era, the practical application would be on the steeplechase and assault courses, log and stretcher races, and all types of battle PT. For civilians and military personnel keen enough for extracurricular activities, obstacle course races (OCR’s) are becoming popular and bring all these elements together.
Another critical element of the military training model is the technique and physical endurance to speed march, moving quickly and efficiently over differing terrain, carrying a load. The second world war marked a significant shift in the speed of battle, and the soldier’s fitness needed to match the requirement.
During Operation Market Garden, Arnhem, 1944, paratroopers were dropped several miles away from their objective, where they had to march and run carrying all their ammunition and equipment to reach the rest of their battalion and join the battle. The first test on P-Company (pre parachute selection), the 10-mile tab (tactical advance to battle), reflects this.
Combat sports have been another key feature of physical activities dating back to antiquity. Boxing, wrestling, and pankration (an early form of mixed martial arts) were the first combat sports recorded and are still practiced in military units throughout the world in various ways. Milling is a unique combat event that was routinely practiced throughout the British Army, but now only by The Parachute Regiment, as a test of courage under fire. The aim is to demonstrate controlled aggression by striking towards the head of the opponent with no defensive actions permitted. The duration is 60 seconds, and for many, it will be the longest minute of their life!
It is my opinion that the modern obsession of training at constant high intensity and building excessive muscle mass for pure aesthetics is detrimental to overall health and longevity.
There are many lessons that we need to relearn from past eras, particularly the true meaning of physical education (PE). Moving efficiently, without pain, for many years should be the ultimate goal, and all things approached as a skill, however complex.
The traditional military model comprises four main components:
- Gymnastics/calisthenics (bodyweight exercise)
- Outdoor obstacle courses (moving efficiently through a range of environments)
- Combat sports (boxing, grappling, etc.)
- Speed marching (bipedal endurance)
The main physical qualities developed within this model are:
- Reaction speed
- Cardiorespiratory function
If these elements are incorporated into a physical fitness programme, treated as a skill, and kept, for the most part, to a low/medium intensity with bouts of high intensity, the result will be a well-rounded human, capable of thriving in the diversities of the modern life.
Fit for Purpose A history of military physical training and its practical application in modern times
By: Ryan Naish
Ryan is a former physical training instructor in the Parachute Regiment and now specialises as a movement and outdoor skills coach. He is active in the security industry and also runs seminars and workshops, where he shares his passion for cultivating an active lifestyle that’s fit for purpose.
Follow him on Instagram, @fitforpurpose.live, for practical tips and advice.