Friday, October 22, 2010

Fighting Fit - Singapore aims for higher combat fitness

For Singaporean citizen soldiers who have never seen the top of a chin up bar or the finish line of a 2.4km run with the race clock readout in its low teens, improvements to way the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) trains its people will give them a fighting chance at enhancing their personal and combat fitness.

And here's a little known factoid: Many of the changes were suggested by Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen, also known as reservists in other militaries) themselves. This includes comprehensive feedback collated by the Army Fitness Centre after a trial batch of more than 300 NSmen were put through an improved training programme early this year.

Examined superficially, the fact that NSmen must clear their annual Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) fitness test within nine months instead of 12 months makes for a sexy newspaper headline and invites cynical barbs. It generates the mental picture of out-of-shape NSmen, already struggling to clear their IPPT within a year, now challenged to do this in the same time it takes for a baby to pop.

This is the sort of over generalisation that robs the media - even mainstream media, mind you - of its credibility. I recently attended a briefing on the new physical training enhancements with a group of NSmen in their 20s, 30s, and NSmen who had long completed their NS liability. Almost to a man, everyone had a better grasp of the advantages of the new system as media articles had skimmed over salient points.

Much thought, consultation with NSmen and, most important of all, professional advice from the Singapore Army's Army Fitness Centre (AFC) resulted in the biggest makeover to the SAF's physical training regime since October 2006.

In that year, the SAF introduced a new acronym to NSmen: IPT which means IPPT Preparatory Training.

The current system will be revamped from 1 April 2011, when the SAF ushers in a fresh work year. At present, NSmen can volunteer for 10 sessions of physical training over five weeks of IPT to whip themselves into shape. The theory is that intensive training will help laggards focus on weak areas and thus eventually clear their fitness test. For instance, an NSman who is weak in the Standing Broad Jump station will be taught exercises that strengthen his lower body strength along with techniques to add centimetres to his jump distance.

Four years on, that SAF has decided to throw the IPT Version 1 out of the window. Data collated over that time showed that NSmen pushed themselves for five weeks, then tended to slack for the remaining period of the year. The peaks and troughs in their stop-start exercise timetable did more harm than good.

The Enhanced IPT (E-IPT) spreads out 10 sessions over nine months instead of five weeks. NSmen will be given Personal Performance Targets to help chart their progress. This demands a shift in the mental model that people have of the Army's physical training sessions because NSmen will be given intermediate targets which are challenging, yet achievable. Once the baseline target is met, AFC fitness specialists will raise the bar - if you excuse the pun - and coach NSmen to achieve even better standards. This isn't some ivory tower theory as trials with the 300-plus NSmen shows it works.

In a reflection of the Army's push to care for its soldiers, professionals at the Army Fitness Centre have invested much effort in using sports science and sports nutrition to craft training timetables for our NSmen.

The revamp of the physical and combat fitness system draws upon more than 40 years of accumulated data from NSmen. Such data represents a rich data mine from which the SAF fitness specialists can learn and pick out trends in physical fitness over the years. No commercial gym in Singapore has anything similar to the mountain of data that the Singaporean military has amassed and the physical training programme the SAF will introduce next year will be custom-made for the Singaporean soldier.

Senang Diri understands that feedback from NSmen who took part in the trial was reassuringly positive. NSmen appreciated the individual attention by AFC specialists and were taught sport science principles and the importance of a healthy diet.

Rather than coughing up a chunk of change for a personal trainer at a commercial gym, the NSmen enjoyed the same benefits for free, courtesy of the Singapore Army.

Putting aside the minority of cynics or pockets of NSmen who spend more mental energy figuring out how to skirt their IPPT than getting themselves to look better, the preponderance of NSmen realised that the helping hand extended by the Singapore Army not only helped them clock better IPPT results, but look good too.

This triggered a boost in self-esteem among the trial batch of NSmen, especially over-fed soldiers who had difficulty seeing their toes while standing. AFC's advice was also a boon to soldiers who want to keep fit but didn't know how to start, how to train or the intensity required. Sports science answered all their questions.

From the standpoint of a defence force geared for deterrence, fitter NSmen will strengthen the operational readiness of SAF units. Fitter soldiers are the basic building block for a armed force to take on the rigours of the modern battlespace, the exertions of operations other than war and the months-long period of tension that could precede a shooting war. Complement improved combat fitness with cutting edge war machines and a will to prevail against adversity and this will build a fighting force that is ready, relevant and decisive.

The Enhanced IPT must be seen alongside changes to the Standard Obstacle Course which mimics the area of operations SAF soldiers may fight in and a yet another acronym recently added to the SAF lexicon. This is VRE, the Vocation-Related Exercises which zero in on specific muscle groups which a serviceman can expect to exert while on duty.

In summary, the SAF's drive towards higher combat fitness is spearheaded by:
1. A active partnership between NSmen to raise their personal fitness levels, which is the subject of this blog post.
2. A revamped Standard Obstacle Course for full-time National Servicemen from October 2010. Please see the earlier post.
3. Introduction of VREs tailored for combat and combat service support units. For example, artillery gunners will go through exercises which strengthen their arm power and upper body strength. Gunners will call upon these muscles when they lift and load 20-plus kilogramme 155mm heavy artillery shells and 120mm mortar bombs.

This brings us back to the perception that NSmen are being forced to get their act together in a shorter time.

Imagine sitting for a 120-minute exam which you were poorly-prepared for (writing a second language essay, Math or Science). If you have a lousy vocabulary or forgot the formulae needed to solve Math and Science questions, having a longer time to complete the test paper is meaningless. No amount of time will help you.

The new system is akin to shortening the exam time to 90 minutes but having a model answer to refer to AND a personal tutor to coach you along. The shortened exam window is newsy. But the bigger news is the presence of the personal tutor and open book examination.

This is the essence of the nine months versus 12 months argument.

If a citizen soldier cannot clear his IPPT under the current system, adding more time does little to help weak performers.

The new system guides soldiers through a personalised training programme over nine months - a training window calibrated to raise fitness levels for NSmen in their 20s and 30s with the demands of their work/family life in mind.

At the end of the nine months, should they fail to clear their IPPT, eight additional sessions spread over three months will kick in. This builds on the nine months partnership because it grants weaker soldiers even more time to train and score meaningful improvements.

To be sure, the new system will itself be subject to rigorous reviews to ensure AFC stays up to the mark as sports science matures. It also calls upon NSmen to be disciplined enough to follow the recommended training programmes and dietary restrictions.

For now at least, this is the best form factor the SAF has come up with in partnership with NSmen who gave feedback over the years and in the early 2010 exercise.

Whatever system the SAF implements in consulatation with NSmen, there will be nay-sayers who disagree.

But going by feedback from the vast majority of NSmen who are serious about getting themselves back in fighting trim, it is clear that the majority of every Singaporean son want to avoid being out-of-shape couch potato.

Indeed, one Singapore Army officer remarked that when he was CO of an infantry battalion, his combat unit achieved a pass rate of more than 90 per cent for the annual fitness test. His is optimistic the Army's three-pronged approach to combat fitness will keep help NSmen score high pass rates.

One only has to look around at professional armies to see how ill-conceived or non-existent combat fitness projects result in regulars who are poor examples of fighting men. Left to their own devices, many older regulars in professional armies fight a losing battle against the battle of the bulge.

In the Lion City, many Singaporeans believe health is wealth. The number of (expensive) private gyms sprouting up all over the city state attest to that fact.

No less importance than rolling out enhanced physical training projects is the need to keep a critical mass of SAF Physical Training Instructors so they are not lured away by the private sector.

Their career path, salary levels and morale all need to be nurtured as closely as the SAF commands them to monitor NSmen fitness levels.

And if health is wealth, the AFC specialists who provide such advice (for free) are, in my view, priceless.


ED said...

The heartening change to the physical requirements in SAF is not only applicable to NSmen. I was delighted to finally read that even regulars, if clocking badly, will get the boot from SAF if they do not shape up.

It's little wonder why NSmen can't be bothered for a while because we have seen too many times how "cheating" occurs when it comes to regular soldiers. Personally, I have even witness a Major failing to do his run and simply "scanning" his tracker at the 2.4km sensor gantry. That's in full view of hundreds of NSmen who made the effort to even turn up to do their 6 rounds on the stadium track.

The training system aside, it's high time they look into such cultures if they really want to convince NSmen to shape up. Or at least make them genuinely want to shape up rather than by modes of enforcement.

Anonymous said...

Just my 2 cents
Having gone for yearly ippt rt and subsequently ipts for the past 9 yrs,
While i agree the new system might enhance the fitness of the nsmen to a satisfactory level...
The gist of it is it adds into most nsmen's already extremely packed time schedules.

A typical IPT session is from 7-10pm.
An RT session even longer.
On paper it is a 3 hour session..
But add in the time travelling, preparation,its stretches and add into something very much longer.

I was at one of the camps when the PTIs( then) asked for volunteers to test new training methods and such.
They were made to do specific training sets , probably to improve and enhance in certain areas.
Of course if you compare the previous methods of just running 6 rounds around the camp..just going thru the motions of exercises, the new training would be better and more effective.

I remember one of the comments made my a superior when i went off for training during the evening..he said he was less inconveienced when i went off for my 3 week ICT then compared to the 1.5 months where i had to leave the office earlier twice a week.

Now we have a situation( if i read correctly) where after under going IPT and you dont pass,you still proceed to RT?
Isnt it eating into our already very packed schedules ?

I do not know how they cull the numbers for the passing rate of RT trainees but usually, you tend to see the same faces, year in, year out.

Health is wealth, and a healthy nsmen popuation probably spells a more potent fighting SAF.

I just wished the SAF had implemented this with more thought than just improving the fitness and passing rates.

It is indeed a big strain on our schedules.
It really is. But i dont see that being acknowledged in any of the news reports.