Old School Strength (III): Ad Optimam Valetudinem Fingendam

After tracing Old School Strength to the training of the Roman legions, we can finally compare it with today’s elite military training programs. (Around 5.500 words, estimated reading time 25-30 minutes.)

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Infantry Then and Now

Today’s regular troops can be transported so close to a theater of operations that it makes the fitness requirement to actually get there almost negligible.

Consequently, regular infantry troops focus primarily on combat-specific readiness rather than on general fitness. An example of this would be the United States Marine Corps motto that “Every Marine is a rifleman” and the frequency and variety of the USMC marksmanship training compared to the content and frequency of the USMC physical tests (I’ll come back to them later).

Elite infantry units are different, though, and are closer to the Roman Legions in that respect. As I said earlier, a direct comparison between Ancient and Modern infantry is possible if carried along the right dimensions.

I also said that that talk was not a metaphor. So, let’s get to that first.

The timeless dimensions of military fitness

My initial description of the purpose of military fitness and combat readiness training was the following:

see to it that soldiers can carry their gear to the theater of operations,
use it to the greatest effectiveness against the enemy,
and bring it back so that it can be re-used

This description includes a set of implied parameters that unfold as follows:

  1. Carry the gear to the theater of operations has two implicit parameters: the weight of the gear (x_1) and the distance soldiers have to carry it before reaching the theater of operations (x_2).
  2. Use it to the greatest effectiveness could be broken down in as many parameters as there are physical and mental qualities involved in using the specific gear. For now, let’s only assume that the list of these parameters is finite, which gives (y_1,…,y_n).
  3. Bring it [the gear] back so that it can be re-used has, like (1) above, two implicit parameters: the weight of the gear after use (z_1) and the distance soldiers have to carry it to get back from the theater of operations (z_2).

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Forging elite military fitness

Armed with the above analysis we can now meaningfully ask the two following questions: (1) where does the Roman Legion stand in comparison to modern infantry units? and: (2) how good was the training of Roman Legions compared to modern infantry training?

Even better: we can answer them. For the first, we need to specify the Roman legion vector with enough precision to compare it to the vectors of modern infantry units. For the second, we can extrapolate the effect of Roman training relative to the physical demand of their doctrine of employment, with just as much precision as we need to answer the first question (which is not much).

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Built like a legionnaire? 175cm/88kg Rich Froning (center), from Chris Shugart’s In defense of CrossFit, 14/04/2014 (uncredited picture, used without permission, fair use)

Conclusion: Forging Elite Fitness Ad Optimam Valetudinem Fingendam

Anthropological and archaeological evidence on the one hand and exercises science and nutrition on the other suggest that Roman Legionnaires were comparable to today top-tier generalist strength- and power-endurance athletes and elite modern military personnel.

Comparisons between Roman legionnaires and modern elite troops and all-around athletes is warranted by the comparison of the fitness demand of their respective jobs (top CrossFit® is a full-time job). As long as it is carried along the right dimensions, the comparison is the right type of apples-to-oranges.

I outlined explicitly the methodology to carry the comparison as far as military fitness is concerned, as an exercise of Analytic Fitness™. I also hinted at the comparison between training methodologies. There’s still a lot to say about that last one, though.

I bet you’d like to know how to look like train like a legionnaire. And that will be a topic for another day.

In the meantime, vale!


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