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Study Pits Army Fitness Training Versus CrossFit

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Whether we're for or against it, most of us can agree on one thing: CrossFit workouts are tough. Really tough.

But are they tougher than the physical routines that keep our military members, long-held icons of fitness, in shape?

That's the question at the heart of a $2.5 million study being conducted by researchers with Kansas State University's kinesiology lab. The four-year study will track 20 groups of soldiers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., half of whom will be following traditional training as outlined by Army Physical Readiness Training guidelines, while the other half will train in CrossFit.

Participants' baseline fitness levels will be established through testing that draws from standard Army physical training tests, including timed pushups, sit-ups and a two-mile run, as well as measurements of flexibility, resting heart rate, blood pressure, weight and body fat percentage.

"I think this might be the first real empirical comparison where they've looked at a stable of biometrics and performance tests between two different programs," former Navy SEAL and CrossFit-trainer instructor Joe Alexander told Alexander will be working with the researchers from Kansas State to guide the CrossFit workouts. He and the research team are currently working on a template for training and will be running tests before the full study begins. "The only tweaking we'll do for the military audience is the off-site training where they don't have access to a gym during field time," Alexander said. "So, there will be some tailoring there for more austere environments, but by and large it will be classic CrossFit."

Participants will be tested again after completing their assigned six-month exercise program, and then again three months later, during which time they will be allowed to choose what type of exercise regimen to follow. "For that last three months, it's completely up to them," said study leader Katie Heinrich, a kinesiology professor at Kansas State. "So, we'll see if we have significant changes at six months and then what happens three months later. Do they lose it if they stop exercising? Do they keep doing that type of exercising? Do they increase even further?"

All branches of the military have been reevaluating and strengthening their fitness programs over the past few years, rolling out new resources and programs to improve troop fitness. The Army rolled out a new workout program in 2012, and the Air Force, despite budget cuts, has instituted 24-hour fitness centers as part of its Healthy Bases Initiative, and is even taking fitness cues from an NBA trainer. The Navy is also in the midst of considering various options for improving its fitness testing.

"We hypothesize the groups that do high-intensity functional fitness through CrossFit will experience greater increases in fitness than the regular PT groups, as well as greater improvements in body composition," Heinrich said. "We also expect, because we've seen this in previous studies, that those who do the CrossFit training will spend less time actually exercising.

RELATED: CrossFit Stirs Passions, But Both Sides Need to Relax

RELATED: Doctors: Exercise Caution When Introducing CrossFit

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Workout War"

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