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Smarter not harder: How the Marine Corps wants to improve performance

Philip Athey

Pvt. Wyatt Hicks, left, a student with School of Infantry East, performs a weighted pullup while Sgt. Brandon Ayers, right, Alpha Company platoon sergeant, monitors his performance at the Human Performance Center on Camp G
ARLINGTON, Virginia ― As the Marine Corps looks “age up” its force, it is taking steps to try to improve the long-term mental, spiritual and physical well-being of Marines.

An older, better trained and fitter Marine Corps is the goal as the the service reshapes itself with a focus on a potential war in the Pacific with China or in northern Europe against Russia. Either scenario would see Marines fight without a significant technological or logistical advantage for the first time in decades.

To make up for that lost advantage, the Corps is focusing on making each Marine better than their near-peer equivalent.

To reach that goal the Corps is looking to create a human performance center that will be a Marine’s one-stop shop for mental, spiritual and physical fitness.

“Our nation’s strategic advantage is not in things, it is in the minds and abilities of the people in uniform,” Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.

Black said the Corps is running experiments to determine what the human performance center should look like.

One such experiment took place at the School of Infantry–East, in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where Marines going through the pilot Infantry Marine Course were provided an experimental human performance center in the battalion’s headquarters building.

“Here, they have free range to use equipment, tools and guidance from professionals with the capabilities to advise Marines on the total fitness factors ― from spiritual fitness to physical fitness,” a Marine Corps press release said.

Though squats, deadlifts and bench presses will likely remain a key factor in many Marines’ after work gym visits, the Corps will have a different look for the gyms provided at the human performance centers.

Black said modern college athletic training rooms have more “stretchy bands” and “bouncy balls,” than free weights.

“And they perform better than they did when they picked the heavy thing up, pushed the heavy thing forward or backwards, do the heavy squats, it’s different, with a better performance outcome,” he said.

The new look gyms, along with the force fitness instructors and athletic trainers the Corps is sending into the fleet, will create workout programs based on the specific needs of Marines based off job requirements and current performance level.

Smarter not harder

The Corps also will take that “smarter not harder” mindset out of the gym and into the field.

“You can’t train for sleep deprivation, you are either tired or you’re not,” Black said.

“We are going to operate in environments where for 36 hours, 24 hours being awake happens. Ok, well how many times do you do that before making wrong decisions in the training environment?”

Marines will still be pushed to the limit under the Corps’ new human performance mindset, but commanders should have a better understanding of what that limit is and how to safely get Marines there.

“How do we how do we make someone stronger, while at the same time make them better at doing all the things that caused the injury to begin with,” is a question the Marine Corps is working to answer, Black said.

The Corps is also looking to change its culture that historically has discouraged Marines from admitting they were injured or asking for help.

“More and more people seek help today than they ever did before, so I think the culture is beginning to shift a little bit,” Black said.

The acceptance of a human performance mindset may accelerate that cultural change as leaders fully understand that a “more fit force is a better force,” Black added.

Learning how to ask for and provide assistance goes beyond simply physical training Black said and hits on perhaps the most important part of the human performance spectrum.

While physical health and fitness is one of the main goals, Black said that for Marines, physical fitness would come naturally if they were mentally and spiritually fit.

“Physical fitness is probably the end result of all other elements of fitness,” Black said.

“Our best athletic teams and organizations don’t start with going to the gym, you have to go through a whole bunch of other things before you get to go workout in the weight room,” Black said referring to his talks with college athletic departments.

Black said there is a growing need for mental health in the nation that is reflective in the Corps.

Between 45.2% and 50.2% of U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 had symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2021, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Between long hours, required moves that put stress on the family and deployments, those issues can be amplified in the military.

The human performance mindset the Marine Corps hopes to adopt will look to target those issues even more than it targets the physical side of human performance, Black said.

While the Corps is still in the experimental phase, the new force fitness mindset seems to be bearing fruit.

Despite the increased physical demands, the first iteration of the East Coast course did not see an increased number of injuries, according to a Marine Corps press release.

On the West Coast side, only two Marines dropped out of the first iteration of the Infantry Marine Course despite the increased physical training and requirements, Marine Corps Times previously reported.

The sergeant major added that there is no specific timeline for the implementation of the program, but said it fully aligned with Berger’s vision to reshape the Corps by 2030.


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