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Sports Medicine

, Volume 48, Issue 11, pp 2623–2640 | Cite as

Sex-Specific Changes in Physical Performance Following Military Training: A Systematic Review

  • Jo Varley-Campbell
  • Chris Cooper
  • Daryl Wilkerson
  • Sophie Wardle
  • Julie Greeves
  • Theo Lorenc
Open Access
Systematic Review

Abstract

Introduction

Men and women joining the military undergo the same training, often in mixed-sex platoons. Given the inherent physiological and physical performance differences between men and women, it is reasonable to question whether sex differences exist in the adaptation to military training and, therefore, whether sex-specific training should be employed to optimise training adaptations.

Objective

To systematically review the literature evaluating changes in the physical performance of men and women following military training.

Methods

Six database sources were searched in addition to extensive secondary searching. Primary prospective intervention studies (all designs) evaluating physical training interventions in military populations, reporting pre- to post-training changes in physical fitness outcomes for both women and men, were included.

Results

We screened 3966 unique records. Twenty-nine studies (n = 37 study reports) were included, most of which were conducted in the USA and evaluated initial training for military recruits. Positive changes were more consistently observed in aerobic fitness and muscle strength (whole body and upper body) outcomes than lower body strength, muscle power or muscle endurance outcomes, following physical training. Relative pre- to post-training changes for all outcome measures tended to be greater in women than men although few statistically significant sex by outcome/time interactions were observed.

Conclusion

Improvements in some, but not all, performance components were observed following a period of military training. Largely, these improvements were not significantly different between sexes. Further prospective research is needed to evaluate sex-specific differences in the response to physical training in controlled conditions to improve military physical training outcomes for both sexes.

Key Points

Some aspects of physical performance are improved following military training in both military men and women.

Typically, there were no sex differences in the physical performance adaptation to military training.

It seems sex-specific military training may not be necessary to achieve some improvements in physical performance.

1 Introduction

Preparation of personnel for military roles begins with an initial phase of basic military training (BMT), typically ranging from 6 to 14 weeks (depending on arm of service/nation), followed by a period of specialist ‘trade’ training. The purpose of BMT is to transform a civilian into a trained soldier, with a focus on field craft, map reading, weapon handling and formal physical training. Women typically train alongside men during BMT, with the exception of standard entrants in the British Army, who, since 2006, have completed identical training courses in single-sex platoons.

Despite men and women undergoing the same BMT, little is currently known about whether men and women adapt in a similar manner to physical training. Given the sex differences in physiology and physical performance [1], and in the physical demands of BMT [2, 3], we may reasonably expect men and women to adapt differently to physical training. Sex differences in the adaptation to military training would highlight a potential need to train men and women differently to optimise training outcomes. Moreover, sex-specific training would have implications for typical delivery of BMT, and, combined with the typically lower performance levels of women, the recent introduction of women into physically arduous Ground Close Combat (GCC) roles across a number of nations including the UK, USA and Australia.

We conducted a systematic review with the primary aim of understanding sex differences in physical performance changes following military training. A secondary aim of the review was to understand the components of fitness developed to the greatest degree during military training, evaluating any sex differences in improvements of these fitness components. Given that the effectiveness of a GCC soldier is underpinned by physical employment standards spanning the range of fitness components, understanding the components of fitness that require greatest focus/represent the greatest sex difference in performance will enable development of training strategies to appropriately prepare women for the demands of GCC employment.

2 Methods

This systematic review was undertaken following guidance published by the National Health Service (NHS) Centre for Reviews and Dissemination [4]. This systematic review is reported in accordance with PRISMA reporting guidelines. The protocol for this review is registered with PROSPERO: CRD42016032870.

2.1 Study Identification

The following bibliographic databases were systematically searched in December 2015: MEDLINE and MEDLINE in Process via Ovid; Embase via Ovid; CINAHL via EBSCO; HMIC via Ovid; SPORTDiscus via EBSCO; and Web of Science via Thomson Reuters (including conference proceedings). The search strategy took the following form: (terms for tri-service populations) and (terms for training or physical training) and (terms for men and women). The searches were not limited by language and they were run from database inception, in each case.

The following supplementary search methods were undertaken: web searching [the meta-search engine Dogpile was used and specific websites were hand-searched (e.g. Defence Technical Information Centre)], a search of PubMed [5] restricted to e-publications, and grey literature searching [via Open Grey and integrating grey literature provided by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)] [6].

All studies included at full-text were forwards citation chased (using Scopus via Elsevier) and backwards citation chased for 1 generation (manually). Where possible, and for studies published after 1999, study authors were contacted to identify any in-process or unpublished studies. Finally, lateral searching on first and last authors was also undertaken (using Scopus via Elsevier).

The approach to study identification from this systematic review is transparently reported in the Electronic Supplementary Material Appendix S1. Study identification was undertaken by CC, a qualified information specialist. All studies identified were loaded into Endnote 7.3 (Thomson Reuters) and de-duplicated. Data were retained in Research Information Systems (RIS) format for each database created.

2.2 Selection of Studies

An initial sample of 10% of abstracts (n = 194) were screened independently by three reviewers to pilot the inclusion criteria and ensure consistency prior to undertaking title and abstract screening. Inter-rater agreement was 96.4% and discrepancies were resolved by discussion.

The remaining studies (n = 1755) were single-screened. All studies were screened hierarchically based on the exclusion criteria presented in Table 1. Studies were required to report pre/post results following a military training programme in the same military population, and to be prospective in design. Where the title or abstract met the criteria (or if this was unclear), the full text was retrieved and screened. Full-text screening was undertaken by two reviewers. Each full text was second-screened by a third reviewer. Inter-rater agreement was 100%.
Table 1

Exclusion criteria

Exclusion code (EX)

Notes

EX1: not primary prospective intervention study in humans

Include any intervention study (randomised trial, non-randomised trial, one-group uncontrolled study) that reports data from both before and after the intervention. Exclude purely observational or retrospective studies (but include where prospectiveness is unclear, if pre–post data are reported.) Exclude reviews and other secondary research (but retain systematic reviews for subsequent reference checking). Exclude animal studies

EX2: not military population

Include any military population

EX3: not aged 17–60 years

Include studies where the sample is entirely aged between 17 and 60 years; or where the mean age of the sample lies between 17 and 60 years; or where separate data on this age group are reported

EX4: not relevant outcome

Include the following outcomes: muscle strength; muscle endurance; muscle power; aerobic capacity; anaerobic capacity; detraining response; injury (e.g. overuse injury, stress fracture, musculoskeletal injury); energy deficit

EX5: not physical training programme

Include any form of physical training or conditioning intervention. Include multi-component interventions with an exercise or physical training component

EX6: systematic reviews

Relevant systematic reviews were kept separate for screening of their included studies

EX7: no data for both men and women, or different interventions for men and women

Exclude studies not reporting pre- and post-data for both men and women within the sample. Exclude studies not using the same outcome measure for men and women. Exclude studies where men and women received clearly different interventions

EX8: not the same measure and sample at pre and post

Exclude studies using different outcome measures at pre and post time points. Exclude studies using different samples (i.e. different individuals, not counting attrition) at pre- and post-time points

Systematic reviews did not satisfy the inclusion criteria for this review. However, any systematic reviews that were of topic relevance were retained and their included studies screened for inclusion in this systematic review.

2.3 Quality Appraisal and Data Extraction

All studies included at full-text were quality-assessed using a modified form of the Effective Public Health Practice Project (EPHPP) tool for quantitative outcome studies [7].

Study data were extracted by one reviewer and checked by a second reviewer, using a standardised form that included information on selection bias, study design, confounders, blinding, data collection methods and withdrawals and dropouts. These sub-domains were considered along with intervention integrity and analysis methods to give an overall rating for the study quality. Studies could be rated as providing either weak, moderate or strong quality evidence.

2.4 Statistical Analysis and Data Synthesis

The studies were synthesised descriptively. Outcome measures were categorised initially into two overarching categories (‘aerobic fitness’ and ‘strength and muscular endurance’) and then into narrower categories within these two overarching categories (e.g. maximal oxygen uptake (\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\)), run time, whole body strength/power, muscle endurance, push-ups, sit-ups, upper/lower body strength, grip strength). Due to the limited validity of the studies, and, in particular, the few controlled studies, a full meta-analysis could not be undertaken. Where data allowed and outcomes were similar, a graphical format was used to summarise the change between pre- and post-training and, if reported, any statistical significance of this change (as reported in the included studies by their authors). Where this approach was not possible, data were presented in tabular form. The tables report the pre- and post-training results along with calculated relative percentage change and any significant changes (as reported in the included studies by their authors). Relative percentage change was calculated as ((post score − pre score)/(pre score)). Standardised gain scores were not calculated as these may have been unreliable for within-subject designs where individual participant data were unavailable. Moreover, reporting absolute values and percentage changes allows for a more intuitive interpretation of the magnitude of the observed changes. To provide a summary of the observed changes, the median of the pre–post changes observed in each study was taken, un-weighted by sample size or standard deviation. This method provides an indication of the approximate magnitude of the observed changes, but should not be regarded as a pooled effect size, and in some cases it subsumes heterogeneous outcome measures.

3 Results

3.1 Results of Searches

A total of 3966 citations were identified by our searches. 106 studies (2.7% of the total studies identified) were taken forward to full-text screening and 29 studies have been included in this systematic review with an additional eight linked study reports (in total 37 included citations or 0.9% of the original citations identified from the search). Three systematic reviews (Knapik et al. [8], Wentz et al. [9] and Jones et al. [10]) and one meta-analysis (Courtright et al. [11]) were identified1 and their included studies screened for inclusion in this review. The PRISMA diagram is shown in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

PRISMA study selection flow chart. EX1 not primary prospective intervention in humans, EX2 not military population, EX3 not aged 17–60 years, EX4 not relevant outcomes, EX5 not physical training programme, EX6 systematic review, EX7 no data for both men and women individually, EX8 not the same measure and sample for pre/post

3.2 Study Characteristics

Of the 29 included studies [2, 3, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38], 24 utilised a one-group pre–post design [2, 3, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 37], three studies reported a two-group pre–post design [22, 26, 36], one was a randomised controlled trial [17] and one was a non-randomised controlled trial [38]. Six of the studies were conducted in the UK [2, 3, 19, 25, 28, 35], 14 in the USA [12, 13, 14, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33], three in Israel [16, 37, 38], two in Australia [15, 26], two in Canada [18, 20], one in South Africa [36] and one in Germany [34]. The training intervention was typically (n = 24 studies) a basic combat/recruit training programme of the country of study. Three studies [21, 22, 36] reported a comparison between standard basic training and an altered version of basic training. One study [17] reported a comparison between an exercise programme and a combined exercise and diet programme. Finally, one study [24] reported changes following a circuit-based weight-training programme. Study durations ranged between 6 and 14 weeks, except for Harwood et al. (40 weeks [19]) and Daniels et al. (23 months [14]). Outcomes reported included measures of aerobic and anaerobic fitness tests, muscle strength (whole, upper and lower body), muscle endurance, whole-body power, grip strength and flexibility. Study characteristics are reported in Table 2.
Table 2

Study characteristics

Study

Country/service

Total Na

Sex

N by sexa

Study duration

Retention

Outcomes

Intervention

Knapik et al. [22]

US Army recruits

2580

Female int

515

9 weeks

NR

2-mile run time, push ups, sit ups, injury rate

Intervention: Physical Readiness Program incorporated into BCT. Including calisthenics, dumbbell drills, movement drills, interval training, long-distance running and flexibility training. The programme was followed for the initial 7 (of 9) weeks of BCT, after which the int group switched to the same programme as the comp group. Comparison: ‘traditional’ BCT physical training including warm-up, stretching, calisthenics, variations on push up and sit up exercises and running in formation in ability groups

Female comp

651

Male int

769

Male comp

645

Teves et al. [32]

US Army recruits

1984

Female

1004

8 weeks

49%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), hand grip strength, upright pull, incremental dynamic lift

8 weeks of BT for phase 1 to phase 2

Male

980

47%

Knapik et al. [23]

US Army recruits

1444

Female

496

7 weeks

70%

Upper torso strength, leg extensor strength, trunk extensor strength

Army basic initial entry training; including 39 h of physical activity of calisthenics, strength exercises, running and marching. Calisthenics and strength exercises performed ~ 1 h/day 5–6 days/week

Male

948

77%

Knapik et al. [21]

US Army recruits

1138

Female

482

7 weeks

NR

2-mile run time, push ups, sit ups, injury incidence

Intervention: BCT of ~ 1 h physical training each morning, including conditioning drills, movement drills, stretching drills, speed running, ability group running, and shuttle running. Comparison: N/A. Two comparisons are reported but neither provides usable effectiveness data

Male

656

Bell et al. [12]

US Army recruits

861

Female

352

8 weeks

NR

Run time, push ups; sit ups, injury incidence

BCT; no further information

Male

509

Hart et al. [18]

Canadian recruits

587

Female

278

9 weeks

NR

Incremental lift machine, max static exertion

BCT; no further information

Male

309

Yanovich et al. [38]

Israel Defence Force recruits

420

Female combat

221

4 and 16 months

24%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\)

Army BT for 4 months (and subsequent military service for 1 year). Undertaken in desert-climate conditions and in a gender-integrated battalion

Female non-combat

121

Male combat

78

27%

Wood and Kruger [36]

South African health and medical service recruits

373

Female int

85

12 weeks

98% (99% int, 96% comp)

Run time, push ups; sit ups, walk time, shuttle runs

Intervention: BMT programme. 48 × 40-min activity sessions over 12 weeks. Total components 322 min warm-up, 950 min jogging, 213 min interval training; 28 × body-weight upper-body endurance exercises, 64 × with 20 kg poles; 28 × body-weight abdominal endurance exercises, 64 × with 20 kg poles. Comparison: BMT as intervention but more time for warm-up and less endurance exercises, and the poles (weights) were not used: 630 min warm-up, 510 min jogging, 200 min interval training; 51 × body-weight upper-body endurance exercises; 56 × body-weight abdominal endurance exercises

Female comp

115

Male int

100

Male comp

73

Sharp et al. [30]

US Army recruits

350

Female

168

8 weeks

60%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), upper torso strength, lower body strength, upright pull, dynamic lifting, vertical jump power, peak power, hamstring flexibility

BCT; no further information

Male

182

54%

Vogel et al. [33]

US Army recruits

345

Female

159

6 weeks

NR

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), muscle strength

US Army BT

Male

186

Evans et al. [16]

Israeli Defence Force

257

Female

199

4 months

77%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\)

Gender-integrated basic recruit training. Training programme included marching under load, running and jumping, battle drills

Male

58

71%

Jetté et al. [20]

Canadian force recruits

211

Female

96

9 weeksb

71%

Incremental lift machine, static pull, shoulder arm push, grip strength, bicep curl

BMT included 63 × 40-min periods: 30% walking/jogging/marching and the rest consisting of roughly equal proportions of: physical training exercises, circuit training, sports, swimming and performance testing

Male

115

66%

Patton et al. [27]

US Army recruits

200

Female

100

7 weeks

57%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), run time

Army BT; 39 h of physical training over 7 weeks, including: daily runs, marching to field exercises; calisthenics, log exercises, rifle drills

Male

100

87%

Sharp et al. [29]

US Army recruits

200

Female 1

100

8 weeks

43%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\)

BT, no further information

Female 2

Male 1

100

Male 2

Yanovich et al. [37]

Israeli Defence Force recruits

176

Female

129

4 months

84%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), run time, push ups, sit ups, ground reaction force, peak power

BCT over 4 months, including average of 4 h running, 3 h marching, 10 h combat training and 5 h continuous standing per week

Male

47

60%

Drain et al. [15]

Australian Army recruits

174

Female

20

7–8 weeks

NR

Max box lift

40 × physical training, each 45–60 min. Including: circuit training (7 sessions), running (6), swimming (3), load carriage (7), obstacle course (4), fitness testing (3), and familiarisation or skill-based sessions (10)

Male

154

Sonna et al. [31]

US Army recruits

147

Female

85

8 weeks

72%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\)

BT: 1–1.5 h, 4–6 days/week. Alternated between aerobic and muscle strength training (typically each 2 sessions/week). Aerobic training: 0.5–3 mile runs, timed according to ability, and sprinting. Strength training: push-ups, sit-ups. In addition, participants took part in road marches, obstacle courses, rappelling, and other physical training activities

Male

62

90%

von Restorff [34]

German medical service recruits and temp volunteers

110

Female

62

3 months

89%

Right and left hand grip strength, lift from squat and from standing, press from shoulder level, carrying simulated patient of 60, 70, 80 and 90 kg

BMT, details NR

Male

48

75%

Harwood et al. [19]

British Army officer cadets in the Royal Military Academy

106

Female

38

40 weeks

NR

Run time, sit ups, static lift, dynamic lift, back extension, pull ups, progressive run

93 × physical training sessions of 45-min. Term 1: basic fitness and battle training; term 2: endurance and battle training; term 3, preparation for competitions and military exercises. The PT sessions included conditioning (8), endurance training (mainly marching; 40), battle training (mainly assault course; 23), basic training (mainly gym skills; 13), and swimming (8)

Male

68

Rayson et al. [28]

British Army recruits

72

Female

28

9 weeks

64%

Run time

CMS(R); no further information

Male

44

Patterson et al. [26]

Australian defence force

63

Female

28

12 weeks

43%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), push ups, pull ups, 30 s work, peak power, static lift, right and left hand force, bench press, leg press, run dodge and jump course time

3 × 1 h sessions/week. Intervention group participants were split: those with low muscular strength received an intervention focusing on muscular strength, those with low aerobic fitness one focusing on increasing aerobic capacity. Both consisted of weight training, circuit training, running, pack marches, and box and skip sessions in varying proportions

Male

35

50%

Richmond et al. [3]

British Army recruits

60

Female

30

14 weeks

53%

Run time, days lost to injury

CMS(R), no further information

Male

30

57%

Daniels et al. [13]

US Army cadets at military academy

60

Female

30

6 weeks

90%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), run time

Initial physical and military training programme prior to start of academic year. Physical training included 30-min run 5–6 ×/week in ability groups; unclear what other physical training was undertaken

Male

30

97%

Blacker et al. [2]

British Army recruits

54

Female platoon

19

12 weeks

57%

Run time

CMS(R); no further information

Male platoon

17

77%

Mixed platoon

18 (9 females, 9 males)

NR

Williams et al. [35]

British Army recruits

52

Female

9

10 weeks

60%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), multi-stage shuttle run, 15 m box lift, repetitive lift and carry, loaded (15 kg) march, isometric 38 cm upright pull, incremental dynamic lift to 145 m

10 weeks of BT with modified physical training (PT) consisting of strength training (28 sessions), endurance training (15) agility (8), material handling (6), sports (6), circuit training (4) and swimming (4)

Male

43

  

Marcinik and Hodgdon [24]

US Navy

50

Female

15

10 weeks

60%

Shoulder press, bench press, arm curl, lat pull down, one and two arm lift, leg press, knee extension, muscular endurance leg and bench press, max work capacity, sit and reach

Circuit training program performed on a multi-station gym. 3 sessions/week. Working at 40% of 1RM, 5 s work/15 s move to next station. 3 circuits were completed (11 stations). 1RM was re-evaluated after 5 weeks training. Exercises: bench press, shoulder press, hip flexor, pull-up (or leg lift for women), arm-curl, lat pull-down, leg press, knee extension, arm dip, sit up, handgrip

Male

35 

83%

Mason et al. [25]

British Army recruits

42

Female

20

10 weeks

NR

Run time, ab curl, injuries reported, upright pull, heaves, lift mean power/max power/total work/max force, MSFT

CMS(R). Training included running, marching, strength training and sports. Mean daily distance covered 11.2 km

Male

22

Gambera et al. [17]

US Air Force active-duty personnel

32

Female ex

5

90 days

100%

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\)

Intervention: Mandatory exercise program three times a week. Exercise to incorporate large muscle groups at an intensity of 60–80% of max HR for 40 min. Activities included walking, jogging, cycling, and step-aerobic programs. Comparison: Exercise as above, plus weekly individualised dietary counselling from dietician (Note that all groups received same training intervention; comparison not relevant for this review)

Male ex

12

100%

Female ex + diet

7

100%

Male ex + diet

8

100%

Daniels et al. [14]

US Army cadets at military academy

18

Female

7

23 months

NR

\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\), lost time from injury, upright pull strength, upper torso strength, trunk extensor strength, leg extensor strength

2 years of training. Physical training: calisthenics, grass drills and 30-min run in ability groups 5–6 ×/week. Military field training: combat training and survival, physical training. Physical education classes (boxing and wrestling for Males, self-defence for Women) and a sport club

Male

11

ab abdominal, BT basic training, BCT basic combat training, BMT basic military training, comp comparison, CMS(R) Common Military Syllabus for Recruits, ex exercise, int intervention, h hour, HR heart rate, lat lateral, max maximum, MSFT multi stage fitness test, N/A not applicable, NR not reported, PT personal trainer, RM repetition maximum, temp temporary, \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\) maximum oxygen uptake

aNumbers recruited

bTwo of six platoons were tested in week 7

Combined, a total of 12,166 participants (5683 women and 6483 men) were recruited to take part in these studies. The largest study recruited 2580 participants [22] and the smallest 18 participants [14]. The mean age of the participants was between 18.6 and 23.4 years, except for Marcinik and Hodgdon [24], Mason et al. [25] and Gambera et al. [17], where the mean age ranged from 27.7 to 33.8 years. Body mass index (BMI), where reported (n = 8) [16, 17, 21, 22, 31, 34, 36, 37], ranged from 22.4 to 25.1 kg/m2 in women and between 21.1 and 27.1 kg/m2 in men. Percentage body fat, where reported (n = 14) [2, 3, 12, 13, 16, 23, 24, 27, 28, 31, 32, 34, 35, 37], ranged from 20.0 to 30.8% in women and from 9.5 and 21.1% in men. The sample populations were classified within normal BMI and percentage body fat guidelines for active individuals and therefore indicative of healthy individuals. Baseline characteristics of the participants are reported in Table 3.
Table 3

Baseline characteristics (mean ± SD)

Study

Sex

N baseline

Age (years)

Height (m)

Weight (kg)

BMI (kg/m2)

% body fat

Knapik et al. [22]

Female int

507

20.9 ± 3.7

1.64 ± 0.06

62.0 ± 9.7

23.0 ± 3.1

NR

Female comp

637

20.7 ± 3.4

1.64 ± 0.06

61.2 ± 9.1

22.9 ± 2.9

NR

Male int

759

20.9 ± 3.4

1.77 ± 0.07

75.6 ± 13.3

24.3 ± 3.8

NR

Male comp

630

20.7 ± 3.3

1.76 ± 0.07

74.4 ± 12.6

24.0 ± 3.7

NR

Teves et al. [32]

Female

487

20.1 ± 3.2

1.63 ± 0.06

58.1 ± 6.8

NR

24.7 ± 3.8a

Male

465

19.2 ± 2.2

1.75 ± 0.07

72.4 ± 10.3

NR

16.0 ± 5.0a

Knapik et al. [23]

Female

393

20.7 ± 3.2

1.62 ± 0.07

59.1 ± 7.1

NR

28.0 ± 4.7a

Male

769

19.8 ± 2.7

1.74 ± 0.07

70.9 ± 10.6

NR

16.3 ± 5.1a

Knapik et al. [21]

Female

482

21.4 ± 4.0

1.63 ± 0.06

62.4 ± 9.7

23.3 ± 3.0

NR

Male

656

21.9 ± 4.1

1.77 ± 0.07

78.4 ± 13.5

25.1 ± 3.8

NR

Bell et al. [12]

Female

352

20.0 ± NR

1.62 ± 0.06

57.8 ± 6.3

NR

26.6 ± 4.0b

Male

509

1.75 ± 0.07

76.3 ± 12.3

NR

16.4 ± 5.6b

Hart et al. [18]

Female

278

Range 17–25

NR

NR

NR

NR

Male

309

NR

NR

NR

NR

Yanovich et al. [38]

Female combat

221

19.0 ± 0.9

NR

60.6 ± 10.1

NR

NR

Female non-combat

121

18.6 ± 0.4

NR

57.6 ± 9.5

NR

NR

Male combat

78

19.2 ± 1.1

NR

69.8 ± 13.1

NR

NR

Wood and Kruger [36]

Female int

85

20.0 ± 3.2

1.59 ± 0.06

60.2 ± 9.0

22.4 ± 2.5

NR

Female comp

115

19.9 ± 3.1

1.60 ± 0.05

59.1 ± 8.7

22.8 ± 2.8

NR

Male int

100

20.2 ± 3.3

1.72 ± 0.06

61.8 ± 6.9

21.4 ± 2.2

NR

Male comp

73

20.5 ± 3.4

1.71 ± 0.06

62.3 ± 6.7

21.1 ± 2.4

NR

Sharp et al. [30]

Female

168

21.4 ± 3.4

1.63 ± 0.06

62.6 ± 9.8

NR

NR

Male

182

21.8 ± 3.4

1.77 ± 0.07

78.9 ± 12.8

NR

NR

Vogel et al. [33]

Female

159

19.6 ± 2.3

NR

NR

NR

NR

Male

186

21.1 ± 2.3

NR

NR

NR

NR

Evans et al. [16]

Female

199

19.0 ± 0.9

1.62 ± 0.06

60.8 ± 10.3

23.2 ± 3.4

30.8 ± 4.8a

Male

58

19.2 ± 1.1

1.75 ± 0.07

68.9 ± 13.1

22.4 ± 3.5

17.4 ± 5.0a

Jetté et al. [20]c

Female

96

19.7 ± 2.0

1.63 ± 0.06

56.6 ± 7.1

NR

53.8 ± 14.8d

Male

115

20.1 ± 2.6

1.75 ± 0.07

68.3 ± 9.8

NR

36.7 ± 14.9d

Patton et al. [27]

Female

100

19.7 ± 1.9

1.60 ± 0.06

56.9 ± 6.1

NR

28.2 ± 4.6a

Male

100

19.6 ± 2.0

1.73 ± 0.07

69.6 ± 10.6

NR

16.3 ± 5.0a

Sharp et al. [29]

Female 1

20

19.6 ± 1.8

NR

56.7 ± 7.1

NR

NR

Female 2

24

19.1 ± 1.3

NR

57.3 ± 6.1

NR

NR

Male 1

22

19.0 ± 1.5

NR

73.4 ± 11.4

NR

NR

Male 2

20

19.1 ± 2.0

NR

68.2 ± 10.2

NR

NR

Yanovich et al. [37]

Female

108

19.0 ± 1.0

1.62 ± 0.06

60.5 ± 10.0

23.0 ± 3.4

28.6 ± 4.2a

Male

28

1.74 ± 0.07

69.4 ± 12.6

23.7 ± 4.1

17.4 ± 4.9a

Drain et al. [15]

Female

20

23.1 ± 4.6

1.66 ± 0.05

64.0 ± 7.4

NR

NR

Male

154

21.4 ± 4.2

1.79 ± 0.06

77.9 ± 12.1

NR

NR

Sonna et al. [31]

Female

85

21.7 ± 3.6

NR

NR

23.1 ± 3.1

27.9 ± 6.1e

Male

62

NR

NR

24.8 ± 3.0

16.4 ± 5.7e

von Restorff [34]

Female

62

20.2 ± 2.4

1.68 ± 0.07

65.3 ± 8.8

23.0 ± 2.8

27.7 ± 4.0a

Male

48

20.5 ± 1.8

1.80 ± 0.08

79.7 ± 13.3

24.5 ± 2.1

17.9 ± 4.4a

Harwood et al. [19]

Female

38

23.4 ± 1.7

1.67 ± 0.05

65.5 ± 5.3

NR

NR

Male

68

22.8 ± 1.4

1.80 ± 0.07

77.9 ± 8.7

NR

NR

Rayson et al. [28]

Female

28

19.5 ± 3.2

1.66 ± 0.05

61.8 ± 7.1

NR

23.0 ± 4.0f

Male

44

20.5 ± 3.5

1.75 ± 0.08

67.7 ± 8.6

NR

10.0 ± 4.0f

Patterson et al. [26]

Female

28

NR

NR

NR

NR

78.0 ± 17.8d

Male

35

NR

NR

NR

NR

63.7 ± 26.0d

Richmond et al. [3]

Female

30

18.6 ± 1.9

1.63 ± 0.06

57.2 ± 6.5

NR

20.0 ± 3.6f

Male

30

18.9 ± 1.6

1.80 ± 0.07

73.8 ± 12.9

NR

9.5 ± 4.0f

Daniels et al. [13]

Female

30

Range 17–21

1.64 ± 0.06

57.7 ± 6.0

NR

23.8 ± 4.0a

Male

30

1.77 ± 0.05

70.6 ± 7.6

NR

13.1 ± 3.2a

Blacker et al. [2]

Female platoon

19

20.1 ± 3.4

1.71 ± 0.08

65.3 ± 8.5

NR

15.0 ± 8.0f

Male platoon

17

Mixed platoon

18 (9.9)

Williams et al. [35]

Female

9

19.1 ± 2.2

1.64 ± 0.07

62.0 ± 7.2

NR

24.9 ± 3.2f

Male

43

19.2 ± 2.6

1.76 ± 0.07

73.0 ± 10.6

NR

11.3 ± 2.8f

Marcinik and Hodgdon [24]

Female

9

27.7 ± 4.2

1.66 ± 0.05

65.0 ± 9.6

NR

23.5 ± 5.7b

Male

29

33.8 ± 5.5

1.78 ± 0.07

83.1 ± 14.8

NR

21.1 ± 6.3b

Mason et al. [25]

Female

20

NR

NR

NR

NR

NR

Male

22

NR

NR

NR

NR

NR

Gambera et al. [17]

Female ex

5

32.2 ± 7.4

NR

71.6 ± 3.3

25.1 ± 1.0

NR

Male ex

12

32.8 ± 6.2

NR

77.1 ± 10.7

25.2 ± 2.8

NR

Female ex + diet

7

32.7 ± 8.3

NR

66.1 ± 6.2

24.0 ± 3.1

NR

Male ex + diet

8

33.8 ± 7.1

NR

86.9 ± 10.0

27.1 ± 1.6

NR

Daniels et al. [14]

Female

7

NR

NR

NR

NR

NR

Male

11

NR

NR

NR

NR

NR

comp comparison, DEXA dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, Int intervention, NR not reported

aAverage of four-site skin fold

bCircumference measurements

cTwo of six platoons were tested in week 7

dSum for four skin folds (mm)

eDEXA

fBioelectrical impedance

Most studies measured improvements only up to the end of the training programme, which was between 1.5 and 4 months for all studies [2, 3, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38], with the exception of two which had longer durations of 40 weeks [19] and 100 weeks [14]. To maximise comparability, measurements collected at the end of the training programme have been used for the analyses below. For similar reasons, the analyses below treat comparative studies as multiple single-group pre–post comparisons rather than as comparative. Evidence from controlled studies is considered separately in Sect. 3.6.

3.3 Study Quality

The results of the quality assessment are shown in Table 4. Most studies used a single-group or uncontrolled design, i.e. only one training programme was evaluated [2, 3, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 37]. Therefore, these studies did not receive high quality scores for study design, confounders and blinding (sections B, C and D, respectively). Two studies [17, 36] scored slightly higher, since they used comparative designs and two of the single-group studies reported their methods more clearly therefore were able to receive higher ratings on some of the domains resulting in a higher overall rating [20, 27]. There were also substantial limitations in the reporting of sampling and recruitment (section A) and attrition (section F) in most studies. In general, most of the studies received higher scores for reliability and validity of outcome measures (section E). Therefore, generally the quality of the included studies was poor. Due to the lack of higher-quality studies, we did not exclude lower-quality evidence or attempt to weight the synthesis by quality rating.
Table 4

Quality appraisal

 

Selection bias

Study design

Confounders

Blinding

Data collection method

Withdrawals/dropouts

Overall rating

Knapik et al. [22]a

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Teves et al. [32]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Knapik et al. [23]

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Moderate

Weak

Knapik et al. [21]

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Bell et al. [12]

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Hart et al. [18]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Yanovich et al. [38]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

Wood and Kruger [36]

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Moderate

Strong

Moderate

Sharp et al. [30]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

Vogel et al. [33]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

Evans et al. [16]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Moderate

Weak

Jetté et al. [20]

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Moderate

Moderate

Patton et al. [27]

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Moderate

Moderate

Sharp et al. [29]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

Yanovich et al. [37]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

Drain et al. [15]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Sonna et al. [31]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

von Restorff [34]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Strong

Weak

Harwood et al. [19]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Rayson et al. [28]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Moderate

Weak

Patterson et al. [26]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Richmond et al. [3]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Daniels et al. [13]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Strong

Weak

Blacker et al. [2]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Williams et al. [35]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Moderate

Weak

Marcinik and Hodgdon [24]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Moderate

Weak

Mason et al. [25]

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Weak

Moderate

Weak

Weak

Gambera et al. [17]

Moderate

Strong

Moderate

Moderate

Weak

Strong

Moderate

Daniels et al. [14]

Weak

Weak

Weak

Weak

Strong

Weak

Weak

aKnapik et al. [22] reported as two-group, but treated as one-group for data analysis

3.4 Aerobic Fitness

3.4.1 Maximal Oxygen Uptake

Thirteen studies measured maximum oxygen uptake (\(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\); Electronic Supplementary Materials Fig. S1), some in absolute [17, 30] and some in relative terms (per kg of body mass) [13, 14, 16, 26, 27, 30, 31, 32, 37, 38]. To provide a consistent outcome measure in this analysis, absolute values were divided by the mean body mass values reported for men and women in each study at baseline to provide these data in relative terms. The 13 studies reported data on 21 female and 19 male groups. In all 40 of these groups, \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\) was higher after training than before; 17 of the pre–post differences were found to be significant. In all but two of 19 comparisons between men and women, pre–post differences were higher for women than for men. The median relative pre–post improvement was 7.4%; for men it was 4.0% and for women 8.2%. The median absolute pre–post improvement was 3.0 ml kg−1 min−1; for men it was 2.0 ml kg−1 min−1 and for women 3.4 ml kg−1 min−1.

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made by five of the 13 studies. One study found men had a significantly higher \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\) than women prior to training but this was not assessed post-training [26], three studies found men had a significantly higher \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\) than women both pre- and post-training [16, 30, 37] and one study found no significant sex by outcome interaction [27].

3.4.2 Run Time

Twelve studies measured time taken to run a certain distance as a measure of aerobic fitness (Electronic Supplementary Materials Fig. S2) [2, 3, 13, 16, 19, 21, 22, 25, 27, 28, 36, 37]. Distances varied between 1 mile (1.6 km) and 2 miles (3.2 km). Apart from differences in distance, it was unclear whether this outcome was comparable between studies as, in many cases, limited information was reported about the nature of the course (e.g. the terrain covered).

The 12 studies included data on 15 male and 15 female groups. All but one group recorded faster mean run times following training [36]; 18 of these pre–post differences were found to be significantly improved. There was a greater pre–post improvement for women than for men in all 12 studies. The median relative pre–post improvement was 9.5% overall; for men it was 5.7% and for women 10.4%. The most common distance evaluated was 1.5 miles (2.4 km, n = 7 studies). The median absolute pre–post improvement was 52 s overall; for men it was 31 s and for women 73 s.

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in six of the 12 studies. Four studies found men had a significant faster run time than women both pre- and post-training [2, 16, 28, 37], one study only investigated post-training differences between men and women and found men had a significantly faster run time than women [19], and one study found no significant sex by outcome interaction [27].

3.4.3 Other Outcomes

Other outcomes reflecting aerobic and anaerobic fitness (walking, progressive/shuttle runs and power) are tabulated in Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S1. One study [36] (two male and two female groups) measured 4 km walk time, finding a 9% median pre–post difference across groups, with little difference between female and male participants. Four studies measured shuttle runs or progressive runs [19, 25, 35, 36] (six male and six female groups), finding a 5.7% median pre–post improvement; for men it was 5.4% and for women 16.1%. Improvements were observed in all groups, although statistical significance was reached only in two of the male groups and two of the female groups.

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in only one study [19], where men ran for significantly longer on a shuttle run test than women post-training (pre-training was not reported).

Three studies measured peak power or total work using a Wingate (or similar protocol to a Wingate) cycling test ([24, 26, 37] six male and six female groups), finding a 1.7% median pre–post improvement; for men it was 0.1% and for women 3.7%. Small adverse, and insignificant, changes were observed in three of six male groups for this outcome.

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in all three studies. One study found men had a significantly higher peak power than women prior to training but this outcome was not assessed post-training [26]. One study found men had a significantly higher peak power than women both pre- and post-training [37] and one study found no significant differences between the sexes for all outcome measures [24].

3.5 Strength and Muscle Endurance

3.5.1 Whole Body Muscle Strength

Nine studies measured outcomes reflecting whole-body muscle strength (ten male and ten female groups) [15, 18, 19, 20, 26, 30, 32, 34, 35], of which eight provided the absolute data (Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S2; 28 cases pooled). Several of these outcomes are not strictly muscle strength outcomes but are intended to reflect specific military tasks. However, we felt these outcomes fitted better into strength rather than aerobic outcomes given their carrying and lifting nature. One study [26] measured time to complete a ‘run-dodge-jump’ assault course (two male and two female groups), and another [34], which looked at recruits being trained for military medical service, used an exercise designed to simulate carrying patients on a stretcher (one male and one female group). Several studies also measured tests of lifting heavy loads from ground level to a specified height, intended to simulate lifting tasks carried out on military operations. Across all these outcomes combined, the median pre–post improvement was 10.3%; for men it was 9.3% and for women 13.5%. Adverse differences were observed in three cases, of which one reached significance, while 18 cases significantly improved.

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in five of the nine studies. One study found men were significantly better at the run, dodge, jump test than women prior to training but did not include post-training assessments [26]. One study found men could lift a significantly heavier weight for the incremental dynamic lifting machine at 183 cm than women [20]. Two studies found a significant sex by time interaction for lifting a box to 145–150 cm [15] and the incremental dynamic lift machine at 152 cm [30], whilst one study found no significant differences between the sexes for the incremental dynamic lift machine at 145 cm [19].

3.5.2 Whole Body Power

Three studies measured whole body power (i.e. the ability to exert a maximum muscle contraction instantly in an explosive burst of movements; Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S3; three male and three female groups, 16 cases pooled) [25, 30, 37]. Two studies measured vertical jump power [30, 37] and one study measured power in a moving lift using an Aristokin (Lode, Groningen, The Netherlands) [25]. All three studies observed some adverse effects, with a median pre–post decline of − 13.3%; for men it was − 13.3% and for women − 17.9%. A significant decline was observed in three outcomes (vertical jump height, peak power and mean power) from the same study, in both the male and female groups [30].

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in two of the three studies. One study found no significant difference between the sexes for ground reaction force [37] and one study found a significant sex by time interaction for peak and mean power [30].

3.5.3 Muscle Endurance

Six studies measured muscle endurance (i.e. the repetition of muscle activity to exhaustion; Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S4; seven male and seven female groups, 16 cases pooled) [19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 35]. Various exercises were used for these measures, including repetition to fatigue of bicep curls, pull-ups and bench press. Across these studies, the median pre–post improvement was 19.6%; for men it was 19.6% and for women 27.2%. However, there was considerable variability in the outcomes, with no change, or a decline, in muscle endurance in five cases, and large improvements of over 50% in others. Six cases observed a significant improvement in muscle endurance [20, 24].

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in four of the six studies. One study found men could complete significantly more pull-ups than women prior to training but this outcome measure was not assessed post-training [26]. This finding was supported by another study, albeit at post-training (they did not assess pre-training) [19]. One study found men could complete significantly more bicep curls before fatigue compared to women [20] and one study found no significant differences between the sexes for bench press and leg press until fatigue [24] (although the required weights used by males and females were set at different values).

3.5.4 Push-Ups

Six studies measured the maximum number of push-ups (press-ups) participants could perform, either in 2 min or to exhaustion [12, 21, 22, 26, 36, 37]. The six studies included data on nine male and nine female groups (Electronic Supplementary Materials Fig. S3). All but three groups recorded higher scores after training than before training. In all but three cases the pre–post improvements were higher for female participants than for men. The median relative pre–post improvement was 51.8% overall; for men it was 49.8% and for women 70.6%. This median figure conceals a wide range in the findings, with some groups showing no pre–post difference (or even an adverse difference in one case) and some showing very substantial improvements of more than 100%. Significant improvements were observed in ten of the 18 groups (five male and five female groups).

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in three of the six studies. One study found men could complete significantly more push-ups than women prior to training but this same outcome was not assessed post-training [26] and two studies found men could complete significantly more push-ups than women both pre- and post-training [12, 37].

3.5.5 Sit-ups

Seven studies measured the number of sit-ups participants could perform. The seven studies contained data on eight male and eight female groups (Electronic Supplementary Materials Fig. S4) [12, 19, 21, 22, 25, 36, 37]. This figure does not show two studies included in the analysis here, one that used abdominal curls rather than sit-ups and so observed much larger absolute values [25], and one that measured endurance time on a progressive test, rather than the number of repetitions performed [19]. All groups recorded higher scores after training than before. In all cases the pre–post improvements were higher for female participants than for men. The median relative pre–post improvement was 47.3% overall; for men it was 35.6% and for women 53.2%. Significant improvements were observed in ten of the 18 groups (five male and five female groups).

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made by three of the seven studies. One study found men could complete significantly more sit-ups than women both pre- and post-training [12]; one study found no significant differences between men and women both pre- and post-training [37] and one study only investigated post-training differences between men and women, but also found men could complete significantly more sit-ups than women [19].

3.5.6 Upper Body Strength

Ten studies measured upper body strength, of which nine provided absolute data, using a range of specific exercises, including, among others, bench press, shoulder press and bicep curls (Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S5; 11 male and 11 female groups; 34 cases pooled) [13, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 26, 30, 33, 34]. Across these studies the median pre–post improvement was 8.5%; for men it was 6.9% and for women 13.0%. Adverse changes were observed in eight cases (five male and three female groups), of which two reached significance (one male and one female group), whilst 23 cases significantly improved (11 male and 12 female groups).

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in six of the ten studies. One study found men could bench press significantly heavier weights than women, but this outcome was not assessed post-training [26]. Two studies found men could bicep curl significantly heavier weights than women pre- and post-training [20, 24]. One study found men had significantly better trunk extensor strength and upper torso strength pre- and post-training [23]. Finally, no significant differences were found between the sexes for all other studies [19, 20, 24, 30] and their outcomes (back extension, bench press, latissimus dorsi pulldown, shoulder arm push, shoulder press, static arm shoulder strength, elbow flexion, upper torso strength).

3.5.7 Lower Body Strength

Ten studies measured lower body strength, of which nine provided absolute data, using a range of specific exercises, including leg press, leg extensor and knee flexor strength (Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S6; 11 male and 11 female groups; 28 cases pooled) [13, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, 32, 33, 35]. Across these studies the median pre–post improvement was 8.9%; for men it was 7.0% and for women 10.5%. Adverse changes were observed in five cases, but none reached significance, whilst significant improvements were observed in 14 cases (seven male and seven female groups).

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in five of the ten studies. Upright pull from 38 cm was not significantly different between men and women in two studies [19, 30], but men performed significantly better than women pre-training in one study [26] (it was not assessed post-training). Leg press was not significantly different between men and women in one study pre- or post-training [24], but men were significantly better than women pre-training in another [26] (leg press was not assessed post-training). Knee extensor strength [24], leg extensor strength [23] and lower body strength [30] were all not significantly different between the sexes post-training.

3.5.8 Grip Strength

Five studies measured hand-grip strength (Electronic Supplementary Materials Table S7, six male and six female groups; 18 cases pooled) [18, 20, 26, 32, 34]. Most of these studies observed an adverse (although not significant) pre–post decline, with a median difference of − 0.5%; for men it was − 0.2% and for women − 0.7%. A significant improvement in grip strength was observed in two studies (four groups, two male and two female).

Statistical comparisons between men and women were made in two of the five studies. One study found no significant differences between the sexes for combined grip strength [20] and one study found men had a significantly stronger left and right hand grip than women prior to training but this outcome was not assessed post-training [26].

3.6 Comparative Studies

As noted from the quality appraisal (Table 4), few (n = 5) studies used controlled designs.2 In one case [17], the only randomised trial included, the two study arms both received the same training intervention (while one also received dietary advice), meaning the randomised element is not relevant to this review. Only \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\) was measured by this study. Significant relative improvements were observed by all four groups, but statistical analyses between the sexes were not conducted. One study [38] compared basic training received by soldiers (women and men) preparing for combat roles with less demanding training undertaken by women in non-combat military service roles. This study also only assessed \(\dot{V}{\text{O}}_{2\text{max} }\) and found approximately similar relative improvements between the two groups of women over the study period. Again, statistical sex analyses were not conducted.

Three studies compared different types of training intervention. None of these studies were randomised and there was limited information on allocation, meaning there is a possibility of confounding. One study [22] compared ‘traditional’ basic combat training to a new programme, ‘Physical Readiness Training’, which incorporated a more varied range of exercises and less running, with the primary objective of reducing injuries. Similar improvements in fitness outcomes (2-mile run time, maximum push ups and sit ups in 2 min) from the two training programmes were recorded for both men and women. Following the two different training programmes, there were no significant differences between the proportion of recruits (male or female) passing the initial Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). Significant differences between the sexes were not reported. One study [26] similarly compared a revised training programme to usual combat training. However, while a detailed breakdown of the new programme is reported in the study, no information is reported on the training received by the usual-treatment control group, so the interpretation of this study is limited. This study found significant pre–post differences for a number of outcomes (e.g. bench press, leg press, and a run, dodge, jump course) in the intervention group compared to the control group. However, with low sample sizes (female intervention n = 9, female control n = 3; male intervention n = 13, male control n = 6) these results must be interpreted with caution. Sex comparisons were made for the fitness outcomes prior to training (all outcomes were significantly better in men compared to women) but were not reported post-training. Finally, one study [36] compared a revised ‘cyclic-progressive’ training programme to usual basic combat training (BCT), with the revisions including more jogging, upper body and abdominal exercises, and less warm-up and games (approximately the opposite to the findings of Knapik et al. [22]). This study found significantly greater improvements for intervention than control participants in both strength and aerobic fitness for both men and women. Again, sex comparisons were not reported.

4 Discussion

Here we present the first systematic review of the literature investigating the changes in physical performance over a period of military training in men and women. It was previously unclear whether sex differences exist in the adaptation to military training and, therefore, whether sex-specific training should be employed to optimise training adaptations. Despite all retrieved studies containing both male and female groups undergoing the same training, few studies statistically evaluated study outcomes by sex. In studies where sex differences were statistically evaluated, there were typically no differences in the physical performance adaptations to training between sexes. However, sex differences were evident at pre- and/or post-training time-points across a range of performance components. Aerobic fitness and muscle strength were most consistently increased across all study groups following military training, with more varied, inconsistent results in components of fitness/performance including muscle endurance, push-ups, sit-ups and lower body muscle strength. This systematic review provides a novel and comprehensive insight into sex differences in the performance response to military training.

Sex differences in the physical performance response to military training were statistically evaluated in 51% of studies. Statistical analyses varied among studies with some studies assessing the sex by outcome/time interaction, and other studies only evaluating pre- or post-training differences. Sex differences were observed in 63% of studies evaluating sex differences, although the majority of these studies (87%) demonstrated significant sex differences pre- and post-training, or pre-/post-training only, rather than a sex by outcome/time interaction. These data suggest that the physical performance response in men and women undergoing military training is similar (i.e. both men and women will improve following a training programme), yet highlight clear performance differences between the sexes prior to training that are not negated with military training (i.e. men perform better on the pre-training physical tests and remain better post-training when compared to women).

The lack of any apparent divergent responses for men and women to military physical training is promising in that existent training practices, despite often being inherited from typically male-orientated training environments, are not limiting for women. However, we are also unable to say whether military training is currently in its most effective form for both men and women, acknowledging the impact of competing demands/constraints inherent within BMT, and the fact that training is largely designed for expediency, large numbers and limited resources [39]. Given that the physical performance of women following military training is not, on average, at an equivalent level to that of men, specific physical training programmes may need to be developed and evaluated for women, particularly if women are to operate successfully in physically arduous GCC roles. The training gains of ~ 10% across a number of outcomes documented in our systematic review and other studies [2, 3] are smaller than can be achieved in women with specific, progressive, periodised training [39, 40, 41], and suggest that alternative training programmes may need to be employed to support women in passing the physical employment standards [42] of GCC roles and sustaining a successful GCC career. Future work should consider whether current military training is most effective in its current form for both men and women, or whether alternative training programmes would be more effective in developing physical performance across the range of performance components.

Due to the physical demands of GCC training and employment, it is necessary for military training to effectively develop a range of physical performance attributes, including aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, muscle strength, muscle power and mobility. Our data demonstrate that aerobic endurance and muscle strength (whole body and upper body) performance were improved most consistently across studies in our review, with the vast majority of studies showing significant improvements in these metrics. Although sit-up and press-up performance tests had the greatest median improvement of all the performance outcomes, significant improvements were only measured in 56% of cases. Whole body power appeared to be adversely affected by military training with a negative median change, although only one study demonstrated a significant decrement in performance, with all other studies showing no significant change. Muscle endurance and lower body muscle strength were significantly improved in 38% and 50% of cases, respectively. These data suggest that military training leads to gains in some, but not all, components of fitness.

Improvements in aerobic endurance over the course of BMT have been demonstrated in a number of studies [2, 3]. Typically, military training involves a high volume of running or locomotion on foot and thus it is not surprising that aerobic fitness is developed during this period. Moreover, aerobic fitness is a key component of load carriage performance [8], an essential military activity performed frequently in BMT. Muscle strength is also considered a key performance attribute for military personnel, with 88% of military tasks involving lifting and carrying of some nature [28] and resistance training being important for load carriage performance [8]. However, performing both endurance and resistance exercise concurrently, as is typical of military training, can result in an interference effect [43], whereby the adaptations that would arise from training each exercise type in isolation are attenuated. The improvements in aerobic endurance from the physical training programmes, combined with the fact that running endurance training results in greater lower body strength interference than other modes of endurance training [44], may explain our findings of improved upper body strength, but typically not lower body strength. Considering the requirement for GCC soldiers to lift and carry heavy loads, often over long distances, combined with aerobic endurance and strength training being essential components of load carriage performance [8], developing both whole body strength/power and aerobic fitness will be critical for success in GCC roles. Although men typically outperform women on physical tests, British Army data demonstrate an overlap in physical performance between men and women whereby the highest performing women outperform the lowest performing men. The greatest overlap is observed in the 1.5-mile endurance run, with the least overlap in the Powerbag lift strength test, suggesting that strength may be the fitness component requiring greatest attention for women. Targeted efforts to effectively physically develop trainees and serving military personnel in a multi-exercise training environment need to be prioritised, particularly for the female GCC soldier who will typically display lower physical capability than her male counterpart.

Sex comparisons within each performance component, in general, are largely reflected by the overall sex comparisons discussed previously. Often sex comparisons were not made and in instances where statistical comparisons of data between sexes were evaluated, the predominant finding tended to represent pre-/post-training differences rather than any interaction effect. These data suggest that attention needs to be afforded to both men and women, optimising delivery of physical training to achieve the most effective gains in all components of physical performance of relevance to the military.

In summary, given that enhancing performance of a specific physical capability is not the primary aim of BMT, with little recovery time to effectively adapt to physical training and the potential for interference effects from different training modalities, we are unable to conclusively answer the question of whether men and women respond differently to targeted physical training. However, the large participant numbers, within-subject pre–post design, and the ‘real-life’ application of the included studies does allow us to conclude that the physical performance of men and women in a number of attributes is improved over the course of BMT. Moreover, the relative gains in these performance attributes are not compromised in women compared to men, suggesting that both sexes have the capacity to effectively improve their physical performance during BMT. Understanding the impact of training with different exercise modes on overall physical adaptation, including mechanistic differences between men and women, will be important in our understanding of whether men and women need to be trained differently to optimise the response to physical training in both sexes. Future work reviewing the training literature outside of the military environment may provide a greater understanding of the mechanisms that underpin sex differences in the response to training programmes, facilitating the design of effective training programmes for military personnel.

4.1 Limitations in the Evidence Base

The major gap in the evidence base identified by this review is the lack of controlled prospective studies (i.e. studies that have a control group completing BMT and an intervention group completing a new training programme), ideally randomised trials, of training interventions in military populations that statistically compare sex differences. This review located very few studies using controlled designs, with relevant comparisons. Instead, studies were typically a single intervention with a pre/post design, and these studies were generally rated as low-quality evidence from our quality appraisal. There is a substantial body of evidence reporting the response of male and female personnel to training, particularly initial military training. However, these studies can be treated as studies of effectiveness only to a limited extent (and, indeed, in many cases do not seem to be conceived as such by their authors): the absence of comparison groups limits the internal validity of the findings and makes it difficult to synthesise the results quantitatively. Higher quality evidence would be obtained if studies were designed to specifically investigate sex differences in the response to physical training. This would offer greater insight into whether men and women respond differently to physical training, and such studies should be prioritised in future if we are to develop effective physical training programmes for military personnel.

Given that most studies were conducted during BMT, the time frame of sampling matched the lengths of these initial training programmes (approximately 3 months in most cases). The lack of evidence on longer-term outcomes may be of concern for two reasons: we are unable to determine firstly, whether these initial training improvements are maintained over time in both men and women, and secondly, whether longer training programmes result in continued fitness improvements in both men and women.

Apart from the use of uncontrolled single-group designs, the studies have several other methodological limitations. Selection bias may be pertinent since sampling and recruitment information was limited across all studies. Limitations in reporting of the methods used for each fitness test preclude conducting indirect comparisons across studies (since they would be heavily confounded). In addition, many studies presented limited information on the content of the physical training undertaken. Finally, the results do not support conclusions about the relative effectiveness of different training regimens or environments.

A further limitation of the evidence was that most studies analysed those who completed, and excluded those who dropped out of, training. In many cases attrition rates were substantial and the reasons were not always clear. However, the majority of the attrition seems to reflect participants either being injured or being discharged from the military for other reasons, rather than simple loss to follow-up. The pre–post results extracted and analysed in this review effectively ignore these participants. From a practical viewpoint, the impact of the training intervention on participants who do not complete training is arguably of secondary importance. Nonetheless, the limited data on dropouts in most studies, and the absence of controlled studies using intent-to-treat analysis, means that it is unclear what impact attrition may have had on the reported changes in physical performance.

Although some studies attempted to evaluate changes in military-specific task performance using outcome measures more aligned to the physical demands of military performance [26, 34, 35], most studies used standard tests of physical performance. The relevance of standardised outcome measures for practice is not always clear, particularly in the highly variable and challenging environment of the battlefield. These limitations regarding applicability warrant consideration, although the benefit of valid, repeatable and sensitive standardised measures should not be overlooked, particularly when the objective is to compare performance between the sexes across different physical training programmes.

4.2 Limitations of the Review

This review was based on robust systematic review methodology, including extensive and highly sensitive searches, screening using a priori criteria, and transparent processes for data extraction and synthesis. The result of these methods is a comprehensive evidence base that has been produced with minimal bias in the selection of studies and findings. However, these methods are not without their limitations.

Based on 96.4% agreement, 90% of the studies in this review were single screened by CC, JVC and TL. Whilst single screening is a potential technical limitation to this review, the review team are experienced systematic reviewers, who also conducted extensive supplementary searches.

The need to draw clear boundaries regarding inclusion criteria resulted in material that may have initially seemed relevant being excluded. Typical examples of excluded studies were those that used different measures at baseline and post-test, or for men and women, and studies comparing different samples (i.e. not the same individuals) at baseline and post-test. The review aims were to include only prospective studies, but this criterion was not applied strictly since the reporting of studies often did not allow clear determination of whether studies were prospective or not. Nonetheless, studies were excluded where it was clearly stated that a retrospective design was used. Purely observational studies, i.e. studies that did not include an intervention (or only compared outcomes between men and women at a single time point), were excluded. Such studies may have been contextually relevant, but did not enable assessment of the impact of physical training.

The limitations of the evidence base (Sect. 4.1) precluded a full meta-analysis, which could have produced pooled effect sizes for the outcomes evaluated. Instead, full outcome data have been presented (where appropriate) and unstandardised, unweighted median pre–post differences to characterise the overall findings were used. While this approach also has some limitations, and the data presented should not be confused with a full meta-analysis, presentation of the data in this manner provides an indication of the magnitude of the changes observed in the studies. It should also be noted that comparing the pre- and post-training mean values for the whole group, and expressing this difference as a change score, may often give very different results to taking the mean of the change scores for each individual.

5 Conclusions

We present a systematic review of performance responses to physical training in military men and women. Typically, there were no sex differences in the physical performance adaptation to military training. Changes in aerobic endurance and muscle strength (whole body and upper body) outcomes were more consistently observed across study groups than changes in muscle power, lower body muscle strength and muscle endurance. Outcome measures of these physical performance parameters were largely not military-specific activities and thus may have not adequately represented changes in military-specific physical performance. Moreover, many of the included studies were not of a prospective, randomised, controlled trial design, but rather an evaluation of changes in physical performance over the course of BMT. Future work should focus on evaluating sex differences in response to physical training designed to improve a specific physical capability, and to understand the mechanisms underpinning adaptation to physical training in both sexes.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    For the purpose of this review, a systematic review was defined as one that has: a focused research question; explicit search criteria that are available to review, either in the document or on application; explicit inclusion/exclusion criteria, defining the population(s), intervention(s), comparator(s), and outcome(s) of interest; a critical appraisal of included studies, including consideration of internal and external validity of the research; and a synthesis of the included evidence, whether narrative or quantitative.

  2. 2.

    One further study by Knapik et al. [21] also used a controlled design, but the data reported do not allow interpretation in terms of a comparison of effectiveness of the arms.

Notes

Acknowledgements

This article is a summarised version of a full systematic review and report commissioned by DHCSTC: ‘Cooper C, Varley-Campbell J, Lorenc T, Wilkerson D. Optimal physical training strategies to prepare male and female military personnel for performance of tasks associated with Ground Close Combat (GCC) roles. 2016’. The authors would like to acknowledge Dr. Piete Brown from the Women in Ground Close Combat (WGCC) team for his input into the conduct of this work and Dr Tom O’Leary (WGCC) for his suggested edits to the manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Funding

This work was commissioned through the Defence Human Capability Science and Technology Centre (DHCSTC, Grant number TIN 3.199). DHCSTC had no role in the design, analysis or writing of this article.

Conflict of interest

Jo Varley-Campbell, Chris Cooper, Daryl Wilkerson, Sophie Wardle, Julie Greeves and Theo Lorenc declare that they have no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this review.

Supplementary material

40279_2018_983_MOESM1_ESM.docx (301 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 301 kb)
40279_2018_983_MOESM2_ESM.docx (246 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 246 kb)

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© The Author(s) 2018

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Clinical, Educational and Health PsychologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Sport and Health ScienceUniversity of ExeterDevonUK
  3. 3.Army Personnel Research Capability, Army HeadquartersAndoverUK
  4. 4.LondonUK

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