Faculty exercises its science muscle for ROTC

Cadet Samuel Myers, putting his fitness skills to the test on ROTC Day in February, partnered with Exercise Science faculty to improve workouts for the Grand Canyon University Army ROTC competitive Ranger Challenge Team.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

Maj. Troy Merkle felt the shift this spring when Grand Canyon University’s Ranger Challenge Team dominated a tactical fitness competition between freshman and sophomore Army ROTC cadets from several universities.

Maj. Troy Merkle

“The GCU team won by quite a margin,” said Merkle, the officer in charge of GCU’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and assistant professor of military science.

“GCU went there and CRUSHED the other teams,” Exercise Science adjunct professor Anthony Acevedo said. “So there’s a newfound buzz for GCU.”

That shift started when the Army changed the way it looks at physical fitness, rolling out the fourth installment of the Army Combat Fitness Test. Soldiers are required to take the assessment several times a year. The six-event test includes a three-repetition deadlift, standing power throw, hand-release push-up, sprint-drag-carry, plank and 2-mile run to be completed in 70 minutes or less.

“It has proven to be absolutely grueling,” Merkle said. “It’s far more difficult than the previous physical fitness test, and it’s been an adjustment for everybody in the entire force.”

So Merkle reached out to GCU’s Exercise Science Department last fall to see if faculty could help cadets in the program reach their fitness goals — with about 90 cadets enrolled annually, it is the second largest Army officer commissioning program in the state, behind only Arizona State University. Ultimately, ROTC leaders want to see cadets pass that fitness test, which they must do to be commissioned as Army officers.

“They were completely on board to try to help us build this,” Merkle said.

Acevedo (right) has been working with Myers (left) and other ROTC cadets to help them reach their fitness goals.

And that’s where Acevedo came in.

He started analyzing GCU’s cadets to gauge their fitness levels and is developing a fitness program based on those numbers.

Acevedo assessed 56 cadets, taking their measurements at the beginning and end of the 2021-22 academic year in the Exercise Science Lab’s BodPod, which measures body composition (the subject’s amount of body fat and fat-free mass). Cadets also took a VO2 max test, or maximal oxygen consumption test, considered the best indicator of a subject’s cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance.

He was involved with nutrition assessments and helped develop two summertime programs, one for regular formation cadets and the other for elite cadets — those who train for Ranger Challenge competitions — so they would not lose any of their fitness gains from the academic year over the summer.

Acevedo also met one-on-one with ROTC squad leaders to educate them since they will be the ones implementing the training regimen developed by faculty and taking it to their cadets.

As a result, Merkle said, failures of the Army's notorious fitness test have dropped more than 50% from 11 to four, and the Exercise Science faculty also is helping cadets meet Army body composition standards.

He shared the story of one cadet, a former football offensive lineman before transferring to GCU, who is physically fit and can generally pass the test but had trouble meeting the body composition standards.

Merkle said, “Mr. Acevedo has taken a very keen interest in helping us out with some of these cadets. They have a lot of work they have to do.

The impetus for the Exercise Science-ROTC partnership was to help cadets prepare for the Army Combat Fitness Test, which they must pass before they can be commissioned as officers.

“If I tell a 19-year-old kid, 'Go and lose weight,' they’re probably not going to do it in a healthy way, and they’re going to hit a certain plateau because they are going to be watching their carb intake, things like that. Mr. Acevedo is a licensed nutritionist. He can break it down further and tell these kids, 'This is what you’re going to eat, and this is when you’re going to eat. This is how much water you can consume.' They can do this down to the science, based off how much each individual weighs, what their goal is, and really just helping them do it in a healthy manner.”

After working with Acevedo, that former offensive lineman is down 8% in body fat in just 2½ months.

Exercise Science also has worked with GCU’s ROTC cadets who compete in Ranger Challenge, a sport in which teams from different colleges across the nation vie in such events as patrolling, marksmanship, weapons assembly and a 10-kilometer road march.

Cadet Samuel Myers, the officer in charge of GCU’s Ranger Challenge Team, and his platoon sergeant, Jaden Norris, met with Acevedo to look at physical assessment data that showed deficiencies in the platoon. Acevedo helped Myers and Norris improve the workouts they put together for the team — concepts that will be rolled out to the rest of the GCU Army ROTC program.

“He gave us the idea of doing metcons, which are metabolic conditioning type of workouts that focus on training the energy system rather than just a muscle group and using those to our advantage,” Myers said.

After working with Acevedo, the team saw a 12-point average increase on the Army Combat Fitness Test’s 3.0 scale, the version that precedes the new 4.0 version of the test.

“A 12-point increase is a very good increase,” Myers said.

Having grown up playing football and wrestling, he was familiar with some of the science behind physical fitness and started to bring those concepts to GCU’s Ranger Challenge program.

Acevedo (left) is working on developing a tactical athlete certification course for cadets.

“But my major isn’t exercise science,” said Myers, who is studying sociology and is planning to branch infantry. Having exercise science experts "has been a big deal. That has helped us tremendously.”

Cadet Megan Richards, an exercise science major, has been instrumental in communicating between Exercise Science and ROTC and in building the relationship between the two programs. Exercise Science faculty, she said, not only have been teaching ROTC cadet leaders physiology, but they have opened the doors to research opportunities and faculty mentorship.

“Some students come to ROTC with no physical training experience and must alter their lifestyle. My professors have been more than eager to stay after class to help answer questions or help me create training plans for my peers,” she said.

The Exercise Science Department benefits from the partnership, too. Faculty is using data they collect for academic research studies, such as looking at results from lactic acid threshold testing and trying to predict how well an athlete would perform physically based on those tests.

While the new partnership between Exercise Science and ROTC in its first year involved mostly collecting and analyzing data and assessing the fitness levels of the University’s cadets, that collaboration really will gear up this fall.

The Exercise Science faculty, led by Dr. Zachary Zeigler (left), will use collected data for academic research studies. (File photo)

When Merkle approached Acevedo and Dr. Zachary Zeigler, lead of the Exercise Science program, the idea was not just to help ready cadets for the Army Combat Fitness Test or help the Ranger Challenge Team prepare for competition. It also was to create a tactical athlete certification course.

“The next step is having a course that Mr. Acevedo and his team are going to help us put together that teaches nutrition, teaches proper lifting techniques, that teaches the fundamentals of building these workouts. We’re going to be doing that as we come back to campus,” Merkle said.

The program will be a hybrid of fitness videos and in-person assessments, Acevedo said.

The goal is to train cadets, who will be Army officers when they graduate, to be better leaders when it comes to physical fitness.

“We’re using science to advance their training,” Acevedo said of the Exercise Science-ROTC partnership. “It’s fun to put science behind this and to use all this data to make their cadets better.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: ROTC Day shows prospects a glimpse of military life

GCU Today: GCU ROTC cadets commissioned as Army officers

GCU Today: GCU student honors brother at ROTC 9/11 event


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