• Program Induced Cumulative Overload (PICO)
    One of the most difficult aspects of developing a strength and conditioning program for any athlete is ensuring that the training dose is optimal. This is further complicated when dealing with tactical athletes, who may encounter situations where demands are placed on their strength, power, speed, endurance and agility. While tactical facilitators are trained to consider these parameters, one yet ever-present hidden complication is that of Program Induced Cumulative Overload (PICO).
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  • Soldier performing push-ups in sandOne of the most difficult aspects of developing a strength and conditioning program for any athlete is ensuring that the training dose is optimal. An insufficient training stimulus can leave an athlete underprepared, while an excessive stimulus can lead to performance impairment or injury. 
    For the Tactical Strength and Conditioning-Facilitator (TSAC-F) this challenge of optimizing the training dose is further complicated by the multifaceted requirements of the tactical athlete who requires strength, power, speed, endurance, and agility in situations where demands can be placed on any or even all three of the energy systems. In addition, the occupational environment can see a tactical athlete respond to a task immediately following, or even during, a conditioning session, where failure to perform could mean a loss of life. 
    While tactical facilitators are trained to consider these parameters when developing the conditioning program for a tactical athlete or unit, one hidden complication is that of PICO (Program Induced Cumulative Overload). “PICO” is a term that I phrased following several reviews of the conditioning processes of basic military training.  
    I acknowledge that the premise behind PICO is not a new idea, but knowing the love of acronyms in the tactical environment, I found this description most apt. PICO describes the cumulative training dose imparted by a recruit or unit training program on an imbedded conditioning program.

    For example, a recruit may complete two 40-minute lessons on the parade ground performing marching drills. Later that afternoon, the same recruit may be required to complete an endurance march or group run for their unit’s scheduled conditioning session. While heat stress and skeletal loading may have been considered when developing the conditioning program, the cumulative impact of both the drill and conditioning session may not have been; thereby increasing the recruit’s risk of heat illness or physical injury. 
    As the conditioning session provides the yield-point where the incident occurs, it often becomes the focus of any investigation. Then, questions are raised regarding the timing of the session or adherence to the heat index guidelines.

    Another example is an in-lines training program for recruits to complete in the evenings. The program mandated that new recruits conduct a high volume of training, most notably upper body, in the evenings. While the in-lines program itself was well periodized with rest and recovery, the program was developed as a stand-alone program. As such, following an evening of high volume push-ups as part of their in-lines training program, recruits completed an obstacle course training session the following morning as part of their scheduled physical conditioning. 
    The fatigue in the upper body meant that several recruits had insufficient upper body capacity to lower themselves down the 12-foot wall to full arms-length prior to dropping off. This resulted in the recruits dropping off from an elevated height and suffering lower limb injuries. Again, the focus of investigations would tend to turn towards the lower limbs, landing surface area, and perhaps poor technique rather than identifying that the true culprit was the excessive upper body conditioning the evening before.

    A key cause of PICO is the segregation of physical conditioning from the overall recruit training and development program. The conditioning program, which may be well periodized in itself, is typically developed in isolation of other recruit training factors, like weapon training, defensive tactics, communication, first aid, etc. While these recruit training requirements are measurable as qualifications and often require a specified sequence of training, they form the basis of the program structure. Conversely, physical conditioning sessions are often only provided a general time slot during the program’s development (e.g., 0700-0800), with the actual nature of the sessions not considered. 
    Even though recruit training time is already scarce, if additional short notice events are added to the program (e.g., a dignitary visit), it is often the training session that is sacrificed in order to have enough time. Furthermore, if a physical conditioning session is lost, it is either skipped or added into the next available session.

    On this basis, it is vital that tactical facilitators be involved in the overarching development of the recruit training program. The intent of this involvement would be to align the conditioning program with the demands of the recruit training program rather than adding the conditioning program to an already developed recruit training program. This alignment would involve a coordinated effort from the training development staff and the tactical facilitator and would require both parties to be flexible and appreciate differing training priorities.

    Furthermore, the tactical facilitator will need to continually liaise with the training and programming staff in order to be informed of any subsequent changes to a program. For example, to reduce the logistical workload of going to and from the armory, signing in and out, and returning weapons, a schedule of two sequential weapon training sessions at one recruit training facility was increased to three sessions in a row. This initiative, while reducing logistical demands on staff, increased the volume of specific weapon drills, including one which involves continually “cocking” the weapon. 
    Following one such triple weapon lesson, recruits were required to conduct a resistance circuit training session. The impact of a high volume of weapon cocking followed by a series of chin-ups and rope climbs lead to a high incidence of brachialis muscle tendinopathies; these injuries did not exist to such a degree until the change in the weapon training plan.

    A final consideration is the unseen volume loading factor of area movement; this low intensity load is caused by the requirement of recruits having to move between lesson training areas. For example, one lesson may be in a classroom, the next at a weapon training shed, the next on a parade ground, and then they go to the mess hall for lunch, and so on. Moving from location to location contributes to musculoskeletal loading volume with studies finding that recruits can walk anywhere from 7.5 km (about 4.5 mi) to around 12.5 km (about 7.75 mi) in a day. 
    This walking distance (occasionally with a load) would likely be conducted daily for the duration of a 12-week recruit training course. Again, through a coordinated planning effort the impact of this unseen volume can be reduced once both parties appreciate its impact on musculoskeletal load. An example could be starting a load carriage training session at the venue of the previous session and concluding at the venue of the following session as opposed to marching to and from the gymnasium and then conducting the load carriage session.

    In conclusion, when a tactical facilitator develops a periodized strength and conditioning program for a tactical athlete or a unit, they must consider the impact of PICO on training dose. In order to best achieve this and monitor potential changes, the tactical facilitator needs to be involved in the initial development of the training program. 
    If this option is not viable, then the tactical facilitator must review the training program and consider the seen (e.g., weapon training session) and unseen (e.g., distances moved between lessons) physiological costs of the program on their periodized program. Through this coordinated approach, the training dose can be optimized, the potential for injury can be reduced, and force readiness can be enhanced. 
  • Rob Orr bio

    About the Author:

    Rob Orr, PhD

    Having served in the Australian Army as a uniformed infantry soldier, physical training instructor, physiotherapist, and human performance officer, Orr recently accepted a position at Bond University. While still serving as a reserve officer, his academic fields of research include physical conditioning and injury prevention for military and protective services spanning from the initial trainee to the elite warrior. Currently focusing on tactical load carriage, Orr is exploring means of reducing injuries associated with load carriage tasks and improving the mobility and lethality of soldiers and tactical police. Published in newspapers, magazines, and peer-reviewed journals, Orr is regularly invited to present at conferences both nationally and internationally.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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